Seafarers have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. They sail across vast oceans, often hundreds or thousands of miles from any kind of help should anything go wrong. This is why it is still important today for ships to be blessed.
Father Colum Kelly, Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) port chaplain to Immingham, discovered this in January when he went on board the Star Eros, a new cargo ship that had just completed its maiden voyage.
‘I was welcomed as usual and then the captain arrived to say that he had been praying for a visit from a priest ever since they set sail on their maiden voyage four months previously. Now they had one,’ said Father Colum.
‘The ship needed to be blessed and there was the chance to have Christmas Mass on board. The ship had sailed from Canada and been at sea for three months. It was indeed many blessings all at once.’
So on New Year’s Day he went on board with 20 shoeboxes, filled with gifts from local parishes, and went to the mess room to set up for Mass. After Mass he began the ship blessing.
‘I assumed a new ship would have a lift but not this one. I first went to the engine room. I normally say a blessing prayer from the top level but this captain wanted all eight floors to be blessed.
‘Then I made a 13-floor climb to the bridge, followed by a visit to the cook who wanted the galley to be blessed. Then I blessed the ship’s office and finally the mess room.’
Next month on 10 July is Sea Sunday when the Church asks us to pray for and support the work of AoS, whose chaplains and ship visitors provides pastoral care and spiritual support to seafarers.
Many people don’t realise how dependent they are on seafarers. Over 90% of the goods imported into the UK come by ship. This includes everything from tomatoes to coffee and iPhones to cars.
Blessing ships is just a small part of what AoS port chaplains do. Most of their time is spent meeting seafarers and seeing if they can provide any practical or pastoral help.
As most ships nowadays are only in port for a brief period, the chaplains understand that the crew want to make the most of their time. They will often arrange transport to local shops or, in some cases, take them to Mass.
One of the most important things for seafarers is to contact their families back home. Very few ships have access to the internet and phone calls from satellite phones are incredibly expensive. This is why chaplains always have a supply of phone and Wi-Fi cards with them.
‘We are dealing with an invisible world. Nobody comes to meet seafarers; nobody knows how they ply their trade,’ said Fr Colum. ‘Look around your homes and you see television sets, lights and other consumer goods, all of which come by ships crewed by seafarers. Yet few people know anything about their lives.
‘A lot of what we do is small gestures; going on board to meet the crew and providing them with Wii-Fi access, phones and other things. These are all small gestures but taken together they make a huge difference and that’s what we’re here for – to make a difference.’