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Blessings for the Sailors

by John Hennig, M.A.

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  • Description:
    For more than three hundred years, the Blessings of the House, the Blessings of Victuals at the Paschal Time and the Blessing of the Boat were the only blessings of secular objects found in the Ritual, the liturgical book concerned with the Sacraments and Sacramentals. John Hennig writes, "The Blessings for Sailors are not only great documents of the Church's social teaching but also of Her universality and unity, thus gaining in significance and venerability." This article provides an examination of the history of these blessings as well as their meaning.
  • Larger Work:
    The Ecclesiastical Review
  • Pages: 262 – 274
  • Publisher & Date:
    American Ecclesiastical Review, Philadelphia, PA, October 1941

By the seven Sacraments, Grace is shed upon the birth and the growth of the soul, for its medicine and nourishment, and finally upon its journey, and upon the two main states of Christian life. Less directly but even more broadly, by means of the Sacramentals, in particular the Blessings, special spiritual and temporal favours are bestowed upon the various states of life.

In the Ritual, the liturgical book concerned with the Sacraments and the Sacramentals, we find two hundred blessings for various objects and persons. Whilst the Sacraments were actually instituted by the Lord Himself, the Sacramentals and Blessings are institutions made by the Church in compliance with and based upon the Lord's promise to be with Her all days even to the consummation of the world. There are, however, a few blessings which must be regarded as instituted by Jesus Christ, such as the Blessings of the House and of the Food, the Blessings of the Children and of the Sick (Luke 10: 5-9, Matthew 19: 13-15). Since the time of the Apostles, it has been assumed that also the Blessings of the boat and of the fishing-nets were instituted by the Lord. Ss. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Thomas and some other disciples were fishermen, and they continued their trade even when Jesus had made them fishers of man. Jesus frequently helped the disciples with their work. One of His last actions on earth after His Resurrection was to help the disciples with the miraculous draught of fishes. He liked to teach the multitude out of a fishing-boat and He used it when passing over the water. Accordingly, the boat is one of the most ancient objects to be blessed by the Church.

For more than three hundred years, the Blessings of the House, the Blessings of Victuals at the Paschal Time and the Blessing of the Boat were the only blessings of secular objects found in the Ritual and thus officially recognized by the Church Universal. For a long time, these blessings were also contained in the Appendix of the Missal, their importance thus being strongly emphasized, whilst our present Roman Missal only contains the ancient Blessings of the Food at Paschal Time and other blessings for strictly ecclesiastical purpose. As late as during the last eighty years, the Ritual was enlarged by the insertion of a great number of blessings for secular purpose, blessings which either had been for long in local use or which were newly composed. Besides the ancient Blessing of a Boat, the present Ritual contains the solemn Blessing of the Fishing-boat, inserted as late as 1912, but probably composed already in the 16th century.

The history and the content of the Ritual are but little known, even to the clergy. Hitherto, complete editions of the Roman Ritual, containing the Blessings of the Boat and the Fishing-boat, were imported from Italy and Belgium. There exists no English translation of the Ritual, except the small edition of the Layfolk's Ritual by Dom Cabrol (1917), which, however, gives only nine blessings, especially those concerning the house and the family. Probably, this article for the first time gives in English the text of the Blessings for sailors.

Whilst the Blessing of the Boat consists only of one prayer, in the Solemn Blessing of a Fishing-boat this prayer is preceded by a psalm and followed by a lesson taken from the Gospel of St. John (21: 1-24), by three more prayers concerned with the fishing-nets and the fishers themselves, and by a final blessing. The same as all blessings, these two blessings begin with the versicles:

Our help is in the name of the Lord
Who has made heaven and earth (Psalm 123: 8)
The Lord be with you
And with Thy spirit.

