Spiritual and Pastoral Care for Filipino Seafarers, Fishers, and their Families


by Bishop Ambo David, Bishop of Kalookan and President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP)

(Speech given during the ICMA Ahoy! Training Course on February 22, 2023 at the Midas Hotel in Manila, Philippines.)

Let me begin by thanking the International Christian Maritime Association for inviting me to this training and immersion course.  As president of the CBCP, I found it hard to turn down your invitation, especially when I learned that this is an important international gathering of people like you who work as chaplains and attend to the spiritual and pastoral care of seafarers, more than 20% of whom are Filipinos.  I find it heartwarming that you would spend a whole week together from different parts of the world, mainly to learn how to minister more effectively to seafarers, fishers and their dependants, as ICMA Chaplains.
I also appreciate the fact that you make yourselves available to all of them, regardless of nationality, religion, culture, gender, or ethnic origin.  You surely have heard that this is precisely the kind of orientation that Pope Francis is promoting among Roman Catholics all over the world, through his advocacy for what he calls GREATER SYNODALITY in the Church.  In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti which he addresses to all people of goodwill, he refers to this as the promotion of SOLIDARITY AND SOCIAL FRIENDSHIP.
This is also the kind of orientation that seafarers themselves gradually imbibe, as they encounter their fellow seafarers from different parts of the world.  I am sure they realize, as they travel through the seas, that the world is indeed round.  In Tagalog we say “Bilog ang mundo.” (Meaning, you cannot run away from your fellow human beings.)  That wherever they embark from and disembark at, they are bound to meet other seafaring people like themselves, who, for love of their own families find themselves getting separated from them for long periods of time, having to suffer homesickness and face all kinds of odds and challenges while at sea, including the possibility of getting attacked by pirates and not being able to see their loved ones anymore.
The seafaring worldview is presupposed by the expression “We’re in the same boat.” 
Whatever their nationality, religion, culture, gender or ethnic origin might be, they realize that deep within, people are basically the same.  That they are bound to encounter even in those who are very different from them in many ways—new friends and brothers and sisters.  Pope Francis calls it enlarging the spaces of our tents, taking his inspiration from Isaiah 54:2.  He is challenging Roman Catholics, in particular to take the original meaning of CATHOLICITY more seriously, which has to do with universality and inclusivity, never with sectarianism.  
This is the Pope who has consistently called on Catholics to rise above the tendency to be “self-referential”, to be “inward-looking” or to be too “Churchy” in our concerns.  He presents Christ as our template for the God who walks with humankind as a fellow human being, ready to listen and enter into fellowship with all people of goodwill, to engage each other in a kind of dialogue that builds friendships and spiritual communion that serves as foundation for community life, not just with fellow Catholics, not just with fellow Christians, not just with fellow believers, but with every fellow human being, or even every fellow resident in this planet earth, our common home.
Pope Francis calls COMMUNION the most fundamental element of SYNODALITY.  It is the objective of intercultural and inter-contextual dialogue among people.  The facilitation of listening and opening of minds can build a spiritual bond—a oneness of mind and heart that is the foundation of COMMUNITY.  Two other elements are born out of COMMUNION, according to Pope Francis:  PARTICIPATION and a shared sense of MISSION.  
People who are capable of intercultural dialogue are eventually also capable of TRANSCULTURATION, which enables one to see in people of OTHER FAITHS and ETHNICITIES a neighbor, or better yet, a brother or a sister.  That we are actually interconnected with each other. In Tagalog we say, “Ang sakit ng kalingkingan ay ramdam ng buong katawan.” (The pain of a part of the body is felt by the whole body.)  That recognition of interconnectedness promotes PARTICIPATION, and a shared SENSE OF MISSION.
I am inclined to think that the main reason why 20% (1.65M as of 2015) of all seafarers or merchant mariners around the world are Filipinos, is the fact that we are really a nation of seafarers.  Our country is made up of more than 7k islands clustered together, surrounded by bodies of water—mainly the South China Sea, part of which we prefer to call West Philippine Sea for obvious reasons, and the Pacific ocean.  We are therefore called the doorway to Asia through the Pacific.  We are also made up of diverse cultures, languages and ethnicities right among ourselves.  The national identity called FILIPINO is only a little more than a century old.
