(Photo: Chilean government / Hugo Infante)
Churches across Chile have been hosting around-the-clock vigils and special services as rescuers pulled out one-by-one the 33 miners who have been trapped underground for 69 days.
As the first miner was being brought to the surface, Santiago Auxiliary Bishop Cristian Contreras Villarroel said the lives of the 33 miners should be seen as a sign of the need all people have for redemption.
"There is no saint without a past, nor sinner without a future," he reminded the congregation in the El Sagrario chapel next to Santiago's Metropolitan Cathedral, according to Catholic News Service.
"This is a propitious moment for the entire church to unite in faith and hope," added Bishop Alejandro Goic Karmelic, president of the Chilean bishops' conference, in remarks made to the press elsewhere.
For over two months now, the 33 men trapped inside the San Jose mine in Chile have been clinging to the hope of a rescue. Half a mile below ground, the men have endured for weeks without sunlight, fresh air, and their loved ones, many of which waited above as the rescue effort unfolded.
Though the miners were sent food, water, supplies, and even items to pass the time – including MP3 players containing the New Testament and “The Story of Jesus” – health professionals have been very concerned for their physical and psychological welfare.
Even as each miner was pulled up one by one Wednesday, health concerns lingered. Pulmonary problems from poor air quality, dental problems from having gone 17 days without dental care, and post-traumatic stress disorder are among the issues experts say the men could face.
But for the time being, eyes from around the world are focused on their rescue, which comes with the aid of the “Phoenix” escape capsules, which authorities named for their part in essentially resurrecting the miners.
"We called it Phoenix because it will be like a rebirth, a new life for the miners," Chilean mining minister Laurence Golborne told reporters last month.
While everything so far to date has been going extraordinarily well – perhaps even miraculously by some accounts – churches in Chile are continuing to pray for the men's safety along with offering prayers of thanksgiving.
Pope Benedict XVI, who offered his prayers for the rescue of the miners in late August, expressed his hope Wednesday that the ongoing rescue effort will be completed safely.
"I recommend the miners of the Atacama region to the divine goodness [of God] with hope," the pontiff, speaking in Spanish, told an audience of 25,000 people during his general audience .
So far 21 of the 33 trapped miners have been safely brought up in rescue capsules, and Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the rescue operation could be complete "by the end of the day" even.
"We hope to successfully complete this process by the end of the day," the minister said near the San Jose mine.
"We moved very rapidly, faster than originally planned," Golborne added, after authorities initially predicted it would take 36 to 48 hours to finish the operation.
As the miners were brought up one by one Wednesday through the 10,000-ft. escape tunnel, a number of them crossed themselves and thanked God upon their return to the surface.
As soon as Esteban Rojas exited the capsule, the 44-year-old miner knelt down on the ground, clasped his hands in prayer and lifted his hands to the sky to praise God. His wife then wrapped around him a religious tapestry with Mary on it as they hugged and cried.
"We looked for them like our children. We found them with God's help. We are rescuing them as Chileans," stated a posting on the official Twitter page of Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.
Chile, which runs along the west side of South America's southern half, is a mainly Roman Catholic nation. According to the 2002 census, Catholics comprise 70 percent of the country's population while Evangelicals comprise 15.1 percent. Only 8.3 percent claim to be non-religious.