Before the blessing of a boat the invocation of Gods' help is of special significance. The prayers of our blessings speak most impressively of the dangers threatening the sailors. The name of the Lord is invoked both for the object and the blessing itself, the prayer of the blessings being impetrations made by the Church for special spiritual and temporal gifts to be shed upon the faithful according to their devotion. By recognizing God as the maker of heaven and earth, the person or object is placed in the universal order of God's creation. Moreover, whilst invoking God's blessing for the natural use of the object, the blessings open an outlook to the supernatural purpose and end. The answers in these versicles are given by the congregation attending the ceremony. According to the Rubrics, the priest when blessing must be accompanied by a server who has to carry the Holy Water vat and the Ritual. It is most desirable that the answers are not only given by the server, because by the versicle "The Lord be with you" and by the use of the plural in all prayers of blessings, the fact is strongly emphasized that blessings are liturgical functions, acts of public worship performed by the community according to the order and the intention of the Church Universal. This liturgical character is of special significance in those blessings which concern particular groups of persons, families, vocations, or trades, these blessings being acts of profession of membership in the social order of the Church which is the mystical Body of Christ. The Blessing of a Boat is such a blessing for a particular calling:

Harken, O Lord, to our supplications and bless (here the Sign of the Cross is made) by Thy holy right hand this boat and all who travel in it, as Thou hast vouchsafed to bless Noe's ark carried upon the waves of the flood: Stretch forth to them, O Lord, Thy right hand, as Thou hast done to Blessed Peter when walking upon the sea, and send Thy holy Angel from heaven, who may deliver and protect this boat from all dangers, with all who will be therein: and repelling all adversities, grant Thy servants a calm voyage and the always wished-for haven, let them carry out and rightly finish their business, and when the time comes again, call them back to their home with all joy. Amen.

The final aim of all blessings, even of blessings of inanimate objects, is man. According to Psalm 8, which in the Solemn Blessing of the Fishing-boat is recited before this prayer, God has made man a little less than the angels and set him over the works of His hand. The inanimate object is not blessed in itself but as an instrument of God for bestowing grace upon all who are going to use it according to His will, with devotion and thanksgiving. By being used by man, the nature of the thing itself is raised to supernature in so far as man has a supernatural end. Even things which are blessed for mere secular and natural use, serve this supernatural end of man. By means of boats and ships, man has taken possession of the water according to God's disposition. He did so, in the first instance not for voyages for trading or exploring foreign countries, but for the simple need of fishing in compliance with God's promise: " All the fishes of the sea are delivered into your hand" (Gen. 1: 28, 9: 2). Accordingly in Psalm 8, the great hymn of praise of God's glory in mankind and as such recited in the beginning of the Baptism of an adult, the Blessing of the Fishing-boat professes: " Thou hast subjected under his feet also the fishes of the sea, that pass through the paths of the sea". The particular purpose for which the fishing-boat is blessed, is older than the more general purposes as mentioned in the Blessing of a Boat. In the latter blessing, mention is made of the fact that mankind owes to the boat its existence, the Ark having been the means of saving Noe and his family and of all flesh two of a sort from the deluge. In fact, the boat is not a human invention but a divine institution, God having said to Noe: " Make thee an ark of timbler planks and pitch it within and without" (Genes. 6: 14). This institution gains in significance when considered as a symbol of Redemption in Jesus Christ, as is done by reading the story of the deluge as the second Prophecy on Holy Saturday. — At the same time, however, by alluding to the story of the disciples in the storm, the Blessing of the Boat warns us from overrating our human power of " ruling the waves": "The boat in the midst of the sea was tossed with the waves, and they were filled, and were in danger . . . But He came walking upon the sea". God has no need of a boat. He can walk upon the waves and so can all whose faith is as strong as was St. Peter's faith. Accordingly, the Prayer for Those at Sea as found amongst the Occasional Prayers in the Missal, begs:

O God, who didst bring our fathers through the Red Sea, and didst bring them in safety through great waters, singing praises to Thy holy name, we humbly beseech Thee that Thou wouldst keep from all danger Thy servants who are on board ship, granting them a calm voyage and the wished-for haven. Through Our Lord . . .

This prayer actually acknowledges that all passing over the water either by means of boats or by a direct miracle is a work of God. The great general teaching of our blessing is that man needs inanimate nature in reaching his supernatural end and that in using nature according to God's disposition he has His special blessing.

