by Greg Watts

“It was very touching to be asked to bless a waiter in the middle of a busy bar while the passengers sipped their cocktails!” said Father Paul Martin.

Father Paul is one of Apostleship of the Sea’s (AoS) expanding team of cruise ship chaplains. Over Easter, he served on the P & O ship the Oceana during its 10-day trip around the Mediterranean.

“I always wore a clerical collar while on board the ship,” he said. “It was often a case of people making themselves known to you rather than the other way round. I met many people on the exercise deck and in the restaurants. There were also those who came to the Masses and other services each day.

“Being seen as much as possible and being friendly and approachable to all is what you need to do as a cruise chaplain. Naturally, I built a special relationship with those who came to Mass each day but also in time with crew members.

While a cruise ship might conjure up an image of fancy restaurants, cabaret shows, and passengers sunbathing beside a pool on deck, there’s another side to life on board.

For the 900 crew on the Oceana, life on deck is not glamorous. They work long hours and often go for months without seeing their families. The majority come from Catholic regions such as Goa and the Philippines. But being away at sea means they don’t receive the sacraments.

This is where cruise chaplains such as Father Paul play a vital role.  To be able to attend the Easter liturgies on the ship means a lot to Catholic crew members.

Masses with the passengers were generally celebrated in the Card Room at 8.30 am, while Masses with the crew were in the Adriatic Restaurant at 11.30 pm.

“The crew members were wonderful, especially a young waiter named Oswald who helped me plan the liturgies. There was a slight hiccup when passengers and crew were unable to join together for the liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We celebrated them separately.”

The Easter Vigil was a joint celebration with both passengers and crew, he added. “It made a huge impact on the passengers who attended. The crew laid on drinks and food for everyone afterwards, which was deeply appreciated.  The hard work they put into the services was especially impressive, particularly after a long day at work.”

Father Paul was ordained into the Church of England. After deciding to become a Catholic, he trained at St Mary’s College, Oscott. He was ordained a Catholic priest at St Chad’s Cathedral in 1998.

He is now based in Oxford and is the director of the St Barnabas Society, which provides pastoral and financial help to non-Catholic clergy and religious who have asked to be received into the Catholic Church.

Although this was Father Paul’s first cruise, he knew a lot about the maritime industry, having been a Royal Navy chaplain while an Anglican. Also, his father was a master mariner and his sister worked on cruise ships as a chief purser.

He believes having a chaplain on board was very important for many of the crew. “I sensed that I was a reassuring presence even for the crew members who were unable to get to Mass. I suspect being away from their families for so long must be hard for them. But in most cases you would never have guessed it. They all seemed so cheerful and always willing to help.”

This month, the Church celebrates Sea Sunday (July 8) when we are asked to support the work of Apostleship of the Sea, both on cruise ships and in ports around the country.

Serving as an Apostleship of the Sea cruise chaplain was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience, said Father Paul.

“I never imagined for one moment that one day I would be invited to celebrate the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter on board a beautiful cruise ship.

“Now it would be very hard to go back to a parish church! I am deeply grateful to those who befriended me and looked after me and who helped to make this a rewarding and unforgettable experience. May God bless the Oceana and all who sail in her.”