Chaplains on the Waters: Apostleship of the Sea Fills a Critical Need

Father Rafaeli Mallena was enjoying dinner when he heard the first explosion—and he immediately felt that something was seriously wrong.

As Catholic chaplain aboard the cruise ship Costa Concordia, Father Mallena was accustomed to the ship’s lilting rhythms—and this was different.  He rose and returned to the chapel to pray.  He was still in the chapel forty minutes later, when the alarm sounded for passengers to abandon ship.

As the alarm blared in the hallway, Father Mallena safeguarded the precious items in his care:  He hurriedly consumed the Blessed Sacrament, which had been reserved in the tabernacle; and he locked the safe containing valuables, including jewelry and money, which had been entrusted to him by the ship’s staff.  Only then did he join the crowd of confused and panicked passengers who were trying to reach safety.

The chaplain helped injured crew and passengers, comforting them amid the chaos of the emergency evacuation.  He was angered by early press reports which claimed that the ship’s crew were negligent, not taking care of passengers.  Father Mallena reported first-hand stories of heroism on the part of the ship’s crew and staff:  “There was a staff captain, for example,” he said, “who saved three or four people who could not swim.”  

According to reports from the Catholic Herald, Father Mallena tried to stay aboard in effort to help; but he was persuaded by crew members that it would be better if he boarded a lifeboat and left the sinking ship.  He has returned to his native Italy, where he is recovering from the trauma.

So Who, Exactly, Are These Cruise Chaplains?

I’ve met several cruise chaplains through the years, and all have been good priests; those I’ve met have generally been retired priests who haven’t the stamina to manage full-time parish work, but who still want to be of service to Christ and His Church.  Father Mallena, who served aboard the Costa Concordia, is 70 years old, so he likely fit that description.

On ships throughout the world, Catholic chaplains minister to the needs of travelers and vacationers, as well as staff and crew:  offering Mass, hearing confessions, and providing spiritual counseling and advice when needed. 

The priests are registered as cruise chaplains through the Apostleship of the Sea, a ministry of the Roman Catholic Church in the Maritime world.  The organization was originally founded in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1920 by Rev. Donald Macintosh, Arthur Cannon and Peter Anson, who were concerned about the lack of witness the Church was showing aboard ship.  Two years later, Pope Pius XI bestowed his blessing on the ministry and encouraged the Apostleship of the Sea to extend its mission to the oceans and shores of all the hemispheres.  Around the world, the AOS assists seafarers to meet their basic needs:  a safe work environment, a just contract, a safe haven while in port, spiritual renewal, communication with loved ones back home, a few hours of recreation and a genuine welcome.

The Apostleship of the Sea falls under the direction of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.  Because the Apostleship of the Sea’s “parishioners” move around the world, it’s necessary that their pastors be in touch with one another.  The AOS World Congress, held every five years, ensures this connection between countries.

In every major country, a bishop serves as the AOS Episcopal promoter, overseeing the work of a national director.  The national director oversees the chaplains’ efforts, helping them in developing their ministries.  He also operates a communications center, produces a newsletter, establishes and maintains rapport with organizations protecting seafarers’ interests, and appeals to the diocese for port chaplains.

Here in the United States, the Apostleship of the Sea has its national headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.  Its newsletter is Catholic Maritime News in the United States

Mariner’s Prayer

Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Mother of God and our Mother, you know all the dangers of soul and body that threaten mariners.  Protect your sons and daughters who work and travel on the waters of the world, and protect also their families that await their return. 

Star of the Sea, Mother of the Church, give light and strength to those chaplains and lay ministers who bring the love of your Divine Son among mariners.  Fill their hearts with a supernatural and life-giving zeal for the apostolate. 

Star of the Sea, light shining in the darkness, be a guide to those who sail amid the storms and dangers of life.  Enlighten the hearts of ardent disciples and bring us all to the safety of heaven’s port.  Amen.