Both the Prayer for Those at Sea and the Blessing of a Boat actually beg that the boat may be as safe as the direct guidance by God's right hand stretched forth to us. The connection between these two prayers is most obvious in the fact that the second part of the Prayer for those at Sea is identically found in the Blessing of a Boat. The prayer of the Missal is directed to God the Father, whilst all the prayers of the blessings of the boat and of the fishing-boat are directed to God the Son. In the ancient Roman liturgy prayers were exclusively directed to God the Father. Prayers directed to God the Son are of later date, being a peculiar feature of the "Gallican liturgy", as developed in Western Europe in the early Middle Ages. In fact, it is to this liturgy that we owe the majority of blessings, especially of objects for secular use. Another peculiar feature of Gallican prayers is the richness in references to biblical texts, to the former deeds of God on which we can rely when asking for special favours in a similar line. Thus both the Blessing of the Boat and the Blessing of the Fishing-nets make reference to several instances taken from the Old and the New Testament.

The Blessing of the Boat, moreover, asks for special protection by an Angel thus recognizing the special dangers of seafaring. The Angels are the champions of God in the warfare with Satan, a fact frequently mentioned in blessings concerned with objects or persons particularly dependent on peace, such as the blessing of the house or the family, of the woman in childbirth, of the sick, of children and of pilgrims and travelers, or the blessings of vehicles, especially of ambulances, aeroplanes and railways. In the ancient Blessing of the house, which at present is also used in the Asperges and in blessing buildings such as Churches, schools, printing-offices, etc., no less than five expressions are used in order to emphasize the need for Angelic protection: "keep, favour, protect, comfort and defend this house and, all who dwell therein". The Latin words for "keeping" (custodire), "protecting" and "defending" are taken from the military language, and so are the words "protection" and "deliverance", as found in the Blessing of a Boat. The peaceable use of nature is endangered by the snares of Satan, a fact strongly emphasized in the Exorcisms of natural raw-materials such as salt and water, the Exorcism of water being of special significance in relationship to our blessings. The natural purpose of the boat or ship in particular is to have a calm voyage and to reach the port. The petition for a calm voyage is referred to the various stories of sea-storms, as found in the Gospels. The second prayer of the Blessing for Pilgrims and Travelers (also called "Itinerarium") begs for "a haven in shipwreck", thus alluding to experiences made by St. Paul (Acts 21: 44, I Cor. 11: 25, 26), whilst the initial words of the Address made by the bishop in the beginning of the ceremony of Ordination: "Since the pilot of a ship and those who are to make the sea-voyage have the same grounds for feeling secure and sharing in fear" . . . give a symbolical turn to the words used by St. Paul.

In the expression "the always wished-for haven", we have a whole philosophy of Christian life in strict opposition to those modern philosophies which indulge in yearning for adventures and thrills despising normal life as dull safety, estimating risk higher than steadiness. At present, the everlasting petition for peace, tranquility, quietude, and safety as found throughout the liturgy, is newly conceived in its true reality. The world is suffering from the appalling consequences of the device "Live dangerously" (Mussolini). In the prayer of the Blessing of the Fishing-nets it will be even more clearly recognized that the petition for the always wished-for haven has more than a merely natural sense. The sailor's wish for safe return to the haven — also expressed in the Solemn Supplications of Good Friday — is everlasting ("always") it is the expression of a right disposition in man and symbol of mankind's vital desire for sound and peaceable life. All returning to haven in this world is a step on the road to our eternal home. When speaking of this "home", in the Blessing of the Boat, of the Pilgrims or of the Aeroplane, the Church uses the Latin word propria, "their own" as found in our "property". Both in natural and supernatural life, home and haven are man's own, his real destination. The hardship of life, labours and voyages, are only the necessary means of gaining again and again the real end of life. In the Blessing of the Fishing-boat and of the Railway the Church rather uses the word "fatherland", patria. The question is whether our setting out from our father's home will be like that of the prodigal son or like that of Tobias. In fact, the petition of a Guardian Angel on our voyage is a lucid allusion to the story of Tobias. Once, the time will come when we will be called back, when our return will be a final one, to a haven which we shall never leave again.

