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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 106 (Suppl.-I), April 2008



The AOS Bishop Promoter 


H.E. Msgr. Tom Burns, SM

AOS Bishop Promoter, Great Britain



May I presume to begin by outlining my credentials that have led to my present-day responsibilities as AOS Bishop Promoter for England & Wales, working closely with Bishop Peter Moran who is AOS Bishop Promoter for Scotland. Briefly, I will also outline the merchant shipping scene in Britain, in which AOS operates as an agency of the Catholic Church.

My Maritime and Seafaring experience consists of 16 years in the Royal Navy. A considerable proportion of this time was spent at sea. In terms of organisational leadership roles, I was Principal Chaplain in the Royal Navy for my final 4 years of service. As such, I was a member of the Naval Chaplaincy Board of Management, involved in all aspects of policy-making.

In terms of exercising Pastoral leadership, I became Bishop of the Forces in Great Britain 5 years ago.  The ministry is mainly to young people, with an average age and human needs similar to seafarers.

On becoming Bishop, I also took on the role of AOS Bishop Promoter for England & Wales, during a time of change and development, in which the number of full-time, fully-trained, and fully-salaried AOS Port Chaplains increased to 25. All 25 are lay people, except for 4 who are priests.

The context in which I operate as AOS Bishop Promoter is as follows:

In England & Wales there are 23 Dioceses, of which I am one: 6 are land-locked. Scotland has 8 dioceses, and 1 is landlocked. There are 650 ports of various sizes. Among them, 120 remain active. AOS currently focuses on the 56 major ports, with active plans to investigate needs in the 64 minor ports.

Over 140,000 large merchant ships a year plus many cruise ships operate in and out of the ports. Over 1 million seafarers arrive in the UK every year. Fishing is now relatively small, with 7000 UK registered boats working out of ports in North-East Scotland and South-West England. 

The role of the Bishop Promoter

The topic of this round table is the role of the Bishop Promoter. There will be 3 presentations, leading into discussion. We all come with humility, to share what we have learned along the way as Bishops, as Regional coordinators and as National Directors. We will take our work forward in 3 phases:

1: Let us together try and re identify the key tasks of an AOS Bishop Promoter in today’s globalised maritime world. We then need to reflect on these in today’s Church by sharing ideas and reflections

2: To help with this sharing and reflection we welcome today as speakers Archbishop Tadeusz Goclowski Archbishop of Gdansk and Bishop Promoter Poland, and also  Fr. Samuel Fonseca, the Regional coordinator for South America and National Director of AOS Brazil. No doubt their talks will stimulate our thoughts on this topic.

3: We then need to bring this discussion to a focus for the benefit of this Conference and the work of AOS for the next 5 years by summarising our views and identifying how to perhaps more positively ‘promote’ this role to Episcopal Conferences and fellow Bishop Promoters. 

Apostolic Letter Stella Maris

Let us begin by reminding ourselves what the Apostolic Letter Stella Maris tells us as promoters to be attentive to. It does not use the word role but quickly takes us to tasks. Tasks identified are:

  1. Fostering the work of the Maritime Apostolate. To foster in English normally relates to children, so there is a clear sense here of the need to attend to ‘growth’ with a deep sense of ‘care’ and ‘commitment’ over time. Clearly Bishop Promoters must be able and capable of fostering is no sinecure…. Let us return to the word foster later and look at that time more closely at what it means in this context.
  2. Selecting a National Director. He is the foot soldier of the Bishop Promoter. But in today’s Church does he serve the Bishop Promoter, the Bishops of the country or the maritime people? Let us come back to this when we have discussed more about the roles of the Bishop Promoter.
  3. Directing the Director, again let us come back to this when we have looked again at the roles both of the Bishop and the priorities of the National Director.
  4. Reporting to the Bishops’ Conference: Yes, always a must, but we must always know why. This purpose gives shape and direction for the report. Can we make it a positive experience for all involved and not a burden? Can modern technology help?
  5. Reporting to the Pontifical Council: Yes always a must, but again for what purpose? And What is expected of the Pontifical Council? These questions again give shape and purpose to the report, and again can we and should we use modern technology? 

