Shortly before Christmas, I received a phone call from the office of the Air Force Chief of Chaplains. I am a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, and I was asked to go to Thule Air Base in Greenland for two weeks to provide Catholic services for Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (New Year's Day). Thule Air Base, 800 miles above the Arctic Circle, is the northernmost military installation of the United States. It has a small base population of American, Canadian, Danish, and Greenlandic personnel. The base's main mission is to provide missile warnings, space surveillance, and satellite command and control for our senior civilian and military leaders. In the Air Force (and the recently formed Space Force), Thule is the punchline of many a joke about where one might end up if he or she doesn’t “straighten up and fly right.” Indeed, when I told a friend of mine, a former Air Force medical doctor, where I would be for Christmas, his one-word reply was, “Sucker!” That stung a little, but my instincts told me he was wrong.
He was right that at this time of year, northern Greenland is blanketed in total darkness. Every few days, a faint purplish ribbon of light can be seen on the horizon, but only for an hour or two. Then the sky returns to Bible-black. The other distinguishing feature is the extreme cold. As I write this, it’s a balmy -7 degrees Fahrenheit, but temperatures in the -40s are not uncommon here in January.
Due to the size of its active duty population, the base is only assigned one chaplain. Two would certainly be one too many. And for obvious demographic reasons, both in terms of the base population and the dwindling number of Catholic chaplains in the Air Force, the one assigned chaplain at Thule is a Protestant. For the past twenty-five years, the Air Force has flown a Catholic chaplain up here for Christmas and New Year’s Day, and then again for Holy Week and Easter. Unfortunately, that's the most we can provide to the Catholic service members who are up here for a year at a time.
I arrived at Thule on December 23 after a six-hour flight from the northeast U.S. The chaplain and base commander greeted me and the seven other passengers who were on the plane. I spent the rest of the day learning where things were and getting acclimated to the disorienting cold and dark.
On Christmas Eve day, I went over to the chapel early to make sure the Roman missal and lectionary were set to the appropriate pages. When I saw where the ribbons were placed, it was disheartening to see that they hadn’t been moved since Easter. But when it came time for Mass, a small congregation of about ten people, including the Protestant chaplain, huddled in our little chapel and joyfully celebrated both the birth of the Christ child and the first Mass at Thule in eight months. We concluded with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
Immediately following Catholic Mass was the Protestant Christmas Eve service in the larger chapel. In the spirit of the season, camaraderie, and ecumenism, I likewise joined the chaplain and his congregation for their service. They had about forty worshippers in all, including several Danish contractors. I have to say, when we got to the candle-lit singing of “Silent Night,” it brought a tear to my eye. There we were, “on top of the world,” Protestant and Catholic, Danish, Canadian, and American, celebrating the birth of Jesus—seemingly far from all the troubles of the world, while the radars at Thule kept an unblinking eye on the horizon.
After the Protestant service, we went over to the dining hall, where the civilian contractors had prepared a traditional Danish Christmas feast. It was truly outstanding in every way. Participants were encouraged to bring a bottle of wine to the table to help mark the special quality of this holy night. After we ate, the Danish contractors stood shoulder-to-shoulder in two concentric circles around the Christmas tree and then processed around it, singing traditional carols in Danish and in English. Then they widened the circle and invited us G.I.s to join them.
The following morning, we again had about ten people at Christmas Day Mass, and the dining hall proffered another traditional Danish Christmas feast. Between the events, I was privileged to hear a number of confessions.
Is it cold and dark up here this time of year? Absolutely. Was I a “sucker” for accepting this assignment? Not by a long shot. It was one of the most memorable Christmases I’ve ever had.
I know many people send up an extra prayer during the holidays for “our soldiers deployed in harm’s way.” The next time you do so, please remember to offer one for our men and women at “the top of the world,” who watch the radar screens and satellite feeds unceasingly so that we can sleep in peace each night. Merry Christmas.
James A. Hamel is a priest of the archdiocese of Newark, currently serving on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. He is the Command Chaplain at Air Combat Command, headquartered at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.
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