“They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships”: One Hundred Years of the Apostleship of the Sea

Mary Brown
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

“They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships”: One Hundred Years of the Apostleship of the Sea

On April 30, 1920, Peter Anson published “A Plea for Catholic Seamen” in the London Universe, a British Catholic newspaper calling for comprehensive pastoral care for the people Psalm 107 describes as “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters.” One hundred years later, the Catholic Church celebrates the Apostleship of the Sea, which his publication set in motion.

Anson and his companions began by visiting ships as they docked, welcoming sailors and providing information about the local area. Over time, they developed “clubs” or “centers” where sailors could stock up on personal care items, relax with other sailors, mail letters or make telephone calls home, or take care of personal business such as banking.  If there was labor exploitation, unsafe conditions, or other problems aboard the ship, they could also alert authorities who could do something to help. Before modern technology for loading and unloading cargo, a ship could spend weeks in port, and these clubs and centers provided sailors with reasonably priced places to stay. Contemporary ships stay in port for short periods, and the Apostleship of the Sea is still ready to welcome them, even if it means, as it does in San Diego, replacing bricks and mortar centers with a van that brings small items to purchase and moves the hospitality committee from the Apostolate of the Sea right up to the dock.

apostleship of the sea van in front of boat

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

The Apostleship of the Sea drew some of its inspiration from Scripture. After all, Christ called the first disciples from Galilee’s fishing community, and one of Peter Anson’s pamphlets was illustrated with a scene described in John 21:9-13 in which the risen Christ fed the disciples with fish they had just caught. The Apostleship of the Sea continues to draw on this language and imagery. This photo shows a 1980s banner combining the image of a modern fishing trawler with a verse from Luke 5:4. In the Gospel, the words are meant literally, but the language and image have come to have a spiritual meaning across all of Christianity.

Two items from CMS archive

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

On land, community life supports personal faith. Most ships, though, carry only working crews, so the Apostleship of the Sea arranges for services on shore, and provides support in the form of rosaries and prayer books for shipboard devotions. In fishing communities, the Apostleship of the Sea organizes the blessing of the fleet, usually around the Feast of the Assumption on August 15. (This photograph shows an effort to include a Coast Guard helicopter in the blessing.)

Credit: The Center for Migration Studies.

The effort to build community reaches beyond the church door. Even now, the “community” sailors find in port is likely to be a commercial one that values them for the money they can pour into the local economy. One reason the Apostleship of the Sea focused on clubs and centers was to offer a low-cost alternative hosted by volunteers who were truly interested in their guests. Such hospitality was especially important during World War II, when ships at sea were often in war zones, with limited opportunities for rest, let alone recreation, and “home port” wasn’t home for most of the crew. This photograph was taken in 1944, when the New Orleans Apostolate of the Sea organized a huge Thanksgiving banquet (with early Christmas decorations) for sailors from all over the world who were in town for that day.

Thanksgiving dinner photo black and white

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

The Apostleship of the Sea’s founders emphasized that sailors were partners in Christian ministry, not objects of charity. On the other hand, life at sea is isolating and can leave sailors vulnerable to exploitation, from withholding of pay to withholding of shore leave that would allow sailors time to tend to personal affairs. The brief time a ship spends in port may be the crew members’ one opportunity to get help, and so those who work in the Apostleship of the Sea are trained to notice the signs that something might be wrong, and to identify the right source of assistance quickly. Some issues take more ingenuity. In 1988, the Apostleship of the Sea in Corpus Christi, Texas, received a plea from a crew of Burmese sailors aboard a cargo ship. There had been a coup in Burma, and some sailors wanted to go home to check on their families, but found themselves bound by contract to stay on the job. The members of the Apostleship of the Sea found a middle way, facilitating long-distance phone calls that allowed sailors to check on their families and to wire money from their paychecks, while being able to fulfill their contracts and to continue to earn the money needed by their families in Burma.

Archival Letter on Behalf of Burmese Crew

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

As the Apostolate of the Sea enters its second century, its history and structure allow it to perform a unique and valuable service for sailors and fishing communities. Peter Anson and his colleagues worked to establish local maritime ministries across the United Kingdom, where Anson himself was born, and across Europe. On April 17, 1922, Pope Pius XI recognized the Apostolate of the Sea by name in a letter to his Secretary of State, Pietro Cardinal Gasparri. Thereafter, Gasparri’s office, the Sacred Consistorial Congregation, had within it a unit promoting the maritime ministry throughout the Catholic world; it reached the United States in 1947. Pope Pius XII gave the office its present name, Apostolatus Maris (“Apostleship of the Sea” in Latin) November 21, 1957. In 1970, the Vatican organized its Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrant and Itinerant People, and placed the Apostolatus Maris within that body. A 2017 reorganization made the Apostolatus Maris part of the Dicastery for Promoting Human Integral Development.

1997 Apostleship of the Sea World Congress

Credit: Center for Migration Studies

What all this means is that each individual Apostleship of the Sea, engaged as it is with its local situation, is part of a much larger organization, and therefore in a position to share information. This photograph shows members of the ministry from around the world meeting in the Philippines in 1997; at the microphone is Deacon Robert Balderas of the Apostleship of the Sea of the United States of America. In such meetings, experienced workers in the maritime ministry can compare laws in different countries and advocate for a common understanding of what social justice means for sailors. They can work together to combat piracy, human trafficking, and other problems that cut across governmental borders. They can combine observations on the effects of climate change on fishing communities and cargo routes around the world, and advocate for socially responsible plans for people whose livelihoods are at stake. This work is still needed today. The Scalabrini Migration Center in the Philippines found in a recent report that many migrant laborers working on Taiwanese fishing vessels experienced indicators of forced labor. During the coronavirus pandemic, merchant mariners are invisible essential workers, maintaining supply chains despite personal risk of illness and a lack of resources when they do fall ill.

The Apostolate of the Sea also has a history that can serve the whole Catholic Church. One reason Peter Anson wrote his plea for Catholic seamen was that there were already other agencies in place to serve other Christian sailors. The Catholic Church needed a similar sense of community with its seafaring members. So from the beginning, the maritime ministry was an ecumenical ministry, but also one with a particular Catholic identity. As more and more sailors are drawn from Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, it has become an interfaith ministry as well, setting an example that can be followed wherever the Catholic Church needs to build solidarity and community.