A clear AOS pastoral plan

Fr. Le Gall’s book: The Pastoral Care of Seafarers sponsored and printed by the Pontifical Council, is very helpful in section 4.4, where Fr. Le Gall draws from his long experience of Mission de la Mer and the guidance of Bishop Molères. Fr Le Gall puts flesh, colour and impact into his description of the role.

-  To ‘orient, counsel and give impulse’. The Bishop Promoter  needs to be fully aware of matters maritime. He needs to know, through experience of maritime matters, when to act and to be sure to act when needed.

- To assess, evaluate what the needs of the apostolate are and what work needs to be done. This is a very proactive role, and a very regular role.

-  To inform and raise interest. The Bishop Promoter needs to get his fellow bishops interested in the Apostolate by various ways. This can be by personal briefings, arranging visits to ports, addressing the Bishops’ Conference in committee and in plenary session, by personal letters, newsletters and other publications (e.g. Alongside, Anchor). Thanking Bishops, clergy, and people for their support is hugely important.  The Bishop Promoter is also involved in preparing some of the resources and being a speaker himself or advising on speakers for Sea Sunday appeals in parishes.

In summary, there needs to be a clear AOS pastoral aim and a clear AOS pastoral plan, which are assessed regularly.  

The prophetic role of the Bishop Promoter

Fr. Le Gall’s book gives further advice and goes on to talk richly of the context  of all our work being the sea itself and the role of the ‘Bishop of the Sea’ spreading the ‘creation message’ of the sea.

His terminology is very apposite, given currently the heightened warnings about Global Warming. If this situation is not reversed and environmental abuses are not halted, the sea will soon be over-polluted, sea-life will be damaged beyond repair, and fish stocks will be severely depleted. The sea will become a desert in life-sustaining terms.

This prophetic role of the Bishop of the Sea is in relation to his Episcopal Conference and to the people of the nation. His role in the years ahead is going to be vital to warn everyone that, unless there is a sea-change in attitudes to the environment, to God’s creation, the world will face the dangers of turning the sea into a desert. This prophetic role is complimentary to the practical role that the Bishop Promoter has in making contact with the people of the Sea. 

AOS structure and strategic plan

Having gained his Episcopal colleagues’ attention on concerns about the Sea , the Bishop Promoter visualises and develops step by step an AOS Pastoral Structure that will address the needs of the people of the sea, and takes into account likely resources and relationships in his country. These are key assumptions that will underpin the development of a strategic plan.

This planning task should be shared by a Managing Committee or a Board of Directors who will, with the Bishop Promoter, be  responsible for constructing the strategic plan and obtaining the key resources or setting up the resource generating activity.

The strategic plan needs to be aired by the Committee and this is the time to select the Director. The strategic plan then needs to be further aired with all those who will be involved or affected by it, so that it becomes a shared aim and shared activity.

Then is the time to evolve the Strategic plan to a collegiate plan which could be a National business plan or a Regional or Diocesan based plan. The key factors of the Strategy will have indicated the direction in which to develop. For example in London, Anchor House Seafarers’ Centre, outside the dock-gates, complete with accommodation and bars, have declined in use, because ships turn round inside 9 hours. Hence, the strategy now is to devote funds to providing portable, flexible, and smaller facilities inside the port, located near the ships. The emphasis now is not on alcohol and leisure, but on being mainly non-residential, non-alcoholic, and equipped with telephones and internet connections for contacting home.  

Fostering the Workers and the Work

This is, as they say, is where we came in. As we roll out the plan we need to foster the Workers first, and also train and encourage them in the Work that we require them to do. Fostering includes providing them with on-going training on validated courses at universities and colleges around England. Chaplains and volunteers also attend an annual  3-day conference. They are additionally invited to take part in an annual retreat, and AOS Chaplains plus volunteers and ships’ visitors go on a one-day pilgrimage to Holy Island and Lindisfarne. All this is funded by the National Office, and is a key part of the national strategy approved by the AOS Board of Trustees.

For the Bishop Promoter

  • Fostering the workers is about:

         - Care and commitment and being everywhere

         - Counselling,  and listening, hopefully, first

         - Communicating and well in time.

  • Fostering the work is about:

          - Sharing the vision  and widely so

          - Evaluating and always measuring

          - Leading change to meet the need. 

That completes my own personal presentation.