Bishop Paul Mason, Auxiliary Bishop of Southwark, has been appointed as Bishop Promoter for the Apostleship of the Sea in England & Wales. He takes over from Bishop Tom Burns SM. Do read this very insightful article below in which Bishop Paul speaks about growing up in North Shields, Tyne & Wear, his experience as a cruise ship chaplain and his hopes for AoS.
Coming from North Shields, would you say you have an affinity with the sea? Were any of your family members involved with the sea – did any of them serve in the Navy, merchant navy, or work in the docks?
Having been brought up in the North East, very close to the coast, I was very aware of the ship building tradition around the Tyne, in fact many of my schoolmates' fathers worked at Swan Hunter in Wallsend.
I remember Princess Anne coming for the launch of the Esso Northumbria in 1969 and then watching its subsequent sea trials in 1970. Great crowds turned out to celebrate. The construction of such ships provided a livelihood for so many families in the area and their physical domination of the Wallsend skyline was matched only by the shipyard's dominion over the local economy.
So in 1993, when the Yard failed to win a contract for HMS Ocean, it was a heavy blow and its fate was sealed. The sight of a hull sliding down a slipway to the roar of heavy chains and a jubilant workforce became just a memory. I think my own experience of this has given me an appreciation not only of the economic reality such an industry creates, but also the community life it engenders in a small town, and what its loss means.
When and how did you first learn about the Apostleship of the Sea? You served as cruise ship chaplain previously on three cruise ships. Tell us about your experience on board.
Moving away from the North East in 1982 and away from the sea, my next encounter with shipping was at quite the other end of the scale: I was asked by Apostleship of the Sea if I would be available to work as a chaplain on a cruise ship. I was working at the seminary at the time and so Easter and Christmas were free to take on such work.
Like many, I did not appreciate the unseen work of thousands upon thousands of seafarers, and so many are Catholic; well they certainly are on cruise ships. When you say Mass at midnight (at end of their working day) and you have a large congregation down in the bowels of the vessel singing Silent Night in a Force 8, the enthusiasm and devotion is quite overwhelming…and the irony doesn't escape you. And of course, each of those voices has a story.
I remember one crew member from India telling how he had been saving to get married. His entire earnings on the cruise ship were to help him start his new life back home. Sadly, his brother back in India became ill and an expensive operation was needed. He was the only member of the family with the means to pay for it. Not a sniff of self-pity – “thank God I still have my brother, my fiancée and work” he said.
Above deck cruise ships are all you might imagine, and then some. The metaphor of the duck's feet paddling like hell below the water-line while keeping calm above it is made real on a cruise ship. Up top it's a 24-hour feast if that's what you're after. I was presented with the option of either eating with the crew, the officers or the passengers. What a moral conundrum! WWJE (Where Would Jesus Eat?) After prayerful deliberation I thought he'd eat with all of them, in that way I justified not only eating curry below decks (it's always curry since most of the crew seem to be from spice-eating nations), but also the haute cuisine and fine wine in one of the many restaurants on board. Clean plate and a clean conscience!
But above deck it's not all Bollinger and Barolo. I was always in clerical dress and therefore easily identifiable as the chaplain. I have been called to anoint sick passengers, have heard impromptu confessions in lifts and by slot machines. There is something about being at sea that can stir our own depths and question where the solid ground of our life is. So no shortage of work on the sun-decks either. But however good it may be to offer priestly ministry to the passengers, the priest's presence on board is not to offer what the shipping line might see as another entertainment, along with the numerous other 'entertainers' on board. No. The focus of the chaplain is on the crew, at sea for months, working long hours and far from family, friends and the Sacraments.
As newly-appointed Bishop Promoter for AoS in England & Wales, what are your main objectives and hopes for the charity?
I am very pleased to be associated with Apostleship of the Sea. My first-hand experience might be at the more glamorous end of the spectrum, but the support AoS offer up and down the country to all seafarers is by and large unseen, just as those to whom they minster can be unseen. It is vital work that brings practical help, prayer, sacramental care and fellowship to so many. As Bishop Promoter I hope I will be able to continue the long tradition we have in the Church of supporting seafarers and ensuring they do not remain unseen. Maria Stella Maris, ora pro nobis.