French Seafarer Priests

French Seafarer Priests

By: Catherine Berger, Seafarer International Research Center
University of Cardiff,
Presented at the XXI World Congress of the Apostolatus Maris, Rio de Janeiro, 29th  Sept-5th Oct. 2002


In the very limited time I have here, I will concentrate on the main characteristic of the ministry of the priests I called “seafarer priests”, i.e. the fact that they are full time workers on board ships without relinquishing their priesthood at any time. I will then show in what ways their presence can affect the life of the crew on board and will end on the more practical aspects of the organization which has enabled this system to function for more than 55 years.

One might think that a “movement” which started in the very specific context of post-war France and which was originally meant to address the problem of a totally dechristianized working class, can bring little more than historical interest to a research more concerned with seafarers‘ welfare in a globalise maritime world. Yet, the experience of seafarer priests might still be a source of inspiration for projects concerned with religious presence at sea, for one thing because seafarer priests have shown their capacity to adapt to changes. They have invented a new form of apostleship and a new way of life for priests in conditions which were totally unknown to them. To remain among seafarers when the French merchant navy began to disintegrate and the industry reorganized along ultra-liberal lines, these priests had to adapt to a different type of sailing under other flags, with multi-national crews and they often experienced job insecurity and a degradation of working and living conditions.

A mission at work

It is essential to keep in mind that it is for deeply religious motives that priests went to work on ships. It is the Mission de la Mer (Mission of the Sea) which launched the experimental programme of sailing priests and monitored it from the start. It worked together with the Mission de France which is at the origin of the worker priests movement. Most seafarer priests belonged to the first mission, many belonged to both. As they went sailing, on their own, far from everything, the priests were going on a mission but they approached it in a somewhat different way from the traditional view.

“There is something that disturbs me in the word “mission” ! Historically, this word has been linked to proselytism, to will for power, to attempts at integrating…
Even if the missionary life of the past deserved consideration for glorious deeds and martyrs ! I’d rather speak of companionship with seafarers, of going alongside with them…of getting integrated into their world (the opposite direction)”(Armand, 1981).

The first seminarians and priests who spent some time on ships had come there mainly to discover the world of seafarers before becoming chaplains ashore but they soon realized that it was at sea that they would really encounter them.

“We didn’t want to be the chaplains of absent people”.(Bruno, 2001)

To be able to communicate with men who were very far from God and have a chance of transmitting His message, they had to be able to understand them “from inside” and speak their language. This could only be achieved by sharing their life.

Some priests began to sail as regular crew members. They were hired and paid to perform one of the usual duties on board and never to have any kind of religious function or to do any social work.

One of the priests explains : “We would never have dreamt of being on board without working. It was through work that we were integrated.” (Armand, 2001).

Especially in the early days, it is indeed through work that the priests usually managed to be gradually accepted by the other members of the crew who were often anti-clerical. Today, it is still work which justifies their presence on board. As workers, the priests are never superfluous, they are even indispensable for the good functioning of the ship. This explains why they deem essential that they should be perfectly competent in their work, whatever their position. In an environment where everyday life is mostly devoted to work, it is common efforts, shared know-how, a culture on its own, different from intellectual knowledge, which make you belong to the group.

The priests have always been concerned with working and living conditions on board. Nearly always, they have been members of unions and they involved actively in actions, whether local or on a larger scale, for the protection and improvement of the seafarers’ situation. They are of course quite concerned by the terrible degradations that globalisation can cause in the life of seafarers, especially for the poorest. Some of the priests shared for many years the life of seafarers from the Third World. They shared their often appalling conditions on board but also the very hard periods ashore when they are looking for a job. All the priests of the last generation have known job insecurity and experienced periods of unemployment. One has to mention here, even if this goes beyond their activity on board, that they have always tried to explain to those who live ashore what the life of a seafarer is like. Because they had a capacity to express themselves that the most destitute do not have, they repeatedly denounced in numerous writings and conferences, the impact on the life of men of the competition for the lowest cost.

Particularly at the beginning of the programme, the priests had no religious role at all and they were careful to avoid any form of proselytism. They practiced on their own and in private, except when another seafarer happened to wish to join them for the holy communion.

One of them explains : “Some people say “We have to announce the Gospel”. I say “We have to live the Gospel”. Our life, our attitudes, whatever we do has to make people understand what is essential in our life. I don’t insist on announcing. They will ask questions” (Antoine, 2000)

Whenever possible, the priests try to start small Christian communities on board. With a change in mentalities and especially, with the development of multinational crews, the priests get more frequent requests from believers who ask them to say mass or celebrate a ceremony, after a decease for example. They comply, provided there’s no risk of creating divisions within the crew.

Effect of the priests’ presence on the crew.

As previously mentioned, the seafarer priests have never sailed as social workers. This doesn’t mean obviously that their presence on board does not affect the social life of the crew and the welfare of the seafarers. On the contrary, all the evidence I have show positive effects on individuals as well as on the group. However, it is necessary to point out that these are elements which cannot really be quantified and that it is always difficult to make generalisations.

