Maritime Sunday: When People Go to Sea, the Church Goes With Them

The U.S. bishops have designated May 22 each year as the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for Mariners and People of the Sea.

Above is a 19th-century painting of Mary, Star of the Sea.
Above is a 19th-century painting of Mary, Star of the Sea. (photo: Wikipedia / Public domain)
He got into a boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a violent storm came up on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by waves; but he was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ He said to them, ‘Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?’ Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm. The men were amazed and said, ‘What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?’

Jesus calming the storm, as detailed in Matthew 8:23-27, is just one seafaring detail in the Gospels.

And the Church honors the Blessed Mother as Our Lady, Star of the Sea. 

In addition, each year in the United States, May 22 is the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for Mariners and People of the Sea. Also known as Maritime Day, it is “an opportunity to recognize the hardworking men and women of the U.S. Merchant Marine, seafarers, fishers, port personnel, and all who work or travel on the high seas for the vital services they provide in support of our nation’s economic well-being and national security,” according to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In peacetime, the Merchant Marine is essentially a conglomeration of merchant vessels engaged in the transportation of goods and services. However, in wartime, they may serve as  an important auxiliary to the U.S. Navy.


Miracle on the Water

In fact, there is a remarkable tale from the Korean War of a Merchant Marine vessel that is responsible for the single largest humanitarian rescue operation by a single vessel — ever. The ship was called the SS Meredith Victory, and its captain was Leonard LaRue. Just before Christmas 1950, Capt. LaRue and the Meredith Victory were delivering 300 tons of supplies to U.S. forces when they witnessed a massive group of 100,000 troops and 100,000 Korean civilians trying to evacuate. LaRue and his crew sprang into action, unloading all the supplies they could and filling the 455-foot freighter with refugees.

Ultimately, they were able to load around 14,000 people onto this vessel. It was not exactly smooth sailing after that, as there was not sufficient food, water, sleeping space or bathroom facilities on the ship to accommodate such a massive influx of people. But Capt. LaRue knew what had to be done, and he did his best to take care of these people in need. They finally arrived at a port that would accept them on Dec. 24 and were able to unload on Christmas Day 1950. In those few days, five babies were born on the ship, and not a single refugee died.

Capt. LaRue’s efforts have come to be called the “Christmas Miracle” and his ship the “Ship of Miracles.” It is still regarded as one of the most tremendous maritime rescue efforts ever, and certainly the largest by a single vessel.

The captain’s life took a dramatic turn away from the marine life just a few years later, in 1954. He entered St. Paul’s Abbey in New Jersey, choosing the religious name Brother Marinus and  serving the community and the Church as a Benedictine monk. He lived humbly and in obscurity. Few had any notion that he had been part of such a remarkable and dramatic rescue in his past. In 1960, his abbot directed him to leave the abbey and travel to Washington, D.C., to accept the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal, the highest honor for the Merchant Marine.

He died on Oct. 14, 2001. Immediately following his death, six Benedictine monks from South Korea arrived at the abbey, which helped revitalize it and turned it into a sort of center of activity for Korean Catholics in the area. His cause for canonization was opened in 2019, and in June 2021, the bishops of the United States voted to advance Brother Marinus’ cause for canonization.

Capt. LaRue — or, rather, Brother Marinus — can be regarded as an unofficial patron of Maritime Day. Before entering the Benedictines, during his career in the Merchant Marine, he served as a beautiful example of lived Christianity and as an exemplar of the maritime personnel for whom we pray on the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for Mariners and People of the Sea.

These individuals — maritime workers and their families — need spiritual care, which is where the Apostleship of the Sea comes in.


Spiritual Aid at Sea

One organization that serves such maritime personnel is Apostleship of the Sea of the United States of America. The purpose of this organization is to “assist seafarers with their spiritual needs” wherever and whenever they are needed. While U.S. military personnel on the seas are served by chaplains from the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, Apostleship of the Sea provides chaplains for cruise ships, so that the passengers, staff and crew onboard will have their spiritual needs met. They also provide chaplains for ports throughout the country, serving mariners, fishermen, dock workers, workboat operators, their families and others. More than just sacramental ministers, these chaplains serve the spiritual needs of their flock and provide support, even in helping to ensure they have just contracts and opportunities for rest and recreation.

Apostleship of the Sea traces its roots to 1920 in Glasgow, Scotland, where three men recognized a need for chaplains on the world’s waterways. Pope Pius XI blessed their undertaking and encouraged them to reach out to the whole world. It has recently been renamed, appropriately, Stella Maris.

Ministering to Mariners

Pope St. John Paul II duly recognized the organization and its good work in his motu proprio Stella Maris: “Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) has long been the favorite title by which people of the sea have called on her in whose protection they have always trusted: the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her son, Jesus Christ, accompanied his disciples in their vessels, helped them in their work and calmed the storms. And so the Church accompanies seafarers, caring for the special spiritual needs of those who for various reasons live and work in the maritime world.”

Father Michael Champagne, of the Community of Jesus Crucified, who organizes the annual Eucharistic boat procession on the Louisiana bayou, is no stranger to waterways. “I grew up in southwest Louisiana on Bayou Teche and spent much time fishing and enjoying the water. Later, I served in the 6th Fleet U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps,” he told the Register. 

“I learned quickly that living and working on the water helps one understand the beauty and grandeur of God, as well as the unpredictability of nature and dangers at sea. In the Gospels we often see Jesus at the seashore, in a boat on the sea, or even walking upon the roaring waves of the sea and calming them. As we celebrate Maritime Sunday, let us thank God for all those who serve and make their living on the water. And let us always remember to pray for them and minister to them in their spiritual needs.”