Following the lead of Jesus, the Catholic Church has always shown special concern for the poor. This concern extends to people who are ill, uneducated, lonely or suffering from a lack of blessings that many of us take for granted. Throughout its history, the church has been known for its efforts to live the Gospel by serving those in need.
While many of the charitable works of the church are directed to serve the people in our local communities, Catholics have long made a point to minister to people “on the move.” In the Middle Ages, when people would travel to the Holy Land and pilgrimage sites around Europe, churches would provide comfort and support for pilgrims on the way. Today, Catholic ministries serve people such as air travelers, migrants, refugees, circus workers, tourists and seafarers and their families.
One of these ministries is Apostleship of the Sea (AOS), which celebrated its 100th anniversary on Oct. 4. We are all so aware that Jesus chose four fishermen to be his first apostles. And we read in the Gospels he felt at home on the Sea of Galilee. For many years, ministry to seafarers was provided primarily by Protestant churches, some of which practiced “stealing” Catholic seafarers. But on Oct. 4, 1920, a handful of concerned Catholic laymen met in Glasgow, Scotland, to found what came to be known as the Apostleship of the Sea. Pope Pius XI soon blessed and encouraged these efforts. Today there is an AOS ministry in most large ports throughout the world.
Our Lady, Star of the Sea, has long been the title under which the people of the sea have called on the Virgin Mary for her motherly intercession. While Apostleship of the Sea is the official name of this ministry, seafarers often know the ministry as “Stella Maris” (Star of the Sea in Latin), the name given to many Catholic facilities that welcome seafarers. How appropriate that our parish in northern Door County is dedicated to Stella Maris, catering as it does to many people on the move in its six church buildings located near our “big waters”!
AOS serves the maritime community, especially fishers and seafarers who make huge personal sacrifices as they live apart from loved ones for long periods of time. During the present pandemic, year-long contracts are being extended due to the difficulty seafarers encounter in leaving or accessing their ships because of governmental travel restrictions.
In addition to the challenges of being away from home, seafarers are threatened by exploitation at the hands of corrupt ship owners. Through the years AOS has been a leading voice for improving the welfare of seafarers and their families. Through their efforts with governments, funding agencies, unions and ecumenical partners, laws are being passed to promote welfare, safety and fair wages for seafarers.
Here in our diocese, the Port of Green Bay has had its place in this worldwide ministry. When the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, Bishop Stanislaus Bona appointed Fr. Donald Schneider as the first port chaplain here. He was followed by other priests and deacons who provided this ministry in addition to other responsibilities. After Vatican II, and with the encouragement of Bishop Aloysius Wycislo, our relatively young seafarers’ ministry in Green Bay led the way in practicing ecumenism, leading a change from competition to cooperation between church bodies. This change advanced when our then port chaplain, Msgr. James Dillenburg, became national director of the Apostleship of the Sea in the United States and later served as an expert at the AOS Vatican Office.
Sadly, because foreign-flag vessels now seldom call in Green Bay, and due to complications in gaining access to docks and ships as a result of 9/11, our local ministry has had to cease operations. I want to thank Msgr. Dillenburg for his faithful service in this ministry on behalf of our diocese.
Pope Francis is very aware of the struggles of maritime people. In recent weeks, he has asked for prayers for them, and in August the pope’s monthly intention was for the maritime world. As we recognize the 100th anniversary of the Apostleship of the Sea, I encourage you to join me in praying for this ministry now and whenever you see a ship on the Great Lakes. Pray for commercial fishers, professional seafarers, dock workers, shipyard workers, management and their families — all who comprise the maritime community in our diocese. May Our Lady, Star of the Sea, watch over and protect them in all their journeys!
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.