Seafarers – physically, legally and sometimes spiritually – are in every sense on the margins. And the coronavirus pandemic has exposed new problems for people largely unnoticed by those who benefit from their labour
Qui nescit orare, discat navigare.
He who will not pray, let him go to sea.
That’s a quip from the seventeenth-century Anglican divine, John Trapp, and it’s another way of saying: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” It’s not always true of course, but the Church has had a long – and often intimate – relationship with seafaring. Four of the apostles, including Peter, were fishermen. Early Christians depicted the Church herself as a ship; tossed by the waves of the world (according to Clement of Alexandria) but never sinking.
That nautical symbolism has enjoyed – as anyone who’s had a look at the design of large churches will know – an abiding appeal among Christians. During the Middle Ages, one of the duties of monks in coastal communities was to light beacons at night for the benefit of those lost at sea. And there have been several seafaring saints: Elmo, Christopher, and Brendan among them.
But sailors as a distinct group were only rarely the object of missionary or charitable work for most of the Church’s history. A hundred years ago that changed with the foundation of the Apostleship of the Sea. Established as a port ministry in Glasgow, the Apostleship was the initiative of a group of Catholics concerned that the Church was absent in the lives of seafarers. With thousands of seafarers travelling the world and often being stranded in foreign harbours for weeks or months between voyages, those founding members were responding to widespread spiritual – and physical – hunger.