Communion in a mineshaft?

Back at the beginning of the crisis in the mineshaft 700 meters below the surface of Chile’s Atacama Desert, Sarah Pulliam Bailey quickly noted that spiritual issues were sure to arise in this story. Would journalists recognize this?

I’ve been following the story ever since and it appears that there will be no way to miss the ghosts. For starters, the Vatican keeps raising religious issues.

Consider this poignant note in a recent Daily Telegraph story. It seems that the 33 miners know that, while rescue seems certain, their souls and sanity remain in danger during the long, long delay. Thus, they are getting organized:

The miners have each taken on roles within the underground world at the San Jose mine naming a “priest,” a “doctor,” a “poet,” a “television presenter” and a “foreman” within the group.

“They are completely organized,” said Dr. Jaime Manalich, Chile’s health minister. “They have a full hierarchy. It is a matter of life and death for them.” …

Mario Gomez, 62, the oldest member of the group, has taken on the role of spiritual leader and urges the men to pray daily in the makeshift chapel he has created in a corner of the subterranean chamber where they have set up camp.

His job has been aided by 33 mini bibles and rosary beads for each of the men sent from the Vatican this week with a blessing from Pope Benedict and lowered into the mine with the daily supplies of food and medicine.

Have many mainstream journalists have seriously contemplated this side of the drama? Surf around a bit in this file and decide for yourself.

Now, stop and ask yourself this basic question: If somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the population of Chile is, to one degree or another, Catholic, and you are worried about the mental and spiritual well being of the miners, what else might the church try to find a way to send down that emergency shaft?

We already know that one of the miners, soon after workers made contact with the trapped men, immediately communicated with his wife, asking her to marry him once again — in a church ceremony, instead of settling for the civil ceremony that united them 25 years earlier.

Do you think that anyone else trapped down there is thinking about taking care of unfinished items of spiritual business? In Chile?

Is there a way to say confession to a priest under this kind of circumstance? How about Holy Communion? What can priests and clergy do, communicating through a six-inch hole bored through solid rock? Is there a miner who has served as a Eucharistic minister in his parish?

Hey, I’m simply thinking out loud here. That’s what journalists do.

Then we ask questions.

With that in mind, read through the following Washington Post story about the lessons that apparently secular “experts” hope the miners learn from people who survived similar accidents. This is fascinating material, but, yes, something is missing.

The lessons that could help keep 33 trapped Chilean miners safe and sane during their months underground were learned at desperate times in isolated places: ice-bound sailing ships, prisoner-of-war camps, malfunctioning capsules whizzing through space.

They include: Don’t over-promise. Keep track of night and day — even if you can’t see daylight. Encourage friendships — but watch out for cliques. Let everybody have privacy — but don’t let anybody become a loner. And remember the keys to survival in what psychologists call “extreme environments”: Entertainment. Structure. Hope. …

On Tuesday, NASA, which was called in to consult because of its experience in preparing astronauts for isolation, said it was working with Chilean officials on a plan that would, among other measures, enlist celebrities to help brighten the miners’ spirits.

The men — trapped in a tunnel deep underground since a collapse at the San Jose mine Aug. 5 — have spoken remotely with a national soccer star and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. NASA officials said they might recommend involving other famous Chileans and possibly astronauts.

I understand that soccer is important and, in its own way, a kind of religion in Chile. I realize that MP3 players are good, too. But might the men need to speak to other, well, ministers of hope? There is a video link, right? Raise your hand if you think that Pope Benedict XVI would be more than willing to say Mass for these men, in Spanish?

In other words, is spiritual hope on the radar in mainstream newsrooms, as well as secular hope? Entertainment is important. But human beings have other needs, as well. Who knows, there might be a story or two in there.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Considering the many spiritual and religious “ghosts” the American media is ignoring or incapable of bringing up in this story because of a vacuum in their education, background, and media culture, this is another situation that cheats religious consumers of the media while it subtly brainwashes some other people to consider religion as an irrelevancy.

  • bt

    I wonder if there is some symbolism regarding the 33 miners and the 33 years of Jesus life on earth? With them getting rosaries blessed by the Pope, I am sure they will be saved. Let’s continues praying for the miners and their relatives.

  • Maureen

    Obviously a video broadcast of Mass would be good, but you can’t actually have more than a spiritual communion at that huge distance. (Unless you sent a pyx down the shaft and commissioned someone an EMHC, which you might be able to do at a distance; but one would be reluctant to put the Blessed Sacrament into harm’s way. Obviously, it’s the call of the priest who’s there and the people running the rescue operations.)

