By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A new policy enacted by Celebrity Cruises will end the company’s long tradition of carrying Catholic priests on its voyages. The move is sparking cries of bigotry from the Catholic League and has left many priests saddled with nonrefundable expenses for cruises they are no longer allowed to make.
USA Today is reporting that Celebrity, one of the few cruise lines that invites priests to perform services on every sailing ship, said that in an effort to be more fair and balanced to people of other faiths, as of Jan. 4, priests will only be invited to serve on ships during holidays.
“Out of respect for our guests of all religious faiths, Celebrity has chosen to align the religious services provided for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Interdenominational faiths,” the Celebrity statement says. “Roman Catholic Priests, Protestant Ministers and Jewish Rabbis or Cantors will be provided and official services will be conducted for the major High Holy Holidays of each respective faith. Daily and weekly scheduling of any religious services will no longer be offered on an official basis.”
Celebrity spokeswoman Liz Jakeway added that the new policy is “built around our guests’ feedback and their suggestion that we ‘level the playing field.'”
The explanation isn’t flying in some quarters. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in New York is accusing the line of giving in to “bigots” that had complained about the presence of priests on ships.
As proof, the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, cites a letter Celebrity sent to priests affected by the change which said they had received “a great deal of negative feedback pertaining to the selective support” of one particular religion.
“Instead of standing on principle and telling those generating the ‘negative feedback’ that no one is forced to go to Mass, and that tolerance demands respect for religious freedom, officials at Celebrity Cruises decided to yield to the bigots,” Donohue said in a statement.
Father Sinclair Oubre, a priest of the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, who heads the U.S. Apostleship of the Sea, told the Catholic News Service (CNS) that 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 said.
“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.”
A large part of the priests’ ministry onboard is the crew, said Father Oubre, who has served on two cruise ships.
“I spent about three to four hours a day” celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, counseling passengers and ministering to the crew,” he said. The crew is often overwhelmingly Catholic but has no access to the sacramental life of the church because they can’t just get off the ship to seek out a church, he said.
Other priests, such as Father Joseph Landi of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, told CNS he has been offering ministry on cruise ships for 20 years and says the ministry is a busy one.
“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,” he 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.”
Unfortunately, these services will no longer be provided.
In response to Celebrity’s decision, the Catholic League is advising all Catholics to “shop around the next time they plan to take a cruise, but not to waste their time checking out Celebrity Cruises.”
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