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Catholicism at the bottom of the planet

Reaching the end of the earth seems to inspire religious feeling.

“Wonder and awe seems to sum up the reaction of anyone who has the opportunity to visit Antarctica,” says Father Dan Doyle, a parish priest in suburban Christchurch, New Zealand. “The sun glinting on the ice, the many, many colors of white, and the grandeur of crawling around in the caves inside the face of a mighty glacier, make one marvel at the wonders of creation.”

For many years, Father Doyle was in charge of New Zealand’s Antarctic Ministry. He recalls that even persons with no previous spiritual experience “would say that [Antarctica] awakened something ‘spiritual’ in them.”

For nearly 50 years, the Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand oversaw priestly ministerial care of Antarctica; today that role is filled by the US Archdiocese for the Military Services. Doyle and other New Zealand priests were stationed at the Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo Station, one of three major permanent US bases on Antarctica. Other sites of Antarctic Catholicism include the Ice Cave Catholic Chapel, which is the world’s southernmost place of worship.

Though it’s larger than Europe, people didn’t even know Antarctica existed until the 19th century. The following century saw various countries make claims on its territory. Effective 1961, the Antarctic Treaty neither recognizes nor disputes any territorial claims made south of the 60th parallel. About 30 nations have established camps, mainly for purposes of scientific research. Among these researchers have been Jesuits, including seismologist Henry Birkenhauer, a.k.a. the “Polar Priest.” More recent decades have “very occasionally” seen a priest-scientist on Antarctica, says Doyle. “But they were there as scientists rather than as priests…and were primarily occupied in their scientific role.”

Read more at Catholic World Report. 

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