Father Benedictus Salettia, chaplain of the Apostleship of the Sea, fights for the rights of seafarers facing inhumane conditions (Photo supplied)
Soon after his ordination 17 years ago, Father Benedictus Salettia started helping fishermen and sailors from Indonesia’s North Sulawesi province who were working on foreign vessels.
Back then, working conditions were hard and dangerous and nobody seemed to care about them.
Sacred Heart Bishop Josephus Suwatan of Manado learned about the conditions they were enduring, so one year before Father Salettia, 49, was ordained, he sent him to study and get first-hand experience of sea apostleship in the Philippines.
There he studied together with priests, brothers, nuns and laypeople on how to help seafarers and their families.
Returning home, he chose to serve the people in the port city of Bitung in North Sulawesi.
He helps those who work on freight and passenger ships as well as traditional fishermen and has done so since 2003.
Father Salettia has become the chaplain of the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) and is the only priest in Indonesia who focuses his mission on sailors and fishermen.
“Fishermen and sailors are marginalized, not protected well, and are underpaid,” Father Salettia, who hails from Talaud, North Sulawesi, told UCA News.
“I serve their spiritual needs and advocate for their rights,” he said, adding that they are classified into four groups — those who work on traditional vessels, small ships, fishing companies and foreign ships.
“All face the same problems — marginalization, low salary, slave-like conditions and no legal protection,” the priest said.
Most of the seafarers he looks out for spend most of their time at sea, working long hours in bad weather or hot conditions and sleeping wherever and whenever they can.
They often cannot communicate with their families and it is not uncommon for them to go 18 months or more without seeing their loved ones.
“These sailors are treated like slaves, and there is very little regard for their safety. Those who get sick are not treated and those who die are thrown into the sea,” Father Salettia said.
In May, reports of three Indonesian sailors being thrown into the sea after dying on a Chinese fishing vessel sparked a public outcry in Indonesia.
Another problem they face is uncertainty, knowing that the Indonesian government has banned foreign fishing vessels operating in Indonesian waters.
“Although the job is difficult, we try our best to serve them even if what we do is so small,” the priest said.
Pope Francis, he said, is also concerned about inhumane conditions at sea, so wants the Catholic Church to do all it can to care for seafarers.
Father Salesttia says he offers sailors spiritual services such as joint prayer worship and Mass. He also gives them prayer books.
He helps families stay in touch with their loved ones working on ships near the Philippines, Taiwan, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. He also provides legal assistance to foreign crew members stranded in Indonesia and who face issues such as documentation, criminal charges or poor working conditions and pay.
He said it is easier looking after traditional fishermen because they live with their families and sometimes local authorities also help them.
But keeping tabs on those aboard foreign ships can be difficult because they often move from one ship to another.
He said the sea apostleship covers spiritual service, counseling and rights advocacy for those working in commercial or passenger ships. “We don’t help them financially,” he said.
Father Salettia said he serves and helps all seafarers regardless of their religious, racial or ideological backgrounds. “We serve anyone who needs our help," he said.
He said the Apostleship of the Sea works with the International Christian Maritime Association, run by the Protestant Church, in carrying out its mission.
“We come to bring and realize Christ’s love to the people in need, for those who risk their lives in difficult working conditions.”