VICTORIA, Texas — Sister Joanna Okereke, national director of Stella Maris for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for “all hands on deck,” during a virtual gathering May 20 to celebrate the upcoming National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for Mariners and People of the Sea, set for May 22.
During the Zoom gathering, themes that rose to the top of the discussion were making the U.S. bishops more aware of the workings of the Stella Maris ministry and getting more support so chaplains can focus on their ministry.
People who work on the seas have been harder to reach at the exact time when they need ministers the most. And crew changes and shore leave were canceled for hundreds of thousands of people who work on the sea when the pandemic hit.
Chaplains and others who help minister to seafarers have been prohibited from going aboard in many cases.
“Chaplains need to be chaplains; they don’t need to be administrators,” said Deacon Paul Rosenblum, a regional coordinator for Stella Maris and port chaplain in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.
Bishop Brendan J. Cahill of Victoria, bishop promoter for Stella Maris in the U.S., said it’s his calling to reach out to the bishops and encourage them to help by providing priests and financial resources to the seafarer ministry. He said many people are not aware of the work being done at the ports by the few who are dedicated to the ministry.
A “very unfortunate trend,” Rosenblum said, is the decrease in the number of priests in the port chaplaincy. “There is no solution at hand, but it is something we need to be concerned about. Because of that, I see the need to rely more and more on deacons and laypeople to be leaders in our day-to-day operations.”
Organized ministry teams could be a great help in serving the spiritual and material needs of seafarers, he said. “Further on that point, I see a great need to get more religious brothers and sisters involved in our ministries.”
Many of the participants also saw the need to become better organized in working with port authorities and other groups who work in and around the industry.
Some good news is that many ports are now helping international seafarers get vaccinated and, hopefully, back to normal sooner.
Rhonda Cummins, who is the maritime associate working with the Diocese of Victoria chapter of Stella Maris in Point Comfort, Texas, said they are now trying to make vaccines available to the seafarers in the hopes that they can get out of this endless quarantine at sea.
She said it is getting done in some places, but there is no consistent supply or organized system right now.
The first vaccines in Point Comfort — the one-shot Johnson & Johnson variety — were administered May 17.
The first recipient, James Vincent of India, is the chief engineer on the Stavanger Pride. She said his vaccine was administered on his arm just above a tattoo of a woman with two children walking along a shoreline. Cummins said he told her, “This is my family. This is why I do this.”
Because of regulations in India, the crew has not been allowed shore leave, so Cummins reached out to a local doctor’s office and brought a doctor and two nurses to the ship.
“In spite of this pandemic times, we were able to visit 400 ships and 200 seafarers were brought to Walmart,” said Father Lito Capeding, director of Stella Maris for the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama. He is currently working with the University of South Alabama go bring vaccinations onboard for seafarers.
Capeding has been in the port ministry for 13 years, he said, and has delegated many tasks to deacons to help cover the needs. “I don’t see any growth with port chaplain priests,” he said, “We need to, of course, appeal to the bishops.”
Father Bruno Ciceri, international director of Stella Maris at the Vatican, gave a recorded talk to the participants, thanking Cahill for his work as well as the chaplains and all friends of Stella Maris.
He said Stella Maris, once called the Apostleship of the Sea, started in Scotland over 100 years ago and now serves all over the world, offering counseling and material and spiritual support.
In its centennial year, to reflect the universality of this mission, “Stella Maris” became the official name of this Catholic Church apostolate.
He said that despite not being able to meet many in person over the past year, they have always been in the hearts of the maritime ministers. “Let’s not be discouraged and be inspired by the original mission of the founders — to reveal Christ to them.”
“Despite the challenges we all face, I see a ministry that will continue to be vibrant. … And I can say confidently that I think that the next hundred years of Stella Maris will be as successful as the first hundred,” Rosenblum said.
Okereke, a member of the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, said the ministry, for her, calls to mind the words of St. Teresa of Avila that “Christ has no body but yours” and that Stella Maris partners must be the hands, feet and eyes of Christ for the seafarers.
Cahill offered thanks to God for the chaplains and for their presence and those who support their presence. “I honor all the chaplains and the stories I hear. Their work is heroic,” he said. “The movement of our Christian faith is a movement from isolation and fear to unity and hope.”
Jones is editor of The Catholic Lighthouse, newspaper of the Diocese of Victoria.