Seven seas, one body in Christ

January 15, 2013

HOUSTON — Coffee, conversation, connection, companionship, consolation: Whatever reasons compel visiting mariners to find harbor at the Archdiocese’s seafarers’ centers, what they are sure to find is an ecumenical community in Christ.

Underscore ecumenical: At the World Congress of the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS), held in Rome in November, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s port chaplaincy was lauded for trailblazing an interfaith solution to the vexing problem of providing pastoral and personal care to the millions of mariners who ply the world’s waters. An initiative that began nearly 45 years ago, it has become the model for modern seafarers’ centers worldwide. Now it’s also a model for the new evangelization and spreading the love of Christ via all Christian faiths. The congress also lauded Houston-area Catholics’ commitment to funding the Archdiocese’s mariners ministry through the Diocesan Services Fund.

More than 400 representatives from more than 70 countries attended the largest-ever AOS congress, which is held every five years in port cities around the world. The Archdiocese’s delegation was led by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, who celebrated the congress’ English-speaking Mass. Cardinal DiNardo is a member of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, which oversees the Apostleship of the Sea.

One of the congress’ central themes was “The New Evangelization in the Maritime World,” with a special emphasis on ecumenical collaboration and interfaith cooperation in ports around the world.

“Since the dawn of Christianity, the maritime world has been an effective vehicle for evangelization,” Pope Benedict XVI told the congress in prepared text. “Today, too, the Church sails the seas to bring the Gospel to all the nations and the network of your presence in all the ports of call around the world, your daily visits to ships in port and your brotherly welcome to crews during their layovers — are a visible sign of your affectionate attention to those who cannot receive ordinary pastoral care.”

The pontiff renewed the ecclesial mandate that places priests, ministers and churches “in the front line in the evangelization of so many men and women from different nations who pass through your ports.”

The new evangelization is an underpinning of the Church’s Year of Faith — the Church’s effort for turning the tide of a growing, global secularism that erodes Christian values and beliefs.

A few days prior to the congress, the pope spoke of the importance of ecumenism in the new evangelization, noting the “very close link that exists between the task of evangelization and overcoming the existing divisions between Christians.”

“The crisis of faith [is] affecting vast areas of the world, including those where the proclamation of the Gospel was first accepted and where Christian life has flourished for centuries,” the pope told the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity. “The spiritual poverty of many of our contemporaries, who no longer perceive the absence of God in their lives as a form of deprivation, poses a challenge to all Christians.”

In this light, the work of evangelization by ecumenical mariners ministries was made more urgent: “Facing the problems of real people and real life out there, new evangelization focuses on the simplicity of faith rather than the complexities of doctrines, and on the one Jesus Christ, rather than Christianity’s multi-denominational confusion,” Hennie la Grange, general secretary of the International Christian Maritime Association, told the AOS congress in remarks later published. “New evangelization brings us back to the core of our own faith: Jesus, the Christ of God. We in seafarers ministry have found more value in sharing ecumenically than in perpetuating the schisms, because in sharing we have rediscovered just how rich and deep and far-reaching is Christ’s love for us.”

“Pope Benedict XVI has called the whole Church into a Year of Faith, of deepening our study of the faith of our knowledge of the beautiful content of the faith,” Cardinal DiNardo said in his homily to the congress. “But even more urgently, the pope has asked for a renewed appreciation of the call to holiness by all the members of the Church. If the task of the new evangelization is certainly an outreach to those who have never heard the faith, it is first of all a call to all the churches to recognize the need for holiness inside the Church, the need for a vital rehearing of the word of God, of a more zealous sense of the gift of faith and of the need for outreach in charity. 

“For those in the Apostleship of the Sea, the call is equally important. We come from so many churches, poor and rich, zealous and complacent. The Church that stretches out to those who work the seas and oceans knows that the symbol of water as both chaos and life-giving river is apt to describe who we are and what we face in giving new witness to the Catholic faith.”

The Archdiocese’s port chaplaincy supports the Houston International Seafarers’ Centers at the Port of Houston and at Barbour’s Cut on the Houston Ship Channel as well as the Seafarer’s Center in Galveston. 

The Houston centers first began in 1963 as a venture founded by a Belgian sea captain. The business foundered until about 1968, when Father Rivers Patout and two ministers from United Methodist and Presbyterian churches discerned a need for a Christian ministry at the port. They formed a coalition of prominent citizens and took over the centers. In 1972, the centers incorporated as a non-profit entity. At one time, 11 denominations were involved, among them: Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Catholic. There are fewer Greek and Jewish crews these days, so those local religious groups are less involved in the port ministry. When a sailor requests a rabbi, or Orthodox priest, Muslim imam, Buddhist or other religious minister, the port chaplains endeavor to provide them.

“We were the first in the world to start it from the beginning involving all the churches and the port and businesses, rather than competing with each other. In the old days, you may have had 10 seafarers’ centers in a big port,” Father Patout said, whose mariners ministry is now in its 45th year. He serves as the director of the three port centers. “We work ecumenically with many denominations,” Father Patout said. “They all do a great job of working together. We have a chaplain that will assign each [minister] a specific area of work so that it’s not a free-for-all. We work together as a team.”

Father Patout also attended the AOS congress in Rome, along with port chaplains the Father Jan Kubisa, Brother Anthony Ornelas, S.S.S., Karen Lai, chaplain of the Galveston center, and longtime volunteer Patricia Nemec. Patout was the only delegate who also attended the last Roman congress, held in 1982. The congress was hosted in Houston in 1992. Houston is the largest U.S. port in imports and foreign tonnage. 

“We’re probably the best-supported center by any diocese,” Father Patout said, adding that in many port dioceses, Catholic chaplaincies are left to find their own funding. “Our Archdiocese is extremely generous and has been from the beginning.” 

The Archdiocese’s Diocesan Services Fund pays for the expenses of the port chaplaincy; other Christian churches pay their own personnel expenses. The seafarers’ centers are funded by galas, golf tournaments and other charity events hosted by the board of directors. 

The Galveston Seafarers’ Center claims roots back to the Civil War, when prayer services were held on blockaded ships. In 1973, Galveston churches and leading citizens formed an ecumenical council to run the center, located in Galveston’s historic Strand. 

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the Port of Houston center saw as many as 200 men and women a day. Since then, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security tightened rules about shore leave. These days, the port center hosts only about 20 mariners a day.

Father Patout said that U.S. security policy is the biggest challenge facing mariner ministries in every U.S. port, requiring centers throughout the U.S. to devise new ways of reaching out to seafarers who aren’t allowed to leave their vessels. He said the local ministers spend much more time aboard ships, offering services, blessings, counseling and other pastoral care. They also bring phone cards and free wi-fi access so seafarers can connect with their families. While there is a commissary and restaurant in the center, volunteers sometimes go shopping in behalf of ship-bound mariners.