Visiting the South Pole was one of the items on Australian Jesuit Father Michael Smith’s “bucket list.” He doubted he would ever tick it off until he heard about the Antarctic Chaplaincy Program, which sends chaplains to serve the scientists, staff and military personnel at McMurdo Station, a U.S. Antarctic research center.
Because Antarctica is so remote and medical facilities are limited, Fr. Smith had to undergo extensive medical checks beforehand. He passed and found himself on a plane to Antarctica this past December to serve for four weeks.
While Fr. Smith had researched Antarctica before he left, he writes, “nothing prepared me for the physical vastness and the beauty I encountered when I stepped out of the aircraft onto the ice runway.
“In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests that we consider how God works and labors for us in all things created on the face of the earth. In Antarctica, it is not hard to see God at work in the beauty of creation — in the mountain ranges, in the ice sheet, in the limitless blue sky, in the vastness of the continent, in the seals, in the penguins.”
Fr. Smith, who is dean of Sentir Graduate College of Spiritual Formation in Melbourne, Australia, says that the aspect of life at McMurdo that will stay with him most is the relationships. “With about 1000 people at the station and with us all eating together in the galley, a strong sense of community grew. I found the conversations over meals and the friendships that were forged very life-giving. These conversations often turned to things of God, and discussing the meaning of life was an important part of my role.”
As chaplain, Fr. Smith celebrated Mass and prayed daily in the Chapel of the Snows, which looks out over the Ross Ice Shelf towards Mount Discovery. “It was very peaceful and unhurried,” he writes. “The silence of Antarctica was immense and very conducive to prayer.”
Fr. Smith says the most memorable thing he did was visiting the South Pole. “I put on my extreme cold-weather clothing and walked over to the magnetic South Pole. At this point on the earth, everywhere is north,” he recalls. “At this place I found myself moved to pray for peace on earth.”