The Life of a Cruise Ship Chaplain


I heard about the opportunity to serve God onboard cruise ships through a retired priest who visited our parish here in Goshen, NY.  “The Apostolate of the Sea was founded in 1921 in Glasgow, Scotland and it was recognized as the official Catholic ministry to the people of the sea by Pope Pius XI in 1922.” (  Here in the United States the Apostolate of the Seas United States of America (AOS-USA) handles the task of placing an American Catholic Priest in good standing with the Catholic Church on cruise ships around the world.  Other branches of AOS exist such as AOS-Canada.  After sending a few e-mails to AOS-USA I decided I was interested in ministering to the People of the Sea.  In order to do so a priest must ask his bishop for permission and a letter of good standing must be sent to AOS-USA.  Once my letter of Good Standing was accepted I paid the $100 fee to become an AOS-USA cruise ship priest member.  This fee helps to pay all the costs associated with the operation of the ministry such as the light bills.  Once I became a member I began to get lists of cruise ships that needed priests onboard.  As of the writing of this blog post only Holland America puts a Catholic Priest on every cruise ship.  Some others put a priest onboard only for Easter and Christmas.  Unfortunately some cruise ships attempt to place priests onboard outside of AOS-USA and these priests are not always in Good Standing with the Catholic Church.

            I applied for and was accepted as a cruise ship chaplain onboard Holland America’s MS Eurodam for the Eastern Caribbean cruise that took place November 17th -24th of this year.  Cruise ship chaplains are usually responsible for their own transportation to and from the ship.   On the 17th I flew down to Fort Lauderdale with much anxiety about this new ministry.  When I arrived at the ships’ terminal I was told that I had to use the staff entrance behind the building.  When I got there the staff was very friendly and helpful.  I explained that I had never been on a cruise ship before.  They assured me everything would be ok and they had me wait until the ship was cleared.  Once this was done I was allowed onto the ship and I showed them the slip of paper that identified me as the official cruise ship priest.  The instructions I had from AOS-USA said that the first thing I had to do was to speak with the Cruise Director, Chris. Luckily for me he was one of the first persons I saw when I boarded the ship.  He was very nice and friendly.  He introduced me to Margo who was in charge of entertainment onboard and informed me that I would be working directly with her.  Margo has a very friendly personality and she quickly reassured me that everything would be ok.  At this point with the size of the ship I was wondering what I had gotten myself into since cruise ship priests are the chaplains for all onboard.  I thought the ministry would be very difficult since here at Saint John’s in Goshen, NY we have three priests for a parish that has about 2,500 registered families. Onboard, however, I was the chaplain for all approximately 2,000 people.  Margo informed me that my first Mass with the guests onboard would be at 5pm.  The Mass for the staff took place at 11:15pm.  She also gave me the room number for two of my parishioners, Al and Loretta, who booked their rooms on this cruise after they were informed that I was assigned to it.  With my parishioners onboard the Masses felt similar to the Masses I celebrate at my home parish. 

            Before every Mass a Holland America employee, in this case Bill, set up for the Mass.  Unfortunately on this cruise some liturgical items were missing.  Fortunately however, I brought some of my own and every Mass was validly celebrated.  If you are a priest who is reading this and considering this wonderful ministry to the People at Sea I suggest you bring everything you need to celebrate Mass just in case something is missing.  One of the responsibilities of the cruise ship priest is to take note of what liturgical items are onboard.  I made a list of what the ship had and what they needed and gave it to Margo who informed me they would order the missing liturgical items.

            The Liturgy onboard was new and delightful.  I asked and received volunteers to serve as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, Lectors and Cantors.   The Masses were very enjoyable.  For the Mass intentions I adopted the Caribbean and South American custom of having Masses for multiple intentions.  I took intentions from my friends online and many of the guests wrote their intentions in a Mass Intention book I brought with me.  The guests and I had a small parish community on the ship.  Every day about 40 people would attend the Mass and we had 80 for the Saturday Evening Vigil Mass.  Celebrating Mass is the most important thing a cruise ship priest does.  However, I discovered that there are some interesting challenges at sea.  At some points of the cruise the ships movement was felt considerably more than at other times.  At Mass I would invite people who did not wish to stand up to remain seated and raise their hands so that communion could be brought to them at their seats.  I also would make sure that I myself had my feet placed on the floor in such a manner that I would not fall while celebrating Mass.  Another interesting challenge is that there is no tabernacle onboard.  I discovered the most convenient method of deciding how many hosts to consecrate was to make an announcement about who could receive communion (not all who come to Mass are Catholic), count and place enough hosts in the ciborium for that Mass.

            In addition, to celebrating Mass the cruise ship priest has other duties and so he should make himself available to the people.  I printed an extra 1,000 business cards for people to take and connected my computer to the internet.   Unfortunately I received zero e-mails from people onboard and I was told that many people did not sign up for onboard internet because of the cost.   I also informed people that they could call the Front Office and ask for me.  Here, I learned an important lesson.  It is much more difficult to be contacted at Sea than at your parish.  Here at my parish my cell phone works and when someone stops at the office looking for me our wonderful employees call me.  Unfortunately, onboard cell phones do not work in open waters or foreign ports and if they do the roaming charges are amazing.  Employees make every effort to contact the priest but I did get one message onboard a day late. I found the oldest form of communication, word of mouth, was best on board.   For example, while Mass was celebrated every day and Mass times with locations were printed in the daily program some people did not realize I was onboard until later in the cruise.  I gave mass times and locations to people verbally.

While onboard I found that the ministry was not too demanding and I had plenty of down time.  During this trip we had one medical emergency, a blessing of a 70 year old on her 70th birthday, a walk to support victims of the Typhoon in the Philippines, led an ecumenical service and had a renewal of vows  of a couple on the occasion of their 25th anniversary.  The phone in my room only rang a few times and all but one call were from my parishioner Al. Most of the time during this ministry I was involved in the ministry of hanging out.  This means I was available to the people, speaking to them about God and the Church.  Some people had questions about the Church and I answered them.  I had many enjoyable conversations with the people both staff and guests.  Unless I was off the ship or in the pool I was always in uniform.  While I found this ministry was not too difficult and very enjoyable it is very important.  For many of the staff the cruise ship priest is the only priest they see onboard as they spend anywhere from six weeks to ten months on the ship.  That late night staff Mass on Sundays is very important as it gives the staff an opportunity to go to Mass.  Many People thanked me many times for celebrating Mass for them.  At the end of the cruise Margo asked me if I would go on another cruise ship and I let her know that I definitely would.  I got to see parts of the world I had never seen before for at a low cost (the cruise itself is free for the priest.)  The only place on the itinerary that I had been to before was San Juan, Puerto Rico.  For the first time ever I got to see Grand Turk, Saint Thomas and Half Moon Cay, Bahamas.  I would recommend this wonderful ministry to any priest.  It is an enjoyable and necessary ministry.  In addition you do not need to be a priest to be a member of AOS-USA.  You can visit their website and join by clicking here. To see more pictures you can visit my Cruise Ship Chaplain page by clicking here.


The names of some Holland America employees were changed in order to protect their privacy. 

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