Episcopal Conference, Japan, 8 June 2022 -- The Holy See’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development has designated the second Sunday in July as “Sea Sunday” and has called on pastors and laity around the world to pray for seafarers. The Catholic Commission of Japan for Migrants, Refugees and People on the Move also invites you to pray for seafarers and their families. The following are Bishop Michiaki Yamanouchi's words. He is the Chairman of the Catholic Commission of Japan for Migrants, Refugees and People on the Move.
“We are on the same boat” The ship is a symbol of the Church journeying through history
I was born in the port town of Saeki in Oita Prefecture on Kyushu and lived there until I was eight years old. Though there was shipyard in Saeki, since we lived about three kilometers from the harbor, I never saw a big ship. The first time I saw one was at the end of April 1964 when my family emigrated to Argentina aboard the Brazil Maru.
When the passengers were all aboard, a farewell tape connecting the ship and the dock was thrown. I cried for about an hour. As the ship left the quayside, the tape fell into the water and disappeared.
Life on board with hundreds of strangers began. When the ship got out to sea, I felt nauseous and dizzy, but soon got used to it. My father was relieved of seasickness only when we were in port. We sailed to Los Angeles and then passed through the Panama Canal and its surrounding jungle into the Atlantic Ocean, where the 200-meter class ship was hit by strong waves and began to shake a lot. A sailor with many years’ experience explained the difference between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. I didn’t feel much of a difference; for me, both oceans were just big and wavey.
As we voyaged, I was with my parents and siblings. But that was not the case for the seafarers. Their families were in distant Japan. They told me that it would be months before they could see their children. Back then, it took about 70 days for a ship leaving Kobe to reach Buenos Aires. How many people spent months working aboard that ship?
At that time, there was no internet or mobile phones. People who worked on ships often wrote letters that they mailed when they arrived at a port. It was a way to be in touch with their families and parents in Japan. Work on a ship involves great sacrifice. When we arrived in port, I was impressed by the many ships from different countries at anchor. Most of them were huge cargo ships.
Though of course there were rainy days, we passed through both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans without encountering any storms. However, one seaman told me that one rough day at sea an outer metal door was broken by strong winds and waves. His saying, “In rough seas, no matter how big a ship is, it is like a walnut in the water” left a deep impression on me.
When I entered the Salesian Minor Seminary in Argentina in 1970, stories of St. John Bosco’s dreams, especially the dream of the ship as the symbol of the Church left a deep impression on me. The captain of the ship attacked by the enemy is the pope. Even if the enemy kills this captain, the next captain will be chosen immediately, and the ship will be held up and stabilized by two pillars towering over the sea. These pillars are the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary. I am reminded of this dream by a beautiful stained-glass window in the pastoral center of the Hamamatsu Church in the Yokohama diocese. I put the image of that stained glass on my episcopal ordination card.
I have chosen “Ship” as the theme for this year’s Stella Maris (Apostolate of the Sea) message. The aim is to make pastoral contact and share experiences with those who work at sea and in ports as well as their families.
On March 27, 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis presided over an evening prayer service. The vast St. Peter’s Square was empty. The pope said, “We are on the same boat.” Human health is attacked by an invisible enemy spreading to every corner of the world.
Pope Francis was accompanied only by Bishop Guido Marini, Master of Pontifical Liturgical Ceremonies. He had accompanied the pope to Japan in 2019, so I always saw him at the pope’s Masses. He was very much admired by the seminarians who were altar servers at those liturgies. That evening in St. Peter’s Square, Bishop Marini quoted the words of the fourth-century Church Father, St. John Chrysostom: “The hand is at the helm of history.” His meaning was that “the true engine of life in the world is a prayerful heart.” In other words, the helm of history lies in the hands of those who with deep faith look to the Lord and live in great humility.
In recent months, those working on ships have been in an even tougher situation than usual. Seafarers are unable to see their families due to the coronavirus pandemic. Stella Maris groups in Japan have been severely restricted from visiting ships in ports from Hokkaido to Kyushu where they had conducted pastoral activities in the past.
However, by God’s grace we continue to make contact with seafarers and hear their heartfelt voices. Among them, we are especially entrusted with the wish that we “pray for seafarers.” Stella Maris Japan gatherings always begin with a prayer to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, asking for protection for those who work at sea and their families. We also show a picture of Mary, Mother of God and Patroness of Seafarers.
I hope that you will unite your hearts in prayer to Our Lady, the Star of the Sea, for the seafarers whose risk to their lives we rarely see but which support so many people. Let us pray too for the families who wait at home for the return of their seafarers. The Virgin Mary will surely listen to our prayers and care for them.
+Michiaki Yamanouchi, Chairman
Catholic Commission of Japan for
Migrants, Refugees and People on the Move
July 10, 2022