The Church and the People of the Sea

Sarah Eustace 09 June 2020

A message from Don Bruno Bignami National Director of National Office for Social Problems and Work of the Italian Bishops Conference.

For many seafarers – often prevented from being able to disembark – it will be a hard working Easter, without the pastoral service provided by priests on board. The difficulties resulting from the Covid-19 emergency have also the face of fishermen and their dry nets. Last but not least, it is impossible not to share the concern for those who, across the sea, seek an alternative to a life of violence and today are facing our ports closed. The General Secretariat of the Italian Bishop Conference (CEI), through the National Office of the Apostleship of the Sea, asks for care and solidarity for these tragedies and offers some proposals to the [issue].

The image of the boat is antique: it derives from the Gospel. On March 27, in the extraordinary moment of prayer in an empty Saint Peter’s Square, Pope Francis referred to it: “We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. In this boat … are all of us”. The vessel is the living and working environment for many seafarers. This image reminds us that we all belong to the same destiny, we experience the interdependence of problems, we live a deep sharing even in the crisis originated by Covid-19. The health emergency has shattered the working environment. Numerous sectors suffer. Many of them are at the center of government politics to support companies in this time of shutdown or to boost their restart.

The paradox could be to say that we are on the same boat, but to forget that “on that boat” there are also those who live and work at the sea. 90% of the goods arriving in our markets are transported at sea by commercial shipping, and it is not an insignificant sector of the economy. In practice, seafarers ask to be designated as “key workers” for the role they play, essential for goods to reach our cities and homes.

Unfortunately, in normal times those who work on merchant ships, cruise ship and crews of ferries and transport vessels are already at risk of being overlooked. In the time of Covid-19 the condition of suffering increases. “We are on the same boat” means accepting that the miscellaneous world of those who work at sea or in ports is also at the center of attention and solidarity of the civil community.

The Church’s pastoral concern for seafarers is alive and does not fail, especially now that seafarers are in danger of being among the poorest categories. For the first time, because of the storm caused by Covid-19, the chaplains do not get on board as they usually do. The Italian Church had to give up the usual religious service for Holy Week on cruise ships. The crisis in the tourism sector is also striking this area and has not allowed the normal celebration of religious services. A service appreciated because it allows many passengers, and especially crew members, to celebrate Easter.

In addition, many seafarers who in recent weeks have been at sea could not sign off from the “boat”: the presence of infected people has kept them away from their homes, their families and even from docking to a port. The refusal to offer a landing pier for ships flying Italian flag, vessels that cannot find a port to allow crews to quarantine on land or to reach their families, seems inexplicable. There are crews that, for the lack of possible replacements, are working twice as hard, beyond any criteria of justice. The decision to close Italian ports to humanitarian ships appears also inappropriate and could turn into a boomerang of greater insecurity for everyone: it pose the danger of depriving those who are fleeing from war or prison camps of an alternative, exposing them to drowning in the Mediterranean. Our solidarity embraces all those who feel abandoned.

On the boat could not get on board, the fishermen who decided to stop their activity because it is impossible to guarantee the safety distances and for lack of adequate protection devices. The crisis in the world of tourism and catering has reduced a good portion of their sale, putting them on their knees and discouraging future investments.

The Italian Church expresses solidarity to the persons who are in these days overwhelmed by the Covid-19 emergency, all the more to the seafarers who are so numerous in our peninsula surrounded by the sea. The Christian community feels challenged. In the 2020 Centenary Year of the Apostleship of the Sea, we want to renew our ecclesial support to seafarers in their workplaces and their families.

We would like to suggest to the maritime dioceses which are sensible to this pastoral activity the followings:
• enhance where they are existing, the services of the Stella Maris Centers, as a concrete sign of support to the maritime world;
• express gratitude to seafarers who, in this moment of emergency, continue to work for the common good, both in trade and in other activities;
• share the good practices, in support of the Apostleship of the Sea, already existing in different dioceses. In the Centenary Year, new initiatives of prayers and solidarity should start. Sea Sunday which will be celebrated on July 12, 2020, can be an occasion to make the ecclesial support felt in all the sector of maritime industry;
• send a message of prayer and solidarity to fishers and their families who experience the uncertainty of their work in this time and in the next months. May they feel part of a community that welcomes and accompanies them on their journey. What Pope Francis recommended during the audience to the fishers of San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, on January 18, 2020, can be applied to all seafarers: “I like to think that even today, those of you who are Christians feel the spiritual presence of the Lord beside you. Your faith animates precious values: popular religiosity which is expressed in trust in God, in the sense of prayer and in the Christian education of children; esteem for the family; a sense of solidarity, so that you feel the need to help one another and to help each other in need. Do not lose these values!”.

Without doubt, locally and in the dioceses there will be appropriate ways for the concrete solidarity of the Church to reach the seafarers: they who feel being on the same boat at sea on a daily basis may experience it also in being part of the diocesan life. May the time of trial also become time of hope. In the face of the adversity and uncertainty of life, nobody should lack the courage to dare fraternal charity and concrete solidarity. The same courage that drives many seafarers to take the risk of going out at sea must be shared with all people of good will who understand that each of us is closely interdependent upon the other. The empathy with those who work at sea, who are often subjected to hard and stressful rhythms, bring us look with gratitude at the unknown commitment of thousands of people who find the source of life in the sea.

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