Fishers of Men: How the Apostleship of the Sea Brings the Gospel to Seafarers

What is a typical day for a sea chaplain?

The Malaviya 7 crew is blessed by Benedictine Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, Scotland. The Apostleship of the Sea keeps seamen rooted to their faith on the open waters.
The Malaviya 7 crew is blessed by Benedictine Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, Scotland. The Apostleship of the Sea keeps seamen rooted to their faith on the open waters. (photo: Photo by Mark Leman/Courtesy of the Apostleship of the Sea)

“The seafarers had not been paid for 18 months, food rations had been cut, and there was an almighty dispute with the men turning on the captain. … It was very late one night, and I was called into the mess room. There was a lot of shouting in Hindi. I called a halt, listened to the story, said my piece to the men, and told the captain he was completely out of order. … I sent the guys to their quarters with the help of the assistant captain. I stayed on board and spoke to the two captains for what seemed liked hours, then left. In the morning, I came on board at 8 o’clock, and things had settled down. The captain came down; I gave him a big hug, and it was all over, and the moneys for the rationing were increased. … The wages from the sale of the boat have been released, and the guys will be paid. Praise God.”

So began a typical day for a sea chaplain from the Apostleship of the Sea (AoS).

Doug Duncan is one of 18 British port chaplains, and that recent day at a Scottish port was, he said, fairly typical of his ministry.

The worldwide ministry of the Apostleship of the Sea started in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1920. Last year, in the United Kingdom alone, the port chaplains visited more than 10,000 ships, assisted more than 200,000 seafarers and celebrated Holy Mass on 74 occasions on board ships at anchor in British ports. As Martin Foley, the U.K. national director for the Apostleship of the Sea, told the Register, “We are not a fringe or marginal interest, but central to the Church’s mission.”

Foley explained for the Register the role of the apostolate in the Church and in the world in 2018.

“Put simply, the AoS mission is to serve the ‘People of the Sea’ — spiritually, pastorally and practically. By ‘People of the Sea’ we mean seafarers, fishermen, their families and all those who live and work at sea. There are approximately 1.5 million seafarers around the world who serve us. We are here to serve them.”

Apostleship of the Sea is now a global ministry. It has 216 port chaplains in 311 ports worldwide and is organized nationally. Each country has a bishop who works with the local national conference, which in turn is coordinated through the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson.

Last year, speaking to the AoS’ 24th World Congress in Taiwan, Cardinal Turkson re-emphasized “the commitment of AoS to be the voice of the voiceless and to be in the front line to defend the labor and human rights of [seafarers].”

Nearly 100 years from its inception, the AoS faces new challenges, and with them has come the realization that the majority of seafarers are Catholic.

As Foley told the Register: “With seafarers drawn from all four corners of the globe, the challenges facing Apostleship of the Sea in Britain are largely the same as elsewhere in the world. Whereas a generation ago seafarers spent days, sometimes weeks, in port, whilst cargo was discharged or loaded, nowadays turnaround times in port are very short, usually just a matter of hours. Our challenge is to be able to visit seafarers on board their ships — which are both their homes and workplaces — to provide spiritual, pastoral and practical support within a very short timeframe.”

The often-grim experience of the seafarers is found at out-of-the-way ports, which Foley says “have all the charm of industrial parks.” This is where men arrive, far from their homes and loved ones, whom they may not have seen for weeks, sometimes months, at a time.

The seafarer’s life is anything but glamorous. It comprises hard physical work during the voyage. Low wages and job insecurity are a constant factor. Almost always, the mariners live and work in an all-male abode. Feelings of frustration and boredom are often taken out on those closest at hand aboard ship. Addictions are rife, be they alcohol, drugs or pornography. Marital breakup as a consequence of the pressures of absence is frequent, with the subsequent emotional fallout manifest later on board ship.

Seafarers often convey the isolation felt by many during their long voyages, as related to a British port chaplain.

“Thank you for visiting us so we don’t feel forgotten.”

“Thank you. It’s so nice to go out for a while. Sometimes this ship feels like a prison.”

“I see the world through that small galley window.”

