Priests traveling on cruise ships are not just there for the
wind and the waves. Although they may indeed be enjoying the
same amenities as other passengers, they are working.
"This is real ministry. It's not necessarily heavy-lifting
ministry, but it is ministry," said Father Sinclair Oubre,
who until early 2013 was president of the Apostleship of the
Sea-USA, which oversees, among other things, cruise ship
ministry. Father Oubre has done several chaplaincies aboard
cruise ships himself and has worked below-board as a
The Apostleship of the Sea-USA even has a manual for priests
to follow when serving in this specialized ministry.
No priest is ever assigned full time to luxury liners. Many
clergy manage to squeeze in a cruise during their regular
vacations. Some retired priests have the time to go on
extended trips though.
"We get calls from guys who want a free cruise. And we tell
them, if you want to cruise, buy a ticket," Father Oubre
says. "But if you do this job correctly, it's four hours of
work a day or more."
Father Charles Sabella of the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J.,
recalled one cruise where he was on deck listening to
someone's confession. Before he knew it, there was a line; he
heard passengers' confessions for five hours straight.
On the same cruise, a young woman hired to be part of the
orchestra was told she was fired and would be sent home once
they reached the next port. "That was three days away,"
Father Sabella recalls. "She didn't have a lot of faith or
anything, but she needed somebody, so for three days
straight, a couple of hours each day, I spent talking with
Doreen Badeaux, secretary general for the Apostleship of the
Sea-USA, said that in the early 2000s, it was a much
different scene aboard ships.
"The U.S. bishops were getting a lot of 'nastygrams' from
passengers aboard cruise ships who thought they were Catholic
priests, but they were not Catholic priests, (and) doing all
sorts of things on board the ships that they should not have
Some passing themselves off as legitimate Catholic clergy
were married priests; Father Oubre said some would wait until
the fifth day of a cruise to introduce their wives. "All the
celibate priests were busy," was a typical excuse Badeaux
said they would give. Others, she added, were "schismatics."
Still others had been accused of sexual misconduct and were
pretending to be "on sabbatical."
This led to getting the cruise-ship chaplaincy shipshape.
Currently there are 550 priests involved in the program. Some
priests go occasionally, others frequently.
Father Sabella said his 9 a.m. Mass aboard ship draws 20-80
passengers. Sunday Mass, even on a cruise ship holding a
relatively small number like 1,200-1,500 passengers, will
draw 500 worshipers, he added. One big point, especially on
long east-west cruises, is changing your clock every day so
that Mass starts on time.
Father Oubre noted that on his cruise assignments "there was
an ecumenical service on most of those days also." Afterward,
he recalled, "I would go and sit in the common area in case
anyone wanted to come and talk with me. I would also go to
the infirmary to check in to see if there were any folks who
were sick and needed to be anointed." Because the passenger
demographic skews older than the U.S. average, there is
ministry to the sick and even to the dying.
On a cruise from Puerto Rico to Spain, Father Sabella
anointed a woman several hours before she died and tried to
provide comfort to the family members.
Father William Reynolds, a priest of the Diocese of
Davenport, Iowa, and a canon lawyer who goes on at least one
cruise a year, said he thinks passengers like the anonymity
of talking to priests they really don't know.
"It's an opportunity for me as a canonist to talk marriage
issues with people, to meet with people who need to be
seeking an annulment, so I help in that venue," he added.
If a cruise has a priest on board, he'll likely be in his
clerical clothing when he's on duty. Still, don't look for
any onboard weddings, although a private anniversary blessing
may be in order. But even if a priest is in civilian
clothing, he won't be on a barstool or in the ship's casino.
Those places are strictly off-limits.
Since the Apostleship of the Sea cruise ship priest program
started, there have been only six instances of cruise lines
lodging complaints about priests and, after investigation,
not one priest has ever been dismissed from the program.
Another aspect of cruise ship ministry that passengers rarely
see is pastoral care of the crew. Most crew members hail from
heavily Catholic Latin America, the Caribbean or the
Philippines, and work nine or 10 months without a day off.
"They're on the move constantly," Father Reynolds said, "and
they can't go to a church, so the church comes to them."