Chaplain Fr Mallena, 70, prayed in the chapel and then rushed to save the Holy Eucharist and crew members' valuables

A Catholic chaplain aboard the sinking Costa Concordia rushed to consume the Eucharist in an attempt to protect it as the cruise liner began to sink on Friday night.

Fr Rafaeli Mallena, 70, described his ordeal to Fr Giacomo Martino, director of the Apostleship of the Sea for the Italian bishops’ conference.

He said as he realised the ship was in serious peril he had two things at the forefront of his mind: protecting the valuables, which the staff had entrusted to him, and protecting the Blessed Sacrament.

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When the first explosion was heard during dinner, Fr Mallena said, “he felt immediately that something was very, very wrong”, according to Fr Martino. He immediately went to the chapel to pray and 40 minutes later, when he realised the “abandon ship” alarm was sounding, he consumed the Eucharist and locked the staff’s valuables, including jewellery and money, in a safe.

As chaos ensued among the 4,200 passengers aboard, the priest tried to stay aboard in an effort to help but he was persuaded by crew members that it would be better if he boarded a lifeboat and left the sinking ship.

Fr Giacomo Martino said that Fr Mallena had now returned to Rome where he was recovering from his ordeal.

He said that Fr Mallena was “very upset because as the first interviews came out, everyone was saying that the crew was not taking care of passengers and so on. But I am a personal witness of people leaving their families and children and I saw personal sacrifice. There was a staff captain, for example, who saved three or four people who could not swim.”

Fr Martino told The Catholic Herald that he had heard from survivors about a hotel director who remained bravely until the very end. He was going to take the very last lifeboat when he fell down the stairs and broke his leg. He remained inside the ship floating in cold water for 36 hours before he was discovered.

Fr Martino said: “A bad reaction from some individuals is not the whole truth. The truth is that almost everyone is understood to have behaved wonderfully. Most people were totally dedicated to saving others.”

Fr Martino estimated that there will have been a significant Catholic presence aboard the Costa Concordia due to a large number of Filipinos, meaning that almost a third of passengers were Catholic.

He said that Fr Mallena has told him “10 times over” since arriving back in Rome that he has the key to the ship’s safe and as soon it is recovered he will make sure that crew members receive the valuables that he took such care to protect.

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