Dear friends, last November I had the privilege of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While there, I saw the boat discovered in the mud of the Sea of Galilee during a drought in 1986. Called the Ancient Galilee Boat, or The Jesus Boat, it dates back to the time when the Lord Jesus walked the earth. There’s no evidence that it was actually a boat ever used by our Lord, but it’s certainly the same style and dimensions of those that carried our Saviour across the waters.
Boats such as this figure large in the ministry of the Lord Jesus. In fact, they’re mentioned fifty times in the Gospels. This is, perhaps, not surprising given that so many of His apostles were fishermen. So much of the Lord Jesus’ calling, His teaching, and His preaching, took place beside, or near, the seashore of Galilee. But for the Lord and His twelve the boats in the Gospels were more than transport craft and fishing vessels.
At times, the boat was a means of escape, a place to sleep, or even a floating pulpit. Boats were essential to miraculous catches of fish, to the Lord Jesus walking on the water and to Him calming the storm. And behind the pages of the Gospel, boats would surely have been places of friendship for the Lord and His apostles, places to chat and laugh, to share stories, fears and hopes. Christianity without these boats would have been very different. So much of the imagery that we treasure, which brings such consolation, wouldn’t quite be the same without boats and the sea.
Of course, our Blessed Lady too is caught up into the image of the boat on the sea. She is the humble servant of Nazareth who won God’s favour. By the power of the Holy Spirit she conceived a son, the Son of God, whom, following the Archangel Gabriel’s instruction, she named Jesus. It’s Mary who gives us the Lord Jesus. It’s Mary who guides us to the Lord Jesus. It’s Mary who lights the way to the Lord Jesus. No wonder that, from ancient times, seafarers, who looked to the stars to guide them across the waters, invoked the Mother of God as Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea. By her luminous fidelity, by the brightness of her faith, Mary illumines the way to salvation in Christ. By her example and intercession, she helps us navigate the way to heaven.
Boats and the Lord Jesus. Our Lady, Star of the Sea. The beautiful truths of our faith, reflected in these images, are alive today in the mission of the Apostleship of the Sea. Under the patronage of Our Blessed Mother, Stella Maris, the Apostleship of the Sea in Great Britain is part of an international Catholic missionary outreach to seafarers, with 227 port chaplains in 334 ports in 59 countries worldwide. In their ministry across the United Kingdom port chaplains bring the Gospel to life for those working at sea, many of whom are Catholics, all of whom work away from their families, sometimes in very challenging conditions, and with little support. Through the Apostleship of the Sea Christianity is alive in the ships that come to our shores, in service to the marginalised and the vulnerable, in pastoral care exercised in friendship without discrimination. It is this mission for which we give thanks to God today in this Holy Mass.
But we shouldn’t be starry eyed about the life on the ocean waves. The Apostleship of the Sea’s Life at Sea Report last year outlines just some of the realities at stake and the crucial difference that port chaplains can make. When a seafarer needed to be hospitalised, it was port chaplains that provided essential support. When they became aware of instances of bullying and the assault of crew members, it was port chaplains who became their advocates. When, sadly, there was a death on board ship, it was port chaplaincy that offered bereavement care. When seafarers were the subject of modern day piracy, it was port chaplains supported their recovery. When crew were abandoned, when their wages were unpaid, when they were refused leave, and when they suffered mental health issues, it was the Apostleship of the Sea – Stella Maris that intervened, that bought the Gospel to life in a practical expression of faith in action. The mission of the Lord Jesus continues today on the waters of our seas, more often in ships than in boats, but with Christ’s love reaching out to those experiencing a storm in whatever sense.
The Book of Wisdom speaks about a raft crossing the high seas to come safely to port. The Church’s mission to seafarers, guided by Mary, the Star of the Sea, is at the service and the wellbeing, the safe return home, of all those who set out on the waters. It helps them connect and come home safely to their families, to their friends, and to their country. It helps them find a welcome home in Christ and in His Church, and, one day, to come home safely to heaven, our eternal harbour.
This is something for which we can be very proud of and for which we give thanks to God. For all this work, for all who support it, for all pray for it, we ask Our Blessed Lady, Star of the Sea, to pray for us.