    Re: Confession, canon law is very clear that you can’t make a sacramental Confession at that distance, over a phone or a radio or a computer or any other sort of link. That way lies madness. Of course, people can sometimes achieve perfect contrition, which also gets your sins forgiven by God; and even imperfect contrition or spiritual direction are good beginnings. But just like Mass, you have to be in the same place as the priest to receive the sacramental graces of Confession. (It might be possible for priests to issue general absolutions at a distance… but I suspect not.)

    Probably Spanish language news stories have more about the religion implications. They usually do.

  • Theresa Henderson

    I pray for them.

    I hope our Beloved Pope will say Mass for them, and they are able to listen and even participate by a priest above sending down the Holy Eucharist to them.

    There are so many stories that will come of this, all good for the men, their families and the Church.

  • Maureen

    Re: the rosaries — They were brought to the mine by the Archbishop of Santiago, who said Mass for the families and workers, as well as speaking to the workers by phone. There’s a picture of this in the Aciprensa story in Spanish.
    Bishop Quintana (of the Copiapo diocese) and a Fr. Javier Medina have both been celebrating Mass for the families (in the back of a van at some points). So I imagine that the miners’ spiritual needs have been dealt with, in addition to sending them a small crucifix, some small statues of saints, and the papally blessed rosaries. Now that they’ve got closed circuit television to the miners, saying Mass for them where they can view it would be an obvious step.

    The thing I find really touching is that the diocese’s miraculous statue of Our Lady of Candelaria (Candlemas) was brought to the site on the 10th of August, and is to be kept there until the miners are rescued. Now that’s Catholic! It’s got a heck of a history to it:

    Btw, they had the miners talk to the Uruguayan soccer guys who survived that plane crash in the Andes? To give them hope? (Well, I guess now that the miners have food, that might work. So long as you don’t bring up cannibalizing the dead….) I dunno; seems kinda gloomy to me. Not everybody lived in that instance.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Maureen–Thanks for all the info. It will come in handy in discussions at our parish over the week-end. As for the plane crash. The English writer Piers Paul Read wrote a massive best-selling book titled: “Alive” about the survival of that Uruguayan team. The book made clear the huge role the survivor’s Catholic Faith had in pulling them through.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Note: since it may be months before the miners are freed–maybe some reporters should read Read’s book for some background that may be very relevant to the miner’s story.

  • Passing By

    My bishop dispenses the abstinence when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday in Lent. I’m betting the local bishop in Chile can dispense the rules about long-distance confession and communion.

    I have to say: this is my absolutely favorite story going on right now. They are alive, cheerful, and full of faith. It makes my problems small.

  • Bob

    Extraordinary Minister of the Holy Eucharist…

    Only a priest is the Eucharistic Minister.

  • honoria glennon

    not to be pendantic, but those footballers were rugby players, and they likened eating their friends to holy communion???????. they were also only 11 miles from a boarded up hotel, with food. I don’t think that they are to be emulated in any way. sincerely honoria

  • Doctor Victoria A. Howard, Anchoress

    I can commiserate with the miners. I am on three drugs that make a person prone to heat exhaustion, so I have not been out of my apartment much this past summer. In a way, I am trapped like the miners! I find that prayer and a close relationship with God helps. Being an anchoress I am made to be enclosed; but this summer, which has been very hot, has made it so I cannot even walk to the store or to church! But I am cheerful and even happy. I suggest they give the miners the Liturgy of the Hours; that stouthearted poetry can lift anyone’s spirits and make them want to fight off all their problems! I sit here and write, just like John of the Cross when his brothers imprisoned him. Maybe the miners could write a journal, with each man contributing something. I have prayed the Litany of the Saints for them, and I will continue to pray. God bless them and thanks to the Pope for the rosaries!

  • Mariam (Canada)

    I couldn’t imagine myself trapped underground. I think I would go insane, feeling that I was buried alive. I am so proud of those heroic men down that mine and I pray for them that God will deliver them safely through their ordeal. I feel that they are special chosen people who can by their example of faith and trust, teach their families, and the world the real meaning of our existence.

  • Mac Rojo

    1. General absolution would be appropriate is this case since their lives are in peril. This could be done by the on site priest. Being in a state of grace is the primary goal.

    2. Reception of Communion would be a fine follow up to general absolution. The Pope may give an indult specific to the miners situation and end upon their rescue.

    3. The Andes soccer survivors can certainly give them hope. I personally gave two of the survivors an aerial tour of Los Angeles in my patrol helicopter and their personal stories were amazing as will as humbling … read “Alive”

    The “Alive” survivors are well know in Latin America and I am willing to all of the miners know their story. …

  • Geoffery

    Regarding confession and the moners- it seems to me that there is a way of granting absolution in extreme situations so that they could recieve communion and upon release they could go for a face to face absolution with a priest.
    I am a convert to the Churchut it seems that I heard of this before…?

    Will continue to pray for them AND us all.