And seafarers also face the possibility of an untimely death. And the Apostleship of the Sea is there to offer comfort, support and, most importantly, the sacraments.

One widow wrote to the apostolate to offer her gratitude.

“I am the wife of the deceased seafarer on board the Manhattan Bridge vessel,” she wrote via social media. “Thank you, Sister Marian Davey and Father John Barnes, for offering support to the crew, arranging Mass and blessing my late husband’s cabin. I am devastated by my husband’s untimely demise; I find it so hard to accept. I’m praying for God’s love, peace and strength in my heart. Thank you so much [on] behalf of my family and from the bottom of my heart.”

Pope Francis has emphasized the need for Christians to go to the margins of society and witness to Christ. As Foley explains, this is central to understanding the work of the AoS.

“Pope Francis constantly exhorts us to reach out to those on the margins of society,” he said. “Both physically and metaphorically, seafarers and fishermen are perhaps the epitome of those who are on the margins of society. It’s our job to ensure that those to whom we minister on the margins in no way become marginal.”

Each chaplain — often but not always a priest — exercises his ministry in an unusual setting. There are few chaplains in the world who work in so wholly a secular and industrial environment. Many of those who work on land at the ports — and the apostolate offers its ministry to these workers also — are not Catholic. So the chaplains enter into a world that often does not understand what it is they do or why they do it.

Yet, the demand, more often than not, is for someone just to listen to men who have been cooped up together for months and to ensure that they have access to the sacraments.

When seeking a chaplain, the Apostleship of the Sea is clear on the type of man it wants. He needs to have an outgoing personality, but, above all, he needs to be pastoral and to be able to connect quickly with the seafarers, from the most inexperienced crewmember to the ship’s captain. This is not an easy task.

As Auxiliary Bishop Paul Mason of Southwark, England, the bishop promoter for the apostolate, told the Register, “A good chaplain must find joy in others and in serving them; he must love people with God’s love and, to quote our Holy Father, must have the smell of his sheep.”

The Apostleship of the Sea has another ministry that stands in stark contrast to its work in the industrial world of container ships: its ministry aboard luxury cruise liners.

In this “floating parish,” the majority is there to work, not to enjoy a vacation — they are the staff who cook, clean and entertain. It is among these workers that the chaplain presence is primarily required and expected. As Foley explains to prospective chaplains on cruises: “You may feel you need a holiday, but the crew need you more, and that’s why you’re there.”

Holy Mass is, therefore, usually said at a time convenient to the working schedule of the crew and in their quarters. One of the times that the “parish” comes together — crew and passengers alike — is on major feast days. 

Cruise-ship ministry is not always smooth sailing, though. Many times there is only a Catholic chaplain on board ship, and when Mass is said, some from other faiths ask to receive Holy Communion. It is explained that only Catholics who are in a state of grace may receive the Eucharist.

As a result of this discipline, Foley told the Register, the cruise companies have received complaints. This, in turn, has led to requests to the Apostleship of the Sea that religious services on board ship be “ecumenical.” Part of the role of the apostolate is to navigate these difficult waters, demonstrating a pastoral concern for all on board but communicating clarity about what the primary role of a Catholic chaplain is and the nature of the sacraments dispensed.

Inevitably, a lot of the work the Apostleship chaplains do is behind the scenes, from pastoral work to advocacy for fairer treatment of those on board ship, helping to settle disputes between different groups.

On many occasions, it is a ship’s captain who will call upon the chaplain’s pastoral skills, welcoming the opportunity to discuss his problems, whether professional or personal, in confidence.

Captain Asish Prabhakar, the Indian captain of Malaviya 7, which was detained for more than 16 months in Aberdeen, Scotland, said of apostolate’s chaplains, “Right from the smallest needs, medical requirements, emotional support, practical needs, AoS [chaplains] could be blindly relied upon. There were times when their presence on the ship was the calming factor. The days they were away, it was a chaotic ship, and we were all waiting for the chaplain’s return eagerly.”

He added, “Having AoS by your side meant that things were under control and that there was somebody looking after you in a foreign land. [The chaplain] started off as an outsider, but gradually became one of us, and we looked forward to seeing him.”

 K.V. Turley writes from London.