There was something universally irresistible to the story of how 33 Chilean miners emerged after enduring 69 days 2,300 feet underground.
“The whole thing has been a massive spiritual triumph, a glorious victory against despair and loss of hope, against the quarreling and division which naturally and inevitably break out,” wrote William Oddie in the British Catholic Herald.
“It is as if we were all born again as that rescue tube brought them, one by one. ... The light of promise lit up the darkness of despair. Hope emerged from that mineshaft in Chile and the whole world seems renewed,” Deacon Keith Fournier wrote on Catholic Online.
“This ordeal was indeed amazingly marked by faith, not just as in expectation for a positive outcome, but as in the first theological virtue,” Bishop Gaspar Quintana Jorquera of Copiapó, Chile, told Our Sunday Visitor in a brief conversation over his cell phone.
The 74-year-old bishop had stayed almost nonstop at the mine’s entrance, and received each one of the rescued miners, until exhaustion sent him to the same hospital where his famous flock was taken.
No ‘mere chance’
The miners were part of the thousand of Chileans who find one of the very few jobs available in the merciless desert of Atacama, where similar copper mines operate with small profit margins.
After the Aug. 5 mine collapse, the small mining company, unable to afford the rescue effort, declared bankruptcy, forcing the Chilean government to take over.
“The mine was named St. Joseph; the announcement that they were alive came on Aug. 22, feast of the Queenship of Mary. These little details did not look like mere chance to our people,” the bishop said.
On Aug. 23, the Chilean Bishops’ Conference issued a statement giving thanks to God and praising “the faith of our people, for the spontaneous outpouring of trust in God … for the immense love shown to Jesus, to the Virgin Mary, to St. Lawrence [Chile’s patron saint for miners] and other saints.”
The Chilean bishops then made official a grass-roots movement that started all across the country: a prayer campaign for the success of the rescue that would include Masses, vigils and continuous adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
The day the rescue operation started, Bishop Quintana moved the 200-year-old image of Our Lady of the Candle, the diocese’s patroness, to the campsite raised by the government for the rescuers and the miners’ relatives.
Sustained by faith
As soon as the narrow communication and feeding pipeline was established, the miners received a questionnaire asking for their needs, as well as a microphone and a small camera.
Although the group included several non-practicing Catholics, one evangelical and a Bolivian who claimed to believe in the “Pachamama” (mother earth) the pod came back with a stern request: religious images.
So a crucifix went down with the first supplies. But the response back came with the request for even more religious images, especially of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Chile’s patroness) and St. Lawrence.
On Aug. 25, 20 days into the accident and the day in which Chile celebrates Miners’ Day, Bishop Quintana invited all priests from the diocese to concelebrate a massive, emotional Mass next to the mine’s entrance.
The miners’ routine below became carefully planned and monitored: Every day they would share a morning meal, read the letters sent by their relatives, and then distribute the tasks for the day. Among the chores to be assigned, next to checking the electrical implants or keeping order in the food pantry, was to pray in front of the makeshift chapel.
One of the miners, Esteban Roca, promised his partner of 25 years and the mother of his three children to make her “my bride and wife in front of God,” meaning he would marry Jessica Yáñez in the Church.
“I love you so much. ... Please keep praying to God so that I may get out of this place. As soon as I am out, I will take you to buy your wedding dress,” Roca wrote.
‘Lifted up to the sky’
Close to midnight on Oct. 12, Mario Gómez Heredia, the oldest in the group and the one in most frail physical shape, became the first one to be rescued. Before being placed on a stretcher, he requested a few seconds to kneel on the ground, ignoring hundreds of television cameras, and giving thanks to God.
The 63-year-old miner would later reveal that his spirit was “lifted up to the sky” in one of his worst moments underground by a letter from an 8-year-old Peruvian girl, Teresa Consuelo. “Have great faith in God; he will take you out soon to bring you back to your family,” the girl wrote.
Mario Sepúlveda, the cheerful young miner who became the group’s de facto spokesman, revealed after coming out of the mine that “I was between God and the devil. They fought for me, but God won, and I grabbed the best hand. Since then, I was not afraid anymore, and I knew God would make it up for us.”
“All these days have been days of great faith and hope, days in which we have been united to millions in Chile and around the world,” the Chilean bishops wrote in a statement Oct. 14, after all miners were safely rescued and most of them even released from the hospital.
“After their rescue, let us all learn to value more the most valuable things we have: life, the dignity of being God’s children, faith, the treasure of our family, a safe and fairly compensated job,” the bishops concluded.
Alejandro Bermudez writes from Peru.
Pastoral Efforts (sidebar)
The 33 men who were trapped underground may be back with friends and family now, but the Diocese of Copiapó, Chile, will continue its pastoral care of the rescued miners.
The diocese’s vicar general, Father Alejandro Castillo, told Our Sunday Visitor that the miners would go back to their own towns and parishes, some of them to retire permanently. “But the bond created during these days between him [Bishop Gaspar Quintana Jorquera] and them [the miners] is so strong that no pastoral effort will be spared to keep them close to God,” Father Castillo said.
The bishop, in fact, had stayed with the miners’ relatives since Aug. 7, two days after the accident.
Bishop Quintana has even offered to preside at Esteban Roca’s wedding, “whenever he is willing to fulfill his promise,” Father Castillo said.
“Of course, since they are all back home, most of the responsibility of helping them grow in their faith falls to their parishes, but rest assured, Bishop Gaspar will make sure they are all taken care of,” the vicar general said.