PORT ARTHUR, Texas — Father Sinclair Oubre remembers the story one Catholic man told him. The man had been enjoying his trip on a cruise ship — there was relaxation, and entertainment, and the sacraments, too. He went to Mass every day with a nice man who said he was priest and was readily available to assist travelers with other spiritual needs.

“At the end he described himself as a Roman Catholic Eastern-rite married bishop,” Father Oubre said. But Eastern-rite churches only ordain celibate men as bishops. “He knew that didn't exist.”

Father Oubre is president of the 83-year-old Apostleship of the Sea of the United States, a group which has been ministering to sailors since 1920 and has been focusing on the cruise ship problem.

It's an issue that might not cross many people's minds. But some Catholics have come home from cruises and sat down to write the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, complaining about a sea-faring chaplain who introduced his wife at the end of Mass.

Bishops and priests met for months to create the program to screen priests and make recommendations to cruise lines. This is the first full summer the program will be in place.

Many of the priests who have served on cruise ships are married or laicized, said Father Oubre, who is also pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Port Arthur.

Some cruise chaplains are supplied by Rent-A-Priest, which is part of an organization that advocates the abolition of mandatory celibacy in the priesthood, or come from a schismatic organization. Apostleship of the Sea is trying to supply cruise lines with priests in good standing.

Father Oubre said the problem arose in part because cruise assignments often are made privately for priests who have a friend or relative who works in the cruise industry.

“There was no accountability, no standards in terms of who sets fees, where the collection [money] would go,” he said. “The potential for abuses was pretty high.”

Calming the Seas

The organization signs contracts with cruise lines and supplies a database of priests who are in good standing with the Church and have endorsements from their bishops to serve on cruise ships. The group ensures that priests assigned to cruises understand what's expected of them and has created a manual outlining responsibilities.

“It's important that priests understand their responsibility is not just to say a quick Mass every day and then hang out by the pool but to be actively involved in being the cruise-ship priest,” Father Oubre said. “That includes saying Mass and being in public spaces to talk to people or visit those who are sick” as well as celebrate Mass for the ship's crew members.

More than 400 priests have applied for the program, and two major cruise lines, Holland America and Celebrity Cruises, have signed up to receive recommendations. As part of the contract, cruise lines agree to use only recommended priests.

Doreen Badeaux, secretary-general of Apostleship of the Sea, said priests must reapply each year to be retained on the list, submitting a letter from their bishops certifying they are in good standing.

Badeaux said some cruise lines have not understood how important the issue is to faithful Catholics. The service should benefit the companies as well as Catholics who go on cruises, she said.

“It's something to offer to customers, not to mention the people who work on the ships for months at a time,” Badeaux said. “It's important to have someone there to minister to their spiritual needs.”

Those who assign priests for cruises say the program will be helpful.

“We've never really had a large database of available priests from across the nation,” said Robert Vazquez, specialist for cruise activities at Celebrity. Vazquez said the company had been using third-party agencies to get priests for cruises. On one occasion a ship had a priest who was married and the cruise line received negative comments, he said.

In general, Celebrity receives positive feedback from passengers whenever a priest is available on ships, and it tries to book one on every cruise, Vazquez said.

Msgr. Michael Harriman, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco who assigns all cruises for Holland America, said the company schedules daily Masses on every ship. While Holland has not had a problem booking priests in good standing on its ships, Msgr. Harriman said the cruise line will benefit from having a greater number of priests from which to draw.

Some Keep Renting

Rent-A-Priest, a Framingham, Mass., organization, will continue to provide priests — through booking agents — in response to requests from cruise lines, said founder Louise Haggett. The group is part of Celibacy Is the Issue Ministries, and many of its priests no longer have faculties from the dioceses in which they were incardinated because they attempted marriage. Rent-A-Priest books its priests for weddings and other events.

“If we receive a request from a cruise line, it means they're usually unable to find a clerical priest to serve them on a particular cruise,” Haggett said. “We give them a list of those priests who are interested in going.”

The priests who are married usually introduce their wives at the beginning of Mass, she said. “Nothing is done secretly; it's all out in the open,” she said.

But Legionary Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, said a priest who has received a dispensation from the clerical state loses both the obligations and the rights pertaining to his ordination.

“He may no longer exercise any function reserved to the ordained, and he is forbidden to present himself as a priest,” Father McNamara said in a question-and-answer interview on www.zenit. org, a Rome-based Catholic news service. He said a Mass celebrated by a priest in this situation would be a valid but illicit act. A wedding would be invalid.

In any case, Lois Coy from Livingston, Texas, is pleased Apostle-ship of the Sea is providing its service.

“It's very important” that a legitimate priest be on board, she said. “There's something special about attending Mass on a ship.”

Bob Violino writes from Massapequa Park, New York.