The majority of the crews on the oil tankers and cargo ships arriving in Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock are likely to be Catholics, and who haven’t had an opportunity to attend Mass for months. But Stella Maris, Apostleship of the Sea port chaplain Father Paul Osunyikanmi is able to change that.
Father Paul knows how important faith is for many seafarers, which is why on Ash Wednesday he donned his hard hat and high-vis jacket and climbed the gangway to two ships to celebrate Mass and distribute the ashes.
“The Masses gave the crew a sense of hope, a sense of love, a sense of belonging, and a sense of appreciation that the Church is not far from them. It is very near them,” he said.
“One of the seafarers said it was the first time he had attended Mass in eight years. This was not due to any fault on his part. It was due to the nature of his work. Every time the seafarers have to opportunity to go to Mass or receive any of the sacraments they feel strengthened and appreciated.”
Father Paul also provides practical help, such as mobile phone top-up cards, arranging access to the internet, and free transport to local shops, or a dentist or doctor.
Around a third of the world’s 1.5 million seafarers come from the Philippines, with many others coming from Kerala and Goa, two Catholic regions of India. Because typical contracts on ships can be for six or nine months, Catholic seafarers have no contact with the Church unless a port chaplain, like Father Paul, comes on board.
Seafarers might seem remote from our lives, but we all rely on them. Cars, phones, computers, much of our food, all of this is transported to the UK on ships. We hear a lot about globalization, but rarely do seafarers get a mention.
Most seafarers join a ship because, even though it’s a tough and dangerous job, and often marked by loneliness and fatigue, it’s the best way they can provide for their family. The downside is, however, that this means they see little of them. They spend much of the year as maritime nomads, sailing from one port to another. And because many ships have no internet access, they can go for weeks or longer without any contact with home.
“Ministering to seafarers has given me a sense of what it means to be far away from home,” said Father Paul. “I am away from my family in Africa. I can see myself in the seafarers I meet and I experience some of the things they experience.”
This month (July 14) is Sea Sunday when the Church asks parishes in England and Wales to support AoS. Father Paul believes, as the Church’s only maritime charity, it provides a vital service to seafarers. “The work of AoS, here in Milford Haven and Pembroke, and around the globe, is to make the stranger feel welcome, loved, and cherished.”