Becoming a seafarers' chaplain was not exactly his retirement plan

by Agnieszka Ruck | Catholic News Service

Deacon Dileep Athaide, a chaplain from the Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia, who ministers to seafarers aboard cargo ships, poses March 15. (Agnieszka Ruck | Catholic News Service)

A few years ago, Deacon Dileep Athaide could never have guessed he'd become a frequent visitor on the immense coal and container ships dotting the horizon in Delta and Vancouver. Yet nearly every day, he finds himself donning a hardhat, reflective vest, and steel-toed boots while climbing high ladders into cargo ships as a chaplain to seafarers.

"It's only three years that I've been doing this, but it feels like 10 years—in a good way," Deacon Athaide said while on board a Japanese coal carrier.

The two dozen crewmembers on this ship are from the Philippines and have spent months away from their families, religious customs, and country.

"For the seafarers, it's a paradox. In order to look after their families, they leave their families," the deacon said. They may make anywhere from US $12,000 to $150,000 a year, but even those on the lower end of the scale are grateful for the job, since it's often more than they would make back at home.

Being stuck on a ship thousands of miles from home, and at times waiting an entire month to set foot on land, is a daily challenge for seafarers.

Deacon Athaide boards these vessels to offer prayers, rosaries, ship blessings, a listening ear, and a free ride out of the port to a nearby mall or church. As a deacon, he can't celebrate Mass or hear confessions, but he can invite a priest on board, or bring Communion and lead a service.

Seafarers connect the world. Coal ships at Westshore Terminals handle more than 30 million metric tons of coal per a year. Last year, Canada's largest port, Vancouver, handled 147 million-or-so metric tons of imports and exports—cars, coal, grain, oil, sugar, tech—valued at $200 billion.

Though seafarers provide a bridge to the world, they are disconnected. Only recently has WiFi become readily available on board.

Whenever he meets a crewmember, Deacon Athaide asks, "How are you? Is everything OK?" The response is often "fine," but he's ready to listen, say a prayer, and offer consolation.

"Port ministry is not just saying Mass on a ship, much like how campus ministry isn't just saying Mass in the campus chapel... it is a pastoral ministry," said Deacon Athaide.