Communion in a mineshaft?

Back at the beginning of the crisis in the mineshaft 700 meters below the surface of Chile's Atacama Desert, Sarah Pulliam Bailey quickly noted that spiritual issues were sure to arise in this story. Would journalists recognize this? I've been following the story ever since and it appears that there will be no way to miss the ghosts. For starters, the Vatican keeps raising religious issues.

Consider this poignant note in a recent Daily Telegraph story. It seems that the 33 miners know that, while rescue seems certain, their souls and sanity remain in danger during the long, long delay. Thus, they are getting organized:

The miners have each taken on roles within the underground world at the San Jose mine naming a "priest," a "doctor," a "poet," a "television presenter" and a "foreman" within the group.

"They are completely organized," said Dr. Jaime Manalich, Chile's health minister. "They have a full hierarchy. It is a matter of life and death for them." ...

Mario Gomez, 62, the oldest member of the group, has taken on the role of spiritual leader and urges the men to pray daily in the makeshift chapel he has created in a corner of the subterranean chamber where they have set up camp.

His job has been aided by 33 mini bibles and rosary beads for each of the men sent from the Vatican this week with a blessing from Pope Benedict and lowered into the mine with the daily supplies of food and medicine.

Have many mainstream journalists have seriously contemplated this side of the drama? Surf around a bit in this file and decide for yourself.

Now, stop and ask yourself this basic question: If somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the population of Chile is, to one degree or another, Catholic, and you are worried about the mental and spiritual well being of the miners, what else might the church try to find a way to send down that emergency shaft?

We already know that one of the miners, soon after workers made contact with the trapped men, immediately communicated with his wife, asking her to marry him once again -- in a church ceremony, instead of settling for the civil ceremony that united them 25 years earlier.

Do you think that anyone else trapped down there is thinking about taking care of unfinished items of spiritual business? In Chile?

Is there a way to say confession to a priest under this kind of circumstance? How about Holy Communion? What can priests and clergy do, communicating through a six-inch hole bored through solid rock? Is there a miner who has served as a Eucharistic minister in his parish?

Hey, I'm simply thinking out loud here. That's what journalists do.

Then we ask questions.

With that in mind, read through the following Washington Post story about the lessons that apparently secular "experts" hope the miners learn from people who survived similar accidents. This is fascinating material, but, yes, something is missing.

The lessons that could help keep 33 trapped Chilean miners safe and sane during their months underground were learned at desperate times in isolated places: ice-bound sailing ships, prisoner-of-war camps, malfunctioning capsules whizzing through space.

They include: Don't over-promise. Keep track of night and day -- even if you can't see daylight. Encourage friendships -- but watch out for cliques. Let everybody have privacy -- but don't let anybody become a loner. And remember the keys to survival in what psychologists call "extreme environments": Entertainment. Structure. Hope. ...

On Tuesday, NASA, which was called in to consult because of its experience in preparing astronauts for isolation, said it was working with Chilean officials on a plan that would, among other measures, enlist celebrities to help brighten the miners' spirits.

The men -- trapped in a tunnel deep underground since a collapse at the San Jose mine Aug. 5 -- have spoken remotely with a national soccer star and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. NASA officials said they might recommend involving other famous Chileans and possibly astronauts.

I understand that soccer is important and, in its own way, a kind of religion in Chile. I realize that MP3 players are good, too. But might the men need to speak to other, well, ministers of hope? There is a video link, right? Raise your hand if you think that Pope Benedict XVI would be more than willing to say Mass for these men, in Spanish?

In other words, is spiritual hope on the radar in mainstream newsrooms, as well as secular hope? Entertainment is important. But human beings have other needs, as well. Who knows, there might be a story or two in there.

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