As the Church’s port chaplain, Father Romeo Yu Chang, CICM, ministers to seafarers visiting Singapore. He shares his ministry and the hardships of seamen with Darren Boon

FATHER ROMEO HAS a fear of water, and he can’t swim either.

“I don’t know why I have this fear of water, and never mastered swimming. And it’s funny that I’m the port chaplain,” he said.

A first-generation Filipino-Chinese, Father Romeo grew up surrounded by water in the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. But as a child, none of his relatives taught him how to swim.

Father Romeo did attempt to learn while in Hong Kong for his theological studies, but confessed to having difficulty coordinating his legs and hands. However, this hasn’t prevented him from ministering to seafarers.
The Scheut Missions priest is also afraid of heights, but this doesn’t deter him from being hoisted up by crane in a basket onto an 11-storey vessel docked in the anchorage.

The only other way into the vessel is through the gangway or by climbing the pilot ladder. Stamina is needed to climb the ladder and it can be scary when the waves are big. Even seasoned seafarers have been in accidents in rough waters, said Father Romeo.

So how does Father Romeo do it in spite of all his fears?

“You pray very hard,” the 49-year-old priest quipped.

Apostleship of the Sea
Ordained on Sep 8, 1990, Father Romeo arrived in Singapore nine years ago to assume the position of port chaplain which was left vacant for 12 years after Father Balthazar Chang, CICM, retired. Father Joachim Kang, then Church of St. Teresa parish priest, occasionally ministered to the seafarers.

Due to its proximity to the ports, the parish received Father Romeo as assistant priest.

When he gets a call to minister to seafarers as their vessels dock here – which happens about twice a month – Father Romeo goes to the ferry terminal and boards a bumboat which takes him to where ships are docked.

Onboard, he celebrates Mass, provides news, and distributes newspapers and bibles. Each visit takes about two hours.

Recently, Father Romeo had to bless an oil tanker after a crew member died and the body had been placed in a freezer.

“The crew are afraid that the deceased will haunt them. So normally when a death occurs, the crew will ask me to go onboard and bless,” Father Romeo said.

As some of the crews are Asians who are usually superstitious and fear death, witnessing a fellow worker die disturbs the crew emotionally. A blessing and prayers said where the corpse was kept assures the crew, explained Father Romeo.

Father Romeo described the Apostleship of the Sea as a “welcoming ministry” which is to be Jesus to all seafarers regardless of religious beliefs and to “bring the Good News to these people”.

“They’re out on the sea for many days, and when they come to the port, they hope people can welcome them,” he said, adding that physical human presence is important in this ministry.

According to its website, the Apostleship of the Sea is the Catholic Church’s worldwide arm in reaching out to seafarers and fishers. It offers hospitality and pastoral care to the people of the sea with a centre established “in almost every country bound by sea”.

The work comprises pastoral care in hospitality and spirituality. The former involves ship visiting, offering communication facilities, running centres for seafarers, visiting those in hospital or prison; the latter involves extending the support of Christian communities to those onboard the vessels.

Apart from port chaplaincy, Father Romeo is also the Vatican-appointed regional coordinator for those involved in this ministry in Southeast Asia and East Asia.

Each year, he spends about 45 days outside Singapore meeting and encouraging the people. He also organises meetings for them to come together and share their experiences, and regional congresses to prepare them for the quinquennial world congress.

Father Romeo is also involved with the secular International Commission on Seafarers Welfare.

The plight of seafarers
With 2010 designated Year of the Seafarer, Father Romeo hopes to highlight the plight of the seafarers and fishers, and that they are part of our community.

“Their hardships come in [the form of] long hours of work, being away from home and missing their families, experiencing loneliness and being bound by long years of contract,” he said.

In the 2009 issue of Navigate, the Apostleship of the Sea’s semi-annual newsletter, Father Romeo shared about the plight of a Filipino national Jhomar Orilla who was promised a monthly salary of US$1,000 to work on a cruise ship, but ended up on a Taiwanese fishing vessel and paid only US$200.

In addition, Jhomar was made to sign a three-year contract to be paid US$50 monthly while the other US$150 would be kept by an agency. If he broke the contract, he would have to pay the agency US$2,000.

“That’s a form of exploitation,” said Father Romeo, but authorities cannot persecute the agency as it is not an employment agency regulated under the Employment Agencies Act, nor did it conduct recruitment activities in Singapore.

Seafarer organisations are unable to help the fishers who are not qualified seafarers with a seaman’s book. There is not much the Philippine Embassy in Singapore can do either as the fishers are illegal workers who did not pass through the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).

In Navigate, Father Romeo wrote: “There are many Jhomars… I have met some of them… welcomed them into the parish house of St. Teresa on their way back home to their country. Their stories are basically the same: they dream to get out of the mire poverty but along the way, tricked and exploited… return home without realising that dream.”

The Apostleship helps repatriate these men.

During the economic crisis, Father Romeo encountered a crew stranded when the owner of their vessel went bankrupt. Awaiting sale of the vessel to another company, the anxious crew were unpaid, and unable to disembark due to government regulations.

Despite pleas to the Apostleship to take them out, “we could only offer them spiritual support and assurance that all will be well”, recalled Father Romeo, who also gave them phone cards for the seamen to communicate with their families.

With the worsening piracy situation, Father Romeo has come across seamen scarred by their encounter with these bandits.

Two years into his appointment, he spent 21 days in Finland learning how to handle trauma cases. He also acquired more knowledge on sea vessels, rescue operations and technical skills.

Though such skills are useful in ministering to seafarers in critical incidents, Father Romeo maintains that what is essential in this ministry is the willingness to be of service to the people.

And of course, he reminded, “You pray very hard.”

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Did you know?
Father Romeo is an avid collector of caps. In his office at St. Teresa parish, he hangs a collection of caps from a particular popular restaurant. “The caps are from the countries I visited. They’re all the same, the difference is in the country,” he said.

Lifting a navy blue cap from the stand, he tells CatholicNews that this is his favourite – from Copenhagen where he was trained as part of his ministry to the seafarers.

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