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A church on the front line

Apostleship of the Sea

Apostleship of the Sea

A Church on the front line

(Freely translated from an article on "Jesus")
By Alberto Laggia- photo by Fortunato Tagliabue


The chaplains of the Italian ports are few and are lacking means. Yet the portion of people of God of which they must deal with is enormous: hundred of thousand of sailors each year berths at our docks .The stories of the life of these atypical believers, exploited from owners and tossed around the world, are reported by the priests of " Stella Maris."

The only way to reach the deck of the Norwegian Ellen Knutsen, one of the many oil tankers berthed at Augusta harbor, is to scramble up to the pilot ladder dangling on the water. Fr. Giuseppe sailor's hat well secure on his head and a big bag on his shoulder climbs with the agility of a buccaneer. « Were they or they were not sailors the apostles?» this fact, that the early Church ploughs the seas on small woods to carry the message of the Gospel, must intrigue him. The metaphor of the 'Church-ship' seems real to him. Perhaps also that's why, he is a "country," priest native of Sortino, small town on the hinterland of Siracusa, has been "abducted" by the world of sailors and he has become seafarers' chaplain.

He enters the mess room and with his personal slang (English-Sicilian) does assemble the crew, 17 Filipinos that have not yet been ashore:« How are you doing? It is the first time that you come to Augusta?» Then pull out from the bag, some mini-rosaries, Gospels in English and "Stella Maris" leaflets. « Do you know it, didn't you?» «Sure», they all answer. « Father Giuseppe, do you have telephone cards?» « Certainly, here the most economic»: 10 dollars to talk almost an hour to the Philippine, against the 3 dollars a minute of the satellite system on board. Then invite them to meditation, read the Sunday Gospel, a reflection on Christ « bridge between who is at sea and who is ashore», and finally the Our Father.

On the smile of the sailors is printed the thankfulness for this visit so much unexpected, but very welcome. The ship will sail tomorrow. The times ashore have been reduced to the minimum, because the harbor, like a factory, must circulate the capital as quickly as possible. Each unproductive standstill is an additional cost. And it happens more and more frequently that the crews of merchant ships, reduced to the bone, don't have any free time left, and they don't even go ashore. « The priest is the only person that care for them without asking something back.» Fr. Giuseppe observes. " You must write about it: nobody cares about these people. They are the most exploited ones, and with not much protection. And do you know why? Today they are here and tomorrow thousand miles away. And then I feel anger thinking that we travel comfortable with ours cars, thanks to the oil carried from those people who are segregated like slaves onboard oil tanker for weeks. By luck in Augusta there are good people and if they can they will help».

Fr. Mario Cisotto, port chaplain of Venice. Port chaplains also make up for the lack of ship's chaplains, in Italy there are only six of them.

Fr. Giuseppe Mazzotta, already teacher of religion, assistant of AC and scouts, a life spent between young people, "spare time" teacher of moral Theology, he is above all responsible of the Apostleship of the Sea in Augusta, and when he talks about "his" seafarers, his heart warm up. Seventeen years ago, from nothing, he has founded the local " StellaMaris", that is one of the centers of hospitality and assistance with which the Apostleship of the Sea tries to become present to the seafarers of the world. « How I did drawn near to this pastoral work? Almost by chance. In five years of service as vicar in Augusta, I did never set foot to the port, I was provoked to think: how come here, in one of the most important oil port in Italy, where 3000 ships call each year, doesn't exist even a small office of "Stella Maris"? I became available to my bishop that entrusted me the job. But what to do? I didn't distinguish the stern from the bow? Without money, without a center».

Fr. Giuseppe placed trust like always in his young people and began to ship visit. At the beginning an interpreter was needed. « I begun visiting the others " Stella Maris" and copy what they did in Savona and in Ravenna». But a thing he had well clear in his mind: a priest doesn't do Apostleship of the Sea without a community backing him. And he created one. « The history of " Stella Maris" in Augusta is a whole miracle from the first donation by a passing by priest, we never lack anything, even if we do not have a legal status like the parish. It happened like for the biblical jar that always produces flour. You have to believe it».

Today "Stella Maris" it is the pride of the city, a very nice center, in the heart of Augusta, open 365 days per year; fifty voluntaries, young people, students, seafarers and ex seafarers; a newsletter, and so many initiatives each week for the sailors that come ashore. To make them feel "home, away from home," like the "Stella Maris" slogan tells.