The priests are particularly concerned with the quality of life on board and they have a deep interest in the men they live with. Their shipmates are quite aware of that and they feel they are “recognized” both by men and, to a certain extent, by the Church that the priests represent. The seafarers also appreciate the fact that the priests remain on board a long time. They do not come “in passing”. This is something that matters a lot to them and that they regard as a proof of the authenticity of the attention paid to them.

It is important to stress the fact that, for the seafarer priests, it is life at sea, among seafarers, which is the central element. In many seafarers’ experience, life at sea is a painful sacrifice. They accept it in order to support their family but, in a way, their life is postponed and they are waiting for something else all the time. Because they deliberately chose to be present at sea, the seafarer priests help restoring some meaning to this life on board. They have an in-depth reflex ion on this way of life and on subjects such as absence, the difficulty of coming back, etc. One can observe that, very often, believers as well as non-believers enjoy discussions on these personal and philosophical subjects which, in their opinion, matter only to those who have an experience of life at sea.

The priests know how to listen. Some of them say they’re rather “silent”, they wait for people to come to them. They stress the necessity not to appear as sermonizers or leaders who would prevent others from expressing themselves or from taking initiatives. This would also affect relationships negatively.

They take great care to avoid whatever could cause divisions or tensions within the group.

“For me, the most important on board is to help strengthen solidarity, a feeling of community. It must come before any kind of religious action.” (Jacques, 1969) take

They stress the value of sharing life.

“Are we always capable of seeing the value of living together when it is “given to us” ?” (Renaud, 1982)

They have strong moral values but they don’t moralize. However, they do not hesitate to step in if they witness unfair or discriminatory situations. They try to modify behaviours on the long term.

In many accounts, the feeling of trust they inspire comes out quite clearly. They are considered as “true” friends. The respect they have for others is highly valued. Another sign of trust comes from the fact that they are frequently elected by their department as board representatives in ships where this system exists.

The fact that there is a priest on board is of course appreciated by Catholic believers but also by those who have another religion (particularly Islam). Thus, Muslim seafarers turned toward the priest when they wanted someone to calculate the direction of the Mecca.

It is also interesting to note that the presence of the priests can be felt far beyond their own ship. Even before the multiplication of means of communication, their influence was said to touch the whole company.

Organization, recommendations

It is important to note that the priest who is at sea mustn’t be seen as an isolated element but as part of a whole. He doesn’t sail “for his own benefit” but he represents the sailing arm of a group.

The priests are sent on a mission by their superiors who remain in contact with them through letters, through reports they ask from the priests while they are at sea and through meetings when they are ashore. The support and sometimes the control exerted by their superiors are necessary to stay in the right direction. The visibility that the Church can give to this form of ministry can do a lot for its success.

Seafarer priests have often belonged to a team located in a port such as Dunkirk, Le Havre or Marseille. Meetings for seafarer priests were organized. Contact was maintained through letters, bulletins such as the “Letter to seafarers” which gave news from each seafarer priest to all the others. It was at times difficult to make these systems work but they had the merit of not leaving the seafarer priest on his own.

Even before the beginning of the experiment, the Mission de la Mer organized training sessions. Seminarians and priests from coastal areas attended classes on the maritime world given by all sorts of contributors : social workers, captains, heads of Maritime Vocational Schools, theologians, etc. These sessions enabled to arouse interest and to spot new recruits.

There have been seafarer priests on practically all types of ships and the priests have taken jobs on deck as well as in the engine room or in the catering department. The first seafarer priests insisted on taking unskilled duties such as deck boys, mess boys, kitchen hands, etc. in order to remain among the poorest but, because there was an evolution in the type of jobs available to French seafarers, they had to take more qualified positions as cooks, electricians, third or fourth engineers, etc. To this end, they attended training courses in Maritime Vocational Schools or other training places.

Positions in the catering department turned out to be particularly well suited since one is in contact with crew members from all departments and informal social relations are fairly easy.

One of the advantages of this type of programme, and an important one too, is that it requires no funding from the Church. Seafarer-priests are paid by their employers and they are the ones who often contribute to the funding of other projects.

The period spent at sea constitutes one period in the apostleship of the priests among seafarers. In many cases, it is followed by other types of commitments in the maritime world. One notes that their quality of attention to seafarers when they visit seafarers’ centres ashore, during a ship or a hospital visit or with young maritime students, is quite coloured by their experience as seafarers

I haven’t yet mentioned the number of seafarer priests. My investigations indicate that there have probably been at least 60 seafarer priests on merchant ships during the whole period. Some of them have only sailed for a few months, others for a few years, others still for 20 or 30 years. One of them stopped sailing less than a year ago after 38 years at sea. Today, only one priest is still sailing. This is due to the fact that there are very few French seafarers left and to the difficulties of the Church of France to recruit young priests. Does this mean that seafarer priests belong to the past ? The men who have experienced irreplaceable relationships with seafarers through shared work and shared life are quite aware of the rich value of this experience for themselves as well as for their shipmates and even for the maritime world. They hope that in the countries seafarers come from today, this type of commitment will appeal to young priests with a strong religious motivation and a taste for action and adventure in the service of men. They hope the Church will want to maintain this type of presence at sea in a world where the life of seafarers doesn’t count much and where decisions are made by those who ignore what it is like.


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