Father Alberto Gaton is the chaplain of a Spanish ship that combats human trafficking by rescuing people in the Mediterranean Sea.
span of almost 5 months, his team has managed to rescue more than 3,000
“Seventy percent of them are Christians fleeing from persecution in
their countries,” he told CNA. “They're fleeing persecution from Boko
Haram in Nigeria, the terrorists groups, the situation in their
From September 2016 through January 2017, the priest was aboard the
“Frigate Navarra” in Operation Sophia, the EU anti-migrant smuggling
operation in the Mediterranean Sea. The ship had a crew of 208 sailors.
“We were also collaborating to rescue people that the mafias have
abandoned to their fate in the sea – we on the Frigate Navarra, along
with other NGOs and other European naval forces, collaborated to make
rescues,” he said.
In precarious make-shift boats of rubber and wood, hundreds of people
try to cross the Mediterranean every day, the chaplain said. “Heavy
storms frequently come up, and if we're not there, they would die.”
The main goal of Operation Sophia is to “combat the mafias which are
trafficking in souls on the Mediterranean,” he said, and “always help to
rescue those at sea, because they are the poor people of the land who
embark from all points in Africa hoping to reach the coasts of Europe
and who many times end up on the bottom of the sea.”
Sometimes, it happens that due to wind, rough seas or nightfall, the
rescue is hindered, he said. “Thanks be to God, we were able to rescue
all the boats we were responsible for, even though some of them were in
very bad sea conditions.”
Fr. Gaton recalled his first rescue: “once inside the ship, they
began to dance, it was a happy day because nobody died. It was marvelous
to see those who were rescued safe and sound dancing.”
But the joy of days like that is offset by the profound sadness of
seeing “what point this world has come to in wickedness of heart, which
when God is forgotten, is capable of sending little children, pregnant
mothers and babies in inflatable boats that are like shoe boxes,
floating coffins with no other fate than to be rescued or lost.”
When they rescue refugees, he said, “the first thing is to recover
from injuries, have something to eat, treat dehydration...But meanwhile I
am always there with the families, with the sick.”
At one point, an old woman who had been rescued asked him to bless her and the girl she was carrying.
“The parents of the little girl had gone missing before the rescue
and now it was the old woman who took care of her. She just asked me to
bless them. We prayed together in the infirmary,” he recalled.
On another occasion, a Protestant pastor had fled his homeland due to
persecution. “I helped him in everything I could,” the chaplain said,
adding that most of the time, people don't ask for anything material.
“They just want a prayer, a smile.”
Fr. Gaton told CNA that his work as a chaplain has been difficult.
“You are faced with death, with suffering, with violence. If you're far
from home and the priest introduces himself as another shipmate for the
believers and non-believers with whom they can unburden themselves, they
can talk and share like they can't do with the naval officers.”
In addition to carrying out the same tasks as the other sailors, his
unique task is “to be with the parishioners without forgetting that you
are a soldier, but giving your all as a priest. “
The priest said that every day, Mass was celebrated on the ship.
However, since there was no chapel, it was celebrated on the deck, or
else inside if there was bad weather.
Another especially moving moment for the chaplain was evening prayer,
offered each day “at the moment of sunset, to the Lord of the calm and
the storm.” Even the atheists would join in when there was a bad storm
or if they had a sick relative.
The priest said that in the months spent at sea on the Frigate
Navarra, they celebrated a First Communion, and several sailors took
marriage or Confirmation prep classes.
“I always say that at sea, the atheists become agnostics; the
agnostics become non-practicing Catholics, and the non-practicing, at
least for a while, they practice. That's my experience.”
Fr. Gaton was ordained a priest at the age of 29, after exercising
his ministry in Santander, Spain; Rome; and the United States, and at
the advice of his bishop, he decided to join the army. When he began
this service, he was already 45 years old.
Currently, he is Major Chaplain of the southern military region, a
permanent major, and as such he belongs to the military archdiocese.