Cruise line cuts use of priests aboard its ships

WASHINGTON – Celebrity Cruise Lines has cut the use of priests to give ministerial service on board its ships to only major feasts.

Previously, Celebrity had been one of a handful of cruise companies to allow a priest to board any of its excursions.

The change, announced in December, took effect Jan. 4.

The short notice left some priests in dry-dock, as they had purchased round-trip airline tickets to a port of call to board the cruise ship and had no other business in the port city. One priest said Celebrity had not offered refunds.

Celebrity’s decision also punches a sizable hole in the budget allocation of the Apostleship of the Sea to schedule priests to serve on ships.

Father Sinclair Oubre, a priest of the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, who heads the U.S. Apostleship of the Sea, said the cruise ship ministry began in 2004 after Catholic passengers complained about men who presented themselves as priests able to celebrate Mass but were not in good standing with the church.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was “getting a lot of nasty-grams from passengers about people who were passing themselves off as Catholic priests in good standing – then they would introduce their wives on the fifth or sixth day of the cruise, showing they could celebrate a Mass just like a celibate priest,” Father Oubre told Catholic News Service.

“The bishops’ conference asked us to organize a cruise-ship priest program. Our mission was to communicate with the cruise line,” Father Oubre said. “We would supply Catholic priests in good standing with competent authority to the cruise lines.”

Celebrity, Father Oubre added, was “the first to come on board. They came on strongly. They bought all the liturgical items that were necessary. Up until this point they’d just been great. We had been told back in June … they sent out their list (of cruises) and contacted us not only to find priests for them but to do the assignment process … so we did that. Then on Dec. 8 we received a memo saying they had reconsidered the (earlier) memo.”

Lisa Webster, a customer service representative, confirmed the policy change in a Jan. 12 memo to CNS, saying that “out of respect for our guests of all religious faiths,” priests, Protestant ministers and rabbis would be furnished only for “the major high holy holidays of each respective faith.”

Webster said, “Daily and weekly scheduling of any religious services will no longer be offered on an official basis – with the exception of the high holy holidays,” adding that a list of feasts would be made available shortly. She said, “Guests interested in organizing or volunteering their services are welcome to inquire with the guest services desk and/or the groups bulletin board” once aboard the ship.

Father Joseph Landi, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, told CNS he has been offering ministry on cruise ships for 20 years. He sails on Holland America cruises.

“People who expect Mass are generally older Catholics, they’re the ones who go to daily Mass and they’re the ones who have enough money to go on cruises,” Father Landi said. “On an average cruise I would have 35 people that would come to daily Mass. And then for the Saturday night vigil Mass 125 people, and 150 for Sunday.”

Father Oubre has worked on only two cruise ships, and he said it is indeed work.

“I spent about three to four hours a day” celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, counseling passengers and ministering to the crew, Father Oubre said. Based on the ship’s employee base – many of them were born outside the United States – the crew often is overwhelmingly Catholic. Frequently “they don’t have any access to the sacramental life of the church” since they can’t just get off the ship to seek out a church, he added.

“Travel agents across the United States think Celebrity is still having priests on board,” Father Landi complained. “They’re giving out false information.”

Father Oubre said one frustration with the Celebrity situation is “we can’t make the cruise lines do this.” He also has had to deal with priests who just want a free cruise with little or no priestly ministry on board. “Father So-and-So doesn’t really want to say Mass with the crew. We say at that point, ‘Buy a ticket if that’s what you want,” he said.

“It will significantly challenge us in terms of the revenue (from the cruise lines) that was generated to support the operation,” Father Oubre said. “We’re looking as an organization at losing tens of thousands of dollars and putting the whole program into question.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.