In many blessings we find that from the contemplation of the Last Things the Church leads us straight back to the consideration of the basic natural needs and conditions of our life. So in the Blessing of a Boat just between the petitions for the always wished-for haven and for a dwelling in the joys of heaven, the Church speaks in almost common expressions of the natural purpose of the boat. The fishers and the merchants on board ship have to "carry out business". For "carrying out" the Latin word transactis is used, a word found in our word "transaction" which has a rather restricted commercial meaning. For "business" the Latin word negotia is used, as found in our word "negotiations". Deliberately the plural form is used, pointing to the multiplicity and variety of our trades and business affairs. In fact, the labours of modern business life (the word "labours" will be found in the later prayers) chiefly consist of this multiplicity and variety. Both the word "transaction" and the word "perfection", as used for "finishing" the business, involve a similar idea as expressed by the words "the always wished-for haven". The Church does not want to support the fundamental error of modern economic life that success is the only purpose and end of business, but, on the other hand, She does not advocate the idea of business for business' sake, this empty restlessness in which people try to rid themselves of their inferiority feelings. The good and right use of the boat consists of the planned trading for a definite natural purpose, which can actually be carried "through" ("trans-action") and be brought to "completion" ("per-fection"). Thus these few words contain a condemnation of rapacity and boundless greed in economic life, a condemnation of special significance with regard to the peculiar object of our blessing and in consideration of the present situation. In fact, our prayer points to some fundamental principles which have recently been brought home to the world by the great social Encyclics.

In the Blessing of a Fishing-boat, after reading the Gospel in which St. John tells of the miraculous draught of fishes, these thoughts are followed up by the prayer of the Blessing of the Fishing-nets:

O God, after having divided the waters from the dry land, Thou hast created every life therein and wouldst man to rule the fishes of the sea. Thou hast walked upon the waves of the sea and hast commanded the winds and the seas. Through Thy word Thou hast miraculously filled the nets of the Apostles. Grant, we beseech Thee, that Thy servants may, through Thy attendance delivered from all dangers, enclose in their skiffs a very great multitude of fishes and finally, laden with merits, reach the haven of everlasting happiness. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

The first part of this prayer gives a biblical history of the fishing-nets, instances being taken from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis to the last chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. In a very similar way, in the Blessing of the Font on Holy Saturday, the history of the water is traced from the "dividing of the waters from the dry land" to the Redeemer. Man's ruling over the fishes is actually paralleled to Christ's command over the seas. The fishes take a rather unique place in the Bible. It has been assumed that in virtue of the fact that unlike all other animals the fishes did not receive their names from man, they stand in a particularly close relationship with God. There are various biblical instances such as the story of Jona's being in the whale's belly three days and three nights, a figure of Christ's being in the heart of the earth three days and three nights, or the story of the fish in whose mouth St. Peter found the stater for the didrachmas and the stories of the feeding of several thousand with some loaves and fishes, and all these instances contributed to making the fish a distinguished religious symbol. It is a well known fact that in early Christian art the fish is a symbol of Christ, in virtue of the fact that the Greek word for fish corresponds to the initials of the Greek words for "Jesus Christ the Son of God".1 The fishing-nets are frequently mentioned by the prophets and the Evangelists. St. Matthew and St. Mark tell that Peter and Andrew were casting their nets into the sea and that James and John were mending their nets, when Jesus called them, whilst St. Luke and St. John mention the washing and casting of the nets in the stories of the miraculous draughts of fishes. As for these latter two instances, the Blessing of the Fishing-nets rather quotes St. Luke's than St. John's text, although this text is read just before. With regard to these instances taken from the Gospel, it is noteworthy that the prayer of the Blessing is directed to God the Son, although the end "Through Christ Our Lord" is the normal end for liturgical prayers directed to God the Father. In a medieval French manuscript, the famous liturgists Mabillon and Martène have found the following Blessing of the Nets for Catching Fishes, directed to God the Father:

Almighty Lord God, creator of the waters of heaven and earth, who hast founded man according to Thy image and hast given him the universal creation for his service and for his pious use, so that he seeing that everything serves him according to his will, may more instantly and devoutly serve Thy precepts, we ask Thy paternal kindness to bless by Thy powerful right hand these nets intended for catching fishes, in order that, whilst for Thy servants' use the draught of fishes comes into them, we may give thanks to Thee, O Lord, the giver of all goods, for the benefits bestowed upon us. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ.

