Did you eat a banana with your breakfast this morning? Have you enjoyed a cup of tea or coffee today? Did you drive to church or work? Do you realise that these and countless other activities we take for granted would be impossible were it not for an international community of seafarers who deliver these goods and products to our shores? In fact, 95 per cent of the goods and products we consume are brought to Britain by sea. This figure surprises many people. It demonstrates that we need seafarers. Sea Sunday, which we celebrate this Sunday, is our opportunity to give them something back.
The Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) is part of a worldwide association of the Apostleship of the Sea, known by seafarers as Stella Maris, and an agency of the Catholic Church under the control of the Holy See. Our patroness is Our Lady, Star of the Sea. The AOS exists to provide spiritual and welfare support to the thousands of seafarers who visit our ports every year. We employ 13 port chaplains and over 120 volunteers in 57 ports across the country. Last year, thanks to the generous support of the Catholic community, our team of staff and volunteers visited over 11,000 ships in order to offer spiritual and welfare support. If an average crew size of 20 is assumed, then over 220,000 seafarers were directly affected by the activities of the AOS. This is probably an underestimate and does not include the families of these seafarers, often thousands of miles away, who have benefited in countless ways – spiritually, materially and emotionally – because their loved one has been helped by the AOS.
The year has been designated by the International Maritime Organisation as the Year of the Seafarer. It is a good time to remember that our laudable commitment to fair trade must extend to the seafarers who bring goods to our shores. Seafarers work away from home for up to 12 months at a time, facing loneliness, isolation, exploitation and the growing threat of piracy, as they deliver the goods and resources we consume each day. Seafarers are drawn from economically disadvantaged communities in countries like the Philippines, Burma, China and Vietnam. Wages are minimal and are providing vital support to extended families at home.
I recently met a young Filipino seafarer who had been away from home for 10 months and had yet to see his baby daughter. As a young father myself, I could detect the pain and isolation this man felt as he talked to me. We may have been standing on a ship in a British port but his heart was clearly thousands of miles away. It is for seafarers such as him that the AOS exists. Frequently they require assistance with communication home – telephone, email and internet – as the majority of ships lack email and mobile phone access. Often the seafarers are pleased to have someone to talk to – about the news, the weather conditions they have encountered at sea or that other global industry, Premier League football. As we are in the midst of a global recession we increasingly encounter instances where the crew have not been paid or are living in filthy, insanitary conditions. Our chaplains are equipped to respond as necessary.
But what makes the AOS unique is our ability to also meet the spiritual needs of seafarers. Over half of international seafarers are Christian and, of these, the majority are Catholic. Imagine discovering your son or daughter has died while you are stuck on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic, thousands of miles from home and your friends and family. This (and similar situations) affect countless seafarers every year. When such seafarers reach a British port, our chaplains and volunteers are on hand to support these individuals, to be Christ in their midst. We talk to them and pray with them. At other times assistance will be offered with communication or transport back home.
One of the greatest privileges we have at the AOS is the ability to arrange for the celebration of Mass and other sacraments with the seafarers, either on board the ship or in a local parish church or seafarers’ centre. One of our priest chaplains recently told me that he had arranged to celebrate Mass on board a ship where the crew comprised mainly Filipinos and Poles. Just as he was about to begin the celebration of Mass, the captain asked him to pause while the crew went to their bunks. When they returned, they had brought back with them Bibles, prayer books, icons and rosaries for the chaplain to bless. Our chaplain was humbled by their faith, as was I when I recently leafed through the seafarers’ prayer request book in our seafarers’ centre in Hull. Every prayer began by thanking God for family, or health, or safe passage. What a lesson to those of us who have so much and yet all too often fail to thank God for his blessings.
Please do whatever you can to support the work of the Apostleship of the Sea. Without generous financial support from Catholics, we would be unable to continue our outreach to seafarers which makes such an enormous difference to their lives.
Finally, please pray for seafarers. We know from our fellowship with seafarers that the knowledge that Masses, rosaries, novenas and other devotions are being offered for them is a source of tremendous consolation.
Our Lady, Star of the Sea. Pray for Us.
Martin Foley is national director of the Apostleship of the Sea