Meeting Christ in the Arctic

In one of my previous conversations with a brother priest who is also serving in the military, we asked one another, “What is the price (that we are willing to take) to save one soul and bring a person to Christ?”

Of course, the answer to that question cannot be put in quantifiable terms because it is personally and ecclesiastically rooted in our very own understanding of Christian vocation and priestly mission. If it was only about numbers and human glories, missionaries would not have risked their lives and left their homelands, families, and friends behind in order to preach the Good News in the in uncharted and dangerous territories. If that is the case, we would not have had missionaries who lived their whole lives amongst the people that were unknown to them, caring, teaching, and serving them out of Christian love.

Furthermore, that question was personal for me because it gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own faith journey and priestly ministry. Who we are as priests and what we are called to do in persona Christi capitis are much more than a job, a duty, or a responsibility because it is the very identity and purpose of who we are called to be in the person of Christ for the Church. The priesthood is much more than a career or job because it is a personal, intimate, and loving response to what He has called us to do and live our lives for the greater good of all. However, with that being said, it is also important to realize that it takes the heart a good while to embrace what the mind understands. At times, too, we will struggle with the discernment and decision making process in order to truly, joyfully, trustingly give ourselves totally and completely to Him. Hence, that is where the grace of God and our conformity to His will come into play.

As I am wrapping up my support mission here in the Arctic Circle, I realized that I was taken outside of my own personal comfort zone with this assignment… but the Lord had put me here to help me grow in my own way.

First of all, it is important to note the daily (average) negative temperature, especially the Arctic deception of how cold it is really is! Honest to God, I am from the south so I do not like any “extreme” negative temperature and cold weather — at all.

Even though we do feel “warm” due to well-insulated and heated buildings, as well as proper usage and layering of arctic gears, the weather and temperature can change drastically on a downcast, windy, or unusual day. One day, life can be sunny; the next day, it was better to stay inside. One day, one can comfortably walk around and feel warm; another day, it is better not to be out to avoid getting pierced by the arctic cold wind. Trust me, it is a painful “cut” feeling when one’s skins are exposed to the chilling blast.

I learned the hard lesson of that Arctic deception one day when I thought it was “warm” enough to not wear gloves on a hike. While using my hands without gloves to take scenic pictures (and trying not to feel too bulky and stuffed like a penguin), I can begin to feel the tingling pains kick in. My face was also hurting from the wind when I was closer to the arctic ice sheet and sea opening (where there were little to nothing that blocked the wind). Reality kicked in when I realized how fast my non-insulated plastic water bottle and yogurt cups became hard just being in my backpack.

I also had to adjust to the environment and pace of life here. They are definitely different than a regular (bigger) operational base. As a matter of fact, I am on a very busy schedule at my permanent station. On top of being a priest, ministering to the Catholic community and its administrative works, I also have to take care of other duties in being a chaplain to the squadrons that I am assigned to support.

Within a short transition timeframe, having to learn a new culture and environment of the military that is totally different than the civilian world, I also have to deal with a lot of problems caused by the changes and transitions that were happening in our own Catholic community. Those issues caused a lot of headaches and extra efforts to examine and address on the pastoral and professional levels. I basically had to both build relationship with parishioners while having to be the bad guy in tightening matters that were let go and left by the wayside. Since I was new to the military, I had to undergo a lot of training classes and courses (in order to fulfill the standard requirements in order to be up and running) so I was busily occupied and mentally tired since July of 2021. So, getting this support mission was a surprised, unexpected, and different change of atmosphere and pace for me.

The first day was tiring because I did not have much sleep due to the long flights all the way from the West Coast. Once we hit the ground, our day was filled with many scheduled visitations since we had Archbishop Broglio, the Ordinary of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, with us. I think all of us — the Archbishop, another brother priest, and myself — were all tired at the end of the day. However, it was a joyful occasion because we had the opportunity to celebrate Mass with the faithful.

I was proud to witness the Archbishop conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation on a service member that we were remotely forming (via an online platform). The small community enjoyed spending time with the Archbishop after Mass with an intimate dinner. Even though it was long, it was a blessing for many people, especially for the faithful here to spend time with their shepherd. With that Mass, I am reminded that we truly are a global Archdiocese that “the sun never sets” (because we are present all around the world to serve and support our military personnel and their families).

