Parish of the High Seas

This is an article written by Fr Thomas Grufferty. It It was first published in The Pastoral Review March-April 2019 and is reproduced with permission from The Tablet Publishing Company Ltd.

             For the last two years the Apostleship of the Sea has asked me to be the Catholic Chaplain on P&O Cruise ships during the Christmas period. The first cruise was around the North Sea which was no joke in the middle of a very dark winter.
             The cruise included a port visit to wonderful cities such as Copenhagen, Oslo and Amsterdam, but we saw little of these places because it is virtually dark until 10:00 am, and dusk comes in again about 15:30. Because of this experience, I resolved never to do another cruise, mainly because it prolonged the dark days of winter for me.
             My resolution was firm until the Apostleship of the Sea offered me the chaplaincy on the Britannia in the Caribbean for Christmas 2018. How could any human turn down such an offer? Not only was the location most attractive but the voyage was for two weeks, covering Christmas and Epiphany. 
             Equally importantly, I was much better prepared pastorally for the role of Chaplain this time. The guidelines from the Apostleship of the Sea are very clear. The chaplain’s priority is to the Catholic crew members.
Fr Tom Grufferty
Fr Tom Grufferty           
             Most of the crew are devout Catholics from Southern India and the Philippines. It is clear from the start that these lovely people demonstrate a different spirituality from western Catholics. 
             They love to touch and kiss the priest’s hand as they bow their heads. It is a gesture which calls for a personal blessing and they often do it in public, with no embarrassment. If the priest gives a personal blessing, he receives the most radiant smile in return, which is also a blessing.
             Mass for these people is crucially important because they are on board ship for anything up to nine months, they are rarely able to participate in the Eucharist. As a Church we really need to find other ways for people to receive Holy Communion other than at the celebration of Mass itself.
             I would suggest that twice a year the Chaplain consecrates enough hosts to provide the crew with Holy Communion at a Eucharistic Service every Sunday. We would have to make many mental adjustments liturgically and would also need to train spiritual leaders on board ship.
             Given the spiritual strength of many crew members the potential for on-going formation is enormous. Many of these people are already powerful missionaries of the Faith to a wide cross section of the passengers. A great number of guests on both cruises remarked on the charm of those who clean the cabins and serve them at table. There is always a warm smile, which I suspect is required by the cruise company but never the less the charm is genuine and powerful. 
              The other lovely discovery that I made was of the importance of the Prayer Room in the crew quarters. This is a place of prayer and reflection and it is used by many members of the crew, not just the Catholics, though it is created and maintained by the Catholics on board.
              There are many Catholic images displayed in the Prayer Room. Catholic memorabilia, such as rosaries, miraculous medals and holy pictures, are greatly appreciated.
              The Apostleship of the Sea provides the Chaplain with many of these items and some of them find their way to family members miles from the ship. As soon as these items appear, they are scooped up and treasured like gold dust.
              The blessing of Holy Water during the Chaplain’s final Mass on board ship is also a special occasion, as many people bless themselves several times each day. The wider repercussions of being a Chaplain are profoundly significant, for example, Midnight Mass on board ship is a big attraction and is greatly appreciated by everyone on board.
Mass on board a cruiseship
 An AoS file pic of Mass on a cruise ship.  
              This year we had Midnight Mass in the ship’s main theatre. Immediately before Mass there was a concert, which meant that the stage had to be transformed in a short time. Transformed it was, with wonderful Christmas images all over the theatre. 
              The theatre became a Church very quickly. The crew arranged everything, which included Christmas Carols in abundance. I was very keen that just as many of the crew serve us food at table, so they should serve us spiritual food at the table of the Lord. The spiritual connections were not lost on anyone who attended this special Mass, as it was the most frequently mentioned reaction, in the comments after Mass. 
              The other great spiritual gathering was the Festival of Lessons and Carols for Christmas Day itself. Anyone on board who had a true sense of Christmas would attend this. On this Cruise, the Captain and I conducted this service, with crew members doing the readings. 
              There is also an interdenominational religious service on those Sundays when the ship is at sea. These are conducted by the Captain or senior officers. Life on board ship is a real experience, and you see the entire spectrum of the human life displayed before you.
              An elderly couple are sitting across from me in the best restaurant on the Britannia. They have just ordered their first course, with the best Rioja to drink. They lovingly toast each other, then suddenly in walks a much younger man who is the spitting image of the man at the table. Clearly the younger man is seriously disabled, with physical and mental problems.
              The couple continue with their meal, with their son the centre of their attention, as if everything is normal, which of course for them it is. The lesson for me was clearly that nothing ever seems as you expect, and sometimes Jesus himself walks into a situation to turn all appearances upside down. 
              Another significant encounter happened when I went to the room where we were allocated to have Mass each evening at 18:00 for the passengers. In the room was a group of people, and it was obvious that they were Jews, praying as a preparation for the Sabbath. They were wonderfully welcoming. We had a fascinating discussion about what they were doing and what we were about to do.
              The breaking of bread and the drinking of wine were both at the heart of the two ceremonies. The Jews left the room and we followed the instructions of Jesus. When you leave the cruise ship, you leave with the impression that the entire experience is somehow unreal, and yet for thousands of people this is their world and their lives.
A cruise ship

