Don Giacomo Martino, National Director, Italy
A Growth in Commitment
The new National Board of Directors has been created: it is the first AMI executive body made of priests committed in the field and lay persons like Admiral Pollastrini and Dr. Ivo Guidi, who represent respectively the port authorities and shipping agents in Italy. The maritime world is evolving very rapidly, making it necessary to invent new pastoral approaches.
This year particular consideration was given to the fact that:
- In the conventional ports, the use of containers is increasing and speeding up the operations of loading and unloading goods. This results in less and less time for the crews to make contact with the civil and ecclesial society, and thus fewer chances to make contact with their own families too.
- The scourge of flags of convenience continues that allows unscrupulous ship owners to embark persons who have no certainty they will get a fair salary. Up to 15% of the seafarers who embark live in a real situation of slavery: uncertainty about salary, the lack of health care, the absence of laws that protect workers, and dangerous conditions due to the lack of safety on board.
- The phenomenon continues of ships retained or "sequestered" in ports because of ship owners' insolvency. Entire crews stay for months and years away from their families, without food, clothing, salary or heating. In 1999 and 2000, in Italy alone, no less than 40 ships and crews where put under judicial restraint with various, usually grave consequences for the people of the sea, but especially for their families who are left without the support and affection of their loved ones "kidnapped" in a foreign land.
- On cargo ships, at least 50% of the crews are Filipinos. Both from the visits on board and in the hospitality centers, it appears that 75% of them are Catholic and 85% Christian. All of them greet the priests and lay volunteers with great joy and often ask for Mass on board and the sacraments of Confession and Communion, which is also distributed by the Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. The ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue is excellent.
Based on these indications, efforts were made to:
- publish a book of photos to awaken public opinion to the major themes and emergencies of the sea, especially arrested ships;
- provide "newspapers" in various languages regarding the different geographical areas to all the centers welcoming seafarers around the world, by preparing and disseminating them on the Internet;
- prepare an internet formation programine for the volunteers in order to make an Internet and e-mail service available in all the centers;
- promote and encourage the creation of new hospitality centers, tying them definitively to an already existing parish church so that maritime pastoral care will be part of ordinary pastoral care by full right;
- create an atmosphere of new relations with the civil authorities and shipping agencies. In particular, a new, officially sanctioned relation with the port authorities is emphasized.
The AMI, office of the Migrantes Foundation, has made efforts to create some national and regional task forces to tackle the grave emergencies of arrested ships and stowaways on board ships. In Italy, more than 20 ships, along with their crews, are currently blocked in the ports.
A task force of maritime lawyers will focus on providing free assistance for the rapid repatriation of the crews, and helping them to get their honestly earned salaries. They will also deal with the cases of stowaways who remain on board ship for years, stateless and hopeless, and at times even risk being thrown into the sea.
Another task force will be dedicated to doctors, psychologists and specialists for free assistance regarding any kind of disturbance related to the demands of maritime navigation (distance from home, brief stops in ports, scarce economic means). On the other hand, the regional centers will get ready to collect food, clothing and equipment for the hundreds of seafarers who are "prisoners" on the arrested ships and in need of the bare essentials. Moreover, it is planned to promote welfare committees for seafarers in the Italian ports by contacting all the public and private actors in the maritime port world, the coordination of projects to give rise to structures and reinforce the Stella Maris in the ports, and legal assistance to the AM structures by the ITF structure in Italy.
Chaplains On Board
The unique experience of the Italian Church encourages intensifying this missionary generosity, which is also a choice of sharing and solidarity. To date, a dozen priests are regularly involved in the difficult but fruitful pastoral task of regularly assisting the crews and passengers on eight ships. Every day more than 6,000 seafarers and 14,000 passengers receive the Church's pastoral care.
Their presence is essential for the people of the sea with long contracts of 8-12 months away from their families. Until today about 30 priests, of whom only 8 are full time, are regularly involved in this service. However, it is becoming more and more difficult to find priests who understand the need for this apostolate in support of seafarers and, at the same time, their families who are waiting for them at home. In this regard, two formation and awareness-building courses (also for seminarians) have been organized. These occasions have given a new pastoral impulse with a sizeable group of young people currently involved in this ministry in a regular way.
The decrease in what was once a strong area of commitment is due above all to the fishers' changed living conditions, which are no longer grave. Today Italian fishing does not oblige them to stay away from home for long periods of time, nor Is it subject to serious accidents on the job. Moreover, particular contracts ensure at least a minimum wage for these fishers who once lived on the precariousness of the more or less abundant catch.