After the busy first day, the next few days were personally rough because my body and psyche needed the time to adapt and recalibrate with the time and light differences since the sun is up for the majority of the day here. Unlike the winter when it gets dark the majority of the day; springtime brings a completely different experience. For most days, the sun never sets until midnight or so (even then, there is no complete darkness), and it quickly rises around 4:00AM. There are only a few twilight hours each day, and that phenomenon is in itself something unique and takes a good while for my body and mind to adjust. Even though I was knocked out the first night because I was so tired, the next few nights were rough with the time difference and because the outside light kept creeping in behind the blacked out curtains.

The air is fresh and clean here, and it feels nice to breath it outside. Nonetheless, the buildings here are old and filled with a lot of (recycled) dusts. My allergies act up being inside most of the time. My eyes keep watering and I sneeze more frequently up here. Ironically, while it feels good to be inside where it is warm and toasty, the respiratory system feels much better being outside with the cleaner air. I thought I do not have to use my allergy medicines when I am up here but my body tells me otherwise.

Please know that it is not all doom and gloom. There are so many blessings and lessons learned along the way.

I am fortunate to be around the time for the annual Greenlandic Heritage Week, when the Base hosted and welcomed many of our local villagers. There were many cultural events and experiences in collaboration with the indigenous population. As a matter of fact, I have learned that the Base is doing many projects and events throughout the year to connect, support, and build relationship with our local partners and allies. It was also good to see other NATO service members and civilians who are working side by side so we can have the strategic presence in such a remote place. That was, definitely, one of the more unique experiences that my military ministry has afforded me.

Nonetheless, the greatest blessing for me was to experience the power of the Eucharist with our very small community there. Coming from a larger base and with a faith community that is way bigger and with more things to do, the small chapel and its modest size of the faithful was definitely a change of pace and perspective. Daily life is much slower here and people take time to talk to one another. On top of that, the Base community here is much closer to one another because people see and hang out with their peers more often. People run into each other at least several times a week at the main Dining Facility, Base Exchange, or other events. For me, that sense of camaraderie is a blessing and gift, because it is often not seen in a normal operational base with thousands of people at different places.

That sense of community follows through when we gather for religious events as well. Of course, the numbers of participants for different events are much smaller in comparison to larger bases; but, if one takes the ratio and percentage of the total population, their participation to different morale and religious events are very commendable. For me, that in itself is a great lesson and reminder that our ministry and care for people cannot and should not be measured with mere numbers and quantifiable means alone. Without a doubt, to be able to gather with the faithful and to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in such a remote and extreme area is itself a very great personal blessing for me!

In such a small and seem-to-be forgotten place, the Lord is there with His people in and through the Eucharist! Every time we offer the Holy Sacrifice, we are united with the universal Church, as well with all holy ones in Heaven and the souls in Purgatory. In that small corner of the world, we are not and will never be alone! The good Lord is present with His people, and even when Mass is not able to be offered throughout the year, He is still there in and through the Eucharist preserved in the Tabernacle. It boggles my mind and warms my heart to know that He is never not present with His people in a very real and personal way — Body, Soul, and Divinity — in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

To offer the Holy Sacrifice and to be with His people, no matter how big or small the size of the community might be, is the greatest blessing for me as a priest. To be able to confect and make presence the Eucharist for His people through my own unworthy offering of the Mass in a small remote chapel, for me, is the same being in a grand and beautiful basilica because the Lord is there with us. No matter how big or small the venue might be, where one or two gathered with faith, in His name, He is there with us!

For me, this whole mission support experience has been a faith-affirming trip because it reminds me of the universality of the Church. It affords me the opportunity to see how wonderful it is to be a part of the universal Church, united in prayer, connected with one another and the greater communion of saints through the Eucharist, even if we are in a very remote and desolate location. Who would have thought that He is present here, too, in a very real way with His people in the Arctic Circle? While many take Mass and the life of faith for granted, seeing it as a choice and convenience, our brothers and sisters here only get to attend and participate in the Mass for two short periods of time in a year.

What I have witnessed here (like what I have witnessed in other missionary lands in the past), those who choose to come to Mass in remote places, their life of faith has to be intentional and personal. Nonetheless, for those who seek Him, the Lord is never far from His people. With Him, we are never abandoned, forgotten, or alone because we are all connected with one another in and through the Eucharist. Hence, even though this was not something that I was looking forward in the beginning, it was a personally valuable and well cherished experience to be with Christ and to bring Him to His people in the Arctic Circle.