Two years ago, people wondered why we celebrated the 500th year of Christianity in the Philippines, when Christianity came with colonial rule, which we eventually repudiated.  Well, maybe it is because we are never conditioned as a people to think of encounters with seafarers from outside as a thing to be afraid of.  It is funny how March 16, 1521 used to be referred to as the “discovery of the Philippines” when the natives of this country had been in contact with seafarers from China, India, Thailand and many of its Asian neighbors long before the Portuguese Magellan working for the Spanish monarchy embarked on an expedition that passed through the central and southern islands we call the Visayas and Mindanao.  Yes, they were just passing through.
The Italian chronicler of Magellan, Antonio Pigafetta, noted this well in his Famous Chronicles about the 46 days that they spent in our central and southern islands in 1521.  They were surprised that the natives of these islands were quite used to dealing with foreign seafarers like them.  Because they had been previously attacked by pirates in Guam, they were very cautious when they first landed in Homonhon near Limasawa island, thinking that the natives of these islands might be savages; and so they were very nervous before they first landed ashore; they were holding on to their weapons as their ships entered the Visayan islands.
But when they succeeded in explaining with the aid of an interpreter named Enrique, a Malay slave from Malacca, that they had come from far away and had suffered for many days of traveling through the vast ocean and that they did not mean harm, they were welcomed by the natives.  They explained that they were just passing through, and that their destination was the Moluccas, or the Spice island (now part of East Indonesia). They did not strike the natives at all as invaders who were about to attack them.  They had left their port of origin as five galleons but only three had arrived, badly damaged and in need of repair.  They needed to care for their sick crew members, and bury several of their companions who did not survive the journey.  They were also very badly in need of food and water and were willing to buy these or trade them with goods.  What did the natives see in them?  Not invaders but simply fellow human beings in need of help.
In Filipino culture, if you come a stranger and wish to enter a home, you just need to knock at the door and identify yourself as a human being.  We knock first and say, TAO PO!, which means—A HUMAN BEING HERE!  It is our way of assuring people that we do not mean harm.  We call it PAGPAPAKATAO (behaving as a human being, not as an animal) and PAKIKIPAGKAPWA-TAO (relating as human beings to fellow human beings).  
Aside from helping their foreign guests to care for their sick companions and bury their dead, the natives even helped them build a platform on which their guests could worship their God.  They even reverently joined them in offering what would be called the first Mass ever celebrated in the Philippines.  It was all really a story of friendship that later unfortunately turned sour the moment Magellan began to shift his behavior from that of a friend to that of a patron to his hosts.  It started when he began to claim the special privilege of being allowed to dock in the port of Cebu without paying the required taxes to the chieftain, Rajah Humabon, the way the Indians, Chinese and other Asian seafarers normally did.  In short, the friendly dealings began to shift to a political transaction, the moment Magellan began to assume a more political role.
Let me now shift to your concern about providing spiritual and pastoral care for Filipino seafarers, fishers and their families.  
My only exposure to pastoral care for seafarers was during those years that I spent in Belgium for my Licentiate and Doctorate studies in Louvain.  During those years, I was invited occasionally by a friend of mine, whom some of you probably know, Fr. Andre Quintilier.  He used to be the Catholic Chaplain of the Stella Maris Center in Ghent, Belgium, until his retirement.  That experience gives me an idea what sort of ministry you are engaged in as chaplains of seafarers.  If you google the website of Stella Maris Ghent, you are immediately welcomed by a post that says, “Near the border of the harbour and the beautiful city of Ghent you can find a place to warm your feet, taste one of our many Belgian beers or drink a hot thee or a warm chocolate milk. Find a friend to talk to, play a game of pool or ping-pong, or just sit quietly chatting to the family back home.”
I remember how Fr. Andre casually greeted the Filipinos who were enjoying themselves at the center, drank beer with them and made them feel at home by telling them about his many years of experience as a guest professor in the Philippines.  The few Tagalog words that he could speak and his familiarity with such gestures as “mano po”, or begging to be excused when passing between two groups of Filipinos in a conversation, including the habit of pointing at things with one’s lips made them immediately feel comfortable with him.  He also knew the best way of disarming a Filipino—with a warm smile, a nod of the head and a “kumusta?”
There was no internet yet back in those days.  But he knew well enough that the immediate concern of every Filipino seafarer was to find a way of getting in touch with his family.  And so he made it easy for them upon entering the center to immediately find out, where to get a telephone card, how to use it.  
