Priests of the Sea
Cruise-Ship Chaplains Bring Faith on Board
MASS ON THE OCEAN. Father Sinclair Oubre with Massgoers on a cruise. Courtesy of the Apostleship of the Sea USA
The man phoning Doreen Badeaux had recently lost his wife.
The two of them had been on a cruise to celebrate their anniversary, he told Badeaux, and it was during dinner one evening that they spotted the priest. They’d asked him to join them, and in introducing themselves, they shared that the wife was dying. The cruise was an item they were crossing off her “bucket list.”
Later in the cruise, they met the priest again — when they called him to their cabin because the wife was near death. And that was what the widower wanted Badeaux to know.
“He called and told me it was beautiful that her faith was there for her,” Badeaux recalled.
“Her faith was there for her in the middle of the ocean.”
As secretary general of Apostleship of the Sea USA, it is Badeaux’s job to ensure that cruise passengers’ and crewmembers’ faith is there for them while at sea. The “Cruise Ship Priest Program” screens and vets potential cruise-ship chaplains and works with partner cruise lines to place a Catholic chaplain on their ships. (AOS-USA is not to be confused with the Vatican’s Apostleship of the Sea, which falls under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers.)
Cruise chaplains are quick to point out that they are continuing the missionary work of the early Church.
“It’s a great thing the passengers can get a Mass — but they’re generally going to be home in 11 days,” points out Father Sinclair Oubre. The diocesan director for Apostleship of the Sea for the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, he has gone to sea as a merchant sailor for 20 of his last 30 summer vacations.
“For me personally, [this ministry is] for the crewmembers who may be [at sea] six to nine months. Our interest in this grew out of a desire to bring the Eucharist and the sacraments of the Church to seafarers — and we could do that by offering service to the cruise lines, having Mass on board for the passengers.”
Father Bill Reynolds, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Newton, Iowa, was a cruise passenger when he first learned about the Cruise Ship Priest Program — from a priest who was serving aboard that cruise. Now, he typically uses his vacation time to serve as a cruise chaplain.
A canon lawyer, he offers a unique opportunity to passengers, telling them to come talk “if you have questions about annulments and those kinds of issues and want to talk with somebody you’re never going to see again.’”
“I think people find an ease” in approaching a priest in those circumstances, he added.
People may feel liberated to share a problem with a shipboard priest. But that is only part of what a priest may hope to achieve through this ministry; illness, death and emergency situations can crop up, and the presence of a priest can be incredibly important in those unexpected situations.
Said Father Oubre, “It can get real serious when a passenger passes away during the cruise, when a crewmember who is depressed jumps overboard and commits suicide, when there’s a sexual assault.”
Additionally, a priestly presence can make an evangelistic impact. Salesian Father Dennis Donovan, of the Salesians of Don Bosco, is the province treasurer of the Salesian Society. He volunteered to fill in for a cruise chaplain on a Caribbean cruise in 1990, and ever since, he has spent all of his vacation time serving in that capacity.
On every cruise, he encounters passengers who are not familiar with the work of the Salesians — and it’s not unusual for those passengers to contact him at his office, long after the cruise is over, to request more information or send a donation to support the society’s work.
“You always see the advertisements [for cruises] show these exotic places with fine food, rich people enjoying themselves — but the ports they go to are often very poor,” said Father Donovan, so any aid is appreciated.
If vacationers are on a Catholic cruise, a chaplain is always part of the package.
Since 2002, San Diego-based Catholic Answers has been organizing cruises.
“We want to provide a delightful, recreational opportunity that still, at its heart and center, is informed by the faith,” said Christopher Check, president of Catholic Answers.
Catholic Answers books space on a larger cruise and then fills that space with people interested in attending daily Mass, having access to confession and attending lectures on Catholic history, Catholic literature, Catholic apologetics or another topic connected to the Church.
As Check put it, “I think God wants us to go on vacations. And if you’re going to take one, why not one that has the quality of a pilgrimage to it?”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.
Wondering if there will be a priest aboard your cruise? Contact the cruise line to find out. If the cruise line has not arranged for a Catholic chaplain to be on board, request that it does.
Was there a Catholic chaplain aboard your cruise ship? Contact the cruise line to express thanks that it looks after the spiritual welfare of Catholic passengers.