By Hannah Brockhaus
VATICAN CITY — In a video message Wednesday, Pope Francis told maritime workers that their many sacrifices before and during the coronavirus pandemic have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.
“These are difficult times for our world, for we have had to deal with the suffering caused by the coronavirus. Your work as maritime personnel and fishermen has thus become even more important, since it is providing our greater human family with food and other primary needs,” the pope said in the June 17 message.
He noted that during the coronavirus emergency there have been significant changes to seafarers’ lives and already risky work, involving “many, many sacrifices.”
“Long periods spent aboard ships without being able to disembark, separation from families, friends and native countries, fear of infection… All these things are a heavy burden to bear, now more than ever,” he stated.
“I would like to say something to all of you,” he said. “Know that you are not alone and that you are not forgotten.”
Around 90% of the world’s trade is transported by sea, but measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus have caused serious complications for the shipping trade in the last few months.
With travel restrictions, many ports and airports have had to close, leaving seafarers stuck at sea and unable to return home.
The inability to change over crews is also causing seafarers and fishing vessel crews to be overworked.
Kitack Lim, Secretary-General of the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO), said Tuesday some seafarers have been stuck at sea for 15 months, well over the 11-month maximum dictated by a maritime labor convention, Reuters reported.
Speaking to a Capital Link forum, the UN shipping chief said “this is now a real safety issue, endangering the safe operation of ships. We cannot expect seafarers to stay at sea forever.”
An organization representing seafarers said June 15 that crews cannot be forced to work after their contract ends, explaining that they have the right to return home or, if that is not not possible, to remain on the ship as a passenger.
“The consequences could be that the ship is unable to sail if the manning level is inadequate, but that is not the responsibility of the seafarers,” the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) said.
The IMO said in a joint statement with the International Civil Aviation Organization at the end of May that from mid-June around 150,000 seafarers per month will be in need of international flights to return home or to change ships.
In his video message, Pope Francis said that though the work of shipping and fishing vessel crews keeps them apart from others they are close to him in his thoughts and prayers.
He also said they are in the prayers of the chaplains and volunteers of the Apostleship of the Sea, a Catholic agency which offers pastoral care to seafarers. “The Gospel itself reminds us of this, when it speaks to us of Jesus and his first disciples, who were fishermen,” he explained.
“Today I would like to offer you a message and a prayer of hope, comfort and consolation in the face of whatever hardships you have to endure,” Francis said.
“May the Lord bless each of you, your work and your families, and may the Virgin Mary, Star of the Sea, protect you always,” he concluded. “I too give you my blessing and I keep you in my prayers. And I ask you, please, not to forget to pray for me.”