By Tom Tracy
Florida is home to some of the nation’s busiest seaports, including two in south Florida that collectively play a major regional role in container and cruise ship terminal activity.
As cruise lines and ocean-going ships get bigger and bigger, Catholic maritime ministry and chaplaincy programs are under pressure to keep pace with those growing passenger and staff needs — sometimes sharing resources in an interfaith or ecumenical framework.
It means local clergy and parish volunteers are uniquely positioned to take part in a long and global tradition of Catholic outreach to mariners formally referred to as the Apostleship of the Sea.
That takes the form of seaside chapels and Catholic welcome centers as well as on-ship clergy and Catholic chaplaincy programs which bring clergy and the sacraments — and other facets of church life — to travelers at sea.
Nationally, there are 50 dioceses with maritime ports and a total of 62 programs or chapels, according to Scalabrinian Sister Myrna Tordillo, national director of the Apostleship of the Sea. Sister Tordillo was in Miami recently to visit the newly renovated and reopened Stella Maris Catholic Center and chapel at the Port of Miami.
“The majority of seafarers are Catholic,” Sister Tordillo told The Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Miami Archdiocese. She said that many of the 1.2 million maritime workers worldwide today come from Asian, East European and Latin American countries, and she estimates that the Philippines is probably the largest country of origin for maritime crewmen.
“These are people on the move, and so if you want to talk about the new evangelization, finding ways of inviting the faithful to participate in the life of the local church, then this is the maritime centers,” she said. “They are really parishes without borders, and we can bring the good news to the maritime community regardless of race, color or religion (as well as) offer the sacraments (to Catholic mariners).”
The three big cruise ship ports in Florida are Port Canaveral on the eastern coast of central Florida, Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and the Port of Miami. Port Everglades, with its modern Cruise Terminal 18, has been described in recent years as one of the busiest cruise ship terminals in the world; it serves as a base for Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, considered the world’s largest cruise ship and capable of holding some 6,000 passengers.
“The crews are so desperately in need for some sense of spirituality as they are working constantly — their faith must be challenged by being constantly at sea,” said Father Luis Rivera, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Fort Lauderdale, who has occasionally offered sacraments and served as a substitute priest-chaplain at Port Everglades.
Although cruises offer a time of vacation and pleasure-seeking for more and more travelers, Father Rivera said, it is important to remember that the ships’ crews have family and other concerns and that passengers must treat them as they would want to be treated.
“We take for granted these people are supplying a service, so a gentle ‘thank your’ or tip are in order — the same things we would expect for ourselves,” he said. “And, yes, sometimes they make mistakes just like any of us.”
Father John McLaughlin, a retired Miami archdiocesan priest with a long affiliation with Port Everglades — specifically the Holland America Line — could be called the dean of cruise ship priest-chaplains in south Florida.
He has literally sailed around the world and accompanied passengers in their moments of joy, family celebrations and anniversaries as well as, at times, sudden tragedy or loss, including the untimely death of a loved one — typically an elderly person taking a long journey. Eleven people, he said, died on a 115-day cruise he was working on.
Over a period of 24 years, the cruises typically brought Father McLaughlin in contact with some Catholic passengers or crew who have been away from the church and sacraments for a time but who may wish to reach out to a ship chaplain in the relaxed setting at sea.
“I say to them, ‘If you have been away from church a long time and you want to talk, I will be sitting on the deck,'” Father McLaughlin said. “A lot of people haven’t been to confession in a long time and I tell them you will never see me again. They can achieve something there that they maybe wouldn’t at home.”
He has gone on to tell passengers who might want counseling or to make a confession: “God is a very forgiving and compassionate God, so whatever you have done in your life it is a great time to talk it out.”
Father McLaughlin also rubbed shoulders with clergy from other faiths, including rabbis providing Jewish services at Port Everglades and on the ships. Often, they attended each other’s services and offered encouragement.
The ministry to seafarers at Port Everglades, in fact, is an interdenominational one, Seafarers House, with priests such as Father McLaughlin and volunteer deacons providing services to Catholic seamen.
“It is almost like a church at sea, a floating church with a pastor,” Father McLaughin said. “I loved the experience and I encourage other priests to do that.”