Anchored in Faith: Serving God at sea

Sunset Sacrament: The author anoints the sick at sea.

About 10 years ago a fellow Jesuit put me in touch with the person in charge of booking all the entertainers for one of the major cruise lines. Her job includes managing the singers, the dancers, the jugglers, the magicians—and the priests. While I had long admired the large cruise ships floating in New York harbor, I had never been on one until I took on some part-time work as a cruise ship chaplain.

For the past 30 years, I have worked in academic medical referral centers and now spend most of my time ministering to individuals in medical, surgical and neurological intensive care units. Every day I have conversations with patients, families and staff about life and death decisions. I help struggling family members discern the appropriate time to offer comfort rather than machines and tubes and artificial life support. In addition, on Sundays and holy days, I am the Roman Catholic presider at the federal prison in Massachusetts where I minister to approximately 1,800 men who are serving sentences for any number of unfortunate decisions.


At first glance, my work ashore and on board seem entirely separate, and it has taken me a while to discover how to live out my priesthood and my ministry on the water. I have completed about half a dozen trans-Atlantic crossings, but only recently have I felt that I know what I’m doing and come to see how my three pastoral venues can inform one another.

First, each of these ministerial settings involves fear, courage, acceptance and healing. All three can be highly charged, and in many respects, unnatural ways for humans to live. In general, we Americans embrace our sense of freedom as sacred, and we do not do well when asked to give up our autonomy and independence. Many people who are ill and hospitalized are terrified of losing their ability to choose the next step of their treatment, and they often seek control through more aggressive treatments that are in many cases painful, futile and expensive. Individuals in prison know all too well what it means to lose control and freedom. Both the people in hospitals and those in prison come to know and experience in ways they never imagined what it can mean to have faith in a God who loves them, and companionship with Jesus, who will never abandon them. It is not uncommon for religious faith to finally emerge as vital and personal in ways unimaginable before illness or crisis become part of their living and breathing everyday.

For many Americans, a common complaint is a lack of time in the day to really relax or be still. We say we want to be more reflective, more prayerful and more grateful. People in hospitals and prisons—and now the ones I meet on ships—do not have the same complaint. There is more than enough time to wait for the illness to heal, the sentence to finish or the port to come into view. Time is abundant, which can be both wonderful and burdensome when we are in places where we no longer call the shots.

Reflection on the Water

For some, a cruise with few stops can become like a retreat experience. It also provides me with the opportunity to preach every day to the same group of people, which means we make this spiritual journey together and create a unique experience. The people who come to Mass everyday on a ship can range from unusual characters to individuals who in effect run the local churches they attend and manage.

During a trans-Atlantic journey three years ago, I offered the option of a retreat during the long days at sea, based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Many passengers already knew what I was talking about and were intrigued. I made it clear that we would have Eucharist, then go off to breakfast on our own, then meet back for “points,” then find at least an hour in a quiet place to pray and then come back in the late afternoon for a communal sharing of what happened. Each day I used a different meditation. About two-thirds of the participants finished the retreat, and there were always more retreatants than reflection books to go around.

I’ve repeated the retreat since then.The prayer is real and the sharing can be intense, especially after the members of the group find that sense of trust. I have heard from church lay ministers who realize they don’t always have to say yes; from a professional woman ending a sabbatical; from people reflecting on their lives as they begin retirement; from many a widow and widower who are turning a little more toward gratitude from grief. A woman who was a school principal said, “I’ve never talked about my faith and God in such personal terms.”

Many of the cruise passengers are retired or qualify as senior citizens, or both. Often, on the retreat and in my homilies—after people already have proven their patience and trust—I preach about aging and our fears surrounding it. I mention my own awareness of advancing age and the beauty of the sacraments once called the last rites. I suggest that a better way for those who want to experience the power of this sacrament might be to receive the Anointing of the Sick in a more substantial and less dramatic way. For three or four evenings, I invite whoever wants to come and be anointed to gather at the bow of the ship at sunset. I remind them that we are a courageous and trusting people, floating over water a mile deep. We are vividly reminded of our fragility. Praying together, as the red sun sets into the ocean, that God will grant us a safe last voyage, without too many storms or winds and surrounded by people who love and care for us, seems to make a lot of sense to the hundreds who have come.

Though we are all afraid of giving up our independence, our lives on the ship, for a time, require the acknowledgment that we are not in control. I encourage my faithful companions by saying that the good choices we’ve made along the way have given us the faith and courage to make good choices in the future and to appreciate the long and adventurous trips that make this last phase of our lives more exciting than we expected. There is no reason to fear the future; rather we should make prudent, careful and thoughtful choices about our needs and the needs of our families.

The final, vital, element of our prayerful cruise is the crew. They are men and women who serve from scores of different countries, where they have left behind their wives, husbands, children and parents. I often ask the passengers to pray for the people who are serving us and to remember their dignity and the sacrifices the crew made by leaving home. One man, who was the chief legal counsel for an archdiocese, remarked to me that this offered him a new perspective on his journey and appreciation for it. Many of the crewmembers with whom I have spoken dream of a better life, and they have the courage and faith to live and work toward that dream. They inspire me with the dignity of their service and their kind patience toward guests who are older, fragile, sometimes grieving and often living with chronic pain or illness. They have a highly developed work ethic and keen sensitivity toward both the pleasant and the difficult guests. When I look at their faces at Masses, scheduled late at night, I see tired faces from around the world, and people who have courage and freedom and faith that humbles me. The power of the Eucharist comes alive once again, just as it does in the hospital and the prison, when we let God move us through a caring community.

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