To my shame, I didn’t know that the Apostleship of the Sea was a Glasgow initiative that spread from the Clydeside city to 75 countries around the world – not until an Italian priest came to the city to set in motion centenary celebrations for that project, to be held in 2020.
Fr Bruno Ciceri is a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Human Integral Development and the director of the International Apostleship of the Sea. He was in Glasgow this month to start the planning for 2020, but while reminding us that this was indeed something to celebrate and for Scotland to be proud of, Fr Bruno did not sidestep the changes in maritime practice that now demand a very different response from that of the volunteers who offered hospitality and company to seafarers and fishermen a century ago.
The Apostleship of the Sea was created on the quaysides of what was then still the second city of the empire. Thousands of men were employed in the fleet of the British merchant navy alone (the biggest in the world in 1920) and came into ports seeking not just somewhere to stay for a couple of weeks while their vessels prepared to go back to sea, but pastoral care.
Today, that pastoral care, like the size of crews and the length of stay in port, has been streamlined. The biggest vessel in the world to date measures 1,600 feet long (longer than four football pitches) but crews have shrunk to as few as 14 men. So instead of our ports teaming with men on leave for a couple of weeks, a handful of men may not even have time to come ashore. Chaplains like Deacon Joe O’Donnell in Glasgow and Deacon Tom Wynne in my own diocese of Argyll and the Isles may only have the opportunity to go on board a vessel, greet the men, and offer the Eucharist to those who ask. Luckier crews may come ashore for a few hours to catch up with family through AoS-provided free wifi or phone cards.
AoS may also help when men are injured or sick, contacting families, making sure the patient can communicate his needs to hospital staff, and seeking legal advice.
There are crews who are not paid regularly and families back home go in need. Fr Bruno told me that many of the crews are recruited from developing countries and are paid as little as $2 a day by owners of vessels who cannot economise on anything except their staff – and $2 a day is classified as ‘extreme poverty’ by the UN. They may experience appalling abuse.
Forced labour and slave labour in the fishing industry are major problems.
Men are compelled to stay at sea for as long as 12 or13 years. Brutalised at sea, if they make it home, they are rejected because they come empty handed. Others just don’t make it back.
For decades, we have concerned ourselves about dolphins and turtles harmed by industrial-scale fishing. Fr Bruno said that today we are faced with the collateral damage done to our brothers and sisters across the world. Fr Bruno suggests we ask ourselves “why does this fish cost so little?’ and that we have a moral responsibility to question the chain that brings food to our tables. Signing on-line campaigns to stop human trafficking (one of Justice and Peace Scotland’s 2018 campaigns) can change lives.
The Apostleship of the Sea has never been so needed as now. I am haunted by the words of Cardinal Bo from Myanmar, who told a recent human trafficking conference discussing the fishing industry: ‘The fish are swimming in the blood of my people.’