The Holy See
back up

 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 106 (Suppl.-I), April 2008



Cruise Ship Ministry by AOS-USA


Fr. Sinclair Oubre

President of AOS-USA


This talk will have three parts. First, I will review the development of the AOS-USA Cruise Ship Priest Program. Second, I will explain how the program works. Third, I will reflect on the Motu Proprio Stella Maris, in light of the rise of cruise ship ministry 

The Development of a US Cruise Ship Ministry:

In 2002, our past national director, Fr. John Jamnicky, suggested that AOS-USA coordinate Catholic priests serving on cruise ships out of U.S. ports. Bishops at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had expressed concerns following complaints from passengers.

In September 2002, the first planning meeting was held in San Francisco. Over the two days, we hashed out a working model that would be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the cruise lines, and establish basic standards for both the cruise lines and the cruise ship priests.

In April 2003, a second organizational meeting was held in Chicago Illinois. During this meeting, we finalized plans for the opening of the cruise ship priest program, planned the production of the promotional materials, and prepared to roll out the program.

On July 1, 2003, the AOS-USA office for Cruise Ship Ministry was opened in Port Arthur, Texas. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops put forth $50,000 to help open the office, cover initial expenses, and send promotional materials to every Catholic priest in the United States.

Soon thereafter, our newly-hired secretary-general was inundated with phone calls, and applications. Some priests were upset that the special situations that they had enjoyed for years were going to change, and they resented having to go through a screening process, and having to be under the authority of AOS-USA. However, hundreds of other priests were tremendously excited about having the opportunity to be cruise ship priests. 

Five issues demonstrated the need for the Cruise Ship Priest Program:

  1. The ministry to cruise ship passengers and crewmembers is the domain of the Apostleship of the Sea. In the Motu Proprio Stella Maris, cruise ship passengers and crewmembers are seafarers, and therefore the responsibility of AOS. “Seafarers are those actually on board merchant ships or fishing vessels, and all who for whatever reason have undertaken a voyage by ship;” (Part I, Sec. 2, II,1,a)
  1. The presence of Rent-a-Priests from the organization Celibacy is the Issue (CITI), as well as priests who were apostates, heretics and schismatics. Passengers were scandalized when the Rent-a-Priest would introduce his wife, or when a priest would propose ideas that were not orthodox.
  2. Priests with credible accusation of sexual abuse could flood the cruise ship ministry. Hundreds of priests in the U.S. had lost their ecclesial offices because of the new norms, and would be available for unlimited cruising.
  3. Manning agencies were placing “priests” on board, with no ability to ensure that these men were in fact priests.  Though most claimed to screen these “priests”, little or no screening was taking place. Furthermore, there is no real way to screen priests, without Church cooperation and authorization. Finally, the fees placed upon the priests by these manning agencies was often expensive.  AOS-USA sought to remove manning agents from managing cruise ship ministry. Priests would not have to go to manning agents to access cruises.
  4. Too often, the opportunity to serve as a cruise ship priest was contingent on whom one knew, and the quality of that relationship. Through the AOS-USA program, more priests would have opportunities in the ministry.

How the US Cruise Ship Priest Program Works:

Priests who wish to participate in the Cruise Ship Priest Program submit an application for membership in AOS-USA, $60.00 for dues, and a letter from their competent authority stating that they have his permission to participate in this ministry for a specific year. This letter is renewed annually.

Once these three requirements are met, our secretary-general prepares a photo identification badge, updates the list of priests with the new information, informs the priest and his competent authority that he is now on the approved list of cruise ship priests, and emails a copy of the AOS-USA Cruise Ship Manual to the priest.

The four contracted cruise lines prepare their list of available cruises. Our secretary-general, or the cruise line coordinator,  informs all the priests by email that on a certain date, and at a certain time, these lists will be released by email. Once the lists have been sent out, the priest checks his calender, and then submits by return email to the cruise line coordinator the cruises that he would like to take. It is up to the cruise line coordinator to make the actual assignment of cruises.

Once the priest is assigned, either the cruise line coordinator, or a volunteer with AOS-USA will forward boarding information to the priest. He then will make his travel arrangements to the vessel.

For Celebrity, Holland America and Princess, the priest needs only bring his oils for the anointing of the sick. Because Norwegian Cruise Line only uses priests for holy days, we have not been able to move them to purchasing the full assortment of liturgical items. This is approximately $3,000.00 U.S. per vessel. For those priest taking NCL cruises, they need to bring what they need to be certain that they will have all they need. It is AOS-USA’s hope that this situation will improve sometime in the future.

Besides taking care of the passengers with daily Mass, and ecumenical services scheduled by the cruise director, the Cruise ship priest is to hold at least one Mass per week for the crew members. He is also to make himself available for confessions, spiritual direction and be present to the crew.

Finally, the cruise ship priest is to visit the infirmary daily, and to offer pastoral care to those who may be sick.

According to our records from 2006, there were:

- 669 registered Cruise Ship Priests

- 3 Contracted companies (Celebrity, Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Lines)

- 33 cruise ships covered by contract

- 790 cruises

As I was preparing this talk just before Holy Week of 2007, Princess Cruises joined the AOS-USA Cruise Ship Priest Program, bringing our list of contracted cruise lines to four. 

Taking a New Look at Stella Maris

January 31, 2007, marked the tenth anniversary of the promulgation of the muto proprio Stella Maris by Pope John Paul II. This was the first time that AOS had been blessed with such an important document.

