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January 04, 2013
Flight 571: With God in the Andes
By Joe Tremblay *

By Joe Tremblay *

Survival and the Eucharist

As it pertained to this valley of death, Roberto Canessa said, “(L)ife is an accident in which the only real thing is that you’re going to die…” The survivors were in an atmosphere of not only death but also of God and eternity. Nevertheless, the instinct for survival and their quest to live remained strong.

About a week into their accident, they were running out of food. As such, they were beginning to starve. Not only that, their friends and family members were dying. They had to make a decision. Either continue starving or consume human flesh in order to stay alive. They chose the latter. However, it was their Catholic faith that helped them to accept this radical and humiliating idea.

Alfredo Delgado put it this way:

“The Bible tells us that at the Last Supper, Jesus shared his body and his blood with his disciples … At that time, we felt that if God existed, and if He was near us, our only chance of survival was to share that same kind of communion that he (Jesus) had shared with his disciples: to take the body and the blood … We also made a pact in the group that if anyone died, we could use his body in order to survive.”

We know this to be the case in the sacramental order of God’s plan. St. Paul once said that we are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus.” (cf. II Corinthians 4:10) Then he adds, “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (II Cor. 4:12) Those Christians who love to the full extent participate in the dying of Christ so that not only they, but so that others may have life. As our Lord himself said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”
The point is this: The death of 29 passengers was far from being in vain. That suffering and those deaths were put to lifesaving use for the 16 young men that remained. And as for some who sensed their own death was imminent, they volunteered their body in advance for others to use. Just as with every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, life and death existed side by side on that mountain.

The Ten Day Journey

To make a long story short, on December 12, 1972, Roberto Canessa and Fernando Parrado decided that they had to make an attempt to hike out of the mountain range and get help. It was getting warmer and the days were getting longer (in South America, the southern hemisphere, our winter is their summer). At the very least, if they were to die, they would die walking. At one point, they ascended a mountain peak thinking that they would see civilization once they made the summit. But to their utter dismay, they saw more mountains as far as the eye could see. Again, they had to overcome despair. And that they did. Roberto and Fernando pressed on.

For Roberto, the first night in the mountains was the worst night of his life. He was wet, cold, hungry and crying. At times he even cursed in anguish. But several years later, when some of the survivors made a pilgrimage to the crash site with their families, he recounted what he had learned: Though he was unbearably cold that night, the moon happened to be shining on the mountain range. He said it was a most beautiful sight!! And for a few moments, he felt privileged to be there.

From this experience- both beautiful and painful -the Lord had taught him one of the greatest lessons in life. On the pilgrimage, he said this to his daughter: “I learned that in life and you’re desperate and there is no way out, doors appear that you couldn’t imagine. You need to know how to wait. When you don’t know what to do, you’re desperate. And you think you’re going to die. Just wait a bit, and time will bring you the answer.”

Roberto went on to elaborate on how close he felt to God during those ten excruciating days in the mountains. He explained: “And I felt I was God’s friend. I don’t feel that now. The One who made all of this, the Creator, was my friend.”

His daughter then asked, “And why don’t you feel it now?”

“Well,” he replied, “now we’ve got sandwiches, we’ve got tents, we know our way, so we don’t need God so much.”

What a profound truth! Here, in a very simple but profound way, is the wisdom of the Cross in a nutshell. During times of suffering and uncertainty – when we feel helpless – is precisely when God, quite often, does his greatest work in our souls. To be sure, the deepest kind of intimacy with the Lord comes with a price.

In any event, Roberto and Fernando finally made it out of the mountains. At last, they found help for the others who still remained at the crash site.

And today, where the crash site is, a rustic stone altar with an orange iron cross above it reads: "Close, Oh God, to You."

The Lasting Impression of the Story

Something dawned on me while I was reflecting upon the untold suffering that the passengers of Flight 571 had to endure. It dawned on me that Christ did not choose to suffer and die on the Cross so that others could suffer and die because he did. No. He chose to suffer and die on the Cross because he saw that we, as human beings in a fallen world, were already suffering and dying. His sacrifice on the Cross was never meant to take away or prevent our suffering and anguish. Rather, he entered into his Passion because each and every one of us has a “passion” of our own. Out of love for us, he lowered himself into our suffering and death. He wanted to join us; not only join us, but to lift us up beyond a senseless and valueless kind of suffering...to give it meaning...to give it a saving power...to infuse it with love. Through His Cross, therefore, our crosses can take on a divinely inspired purpose the unbaptized world never did enjoy.

Perhaps this is why survivor, Alfredo Delgado, was able to say that he experienced a deep peace on that mountain. Through the mystery of the Cross, he came to see the real value of suffering. And as such, he was able see the real value of life! About a month after the rescue, Alfredo was asked if he had changed. He replied, "Things have changed: I used to think mostly about me, now I'm thinking more about others...Material things, comfort, dollars and all that it's in the background to me."

This newly found attitude and worldview of Mr. Delgado' s is one of the greatest fruits of the Cross. And let there be no doubt, such a disposition of soul, in the retelling of the story of Flight 571, has inspired millions. It would seem that they suffered so that others would have hope! And in a suffering world- a world estranged from God -hope is everything.

This column is the third of a three part series. Read the first part here and the second part here.

Joe Tremblay writes for Sky View, a current event and topic-driven Catholic blog. He was a contributor to The Edmund Burke Institute, and a frequent guest on Relevant Radio’s, The Drew Mariani Show. Joe is also married with five children. The views and opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily reflective of any organizations he works for.
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