              As the Church in the British Isles we should take great pride that the Apostleship of the Sea does so much to look after seafarers, not just on the luxury liners, but on all ships across the oceans. This is particularly true since the charity prepares to celebrate its centenary next year, in 2020.
              Here is a very brief history of this unique charity with some of the excellent things it provides.  
              The Apostleship of the Sea. 
              The origins of AoS had several independent beginnings. The first recorded events come from Wimbledon College where volunteers began sending devotional books and magazines to seafarers on 12 ships.
              They also enrolled seafarers into a prayer association so that they would pray for them and the seafarers could pray for each other. In 1891 the Society of St. Vincent de Paul began visiting people on ships in Bristol, Sunderland and Tyneside. It was not until 1920 that the Apostleship of the Sea had its formal foundation in Glasgow.
              The greatest need in those days was in providing temporary accommodation for seafarers while they were in port. In those days ships spent days in port, so, AoS provided hostels where seafarers could stay. Hundreds of volunteers from local parishes were extremely generous with time and funds in providing for these hostels. 
              With globalisation, the drive for greater profit margins and technological advances it soon became clear that time in port was dramatically reduced. Today’s seafarer is no longer days in port but just a few hours. However, the basic human needs of those at sea have not gone away.
              As with all good organisations AoS has recalibrated its charity work to provide drop in centres in the docks and close to where the ships berth. Their centres provide e-mail and telephone terminals where the seafarer can contact family and loved ones.
              A very large number of those at sea are married with wives and young children in Kerala and the Philippines. Verbal and visual contact is essential as they may not see their families for anything up to twelve months. I know from experience that following days at sea there is a great blessing to set your feet on solid ground.
             That is where we humans belong however enthusiastic we might be to travel, there is no place like home. If those who visit our shores receive a warm welcome with a smile, we have blessed them. We often forget that 95% of those who work on ships are from poor countries.
             They send all their wages home to provide for their loved ones. Speaking with the crew of the Cruise Ships education has a high priority for it enables people to break free of the poverty trap. They are deeply indebted to the West for the opportunity to work as we should be indebted to them. 
AoS cruise chaplains with crew members in Port Elizabeth
A file photo of an AoS chaplains with crew members in Port Elizabeth
             AoS in the Parish/School
             If you want to highlight this charity in your parish, especially on Sea Sunday, (every 2nd Sunday of July) so this year it is 14th July, there is a Parish resource on the web page. If you want a guest speaker contact the Parish Coordinator: Roland Hayes 020 7901 1931 or email: [email protected]
             There are interesting school resources designed around the national curriculum enabling pupils to learn about shipping including the life of seafarers. 
             The charity has grown, developed and flourished beyond the imagination of its founders 99 years ago. It is now a global network that supports all those at sea regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender. This care is vital as many of the crew can be away from home and family for anything up to twelve months.
             When I asked the Crew of the Britannia, what was their greatest need, again and again the word “loneliness” was on everyone’s lips. There are port chaplains in many of our busiest ports, like Tilbury, Southampton, Felixstowe and Aberdeen, but where is no port Chaplain, there is an army of lay volunteers in smaller ports. In certain parts of the world Apostleship of the Sea is also known as “Stella Maris” – Our Lady Star of the Sea.
             This is a beautiful title because it is an ancient title for Our Lady. Just as seafarers depend on the stars so many of them guided and loved by The Star “Stella Maris”. Those at sea are modern day heroes upon whom the prosperity of most of us depend.
             Without them world trade would cease, and the shelves of our supermarkets would be empty. If you just consider the items you had for breakfast this morning: tea, coffee, fruit and the wheat in your bread arrived on these shores ship. If you drive to work most parts of your car, the petrol and the oil came here by ship.
             I live on the edge of the Solent and daily I see oil tankers sail up the Solent to the Fawley Oil Refinery. The Refinery moves 270,000 barrels of oil every day and provides only 1/3 of fuel for the UK. Each tanker with real people on board has enough fuel for every car in the UK for six hours.
             These facts prove that the pastoral and spiritual care provided by Stella Maris are on the increase. The Apostleship of the Sea and its cousins have a great bright if challenging future. Lest we forget there are very strong ecumenical relations between all the charities that work for seafarers across these islands. 
             The parish of the High Seas is very different from the parish of “terra firma” and the maritime family is constantly in motion. The command of the Lord to “launch out into the deep” is forever real for a very large number of our fellow human beings. The prayer for those who go down to the sea in ships is authentic and beautiful. 
             Thanksgiving for seafarers  
             Almighty God, we give thanks for all those who work at sea. We acknowledge our need for the food and raw materials they transport. We recognise that they are sometimes in danger and their long absences often involve sacrifices in their family life. Help us to show our gratitude not only in our words, but also in our actions. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
             Our Lady Star of the Sea, Pray for us.