“Nine-tenths of my work is meeting with sailors one-on-one,” says Senior Chaplain Paul Stuart of his work in the Royal Australian Navy.
This gently spoken Catholic 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 Chaplain 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.
He also conducts services for deceased Navy personnel who have requested that their ashes be scattered at sea, after which he sends the person’s family a chart that shows where the ashes were scattered and memorial booklet.
No doubt he would love the ship’s Bible study participants to be too numerous to fit in the room.
“Most ships sail with five to six boxes of ashes to be scattered,” he explains. Last deployment he had the great honour of conducting services to scatter the ashes of two deceased veterans who had survived the bombing of their ship, the HMAS Canberra I, from World War II.
Chaplain Stuart was hosting 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.
Chaplain 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. Our interview place took in a lounge area of the HMAS Canberra III, where he holds regular Bible studies. It’s a warm and comfortable space, though not large. No doubt he would love the ship’s Bible study participants to be too numerous to fit in the room. Next door, he says, is the Officers’ Reading Room, where he holds non-denominational church services on a Sunday (The ship’s layout is modelled on the Spanish Navy vessel the Juan Carlo).
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. Chaplain 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.
“I think the harvest is rich for anyone who wants to get out there.” – Senior Chaplain Paul Stuart
Yet while there’s a heaviness to Chaplain 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.”
Chaplain Stuart’s confidence that God is working in the lives of the sailors he serves is reassuring. In fact, everything about Senior Chaplain Paul Stuart is reassuring. The phrase “quiet confidence” springs to mind, although it’s probably been used glibly too many times to be an adequate description. There’s simply a weight to his faith and a humility to his service that have a calming effect on those around him. It’s easy to imagine him seated with a young sailor facing an unbearable homesickness after nine months at sea.
I ask whether he thinks sailors relate differently to the Bible under such circumstances?
“When you’re on a deployment and you’re separated from loved ones, the homesickness becomes more acute,” he says, “and the Bible can really sustain you psychologically. It becomes more important.”
No wonder he’s pleased to have given away all of his Bibles and know they’re in the rooms of sailors.
The opportunity to provide a Bible for any Australian defence member who wants one, free of charge, is an opportunity BSA gladly welcomes. At today’s launch, Principal Chaplain Colin Acton welcomes BSA’s Chief Operating Officer, Melissa Lipsett, to address a group that includes the Navy’s top tier of leadership and chaplains from the Army, Airforce and Navy.
“It’s a particular joy for me to be here today,” she says, “because as a young girl of 17 I ran away and joined the Navy.”
“He opened the Bible with me and told me that I wasn’t who I thought I was – I was who God said I was.” – Melissa Lipsett
Rev Lipsett briefly tells the group about her 15 years in Navy intelligence communications, meeting her husband – a Navy pilot – and their combined 35 years of service. She explains how, at 21 years of age, she met Navy Chaplain Bill Rosier.
“He opened the Bible with me and told me that I wasn’t who I thought I was – I was who God said I was,” Lipsett said. “I was the Creator God’s child and he has a plan and purpose for life. And it changed my life.
“It is an incredible joy for me to see that come full circle,” she added, delivering BSA’s new Navy Bible designs to chaplains today.
“Those of us who are of faith believe that this is the book for life and for living. It changes way we live, serve and lead. All of us will be better for what we find in its pages.”
Vice-Admiral Mike Noonan thanked Rev Lipsett for her testimony and said it was “very fitting” that this new Bible design would be launched on a Navy shipped docked in Sydney, the city where Bible Society was founded in 1817.
“I’m flying to Japan tonight – and towards the area of the typhoon! – so I will definitely be glad to have this new Bible with me!” he said.