Fr. Brent H. Otto, SJ, offers this reflection on his time as a chaplain at the Port of Oakland in California. To read a profile of Fr. Otto, who was recently ordained to the priesthood, click here.
June 15, 2015 — The Apostleship of the Seas is the international ministry of the Catholic Church to seafarers, operating in shipping ports and aboard ships all around the world. In the Port of Oakland, California, a major container shipping port on the U.S. West Coast, the Apostleship of the Seas operates in collaboration with similar ministries of other Christian churches at the International Maritime Center located in the heart of the port.
This ministry involves both sacramental service and hospitality to seafarers. At the International Maritime Center, seafarers are offered hospitality where they can phone or Skype with their families, play billiards or table tennis, get a bite to eat or pray in our chapel. Seafarers who wish to go shopping are driven by volunteers and chaplains to local stores. Chaplains and volunteers also go aboard the ships to visit and lead prayer and communion services. This is especially important for the many seafarers who do not get shore leave or have the requisite visa to leave the ship.
The life of a seafarer is a hard one. Crew members typically sign on for 8-10 month contracts and officers’ contracts usually are for 4-6 months. The vast majority of their time is spent aboard the ship, at sea, with the same 20 or so colleagues. Interpersonal tensions within the crew, missing family, spouses, children and friends back home, and the plain isolation can all be sources of struggle. They are, in many ways, a forgotten population, yet so vital to our modern economy and way of life. Despite their hard lifestyle, I find most seafarers to be quite cheerful, and many are quick to open up and share what difficulties they may be going through and ask for prayers or advice.
For me, this ministry of the Apostleship of the Seas is about the church saying to seafarers, “You are part of us and we care about you; we hold you in prayer always and want to help you whenever you reach our shores.” When I go aboard ships I think it is something like what a hospital chaplain encounters when he or she walks into a ward. I meet people I’ve never met before and may not meet again. I have a short time to interact with them, to pray with them and bring them Holy Communion. It’s a short time in which to try to convey something very important: that God loves them deeply, and that all of us, the whole church, reach out and join them in prayer — especially in the difficult aspects of their lives at sea.
My fondest memory is being warmly welcomed onto a vessel where all but two of the ship’s company were Christian. I first was asked to join the all Filipino crew members for lunch and a chat, then to lead a Communion service with almost all the crew and officers (even the captain’s wife and son who were aboard for that voyage), and finally to join the officers for their lunch afterward. They shared of their faith and showed great hospitality and clearly enjoyed receiving the visit and the Eucharist, which they so seldom do.
The hardest memory, though in some ways most profound, was going aboard a ship whose crew I had met one month earlier when they were previously in port. The welcomed me soberly and told me that a few days before, at sea, one of their crew members committed suicide. What ensued was a long and tearful conversation and prayer with the entire ship’s company. They were so many emotions: sadness, anger, guilt that if only they had seen some sign they might have been able to intervene and stop him, and they were haunted by the very place where he died and the memories they had of retrieving his body.
As I was leaving the ship that day, two crew members pulled me aside and asked if I could pray and bless the area where their friend had died. I prayed with them there and sprinkled holy water on the spot — as if to ask God’s light and love to cast out the sorrow and darkness that had come upon their friend and taken him away from them in that place. I never know what I will encounter when I climb up the gangway onto a ship, but I know that God is there already in their midst and I am coming to show that the church cares and counts them as their own.