« Augusta has become, in a short time, the model of "Stella Maris" to imitate in Italy», father Mario Cisotto says, while, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other with a fax listing arrivals and departures in the port of Venice, compiled by the Port Authority. Drives his van to B dock, where is just berthed the last container ship, eight hours the maximum stay and then sail again. The Indian sailors don't even have time to go shopping for toiletries or a souvenir for the family, unless he does for them. And he does it each day; with his shuttle-van that is the actual center of "Stella Maris" in Venice.

Some "apostles of the sea" in action.

Venice, an other port with 5000 ships per year, an other "invisible" parish made up by hundred thousand sailors from each part of the world: from Indonesia, Colombia, Peru, Ukraine. Babel of languages and cultures, but identical problems: the distance between the ship and the inhabited center, the difficulty of language and foreign money, the impossibility to go ashore, depression, and isolation. « That is normal. But then there are the desperate cases of "rust buckets" abandoned by the owners and under arrest».

Father Mario knows something about it, Franciscan, 45 years old, he is port chaplain in Venice since the end of 1998, with a history at times difficult, in the mist of the disinherited of the world: from the prisoners of Lannernesan in France, to the young in Ivory Coast. And then the early experiences in the Apostleship of the Sea in the Seamen's Club of North Europe and ship's chaplain for a while

Last year he was on the chronicles for having supported the crew of the "Frunzanesti", a rust bucket ship of the bankrupt company of Rumanian State; blocked on board for months without salary, waiting to "empty promises" by the owner. To denounce the situation he decided to take part in the hunger strike of the seafarers. « They are the victims without face and without voice of the globalization», Fr. Mario comments; in a short time and with few resources, he has been able to put up a toll free number for seafarers, the first in Italy and the second in Europe after Anversa, thanks to the collaboration of the parishes of Marghera, and a daily newsletter (Filipino Balita) with the latest news from the Philippine for the many sailors of that country who call at Venice. The van's engine is stopped only at midnight.

Instead, the camper-van of the "Stella Maris" Genoa, each morning departs with some voluntaries, furnished with a dozen of mobile phones: three kilometers from the city, Voltri, where each day four container ships berth, but there is not a telephone booth, or a place to rest. Nothing. The history is repeated. «Voltri is only one part of my virtual parish ": we also go to Passenger Terminal, Dry Docks to pick up seafarers and bring them to our center. We have a hot drink, some play billiards, other sends e-mail from our Internet-café. Every Sundays I celebrate mass, at Ferry Terminal and sometimes also Moslems attend», explains Fr. Giacomo Martino, Genoese, 37 years old and over one hundred kilos of weight, new chaplain of the port.

Some "apostles of the sea" in action.

June last year, after a quarter of century, "Stella Maris" has reopened with him. The passion for this world was born by chance, better say by allergy:« Afflicted for years from a serious allergy, one day they told me that the unique solutions to win the fevers that tormented me are: - Scandinavia, a desert island, or sail. Then I become a ship's chaplain ». He has visited all the port of the world; he has experienced the cruises that last three months for old multimillionaire. « I have known the poverty of this world, rich only of money. And when they asked me to celebrate a separate mass for passengers and crew, I threatened to disembark. You know: we are not court 's chaplains».

So the adventure continue ashore. « Here I feel useful and I will go ahead until the bishop won't phone me to fill a vacant place in a parish». But meanwhile the voluntaries to the "Stella Maris" increase; between these Francisco, a young Indian that lives in Genoa since 1980 and he is studying to become a permanent deacon. Recently a ship s' electrician and a storekeeper have become priests. The sea takes, but the sea gives..
Alberto Laggia

Fr. Giacomo Martino, previous port chaplain Genoa-Voltri, now new National Director AOS Italy   

A forgotten pastoral care.
« The Apostleship of the Sea is full of common places: it is thought, for instance, that the ship's chaplain is a priest that does the "beautiful life" instead he share the wretched existence of the crews. At times the same brothers that I try to involve, they tell me:" don't you will take me to do the altar boy on board"! Would be like envy the mess boy because he work in a luxury hotel, or identify the bishop of Sanremo and Ventimiglia like the one that spend his time between Festival and Casino». He doesn't stop being indignant in front of the small consideration that enjoys this pastoral work, in our Country; monsignor Costantino Stefanetti, ship's chaplain with 17 years of experience at sea, previous National Director of the Apostleship of the Sea and of the Italian "Stella Maris", deceased April 2002.