Stella Maris followed a tradition originally begun by Pope Pius XII when he issued the first migration encyclical Exsul Familia Nazarethana. This encyclical, issued on August 1, 1952, set a course for the coordinated pastoral care of migrants and refugees following World War II. It specifically addressed what was then called ship chaplains.

The title of ship chaplain is found in norms issued in 1954 and 1957. However, because Vatican II shifted responsibility for the pastoral care of the maritime and migrant communities from the Roman Dicasteries to the diocesan bishops (see Christus Dominus: Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church), new norms for the Apostleship of the Sea were issued in 1977, and the office of ship chaplain became a potential ministry of the AOS chaplain.

“An Apostleship of the Sea chaplain  who carries out his pastoral work on board ship is appointed by the competent authority as Ship’s Chaplain. Endowed with those same qualities specified in Art. 8, 2, his duty is to give spiritual assistance to everyone on board, from the beginning of the sea, lake or river voyage until its termination.” (Norms for the spiritual care of seafarers and others traveling by sea, Part I, Art. 11,1, see AAS 69 (1977) 737‑746)

I believe the suppression of the ship chaplains was caused by at least four reasons:

First, the pastoral care of the people of the sea shifted from the Consistorial Congregation to the diocesan bishop. The Vatican II document Christus dominus instructs diocesan bishops that:

“18. Special concern should be shown for those among the faithful who, on account of their way of life, cannot sufficiently make use of the common and ordinary pastoral care of parish priests or are quite cut off from it. Among this group are . . . seafarers . . . ” (Christus dominus, §18)

Second, the wave of immigrants and refugees accompanied by their own clergy and religious that was a result of World War II subsided.

Third, the era of the great ocean liners had been eclipsed by transcontinental passenger jets.

Fourth, the number of priests who were engaged in ship chaplain ministry became too small to justify their own set of norms and faculties.

Many of the faculties and privileges that were in Exsul Familia and the subsequent norms and laws for ship chaplains were contained in the norms and laws for AOS chaplains. Today, more than six hundred and fifty priests in the AOS-USA cruise ship priest program, but only ten have appointments from their competent authorities to serve as AOS chaplains, and therefore possessing the faculties of the Motu Proprio Stella Maris, it may be time to revisit the idea of a ship chaplain under the new name of cruise ship priests.

Three liturgical/pastoral issues can help illustrate the need for a review of Stella Maris  and the establishment of faculties and norms for cruise ship priests.

First, what diocesan bishop should be  invoked during the Eucharist prayer when Mass is celebrated at sea? The General Instruction of the Roman Missal assumes Mass is taking place on land, and is silent for Masses at sea. However, back in 1954, the norms and faculties for ship chaplains answered the question:

“During a voyage, after having mentioned the Pope’s name in the Canon of the Mass, the name of any local bishop is omitted” (Norms and Faculties of the Consistorial Congregation for priest engaged in the spiritual care of those on ships, i.e., for ship chaplains and Directors of chaplains, Part I, 6)

Second, cruise ship priests are being asked to witness marriages on cruise ships. Though Stella Maris gives faculties to AOS chaplains to do weddings on cruise ships in certain situations, this faculty does not apply to cruise ship priests. By extending this faculty to cruise ship priests who have received delegation from their ordinaries to do this ministry, a very difficult process can be streamlined. In addition, this will allow the Church to be present at this very important time in the couple’s life, and prevent the need for a future validation or radical sanation of the marriage.

Finally, in the past, ship chaplains had special faculties to absolve censures and penalties that were associated with procuring an abortion, apostasy, heresy or schism. Stella Maris makes no mention of special faculties for confession. However, the norms issued by the Pontifical Commission for the Spiritual Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples in March 1982, and was the predecessor to Stella Maris, allowed AOS chaplains to:

“6. Absolv(e), in the sacramental forum, the faithful under their care from undisclosed censures latae sententiae, provided they are not reserved to the Holy See and that the requirements of the law are observed.”

(Special Faculties to Chaplains and Privileges to the Faithful of the Various Sectors of People on the Move issued by the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, 1982)

A cruise can be an opportunity for prayer and conversion. Passengers may truly wish to reconcile themselves with God and His Church. Reinstating these faculties would allow the cruise ship priests to bring the penitent back to full communion with the Church.

Creative penitential norms, even including norms for general absolution, are needed for the pastoral care of crewmembers. Cruise ship priests have expressed concern about the low number of crewmembers receiving communion. Because of long contracts, crewmembers go a long time without confession, and do not feel they are in a state of grace. However, the crewmembers have neither the time during the voyage, nor a sufficient number of confessors, nor opportunities ashore to access confessors. Therefore, crewmembers find themselves unable to access the life-giving grace of the Blessed Sacrament during crew Masses.

In conclusion, the development of the cruise ship priest program has removed a scandal from the seas. It has opened the possibility of ministry to hundreds of new priests, and the sacramental life of the Church to tens of thousands of seafarers working in the cruise line industry. It also has challenged us to look to the past in order to more effectively respond in the future. By revising Stella Maris to take in the cruise ship priests, or by developing stand-alone norms and faculties for cruise ship priests under the auspices of AOS, I believe that we can more effectively evangelize the millions of people who cruise every year, and more fully minister to the tens of thousands of seafarers who supply the special experience the passengers desire on our modern cruise ships.