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My Faith: An unexpected Christmas at South Pole
The South Pole reminds people how little control we have over our lives, the Rev. Steve Rossetti says.
December 23rd, 2011
06:00 AM ET

My Faith: An unexpected Christmas at South Pole

Editor's note: The Rev. Steve Rossetti is a professor of theology at Catholic University in Washington, and he's a chaplain this Christmas at the South Pole.

By The Rev. Steve Rossetti, Special to CNN

South Pole, Antarctica (CNN) – Modern men and women often live under the illusion that they are in control of their lives. Science and technology have brought us far beyond the superstitions of ancient civilizations. Confident in our abilities and achievements, we feel secure. Outside of the occasional environmental or personal tragedy, we feel self-sufficient and safe.

Antarctica blasts this illusion of control. As one of the managers at the South Pole told me, “Antarctica is boss.” Anyone who loses respect for this savage continent is in danger of paying the ultimate price. As local lore has it, “Antarctica is constantly trying to kill you.”

Normally, I teach theology at the Catholic University of America, and I am a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse. But for the second time, the first being 2008, the Antarctic "itch" got in my blood, and I volunteered to serve on the "Ice," as they call Antarctica here. My "parish" is the Americans at McMurdo Station and the South Pole, plus the New Zealanders at Scott Base, without forgetting the 211 scientists and support staff strewn across the continent, living in tents, at our 20-plus field sites.

This month we are celebrating the centennial of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his party being the first human beings to set foot at the South Pole. They arrived on December 14, 1911. Thirty-four days later, British naval officer Robert Scott also reached the pole, but on his return his entire party perished in a harsh Antarctic blizzard. And they were both traveling during Antarctica’s summer. In the austral winter, the weather is completely impossible.

The Rev. Steve Rossetti visits the South Pole to be a chaplain to scientists.

I arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station on Wednesday for a “quick trip.” The plan was for me to celebrate an early Christmas liturgy before returning to McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica the next day for its celebration of the Lord’s birth. When I arrived at the pole, it was sunny, no wind and a relatively warm -24 degrees Fahrenheit. Things seemed great.

It felt like an easy trip to the pole this time, but the next day the winds began to howl and everything turned white. All air traffic ceased. I spoke to the weather people. Things didn’t look good. I was locked in at the pole, and there was absolutely nothing I or anyone else could do about it. A common feeling on the continent swept over me I was helpless.

Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on the Earth. The coldest temperature ever recorded on this planet was -128.5° F, in Antarctica. The old hands here tell me that each winter, the temperature at the pole will dip at some point to -100° F. Combined with the strong winds, winter on the continent is mostly about survival. Even with eight chemical hand and foot warmers working and bundled in our issued “extreme cold weather” gear, South Pole winter staff do not last long outside.

Antarctica puts you in your place. We are not in control here. Planning is difficult, and people are constantly adjusting. But on a larger scale, it reminds me that in general we have little control over much of our lives. Antarctica can remind you of that. Try as we might, we have little control over most of the events that impact so heavily upon our lives. This seeming arbitrariness can be frightening.

Some believe that their lives and very existence are a matter of random chance or simply the result of cosmic and biological processes. Behind such processes, they do not see any hand guiding it all. Much of the astounding science that occurs on Antarctica is immersed with understanding the origins and health of our planet. But it cannot answer fundamental human questions, “Why am I here?” “Is there a plan for my life?”

On this icy, frozen continent, we are humbled. It reminds us of our frail humanity. When I entered the South Pole station and I took off my thick goose-down parka, my clerical collar and lettering on my shirt saying “chaplain” were clearly visible. I walked down the corridor of the South Pole station, and there were more than a few faces that smiled and welcomed me. They said they’re glad I’m here.

This morning, as the flights out were canceled again, I walked into the manager’s office. We looked at the weather and she said, “Looks like you might be here for Christmas.” She told me that they have never before had a chaplain here on Christmas Day. She said, “We would be fortunate and grateful.” This morning, several people smiled broadly when they heard I might be at the pole with them for Christmas.