Why this scarce attention?

« Because it is a pastoral care that is out of traditional schemes"«. And then because the seafarer doesn't tread on someone 's toes, he is transparent. He is not immigrant or gypsy that creates problems and therefore makes you to reflect. It happens that there are hundreds of military chaplains, despite soldiers could go to the parish near the barracks, instead the sailor, doesn't have the possibility, to participate for months to the ordinary service of the Church because he is at sea, he find very few priests that take care of him».

Even if the "parish" of the seafarer that lives or comes ashore in the Italian ports is immense?

« Also the numbers are misunderstood and this pastoral work is undervalued. Often they objected to me: "The Italians sailors are only few ten thousand. What need is there of other priests"? But for us count the seafarer that call at the ports, any nationality and any faith. There are Countries that don't have any sailors, yet they have the Apostleship of the Sea flourishing. We should not forget that also in Italy we have towns with a remarkable presence of maritime workers, like Molfetta, Mola di Bari, and Pozzallo. Around Torre del Greco on 100 thousand inhabitants there are 10 thousand seamen 's books. That means 10 thousand families where husband and wife live great part of their time separate, where the wife must be mother and father, where relationship between consorts doesn't exist. Here we consider the problem of relationship of prisoners and immigrant and instead in this case we solve all with the common say that sailor has a woman in each port!»

Which Italian ports are still without a « Stella Maris"?

« Serious absences are: Livorno, Naples, Gioia Tauro, the last one in few years has become the first port for movements of containers in the Mediterranean Sea, and in all ports of Puglia.

If there is lack of priests, would not be possible to make responsible more lay people?

« It should be the local community to take charge of these reality. The seafarers should be subject of pastoral like the young people are in parish, or the elderly, or the immigrants. The only initiative of the priest doesn't make sense. In England the National Director of the Apostleship of the Sea is a layman ».

Rumenian seamen blocked for months by their owner in Venice.

The "Pastoral care of the people of the sea" (seafarers, fishermen, and their families) is a specific pastoral care, born in the 1920 in North Europe; work of lay people of the St. Vincent de Paul, immediately accepted and promoted by the Catholic Church. At universal Church level, inside the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, exists a dedicated section "Apostolatus Maris."
Seafarers embarked on the 10-15% of the ships of the world fleet work in conditions of slavery. As emerges from the "Ships, Slaves and Competition", presented last March in Sydney by the (International Commission on Shipping). ICONS has signaled the disappearance of crewmembers after contrasts with officers, and the predisposition of "black lists" for seafarers that join the labor unions.

The Cei (Italian Episcopal Conference), with the constitution of "Migrantes", 12 years ago, has gathered this pastoral (that involves, 15 thousand Italians operators) together with the one for emigrants, immigrants, and people on the move. At ecumenical level is very active an organization, ICMA (International Christian Maritime Association), that also organizes ecumenical courses for pastoral operators.
The "Stella Maris" (Apostleship of the Sea), Catholic structure of hospitality for the seafarers while ashore, on the 18 more important Italian ports; open and operating centers are in Genoa, Savona, La Spezia, Venice, Ravenna, Ancona, Cagliari and Augusta. The European coordinator is father Michel Maes. The web site is www.stellamaris.net. To contact the coordinator of Italian " Stella Maris": 010/26.58.37; e-mail:
Italy @stellamaris.net

The tool free number founded by "Stella Maris" Venice is 800125168 (e-mail:

The pastoral operators gather every 5 years at the World Congress. Three years ago the Pope has defined guidelines for the Pastoral of the Sea with an Apostolic Letter "motu prorio" in which is also defined the figure and the status of the chaplain of the Apostleship of the Sea. Each Episcopal Conference with maritime territory is trusted to name a " bishop promoter." Currently for Italy the bishop of Trieste is the Episcopal Promoter.

Postal Address:
Abbazia S. Maria di Finalpia
17024 Finale Ligure Pia (SV) Italy
Telephone +39 019 602 301  Fax: +39 019 604 9940
updated 23 June 2024
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