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Chaplaincy was not in deacon's retirement plan

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DELTA, British Columbia — A few years ago, Deacon Dileep Athaide could never have guessed he'd become a frequent visitor on the immense coal and container ships dotting the horizon in Delta and Vancouver.


Yet nearly every day, he finds himself donning a hard hat, reflective vest and steel-toed boots, chatting with security guards who recognize his white collar and climbing high ladders into cargo ships as a chaplain to seafarers.


"It's only three years that I've been doing this, but it feels like 10 years — in a good way," Deacon Athaide, 69, said while on board a Japanese coal carrier at Westshore Terminals in Delta.


Spending his free time on cargo ships wasn't exactly Deacon Athaide's retirement plan. A man of many interests, Deacon Athaide has been a geologist, professor, labor leader and even a thoroughbred horse owner. Chaplaincy came as a surprise.


Born in a devout Catholic suburb of Mumbai, India, he was deeply rooted in his faith from a young age. He would pray the rosary with his family every day but did not consider becoming a priest and had never heard of permanent deacons.


He was 14 when his family immigrated to Canada in 1964. "Montreal was super Catholic at the time. We came to a Montreal where, if you were five minutes late for church, you couldn't find a seat."


As a young adult, he had a heart for service. When he noticed a trend of young adults traveling overseas to do mission work, he founded the Communitas International Volunteer Society. The registered Canadian charity sent volunteers to a developing country for one year at a time, and it was while traveling with his organization that he met his wife.


He and Malvina, a nurse, raised three children. When their youngest was only 7, Malvina was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died in 2004.


In 2011, Archbishop J. Michael Miller released a letter to announce he was restoring the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Vancouver. Permanent deacons, he wrote, would have a theology degree and run a variety of parish and other ministries, including being allowed to officiate at marriages and funerals and preach homilies.


Deacon Athaide talked to his pastor about it. "I remember him saying: 'Go for it.' It seemed to be a natural kind of thing and a great opportunity. I had lost my wife seven years prior, and I got to a stage where I realized I'm probably not going to get married again. It seemed like a natural opportunity."


He registered and spent four years in formation through the permanent diaconate program at St. Mark's College. He became one of the first permanent deacons ordained in the local church in 2015.


After his ordination, Deacon Athaide was given the mission of reaching out to seafarers. It has been a long, unexpected journey, but one he finds incredibly rewarding.


"Five years ago, I never would have imagined I would do this port ministry, and yet it seems so natural to me," said Deacon Athaide, who boarded 260 ships and met 5,500 crew members in 2018 alone.


"I feel so blessed. When I do stuff with the seafarers, they are so grateful. And I think: who is ministering to whom? At the end of the day, I am so tired, but it's a good feeling."


Deacon Athaide boards these vessels to offer prayers, rosaries, ship blessings, a listening ear, and a free ride out of the port to a nearby mall or church. As a deacon, he can't celebrate Mass or hear confessions, but he can invite a priest on board, or bring Communion and lead a service.


He also drops off day-old treats donated from a local bakery and, on special occasions, such as Christmas, gives away thousands of gift-wrapped hats, scarves, jackets and chocolate bars.


"The pastoral and the practical needs are all intertwined,” he said. “It's through the practical means that they open up and you get a relationship.”




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019