Priest has rite stuff for parish with divine view
December 24, 2011
MONSIGNOR Stephen Rossetti will conduct midnight Mass tonight with his sunglasses on. The glasses come with the territory. Monsignor Rossetti is the lone Catholic priest in Antarctica – surely one of the world’s largest parishes. ”Antarctica is unique. It’s like going to the moon,” he said. ”It has a stark, bleak beauty to it.”
Such is the lot of those tasked with ministering to the spiritual needs of about 1600 at the constantly sunlit bottom of the world this holiday season – a job he likened to being in a chaplain in a war zone, except it was the environment ”constantly trying to kill you”.
”Things are stripped down to the basics here, so we don’t worry too much about ‘trimmings’,” the 60-year-old from Washington said. ”Our Christmas choir has been practising and if they lack anything, they make it up in heart and dedication.”
It has been more than half a century since the first New Zealand priest boarded an ice-breaker bound for McMurdo Station, helping the US Navy Catholic chaplain at the American base by conducting the midnight Mass in 1954. A Protestant chaplain is recruited from the US.
But soon, for the first time, Australia’s Catholic priests will begin serving month-long stints during the October to February rotation – chaplains to staff at McMurdo Station, Scott Base, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and 20 field sites.
”Because of the priest shortage now, I’m casting my net a little further,” said Antarctic Ministry co-ordinator and New Zealand priest, Father Dan Doyle.
A veteran of the interfaith Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo Station – having made the journey 14 times in 27 years – Father Doyle said he was searching for ”explorer-type priests” who were outgoing, in exceptional health and who knew their way around a computer.
So far, 11 Australians have applied, enough to ”take the gospel to the ends of the Earth” for about the next four years.
”It truly is the end of the Earth,” he said. ”You stand on the pole and everywhere you look is north.”
Monsignor Rossetti, whose posting finishes next week, said as well as conducting daily Mass, holding Bible study and counselling, he spends time visiting staff at their work sites, where challenges include understanding a rapidly-melting Pine Island Glacier ice shelf – a harbinger of rising sea levels.
”I remind them that God is here on Antarctica too,” he said.
Or even further afield. ”I would love to be on the space shuttle as the first priest into space,” he said. ”If they were asking for volunteers to man a space station, I’d sign up.”
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