Priest ministers admid deck chairs, ocean sunsets

When away from parish life, Augustinian Fr. Joseph Stobba – pictured here during the October 2005 dedication at St. Rita Parish, Racine – enjoys cruising the seas as a ship chaplain. Fr. Stobba, pastor of St. Rita Parish, is one of hundreds of clerics who regularly minister to cruise ship passengers. (Catholic Herald file photo by Sam Lucero)

Priest ministers amid deck chairs, ocean sunsets

Fr. Stobba vacations as cruise ship chaplain

By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald

RACINE – Many people associate cruises with “The Love Boat, exciting and new,” and the kitschy theme song that accompanied the late 1970s TV sitcom, or with excursions for the rich and famous.

Augustinian Fr. Joseph Stobba is not rich, and several years after experiencing his first cruise, he is still not famous, except, of course, to members of the parish at which he is pastor – St. Rita, Racine. He is one of hundreds of clerics, many retired from parish duties, who regularly minister to cruise ship passengers.

While Wisconsinites were dealing with subzero temperatures in January, Fr. Stobba was floating on the Pacific Ocean enjoying balmy 80-90 degree days. His latest cruise aboard Holland America Line’s MS Oosterdam took him from San Diego to several ports in Mexico Jan. 10-17.

Catholic Masses are one of the most heavily attended onboard activities, said Fr. Stobba, who noted that “Catholics seem to come out of the woodwork” to attend Sunday Mass on a cruise. Typically, a Mass can attract 30 to 40 people on a weekday and more than 150 on Sundays. According to post-cruise surveys, having a Catholic priest aboard is the most common positive comment received.

Every cruise line has a different policy on what sort of cleric sails and when, with many using nonprofit organizations or the same booking agents they use for, say, dance hall singers, to schedule ministers.

The Apostleship of the Sea in the United States, a Catholic port ministry established in 1920, has long ministered to fishermen, dock workers and those on oil rigs. Several years ago it began maintaining a database of suitable priests and making recommendations to cruise lines. The international Vatican-sponsored ministry established a relationship with the Holland America and Celebrity lines, both of which require each ship in their fleet to be staffed with a Catholic priest serving as the ship’s chaplain.

Priests are not paid for ministry and are responsible for their transportation to the ship’s port.

“Everything else is free,” said Fr. Stobba, who has logged at least a dozen cruises over the past few years. “We are treated very well with great respect and appreciation. The passengers are most grateful for the opportunity to have daily Mass.”

The apostleship does not require priests to wear clerical garb at all times on board, but they do ask them to wear ID badges so passengers have no doubt that they are there in an official capacity. Most priests who sail are either cruising full time in retirement, on sabbatical or taking a working vacation.

For Fr. Stobba, the twice-yearly cruises are vacations. He has visited the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Baltic Countries, the North Pole and will be traveling to Scandinavia and Russia in June. Although some priests choose to travel with a companion, the soft-spoken priest enjoys going solo.

“I am never lonely,” he admitted. “There are plenty of people that as soon as they know I am a priest come to talk to me. I have made so many wonderful friendships over the years. And because I am an Augustinian, many people will share with me the different Augustinian houses and parishes they have visited.”

Catholic priests are the most common cleric on board for a number of reasons. They are required for Mass, but can also conduct interfaith services. In addition, many crew members, some of whom can be on ship for months, are Catholic.

“I (celebrate) a Mass for the crew and daily Mass, and then Sunday Mass. Other than that I have very few duties,” said Fr. Stobba, adding, “But I am there for reconciliation, counseling and bereavement services if needed. In fact, I had a memorial service on the last cruise for a crew member who was killed in an industrial accident.”

Contrary to what was depicted on “The Love Boat,” priest-chaplains do not perform wedding ceremonies, but that doesn’t stop passengers from trying to bend the rules.

“One time I was sitting in a deck chair on my first day of the cruise when I heard my name being called over the loudspeaker to come to the ship’s office,” said Fr. Stobba. “There was a young couple standing there and they told me that they wanted to get married on the ship, but I told them I couldn’t do that. It used to be done, but the cruise ships ask that they don’t get married on the ship.”

Additionally, Fr. Stobba said that for Catholics to be married, they would need to provide baptismal affidavits as well as additional paperwork, and the marriage would need to be witnessed in a church, not in the ship’s lounge.

“It just doesn’t work,” he said. “We can bless a newly-married couple on their honeymoon or perform a renewal of vows. But we have no chapel on the ship; the Masses are generally in the lounge or in a theatre depending on the number of people attending.”

The cruise lines are known for legendary food and entertainment, as well as exotic ports of call to experience a wide variety of cultures and locales, and appeal to a wide variety of passengers, many of whom surprise Fr. Stobba.

“This time of year mostly appeals to seniors, but by far, what really amazes me are the people who travel with handicaps,” he admitted, adding, “I see them with their walkers, canes and scooters – nothing stops them. The cruise lines make everything accessible, so it is really a wonderful experience.”

Fr. Stobba hopes to continue this ministry well into his retirement years.

“This is really the perfect ministry for a retired priest with an open schedule,” he said. “For example, if a scheduled priest gets sick and they need someone to fill in with only a week’s notice, the retired priest can just drop everything and go. I plan to continue on as long as I can. After all, why not?”

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