If you’re interested in keeping the faith at sea on your next voyage, read on as religious correspondent Greg Watts explains why some cruise ships have chaplains on-board.
The last person you might expect to see when you walk into a bar or restaurant on a cruise ship is a priest. But increasingly cruise ship companies are asking for chaplains to join a ship.
A cruise chaplain – classified as an ‘entertainer’ – doesn’t get paid, but is provided with a free cabin.
The chief reason cruise ships have chaplains on-board is to provide pastoral care to the crew. Large cruise ships often have around 1,000 crew members.
Many are away from their families for months, which means they miss birthdays, anniversaries and even the births of their children.
Catholic maritime charity Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) operates a team of cruise chaplains, mainly during the Christmas and Easter holiday periods.
“Everyone else on-board expects something of the crew but my main duty as an AoS cruise chaplain is to assist the crew and to offer them friendship and a listening ear,” said Liverpool priest Father David Gamble.
Since Father David served on his first cruise 20 years ago, he has sailed to the east and west coasts of the United States, the Caribbean, Mexico, and around Europe.
“Despite working on a crowded and busy ship, crew members can often feel homesick and isolated. The presence of a chaplain on board offers them comfort, someone they can trust and speak to in confidence,” he explained.
“I’m always made welcome wherever I go, from the galleys and food preparation areas to the recycling unit, the laundry, and where the lads repair the tables and chairs.
“I walk the decks and public areas of the ship, being seen, stopping and talking to passengers, maybe over a coffee, or lunch, or in a more private way. I also try and support the entertainment staff by popping in to the events they would put on and I would laugh and joke with the passengers taking part.”
Cruise chaplains will hold religious services, usually in one of the restaurants or down below in the crew mess. Because of the unsocial hours that many of the crew work, these might be held late night.
Cruise ships have been likened to mini towns, and, like any town, sometimes serious incidents happen. When Father Paul Fitzpatrick, a lecturer in theology at a college in Birmingham, was once serving on the QE2 two members of the crew suffered serious burns following an accident.
“As we were in the mid-Atlantic, the ship had to travel at full speed for two days, until we would be in helicopter range. The ship’s hospital could keep the crew members comfortable but they needed specialist care. I spent much time with them.”
A helicopter flew from Cornwall to the ship and airlifted the two injured seafarers off it and took them to a hospital in Ireland.
Alone, in a foreign country, without family and friends, the first visitors the seafarers received were AoS volunteer ship visitors, who Father Paul had notified.
“As I left the ship, I heard that one of the crew had died. However, the chaplain who boarded the ship for its next voyage celebrated a Requiem Mass, which was greatly appreciated by all of the crew.”
Following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, cruise company Carnival asked AoS to deploy chaplains on its ships to support Filipino crew members who were missing relatives or anxious about any destruction to their homes.
Rev Roger Stone, the AoS port chaplain in Southampton, sailed on two cruise ships and spent a lot of time counselling the crew. “One man lost many members of his family. Several were anxiously waiting to learn whether their parents, siblings and children were alive. The crew members stayed on board to earn money to pay for food and repair their homes.”
It is at moments such as these that having a chaplain on board a cruise ship can be invaluable.
Father Angelo Phillips, a retired priest from Leeds, says he is in no doubt of the important role played by chaplains on cruises. “It’s all about being present, just being seen around the ship.
“As the captain of P&O Ventura said to me, ‘Father, just having you present on the ship gives us all reassurance that we have God’s blessing as we cruise from country to country.’”