Keeping Seafarers' Faith Afloat

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

Keeping Seafarers' Faith Afloat


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


Dockside chaplains tend to cargo ships' `expendable pawns'

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 four 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. …

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