Every year, the parish of Saint-Stephan (Saint-Etienne) in Batroun holds a maritime mass in memory of the sailors who have died at sea and to pray for the protection of living fishermen.

The origins of this ceremony date back to ancient times and remain uncertain. In the past, the residents and clergy of Batroun would gather at the old port quays to retrieve the bodies of shipwrecked sailors and organize their funerals. It is worth noting that traditional fishing methods were so dangerous that many did not return unscathed after hours spent out at sea. Fishermen would use their nets to catch fish, and some would dive into deep waters to collect sponges. The danger is always present, particularly at night and in winter when the sea becomes choppy and threatens to engulf everything.

In the early 1970s, the Jeunesse Mariale and the city’s bishopric decided to formalize the ceremony, scheduling it on the Sunday closest to the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29). However, it is commonly believed today that the event takes place on the first Sunday in July. This initiative aimed to actively involve the community of fishermen and divers in religious life since they spend more time in the water than on dry land.

Over time, these fishermen have become as involved in the preparation and organization of the event as the religious authorities. Today, they are the first to arrive and take care of the staging, lining up the rows of chairs on the quay facing the sea, hanging the banners around the square and on the boats, preparing their boats and the flowers for the end of the ceremony, etc. The latter usually begins at 7 p.m., around two weeks after the summer solstice, when the sun is slow to disappear behind the horizon.

Before the mass, the presiding priest blesses the sea salt that has been obtained from the nearby salt marshes. He and the other clerics then board a boat docked at the quay, where an altar has been set up for the occasion. The mass is conducted on the boat, with the worshippers gathered on the esplanade of the church of Saint-Etienne, Batroun’s patron saint. This setting was inspired by the New Testament passage in which Jesus compelled his disciples to get into a boat and precede him to the other shore while he sent the crowd away. Toward the end of the night, Jesus came to them by walking on the sea.

At the conclusion of the mass, as darkness sets in, the final stage of the ceremony unfolds. The main boat, carrying the clergy, departs from the harbor, followed by numerous boats carrying the worshipers, fishermen, bereaved families, the town’s religious associations, and curious onlookers from all walks of life. A wreath of flowers, prepared by the organizers, is placed on the clergy’s boat. The procession sets off into the sunset, moving further away from the shore when the sea is calm. The distance covered is calculated in kilometers. In the middle of the sea, as night falls, the Bishop of Batroun throws the wreath into the water amidst thunderous applause from the attendees. The wreath is made from flowers edible for the fish. It’s a way of thanking the marine fauna for allowing these men to exist, devoting their lives to their profession to the point of sacrificing their lives to feed their families.

This ritual mobilizes the town’s population. It is evolving in the sense that some of its organizers are seeking to change the way it is carried out, adding new elements year after year. For instance, the families of fishermen are currently compiling a list of sailors who have perished at sea to be read during future ceremonies.

-L’Orient-Le-jour, Messe maritime dimanche à Batroun (Sunday maritime mass in Batroun), 29/6 /2013.
-Nour Sat Network, 2019.
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