A Chaplain's Role on a Sinking Ship

Italy's Maritime Ministry Director Comments on Costa Concordia Tragedy

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ROME, JAN. 18, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Search and rescue efforts are still under way as 21 passengers from the Costa Concordia cruise ship remain unaccounted for, after the giant vessel hit rock and began sinking Friday off the Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy.

As friends and family of the missing still await news of their loved ones -- including a Catholic couple from Minnesota who were excited about the chance to visit Rome during their two-week vacation -- public eye is turned on the tragedy and particularly the national soul-searching related to the captain's response to the wreck.

Among those intimately involved in the disaster are the personnel from the Church's ministry to seafarers. Father Raffaele Malena was the chaplain on board and lived the wreck firsthand.

Another priest, Father Lorenzo Pasquotti, parish priest on the island of Giglio, provided assistance to the survivors as they landed on the island.

And Father Giacomo Martino, the director of maritime ministry for the Church in Italy, has been coordinating assistance to the survivors.

The onboard chaplain called the headquarters of the Apostleship of the Sea when the wreck happened, reporting his intention to "stay close to the crew and the passengers to comfort them at this moment of great confusion."

Speaking with Vatican Radio, the chaplain has in fact given a different account of the crew's reaction than that which has circulated in some press reports.

"The problem of the evacuation was the panic; the crew behaved well," he said.

The priest shared his impression of the first moments. "There were so many children," he said. "I took a little girl in my arms. I asked that she be sent first with her mother and her evacuation took precedence."

Father Malena also praised the residents of Giglio, saying "all wanted to give a hand, they opened the inns, they gave us something to eat, blankets and everything they had."

Shock recovery

ZENIT spoke with the director of the maritime ministry, Father Martino, about the tragedy.

"The crew has probably not yet assimilated the blow entirely, and the accusations flying in the media against them make them feel shipwrecked once again," he commented. 

He stressed that "speaking with many people, I see that what has been said by some of the media about incompetence is not true. Simulations of shipwrecks are made, but it is quite different when there is a real shipwreck and panic spreads."

Father Martino also spoke about the role of chaplains on cruise ships.

"He acts as a man of God, without making distinctions between the passengers and crew, even if his main task is in the sector of the crew," the director said. These "workers count on the presence of a chaplain, even if they are of other religious confessions."

"Even in Ramadan, for example, though not automatically, I am sometimes asked to say the final prayer," he commented.

[Reporting by H. Sergio Mora]