One could see this storm as a random event and my being weathered in at the South Pole simply as an act of nature. But it may be that, for the first time, a chaplain will be here on Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. I cannot plan it; I can only accept whatever comes. Each day, we will look out and see what has been planned for us.

Isn’t this the case for each of our lives?

Whether I am here for Christmas or not, I will be present for a few more days, and I will try to spend each hour meeting with the hardy souls who inhabit this southern end of the Earth. I will listen to them. I will pray with them. I will remind them that while we are not in control of our lives, there is someone who is. This divine someone loves us so much that he sent his only son, whose birth I will soon celebrate ... perhaps at the South Pole.

Maybe this was the plan all along.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the Rev. Steve Rossetti.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Christmas

soundoff (117 Responses)
  1. B Smith

    That's what gets me about Atheists. They're #1 complaint about "religious" people is that "religious" people are shoving religion down their throats. And yet EVERY TIME there is an article on CNN, or anywhere else for that matter, about religion of any kind you can be sure that a herd of atheists will be there tell the Christians or Jews or Buddhists how stupid they are for believing in a higher power. It's almost like there is an atheist alarm somewhere that goes off every time someone mentions religion so you can go an be an ass. You don't believe in God? Fine, then sit over there and don't believe in God, but unless you are going to bring something fruitful to the conversation then just shut up.

    December 28, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  2. Gil

    Hmm.....if there is no God, why bother to shout from either side of that "line in the sand"?
    If there is God, what do we do with ourselves when we know anyone whose life has been transformed resulting in healing and wholeness both for themselves and those they encounter? No matter what I "believe" it's tough to argue with walking, talking, breathing, everyday EVIDENCE.

    December 28, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  3. Reality

    Father Rossetti noted: " Science and technology have brought us far beyond the superst-itions of ancient civilizations". And yet he practices some of these superst-itions 24/7.

    So bringing the padre into the 21st century with a prayer:

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    December 24, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • .........

      Christmas present hit report abuse on reality bull sh it

      December 24, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • JoeP

      So your creation myth (as a rational, nothing-but-the-facts atheist) is the following: Your deity, the Big Nothing (street names Biggie Nuttin', B. Nuttin', Biggie Nutt) created and designed all that exists from his Nuttin' brain. His Nuttin'ness could even violate the law of convservation of energy by creating Everything from Himself, that is from Nuttin'. In spite of His Nuttin'ness violating the laws of science, His followers (His "Nutt Jobs") view themselves as the apex of scientific thought and feel obliged to spread the Nothing to others. Incredible faith you guys have. Let us now join in the ancient Nuttin' Hymn, Dust in the Wind (and ignore its author's heresy in converting to Christianity).

      December 24, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Reality

      o Think infinity and recycling with the Big Bang expansion followed by the shrinking reversal called the Gib Gnab and recycling back to the Big Bang repeating the process on and on forever. Human life and Earth are simply a minute part of this cha-otic, sto-cha-stic, expanding, shrinking process disappearing in five billion years with the burn out of the Sun and maybe returning in another five billion years with different life forms but still subject to the va-ga-ries of its local star.

      December 25, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • .........

      absolute bull sh it

      December 25, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • JoeP

      "Reality"s above version of eternity is from Biggie Nuttin's High Priest Hawking's first edition of A Brief History of Time. Apparently Mr. "Reality" isn't aware of the fact that more recent scientific observations have forced a revision in High Priest Hawking's theology (laid out in his more recent version of A Brief History of Time). Evidence of an expanding universe renders the bang-crunch-bang-crunch view of eternity obsolete. Mr. "Reality", if you are going to try to be a witness for your pseudo-scientific atheist faith, you really should be more aware of its teachings. As for me (although I do have to give credit to Hawking for, at least at one point in his life, admitting that his atheism is a faith rather than something that he can prove with fact), I have greater respect for the arguably even more brilliant Sir Isaac Newton, who said that in pursuing science, he was studying the Mind of God.

