Fr. Valan Arockiasamy SVD
They who sailed the seas in ships,
Trading on the deep waters,
They saw the works of the Lord
And his wonders in the abyss.
When I was a young seminarian in India, I saw many pictures of veteran missionaries traveling to remote outstations in the bush. Some were riding huge horses; some were driving rusty, battered jeeps; and some were climbing steep mountains on foot. These romantic photos inspired me. Little did I know that one day I would be climbing a rope ladder three stories above the ocean onto a ship that was being buffeted by high waves. The first time I did it, I was not inspired. I was terrified!
I am a full-time chaplain for the Apostleship of the Sea, known internationally as Stella Maris, in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. Stella Maris was founded in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1920 and was approved by Pope Pius XI in 1922. Today, in every major country, a bishop is appointed as the episcopal promoter to coordinate and assist chaplains of the Apostleship of the Sea.
Because I live in Hong Kong, I am never far from ships. I see dozens on Hong Kong waters each day.
Only a few people, however, are conscious of how much we depend on ships here in Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world. Ninety percent of world trade is carried by ships. The life of a seafarer is hidden from most people. Many seafarers have to work away from their families and local communities for nine to twelve months at a time, often accompanied on their journeys by loneliness, depression, spiritual deprivation, and even exploitation.
There are approximately one and a half million merchant seafarers and two-thirds of them are from developing countries. A typical cargo ship has fifteen or more crew members who, with their combined skills, labor, and devotion to duty, guide the ships safely on their appointed route.
Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans operate two Mariners’ Clubs in Hong Kong to serve seamen from all countries. Our first duty is visiting seafarers on their ships. We usually do ship visits during daylight hours and we do not let bad weather deter us. For ships lying at anchor, we are taxied out on tug
boats. We also visit ships docked at oil, coal, and cargo terminals and we regularly visit seafarers who are in hospitals or prisons.
When I board a ship, I take newspapers, books, magazines, prayer cards, Bibles, rosaries, films, and recorded television programs. Our center tries to supply these items in many languages. If a seafarer wants to call his family, we sell discounted telephone cards. I preside at ecumenical prayer services and celebrate Catholic Mass for seafarers who request it. Regardless of the crew’s religion, many request a blessing before I leave a vessel. On a rare occasion, I have been turned away from a visit because I am a Catholic priest or because of my race or nationality.
A seafarer’s life is not easy, and the nature of the work is dangerous and demanding. Last year over one thousand people were taken hostage by pirates. Many seafarers use a port call to visit the Mariners’ Club, where they can meet privately with a chaplain to discuss a personal or spiritual problem, so I maintain regular office hours. If a seaman has a problem with unpaid wages, a safety concern, a contractual issue, or allegations of abuse or mistreatment, a chaplain can intervene on his behalf.
A Seafarer’s Prayer
Lord, Ruler over waves and sea, keep your blessed hand over all seafarers. Give me the strength to lead a Christian life aboard our ship. I do not want to disappoint anyone who may expect help from me aboard. Keep my family at home in your care. Even when far away from them for long, let me always be attached to them. Help me and all seafarers to keep on the right course always, and to reach the safe port of heaven. Amen.
On October 27, 1982, Pope John Paul II addressed seafarers with a special message that summarizes very well my ministry:
In fulfilling this mission to seafarers, you face a most challenging and difficult task. You are dealing with people who live in a dispersed milieu. They face painful problems, such as separation from family and friends and the resulting feelings of isolation and loneliness; for extended periods of time they live and work at a great distance from a territorial parish. In a real sense, the seafaring world has become a missionary world.
Remember that you are not alone in this awesome task. The whole Church is one with you in solicitude and prayer. The local Churches have a special role to play in the pastoral care of seafarers and other migrant groups.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to serve the special community of seafarers. Climbing up a rope ladder on windy day has become quite routine. Now the thought of riding a horse terrifies me!