By Robin Gomes
As the Catholic Church marks 100 years of its ministry to seafarers, the Vatican is calling on governments, international, national organizations and port authorities to cooperate and create “special channels” to facilitate safe and secure crew changes, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to roil the world.
Stranded at sea
“We would like to see the seafarers stranded at sea back in their countries and reunited with their love ones,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
Travel restrictions, borders closure and quarantine measures due to the pandemic, he noted, has triggered a humanitarian emergency crisis at sea. “It is estimated that more than 300,000 seafarers and marine personnel are currently stranded at sea, their contracts extended far more than the 11-months limit set out in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), away from their loved ones, under mental stress and physical fatigue.
100 years of Apostleship of the Sea
He made the appeal in a letter to bishops, promoters, regional coordinators, national directors, chaplains and volunteers of the Catholic Church’s ministry to seafarers worldwide called the Apostleship of the Sea (AoS), whose centres at ports are known as Stella Maris.
The Vatican official issued the letter ahead of the 25th World Congress of the Stella Maris/Apostleship of the Sea and the Centenary Celebration, scheduled for October 4th in Glasgow, Scotland, where it all began. But because of the pandemic, the celebration is taking place online.
The Apostleship of the Sea, which ministers to seafarers, regardless of their nationality, belief, sex or race, was born during a meeting in a Catholic Institute in Cochrane Street, Glasgow, on October 4, 1920. Pope Pius XI blessed and approved the first Constitution of AoS in a letter dated 22 April 1922. Successive popes have always encouraged the growth of this Apostolate.
Serving more than 1 million seafarers
A century later, hundreds of chaplains and many more volunteers present in around 300 ports, are carrying out at least 70,000 ship visits a year and reaching out to more than a million seafarers.
Cardinal Turkson expressed gratitude for the countless ‘Apostles’ of all nationalities who through the decades have spent their lives with dedication and commitment in different ports of the world, in the service of the people of the sea.
The cardinal noted that the maritime industry has changed enormously with larger and computerized ships, manned by multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-religious crew. At the same time, dangers such as piracy, crime, abandonment and the pandemic have increased the stress, the fatigue and the isolation of the crew. The AoS has also evolved adopting new technology to respond to the material and spiritual needs of the seafarers, fishers and their families.
Seafarers’ needs are the same
While the structures and designs of ports have changed, Cardinal Turkson said, the needs of the seafarers and fishers have not. Every time they dock, they yearn to contact their families, to seek advice for contractual problems or simply they would like to talk. Despite the restrictions of Covid-19, he said, the substance of the service of AoS should be essentially a “ministry of presence”. The cardinal urged them to “make use of all the instruments that the technology offers us to be present in the lives of the people of the sea offering friendship, support, encouragement and continuous prayers.