      December 26, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • Reality

      o "In the 1930s, theoretical physicists, most notably Albert Einstein, considered the possibility of a cyclic model for the universe as an (everlasting) alternative to the model of an expanding universe. However, work by Richard C. Tolman in 1934 showed that these early attempts failed because of the entropy problem: according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy can only increase.[1] This implies that successive cycles grow longer and larger. Extrapolating back in time, cycles before the present one become shorter and smaller culminating again in a Big Bang and thus not replacing it. This puzzling situation remained for many decades until the early 21st century when the recently discovered dark energy component provided new hope for a consistent cyclic cosmology.[2] In 2011, a five-year survey of 200,000 galaxies and spanning 7 billion years of cosmic time confirmed that "dark energy is driving our universe apart at accelerating speeds."[3][4]

      One new cyclic model is a brane cosmology model of the creation of the universe, derived from the earlier ekpyrotic model. It was proposed in 2001 by Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University and Neil Turok of Cambridge University. The theory describes a universe exploding into existence not just once, but repeatedly over time.[5][6] The theory could potentially explain why a mysterious repulsive form of energy known as the "cosmological constant", and which is accelerating the expansion of the universe, is several orders of magnitude smaller than predicted by the standard Big Bang model."
      A different cyclic model relying on the notion of phantom energy was proposed in 2007 by Lauris Baum and Paul Frampton of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[7]"

      What we do know: (from the fields of astrophysics, nuclear physics, geology and the history of religion)

      1. The Sun will burn out in 3-5 billion years so we have a time frame.

      2. Asteroids continue to circle us in the nearby asteroid belt.

      3. One wayward rock and it is all over in a blast of permanent winter.

      4. There are enough nuclear weapons to do the same job.

      5. Most contemporary NT exegetes do not believe in the Second Coming so apparently there is no concern about JC coming back on an asteroid or cloud of raptors/rapture.

      6. All stars will eventually extinguish as there is a limit to the amount of hydrogen in the universe. When this happens (100 trillion years?), the universe will go dark. If it does not collapse and recycle, the universe will end.

      7. Super, dormant volcanoes off the coast of Africa and under Yellowstone Park could explode catalytically at any time ending life on Earth.

      Bottom line: our apocalypse will start between now and 3-5 billion CE. The universe apocalypse, 100 trillion years?

      December 26, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • JoeP

      Actually, the most recent thinking is that the universe will be torn apart by "The Big Rip" caused by the accelerating expansion of the universe due to Dark Energy. This renders the oscillating universe model obsolete. However, even though the foundation of your faith, the myth that the universe has no beginning and no end and therefore requires no Creator, has been shown to be in error by the same science you worship, you refuse to acknowledge that you believe that Nothing created and designed everything that exists. Gotta give you props, you have incredible faith in the not credible.

      December 26, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Father Francisco

      Dear friend, you write here "Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven?" No, please don't believe in that god. But yes, YOU are a prove that the real God does exist. If you really knew and believed that God does not exist, you would not read this article, and even less you would struggle with it and bother to answer. How can you fight with nothing?
      I am also impressed how much you know about that "unimportant" carpenter Jesus. Do you know about some other carpenter from that time and place? If not, there must be something special in this one – what could it be? Maybe those billions of believers along the centuries were right.
      "Man's life is not complete if he doesn't find God." (Vaclav Havel, former president of Czech Republic)

      December 27, 2011 at 2:39 am |
    • gerald

      Good ponit fr. Probably hundreds of thousands of other carpenters worked in the Roman Empire at the time. We only know the name of two. Joseph and Jesus. Think about it.

      December 28, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  4. C. Bazan

    As i was looking at my bmw 1200 rt in the garage thinking........cool bike, cool dude, not so sure. Ccool job, ah, of course; if they only knew, I thought, .comes this story and I thought....now that is cool.