They say in Africa that “it takes a village to raise a child.”  That is just as true for Filipinos, not just for Africans. Perhaps if it were only possible to dissect a Filipino soul, what you will find inside is not an individual but a whole web of relationships: with family, friends, and many other significant people in their lives.
This I think is one of the most important things to consider in the care for the mental and spiritual health of Filipino seafarers.  It is important above all, to know the answers to questions that are very basic for every Filipino:-What gives meaning to your life?  
We use the word KAHULUGAN for meaning. Its literal meaning is “something to fall into”, from the root word HULOG, which means to fall.  Not the negative but the positive sense of FALLING, as in FALLING IN LOVE, FALLING INTO PLACE, FALLING BACK AGAIN.  The image makes you imagine a bucket which water can fall into, a container that collects the water and saves it from getting wasted.  Filipinos know that many lives are wasted, and their term for it is NAGKAKALAT, meaning, going through a state of chaos or dispersal, a life without sense or mission or direction, when one feels scattered, when nothing collects or gathers you together as a human being.And so, the other important question for a Filipino is:
-What is your life’s purpose? 
The term we use is LAYUNIN.  It can mean objective, goal, or mission.  What keeps you going, what do you live for, what do you earn money for, what are you willing to die for?  These are fundamental life questions for every Filipino seafarer.
The typical Filipino seafarer wants to work hard and earn a decent amount to be able to support his family and loved ones back home.  Doing this makes him happy, fulfilled and dignified.
How the Pinoy soul is wired is something that a sensitive chaplain should find easy to understand.  The biggest struggle for any seafarer is loneliness, homesickness and a feeling of alienation.  In a study done on “The Mental Health of Filipino Seafarers and Its Implications for Seafarers’ Education” by Sanley Avila and Iris Acejo just two years ago 2021 for the International Maritime Health Review, I checked out the list of odds considered by Filipino seafarers as most challenging about their work.  They are the following:  “Longterm separation from home, fatigue, work intensification, multinational crewing, social isolation, ill-treatment, poor life-work balance, job insecurity, criminalization of seafarers’ activities, working in constrained space, bullying, piracy, lack of shore leave, short port stays, HIV/AIDS, psychosocial and psychophysical stress.”
To cope with loneliness, Pinoys have a great tendency to resort to social life in order to find a support system, or a place they can go to where activities take place and they can just “stand by” (tambay).  In the age of digital technology, it has become much easier for them, of course, to get in touch with their loved ones.  And so it is not unusual that the first thing they wish to invest in is a good smart phone or a good tablet and a good internet connection—whether through wifi or cellular data—- in order to be able to reach their loved ones.
The common negative consequence of this, however, is the tendency for them to get hooked on social media, to the detriment of their own social life.  You see, the social media can cause people to become a-social or even antisocial.  I would suggest that, venues be created, not just for their “personal social media” time, but also for what I call a “social social media time.”  Namely, a time to share with each other in the social media.  Examples of good opportunities that can be both socially interactive, both physically and virtually, are the following.  You might want to facilitate some group dynamics in which you can ask them to:
– Share a Youtube video of a comfort food that you crave from home, and how it is prepared.  Even better is to prepare it and give others a taste of it.
– Share a video of religious practices that you find meaningful
– Share a Video of a native song that means a lot to you and why. What is it saying?
– Share a video of places in your country that you find most beautiful, and which you wish you can show to your non-Filipino friends when they get to visit the Philippines.
– Share how you pray, worship, read your Scriptures and reflect on them (Bible, Qur’an, et al.)
– Share how you celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, honor the dead, propose marriage, etc. at home.
– Build interest groups around skills training like cooking, gardening, animal raising, entrepreneurship, managing resources, budgeting, basic accounting, saving and investing money, learning languages, etc.
Pope Francis has one very simple and practical tip for people involved in what we call pastoral care.  Since pastoring has to do with shepherding, he says, “Good shepherds must smell like their sheep.”  For that to happen, they have to learn to really immerse with them, listen to their stories, laugh, cry and celebrate with them.
The shepherding metaphor however has its limitations too.  Remember, seafarers are people, not sheep.  They are not to be treated like a mindless herd or flock who will just follow whatever the shepherd tells them.  They have their own minds too, their own life-stories, their own reasons for thinking, reasoning, behaving and deciding the way they do.  To understand them, it is important to know WHERE THEY ARE COMING FROM.
Thank you for your attention.


NAMMA members receive a print copy of The MARE Report, NAMMA’s annual magazines for seafarer’s welfare professionals