FRONT ROYAL, Va. — Anthony Buono admits that he felt skeptical when a travel agency approached him six years ago about planning a Caribbean cruise for his Catholic dating service.
“Like many people, I was thinking of a cruise as a decadent kind of thing,” said Buono, the founder of Ave Maria Singles. “It’s a luxury — very non-spiritual, right?”
Despite his initial hesitation, Buono was amazed by the experience — complete with Rosary walks on the beach, daily Mass and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on board the ship.
“We had everything from fun and vacation to spiritual growth and edification of the members,” he said.
Other Catholic organizations have also discovered the benefits of cruising Catholic-style.
“It’s a chance to travel with like-minded Catholics in a wholesome, uplifting environment,” said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for Catholic Answers, who coordinates cruises to Alaska, the Baltics and the Holy Land that feature talks by well-known apologists.
John and Barbara Kaisersatt of San Clemente, Calif., have returned from four such events with a “new enthusiasm for the faith.”
For the Kaisersatts, sharing meals with “dynamic speakers” and their families has proven to be a highlight of these trips.
“I couldn’t believe it when someone we had seen on EWTN was walking toward our table and sat down,” Barbara said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
While travelers booking with church-based groups can be assured that their spiritual needs will be met on board, Catholic cruisers venturing out to the high seas on their own are by no means lacking in available resources.
Among the most helpful may be the Cruise Ship Priest Program managed by the Apostleship of the Sea USA. That’s an association of the faithful that works to assist the Church’s Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People in its apostolate to the maritime world.
The program interfaces with cruise lines by seeking signed contracts ensuring that cruise directors will use only the services of priests on the Apostleship of the Sea’s list.
According to Apostleship’s secretary general, Doreen Badeaux of Beaumont, Texas, the presence of Catholic priests on board cruise ships was largely unregulated prior to implementation of the Cruise Ship Priest Program in 2004.
Badeaux said it was not unheard of for a cruise line to connect with groups like Rent-a-Priest that often harbor suspended or laicized priests.
“We want to make sure that the passengers and crew members out there have access to the sacraments from validly ordained priests in good standing,” she said.
Badeaux is pleased that four major cruise lines have signed contracts with Apostleship of the Sea USA: Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Celebrity.
In particular, she noted that Celebrity and Holland America place priests on each and every ship throughout the world. Princess provides a priest for its multi-monthlong world cruises and — along with Norwegian — for major holy days.
“These cruises take their Catholic passengers’ needs seriously,” Badeaux said.
To Janet LeBlanc, owner of ALBE Travel International in Greenville, S.C., the Cruise Ship Priest Program is essential for Catholic travelers.
“Typically Catholics — especially Catholic families — have not vacationed by cruising because there was not easy access to the sacraments,” Le Blanc said. She explained that cruise ships often spend Sundays at sea following a four o’clock Saturday afternoon departure.
“I’m hoping to repeatedly suggest to the cruise lines that having a priest on board is — at the end of the day — good business,” LeBlanc said. “If Catholics know that a priest is going to be on board a particular ship, they’re happy to sail with them.”
Gilbert and Joyce Nebgen of Ottumwa, Iowa, are a prime example. When they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a Holland America cruise to the Caribbean 12 years ago, the daily communicants were pleased to find a priest aboard. As a result, the Nebgens plan to celebrate their 40th anniversary in Alaska with the same cruise line.
“Just knowing that there is a priest on board blesses the entire cruise,” Joyce said. “It adds to my sense of safety physically and spiritually.”
Everything in Moderation
Communicating this sentiment to the cruise lines, however, can be a challenge, said Father Sinclair Oubre, president of the Apostleship of the Sea USA.
“It’s hard for [cruise lines] to fathom that on any given day 30 to 40 people would be willing to attend daily Mass on the ship,” Father Oubre said.
He added that these numbers don’t even take into account the crews, who are often comprised of typically Catholic nationalities — Filipinos, Eastern Europeans, Haitians and Latinos, to name a few.
“The passengers are a high priority for us, but an even higher priority are the crew,” Father Oubre said. “We’re very sensitive to the fact that the crews on a cruise ship may have eight to 11 months without access to the sacraments.”
Even for passengers who will return home in a few days, maintaining a spiritual life while on vacation can be a challenge, said Mariann Kokotajlo, manager of Bellevue Travel in Bellevue, Neb.
“It’s a little more difficult because you can’t just open a phonebook,” she said.
Instead, she recommends the Internet as a helpful tool to research Catholic churches and shrines in various ports of call along the way.
Despite the wealth of opportunity available on these floating hotels, frequent cruisegoers still provide a word of caution to potential travelers.
“It’s hard to be disciplined on a cruise ship,” said Buono of Ave Maria Singles. “The overindulgence capability is right there for you at every level — especially eating. I could eat and eat and eat!”
Paulist Father Dave Farnam, a frequent cruise ship priest from New York City, agreed.
“It’s certainly easy to find examples of gluttony and excess on a cruise ship — having too many drinks at the bar or gambling too much at the casino,” he said. “There is that reality in the world of cruising, but we Catholics do believe in moderation and enjoying [the fruit of] our labors.”
All in all, Father Farnam heartily recommends cruising for Catholic families.
“They can have fun in some of the most beautiful places in the world God created,” he said. “The cruise journey can be an equally prayerful time and a time to look at our lives … and invite God into that.”
Kimberly Jansen writes
from Lincoln, Nebraska.