In this prayer no mention is made of any instance from the Gospel. We may say that here the fishing-net is less made a Sacramental than is done by the prayer found in our present Ritual. On the other hand, both prayers are closely related by paralleling the great multitude of fishes which the faithful hope to catch to an increase in our merits and thanksgiving. Actually, the exertion of the fishers' trade according to God's will and in the right disposition is called a merit leading to heaven.

From the outset, both the Blessing of the Boat and the Blessing of the Fishing-nets concern in the end the fishers themselves. The Blessing of the Boat never speaks of the boat exclusively but always also of those who are going to travel in it. The Blessing of the Nets even makes the fishers the subject of the phrase in which actually God's blessing is implored, speaking of them as "God's servants". More than any other, the sailors' and fishermen's trade is a vocation. God Himself called man to rule over the waters by means of the boat and over the fishes by means of the net. "Everything that moveth and liveth is meat for man". Even more expressly Our Lord called His first disciples to be fishers, indeed not fishers of fishes but fishers of men. Accordingly, our blessings call all the faithful to become fishers of merits.

The fishers' and sailors' trade is so clearly founded in God's disposition, so distinctively sanctified by Our Lord and so obviously appointed its place in the universal order of creation that there is given a special blessing for the fishers and sailors themselves:

We beseech Thee, O Lord, Our Saviour, vouchsafe to bless the labours of Thy servants, as Thou hast blessed the Apostles saying "Cast the nets on the right side of the ship and you shall find", in order that gladdened with the abundance of Thy blessing, we may exalt Thee, our blessed Redeemer, for ever and ever. Amen.

Regard, O Lord, the intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, of St. Peter, of the other Apostles and of St. N. (the titular of the ship to be blessed) and do not despise the labours of our hands but by Thy most sacred blessing (here the sign of the Cross is made) repel all sins from us, take away all dangers and grant us all future good. Amen.

The priest then sprinkles Holy Water upon the ship and says:

Peace and blessing from God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, may descend upon this boat and upon all who are going to be therein, and may remain for ever. Amen.

A natural object when blessed does not lose its very nature but either receives additional spiritual favours for its exclusive use by God and its Church or becomes His instrument in bestowing special favours upon all who use it in the world, in the right disposition and according to the intention of the Church. Accordingly, the fishing-nets or the boat when blessed do not actually become better. A rotten net will not become whole when blessed (Matthew 4: 21) and a leaky boat will sink no matter if blessed or not (Gen. 6: 14, 15; Luke 8: 23). The fishers' trade does not become easier by the blessing. Even when working with "blessed" nets and boats, the fishers cannot expect to receive "a great multitude of fishes" unless they take upon themselves the "labours", as twice mentioned in these prayers. The fishers' trade is not meritorious by itself, but the faithful fulfillment of a vocation, the compliance with God's will within the bounds of His disposition, is actually a merit leading to heaven. "God will not despise the labours of our hands". This, in fact, is the fundamental and general social teaching of these prayers. Our generation newly realizes the everlasting truth and reality of the traditional social doctrine of the Church. Many centuries before the great medieval systems, in the blessings of various objects and persons for secular purposes, the Church has laid down the fundamental principles of social life, principles which have proved to be of the greatest actuality in our modern specialized world. Here, the basic natural order is raised into the light of faith and eternity. Supernature has the same harsh reality as is experienced by man in nature, in the hardship of economic and technical life. There is no gap between nature and supernature. It is not a weak claim but a real statement that for every natural order there is a supernatural end and a spiritual outlook. The various blessings reveal this outlook for the different states of life, trades and callings, starting as they do with the simple natural facts and most distinctively referring them to the everlasting life in the Holy Trinity.

