Around 1,700 years ago, a group of youths staggered off a transport ship at the port in Thebes. This was their first landfall after many days in the stifling bowels of their vessel. Taking what our ancient source refers to as ‘great pity on their miserable plight’, some local Thebans approached them, offering food and drink.
Totally stunned, one of the youths asked them who they were, and why they would perform ‘such humble works of mercy’ to complete strangers. Whereupon:
He was told they were Christians, who were in the habit of doing acts of kindness to everyone, but especially towards travellers. He learned also what it meant to be called a Christian. For he was told that they were godly people, followers of a genuine religion, who believed in the name of Jesus Christ the only begotten son of God, who were well disposed to all people, and hoped that God would reward them for all their good works in the life to come.
Duly inspired, that young man would ultimately become one of the founders of Christian monasticism: St Pachomius the Great. And all thanks to those Christians providing aid, both material and spiritual, to seafarers in need.
Fast forward to 2016 and, suitably bedecked in hard hats and hi-vis jackets, a colleague – Dr Francesca Montemaggi – and I are with another group of local Christians performing essentially the same ‘humble works of mercy’.
Only this time, rather than a Roman galley, the ship is instead a sixty thousand tonne oil tanker, flying the Bahamian flag. And rather than ancient Thebes, we’re on the industrial outskirts of Southampton. Fawley, home to one of Europe’s largest oil refineries, is one of Britain’s busiest ports. We’re there as guests of the Apostleship of the Sea, the UK wing of the global Catholic charity officially named Apostolatus Maris, but beloved to mariners under the Marian title Stella Maris, ‘Star of the Sea’.
Over the next six months or so, Francesca would travel the length and breadth of the country, to AoS chaplaincies in eleven ports: visiting ships and port facilities, talking and (often) dining with seafarers, and interviewing port chaplains, ship visitors, and the wide range of volunteers – i.e., just normal local Christians, such as so impressed Pachomius – who devote their time and energies to aiding those whom St John Paull II called ‘people of the sea’.
Meanwhile, back at the Benedict XVI Centre ranch, I spent a good deal of time (as per usual) exploring various statistical datasets. Did you know, for example, that around a third of all seafarers are from the Philippines?
Given the typical religiosity of Filipinos in their 20s and 30s – a demographic very highly represented onboard – that adds up to a vast, floating, disproportionately Catholic community. Thousands of these our brethren (and indeed sistren) visit our shores each year, in many cases for only a few hours, in between days if not weeks at sea. Their toil – and toil is the right word for it – is a fundamental feature of the huge globalized economy, upon which so much of our prosperity and quality of life depends.
The shipping industry and its workers are, however, largely hidden from view: out of sight behind the port gates, and thus all-too-often out of mind. Unlike in days past, one can live one’s whole life in a major port town while rarely if ever encountering a sailor. As such, much of the Apostleship of the Sea’s critical work also goes unnoticed.
Yet day in and day out, AoS chaplains and ship visitors are performing countless ‘humble acts of mercy’: everything from advising on the best Sim card to enable them to call their families back home, to bringing the only Christmas or Easter presents they’ll receive, to offering the only opportunities for Confession and Mass they might receive in an entire 9-month contract.
This Sea Sunday, do please remember our seafarers and those who help them. Because after all, we Christians are ‘in the habit of doing acts of kindness to everyone, but especially towards travellers’. And the Apostleship of the Sea’s dockside diakonia is as much an expression of that as it was in fourth-century Egypt.
The latest Benedict XVI Centre report, “‘Being There’: How Catholic Chaplains support Seafarers in the UK”, is available to download here.