    December 23, 2011 at 10:46 pm |
  5. Chad

    I have read some really fantastic books on the antarctic:
    The Coldest March by Susan Solomon
    Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
    Trapped by the Ice! Shackleton’s Amazing Antarctic Adventure

    Really incredible stuff, try living under an overturned 16 foot whaler for a couple month's eating penguins in that weather..

    December 23, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • just wondering

      What wine with penguin?

      December 23, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • Mirosal

      Well, it's fowl, so I might go with a nice white zinfidel.

      December 23, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • just wondering

      chilled or air temperature?

      December 23, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
  6. Mad The Swine

    I've noticed something odd about myself over the years. My right armpit tends to sweat more than the left. Anyone else experience this oddity?

    December 23, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • The Man

      Dweeb

      December 23, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
    • i'm not a doctor but i play one on tv

      you appear to be suffering from DAH syndrome. There is no known cure as the disease is deep rooted.We are only now even beginning to recognize DAH and the dangers it poses to it's victims. Rest and absolute silence are the only available therapy, and above all cease all forms of communication with everyone. This therapy will not cure DAH syndrome, but will mask the symptoms so others will be unaware you suffer from it. Not approved by the AMA or TVAMA.

      December 24, 2011 at 7:10 am |
    • Sweet Zinger

      TV Doctor? Are you alec baldwin? For sure, no one will follow your advice.

      December 24, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • i'm not a doctor but i play one on tv

      DAH syndrome is not to be taken lightly.

      December 24, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  7. Matthew Kilburn

    Nobody was ever killed in the name of atheism? Even to check that statement on its face, you'd have to look through the (non-existant) prison records of places like the Soviet Union, the PRC, North Korea, etc. to see if any people imprisoned for processing religious materials ever died in confinement. I'm sure there were many.

    Secondly – consider what atheism has led to, or been so strongly associated with. Of the world's worst dictators – particularly in the modern age – many have been atheist. Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Kim Jong Il and his crew, etc....even those that might have held some belief in a deity didn't subscribe to what we would consider the traditional strains of religious faith. Hitler was no atheist, yet he was hardly a friend of religion.

    December 23, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • Mad The Swine

      Most people killed for their faith were killed by people of a different faith. Atheism on the other hand, is not faith-based. Rather, a lack of belief in anything imaginary.

      Just because someone isn't a "friend of religion" doesn't mean they aren't religious and don't do things in the name of their beliefs. It looks to me as though you're trying to make hitler out to be a closet Atheist in order to add weight to your opinion.

      December 23, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      There was an interesting article in the NY Times today that stated atheists were no longer the most reviled group in the country, (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/good-minus-god/). The tea Party is.
      Morality is NOT dependent on the god delusion.

      December 23, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  8. David

    One need only read these comments to begin to see why Man needs a Savior for his soul. Merry Christmas, everyone.

    December 23, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • Mad The Swine

      lol

      Nope,

      December 23, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Zingo

      Christians certainly need to be saved from their delusional ignorance.

      December 23, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  9. David M

    A lot of people on here use it as an opportunity to try to tell us there is no God, no 'divine design', etc. It's your opinion and I respect. But tell me, why is there something instead of nothing?

    December 23, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • *

      Why would there be nothing instead of something?

      December 23, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • Mad The Swine

      No, it's a fact.

      December 23, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
    • Fleeced Navidad

      Try to stay awake in Physics class, dude. The answer is right there.

      December 23, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      David M..its a little more than opinion..there is much evidence that points towards, say evolution, that refutes what the bible claims as truth. Most ,if not all the claims that science makes can be tested, and predictions made. There is much to learn and answers that still have to unraveled but so far it appears the case for god is weak and is relegated to the gaps in knowledge still to be determined..but it is not looking good for Mr G.

      December 24, 2011 at 1:26 am |
  10. Mad The Swine

    I have no interest in visiting this wasteland. Shoveling snow every winter for 18 years was enough for me : D

    December 23, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • The Man

      Good thing you don't want to go to Antartica...We might miss you in your own hell hole..

      December 23, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.