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Fall Ministries - Chaplains

Keeping seafarers’ faith afloat

Special Report Writer
Newark, N.J.

Salesian Fr. Mario Balbi claims he is so old -- at 80 -- that one of his former students has already been an archbishop for 25 years. But age means nothing to this dockside dynamo who labors 70 hours each week meeting the spiritual needs of sailors, stevedores and drivers at the Port of Newark.

In the old days ships docked for up to two weeks, and a chaplain might have a long stretch with the crew before they sailed again. Not today, noted Balbi. Computers have speeded everything up, and a ship hefting thousands of tons of cargo can be unloaded in four hours. Not much time for a man to offload sin, take Holy Communion and tell his troubles to the chaplain.

“Hurry up, Father. I see my boss coming,” the priest recalled a recent port driver’s confession. “He’s on the top of the rig. I’m at the bottom.”

Last year the Stella Maris Apostleship to Seafarers logged 2,304 visits aboard container vessels. That’s a lot of boats when one discovers that a 1,900-foot-long ship with 4,000 containers sails with a crew of only 14.

Loneliness is a seafarer’s heaviest cross, the Brazilian priest said, noting that many seafarers are away from home up to 10 months. It’s the presence of God and the thought of their families that is awakened at sea, he said -- “especially at night when you’re alone on the bridge. What you see is darkness. What you hear is the talk of the waves.”

Balbi, too, is far from his native Brazil and returned earlier this year for the first time in 35 years to mark his brother’s 95th birthday. They grew up in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon rain forest, 900 miles from the Atlantic coast. An English packet boat would arrive in the river town every month, bringing with it men and freight to fascinate a young lad.

The Salesians, with their outreach to youth, also drew Balbi. He was ordained 52 years ago and spent the next 22 years teaching literature, French and Latin. At age 50, “I asked to do something different.” He was awarded with the chaplaincy job at the Port of Savannah. About to retire in 1990 after 20 years in Georgia, the energetic Balbi, who had been president of the National Association of Seamen, was invited to Newark.

Fr. Charles McTague, chaplain emeritus at Newark, calls Balbi, “the archbishop of the Seven Seas.” Balbi admits he has friends in every port. When he’s not saying the daily Mass at noon in Stella Maris’ chapel or the Saturday evening and Sunday morning liturgies, he’s counseling seafarers, sending a message or money to their loved ones and occasionally looking for a stray sailor in a local jail. Balbi speaks Portuguese, Italian, English, French, Spanish and German and says he knows how to laugh in Korean.

Besides McTague, a priest of the Newark archdiocese who says the Wednesday evening Mass, Filipino Fr. Eugene Bernas has been directing the apostleship for the past two years. Bernas counts going aboard ship and welcoming their crews as a hallmark of his ministry. “Most sailors are strangers to Newark,” he said. Many are dealing with legal problems arising around wages, discrimination, breach of contract and harassment.

Seafarers pay dues to the International Labor Federation, which can help them with problems related to work. Often they are cheated out of agreed-upon pay or they find themselves serving seven of 10 months without any pay, the priests noted.

McTague recalled a day when the diminutive Balbi marched a group of Filipino sailors back up the gangway when they didn’t want to return to work because of alleged injustices. “Get back on the ship, get back on the ship,” the priest ordered them. Once inside, Balbi informed them that many a captain has left port without his crew, who may have left their passports, working papers and wallets aboard, rendering them “stateless” persons on shore.

Bernas called seaman “expendable pawns” in the eyes of some employers. They have 10-month contracts and are only paid for eight. Some lack good drinking water. Some are threatened with the loss of their job. Many complain that they can’t play their own music or a guitar on ship, he said. To share these woes with a chaplain gives a measure of relief.

One of the best parts of the week, the three Newark chaplains agreed, was the Wednesday evening Mass, followed by refreshments and fellowship. Many local port workers attend. Several meet with the Legion of Mary to pray the rosary. After the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass, sailors and workers can attend a “Serenity Hour,” run according to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Despite his cramped office, Balbi is eager to go to work seven days a week. He pins Matthew 25:40 on his lapel like his port I.D.: “What you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.” Evening finds him completing work on a biography he is calling “The Unpublished Don Bosco.” After several trips to Rome and to the Piedmont village where St. John Bosco, the founder of the Salesians lived, Balbi hopes he’s discovered what previous biographers have missed or only fantasized.

In the last few years Balbi has initiated a blessing of the port and all the ships that are in it on the final day of June, joined by an ecumenical group of port chaplains. The chaplains remember how God hovered over Noah’s Ark in the deluge and they implore the divine to watch over the ship and “all on board, to ward off any threat of disaster and to guide its course through calm waters to the desired port.” It’s a message that keeps many a seafarer afloat, he said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000