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The signs are everywhere: “No outside shoes,” “Use shoe coverings,” or “If your shoes are muddy, take them off.” Apparently, there are two seasons in Pituffik Space Base in Greenland (formerly Thule Air Base): snow and mud. I arrived here at the end of snow season and before the beginning of mud season in time to cover Holy Week liturgies for the Catholic service members of this northernmost U.S. military installation. It is my turn to cover this remote base, as my friend and colleague Fr. Jim Hamel did for Christmas back in 2022.

I had previously spent almost three years in Anchorage, Alaska, so I thought I knew what I was in for. But I quickly saw that this fridged tundra is like Alaska on steroids. 

When I arrived, a guide gave me a tour of the base. The buildings are by and large painted bright blue with red doors, which help them stand out against both snowy white and muddy brown. There is a dining facility, a base exchange, a gym (which is very well equipped, I have to say), and a chapel. But unlike any other military installation I’ve visited, each building has a two-door setup for entry and exit involving heavy doors and a solid lever handle to hold it all together. I remarked to my guide that this must either be for the winter chill or for polar bears; I was informed, “definitely for the polar bears”—a  deadpan response that left me unsure of whether he was joking or not. I have kept an eye out for bears throughout my time on base, but have seen only the occasional arctic fox.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is in the northwest corner of the Arctic Haven building and feels like home. With only twelve seats, it appropriately recalls the upper room and focuses the eyes on the tabernacle, where the red flickering flame of the sanctuary lamp indicates the physical presence of the crucified king whose life, death, and Resurrection we recall every Holy Week. I didn’t notice at first, but plastic poinsettias still decorated the windowsills and a delicate wooden creche lay at the foot of the altar—a reminder of the last time a priest visited the base and offered the sacraments. 

Pituffik Space Base is an international effort. Danes, Canadians, and Americans work alongside each other in arctic conditions to man the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System and monitor the myriad of satellites that orbit the globe. Each of the men and women here have a story to tell as to how they got here, what they have left behind, and what they are looking forward to upon their return home. As a chaplain it is my role to walk alongside others to enhance their spiritual resiliency, allow for their first amendment right to freedom of religion, and to advise leadership on morale and spiritual issues. Central to the job—what I have found gives it credibility and is often most helpful—is listening. In a world of emails, smartphones, busy family lives, and stressful careers, listening well is often the first casualty of our contemporary culture.

Catholic priests in the military describe this calling as a “vocation within a vocation.” Serving as a chaplain is a unique way to minister for a time, on loan from our local diocese or religious order. The need for chaplains is tremendous, and not just at the top of the world. Currently the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps is low on priests; we have 60 but need 120. 

I brought with me a gift for the faithful here at Pituffik Space Base. A few years ago, while on a trip to Rome, I had a plastic bag full of one-decade finger rosaries blessed at a Wednesday papal audience. In my Easter Sunday homily at the base, I offered those rosaries to those in the congregation and encouraged them to take an extra one for a family member back home. The rosaries, blessed by Pope Francis in a land far away and prayed with 750 miles above the arctic circle, are a reminder that the prayers of the Church are always with us. God’s mercy overcomes even time and distance—at Easter and always. 

I am currently assigned to Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Before I left my Texas diocese and began the journey to Pituffik Space Base, I downloaded numerous podcasts, unsure of what the Wi-Fi situation was going to be like up here. At one point, a few days into my trip, I broke into laughter as a Spotify commercial came over my AirPods in Spanish, a reminder that I was now very far from my San Antonio home. Pope Francis has called us to minister to those on the margins—whether the spiritual margins, the geographical margins, or both. There is no bad way to be a good priest. But I find that providing the sacraments to men and woman who have raised their right hand in service to our country at the top of the world drives home the pope’s message for me. Regardless of the liturgical season or where we find ourselves putting on or taking off our shoes, the signs of God’s faithfulness are everywhere.

Fr. Nicholas Reid is a priest of the diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, currently serving as a chaplain in the United States Air Force.

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Image by madmack66 licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped.  

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