Two Recent Developements in Regards to Catholics Priests Serving on Cruise Ships

In recent months, I have been monitoring two developments in the cruise industry in regard to the Catholic Priest that serve on cruise ships. In late December, Celebrity Cruise lines announced that they will no long have a Catholic priest on board to celebrate mass during all of of their voyages effective Jan 4th. This week, the Catholic Church issued guidelines for priest that serve as chaplains on cruise ships.

The December announcement from Celebrity has created quite a debate among those for or against having a priest on board to celebrate mass. Celebrity has long worked with the Apostleship of the Sea to provide Catholic priest who preside over daily mass, Sunday mass, a Sunday Non-Denominational service, other Holiday Celebrations, and minister to Catholics and non-Catholics in a variety of other ways through out a voyage. The AOS started the process of contracting on board priest in 2007 in order to insure that the Priest serving on cruise ships were still in good standing with the church and not priests who had been dismissed from pastoral duties. The priest participating in their program must have documentation that they are in good standing with the church.

In the late December announcement Celebrity stated that in order to provide “fairness” to all religions and not show preference of one above others, they would no longer be providing a priest on board for all voyages. In in later statement, they said that they would make every effort to have a local priest come aboard to celebrate mass on Saturdays or Sundays when the ships are in port. Celebrity, like a few of their competitors, had retained a priest for all of their voyages prior to this announcement. Now they will only have a Catholic Priest on board during Holidays like Lent, Easter, Advent, and Christmas. They will also have a priest on board for their “Holy Land” voyages. Many Catholics have been offended by this move stating that they are obligated by faith to attend Sunday mass, (They consider Every Sunday a “Major Holy Day”, or Holiday)

Unlike other faiths where a lay person can lead a regular Sunday or Sabbath service, only a Catholic Priest can consecrate the host for Holy Communion. One Catholic even canceled her cruise, as it was to be her Parents 50th anniversary cruise and she had expected the whole family to be able to Celebrate mass on board together. To Celebrity’s credit, they did give her a full refund even though she was in the “partial refund” window when she made the cancellation. To many people’s surprise, quite a few people spoke out on the message boards in favor of this move with reasons like “why should one faith get preferential treatment?”, or “Why should my cruise cost include paying for your priest”, or “people can pray in their own cabins if they want.”

The hardest information for me to come by has been which ships continue to have a Catholic priest on board on regular basis. In a 2007 document the AOS list contracts with Celebrity, Holland America and NCL. However, Celebrity has dropped priests from all but Holiday and Holy Land voyages, and I was unable to locate any information about on board mass from NCL. Currently the only line I can confirm to have a regular priest on board is Holland America. Last year, my parents cruised with them and they were surprised to see the the number of Catholics on board. Many of them had booked the cruise after seeing advertisements from travel agencies in their Catholic Newspaper with the line “Daily Catholic Mass” catching their eye. Perhaps Celebrity is missing a key demographic in not going after this market.

In a related story, they Catholic church has issued formal guidelines for priest serving on cruise ships. The item that may be surprising to many, is that Catholic Priest are not permitted to perform Catholic wedding services on board the ship. This reinforces the seriousness with which the Catholic church holds wedding vows and the Sacrament of Marriage. Generally, Catholics must complete marriage preparation classes and other guidelines designed to insure the seriousness of the couple entering into the marriage. Since an on board priest would have no way of knowing the couple’s back ground, the church has taken the stand that they should perform no marriage ceremonies. However, the new guidelines encourage blessings for newly weds and renewal of vows for previously married couples on occasions like anniversaries.

The new document, also encourages the Priest to minister not just to passengers but also to crew, officers and hotel staff. This ministry relates to the previously story about Celebrity dropping regular priests on board. Many of the crew of Celebrity ships are practicing Roman Catholics coming from Europe, Philippines, the Americas and even Goa India. The pictures on the Apostleship of the Sea website often show the packed crew masses celebrated by the Catholic chaplains. While passengers may be on board for a week or two, crew members have months long contracts, taking them away from their homes and family. While passengers may be able simply attend mass while in port, the crew have very little time off in order to be able to attend such a service. Having a mass on board for the crew will certainly be something that many of the crew will miss on a regular basis.

We invite our readers to share with us their insights into this subject. Have any of our readers been on a Celebrity cruise since they discontinued the regular priest program? Have they talked with any crew who expressed disappointment? Any one switching cruise lines because of the change? Any one have better information on the cruise lines still providing a regular Catholic Priest?