A most wonderful outlook is given to the sailor when his ship, homeward bound laden with goods or fishes, is called not only a symbol but a very means of returning home to the eternal fatherland, laden with merits and praising the Lord with thanksgiving. All the prayers of our blessing end in jubilation: "with all joy", "to the haven of eternal happiness", "gladdened with Thy blessing we will rejoice at the future goods". — Indeed, there are only few trades so directly sanctified by the Lord: the physician, the teacher, the shepherd, the gardener, the farm-labourer, the merchant and the fisherman, and only a few of these vocations have been made the subject of special blessings. The fishers' trade has been strikingly distinguished by the recent insertion of the special Blessing of a Fishing-boat and by the unusually ample form of this blessing. But just in this blessing the general import and significance of such special blessings is most clearly expressed. The Church speaks no longer of the fishers exclusively, but of all vocations, the ecclesiastical vocations included: "The labours of our hands." Amidst the desperate hardship of modern social disorder, where there seems to be no other aim than brute force and cunning, the Church has lifted up Her voice, proposing the fishers' trade as sanctified by God the Father and God the Son, for our edification and encouragement.

Whilst the Blessing of the Boat asks for special protection by an Angel, the Blessing of the Nets asks for God's "attendance". This prayer actually begs that God may be our Companion in seafaring, that He may sit in the same boat with us. This petition is most appropriately directed to Christ who became man in all respects, except in sin, who suffered from human sorrows, fears and anxieties, from hunger and thirst. He knew all physical sufferings, He knew the special sufferings of the poor, of the hard-working people: "Jesus said to them: Children, have you any meat? They answered Him: No, Master, we have laboured all the night and have taken nothing". By speaking of "our labours" the Church summons us "to let down again our nets at His word" (Luke 5: 5). Even more generally, all possible human suffering, the special sufferings of these hard times, have been anticipated and elevated in the Holy Sacrifice on Mount Calvary. "Behold, O Lord, from all sides break in the storms, the sea terrifies with the great power of the agitated floods. Command, we beseech Thee, Thou alone art able to do so, command the storm and the sea" (Prayer proposed by Leo XIII). The Christian fishers graphically expressed this conviction by placing the Cross in their boats, a custom already mentioned by SS. John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Ephrem the Syrian.

The same as other vehicles, such as the aeroplane, the boat is placed under the particular protection of Our Lady. For similar reasons St. Peter and the other Apostles are invoked as patrons of fishers and sailors. Especially in Greece and in Italy, it was, and still is as custom to place the image of Saints in the boat. Indeed, here this custom goes back to the pagan customs of placing the image of the titular god or goddess on the cut-water of the ship. The third prayer of our blessing gives the opportunity of inserting the name of the titular Saint in whose special honour the blessing is administered.

Whilst the Blessing of the Boat goes back to the 16th century, the Blessing of the Fishing-boat is a recent enlargement thereof. The custom of solemnly blessing the boats has probably originated in Venice. In the composition of the blessing of the Boat, the liturgical books of the Oriental Church have been consulted. In the early 16th century, there still was a certain prospect of the removal of the Schism, and, especially in Italy, a liturgical assimilation was advocated as highly expedient in this respect. This assimilation offered less difficulties with regard to the blessings than with regard to Mass, where the dogmatical differences were of greater import and more fixed by tradition.

The publication of the Blessing of the Fishing-boat in the Acts of the Apostolic See on 10 April, 1912, first referred only to the dioceses of Algeria, but gradually this blessing came into use in many other Mediterranean countries. The Blessings for Sailors are not only great documents of the Church's social teaching but also of Her universality and unity, thus gaining in significance and venerability.

  1. See Franz Joseph Dölger, Ichthys, Vol. I: The symbol of the fish in early Christian time; Vol. II, III: The sacred fish in the ancient religions and in Christianity, Vol. IV: The fish monuments in early Christian sculpture and painting.

© American Ecclesiastical Review

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