“Nine-tenths of my work is meeting with sailors one on one,” says Fr Paul Stuart of his work as senior chaplain in the Royal Australian Navy. Source: Eternity News.
This gently spoken priest – or “Padre” as he is known – explains that any of the men and women on HMAS Canberra III – 480 people when they are docked in harbour and up to 1200 when they are deployed at sea – are welcome to knock on his door.
And knock they do, to talk through matters of relationships, personal concerns, work conflicts, bereavement and spirituality.
The other tenth of Fr Stuart’s work is ceremonial. It includes holding memorial services when sailors are out to sea and their loved ones pass away and they’re unable to attend the funeral. On his last deployment of six months, he conducted 14 such memorial services.
Fr Stuart hosted the launch of a new Navy New Testament by Bible Society Australia. This is a pocket-sized New Testament in the New Living Translation, complete with cover in the Navy’s new camouflage design.
Fr Stuart has seen a big decline over the years in the numbers of young people openly embracing Christianity – particularly in the 18-25-year-old age group. He holds regular Bible studies as well as weekly non-denominational church services.
The number of attendees at both of these meetings has declined, he reports. He knows that is part of a wider story of decline in church attendance in churches across the country. He also knows the factors that have contributed to the result in the navy include the diversification of the defence forces, which has introduced a diverse range of faiths. Fr Stuart enjoys being an advocate for sailors of other faiths – whether that means organising places for Muslims to pray or shuffling the schedules of a Jewish sailor so they can observe Shabbat.
Yet while there’s a heaviness to Fr Stuart’s reports of declining numbers in these gatherings, there’s no sense of hopelessness. This Padre is well aware that some of his most significant work is being done behind closed doors.
“All my Bibles have been given away. They are in cabins being read and used,” he says. “So even if outwardly it seems like society is becoming more secular, I think people are actually still exploring their faith privately. I think the harvest is rich for anyone who wants to get out there.”