Most of us are probably familiar with the idea of chaplains in prisons, hospitals, and schools, but we night not realise that chaplains can also be found on cruise ships.

It’s not such an odd concept when you consider that a cruise ship resembles a small town. The largest ones can carry up to 5,000 passengers. On board you’ll find shops and restaurants, theatres and cinemas, gyms, and even libraries.

In recent years, Stella Maris, Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) has been working with P&0 to provide chaplains to many of its ships. Typically, a chaplain will be on board over the Christmas and Easter periods.

However, the chaplain is not there primarily for the passengers, but for the crew, which can number 1,200 on the larger vessels. And many of those working on cruise ships are Catholics, with the majority coming from the Philippines and the Kerala and Goa regions of India.

So what exactly does a chaplain do on a cruise ship? Father Giorgio Miles served on the Arcadia over Christmas and the New Year during its two-week voyage voyage from Southampton to the Caribbean. Before joining a cruise ship, he always arranges for a poster with his photo, contact details, and Mass times to go up on crew noticeboards.

“I always wear my clerical collar when on board. Liaison with the HR manager as well as the entertainment office ensure good communications. There is always one crew member who leads and makes sure the crew Masses are known about and everything is ready,” he explained.

An average day on a cruise ship for Fr Giorgio might include mixing with passengers in the mornings on deck, popping into the medical centre to talk to staff and anyone who is unwell, and celebrating Mass in the crew mess late at night when the restaurant and cabin staff have finished work.  His task is to be seen and be available.

“A great place to meet the crew is in the self-service restaurant. Because they are always busy, these encounters are very brief but important,” said Father Tom Grufferty, who served as chaplain on the Britannia.

“In the lead up to Christmas, I made it known that I would be available for a chat, confessions or for prayer from 4.30 pm to 5.30 pm. This was taken up by about 12 people. I spent several hours during the entire cruise counselling an officer who had several issues with the Catholic faith. We have kept in contact since.”

Father Neil Ritchie made his first cruise last year when he celebrated Holy Week on the Azura in the Mediterranean. It was a very different experience from his role as a university chaplain in Liverpool, he said.

“Above the thrumming of the engines beneath, and the clatter of crockery from the cafeteria next door, we’d celebrate our Holy Week or Easter Masses. In the morning I’d celebrate Mass for the passengers, this time in one of meeting rooms in the hotel side of the ship.”

The Triduum celebrations on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday night were open to both passengers and crew and took place in the plush Meridian restaurant.

“Additionally, I would be available at set times in the crew’s lounge for anyone who wanted to come and see me, for confession; or just to have a chat. But many conversations took place more informally in the crew mess, maybe over curry or fish stew and rice, or in corridors around the ship in a few moments snatched from their busy routines.

Working on a cruise ship might sound glamorous, but the reality is long shifts, hard work, low pay, and being away from your family for months at a time.

“I would hear about their joys and hopes, see cherished pictures of their children, and maybe hear about their worries and concerns, which can be all the greater when separated from home by thousands of miles of sea,” said Father Neil.

“For many of the crew, their faith is a vital part of life, and it is a sacrifice for them to work at sea when the chance to celebrate Mass is infrequent.”

Next month we have Sea Sunday [July 14] when the Church asks us to support the work of AoS. Apart from supplying chaplains to cruise ships, AoS operates teams of chaplains and volunteer ship visitors who provide practical help and pastoral care to seafarers visiting ports around the British coast.

AoS has a vital role to play, said Father Neil. “I have only really become aware recently of the many people who live and work at sea, not just in cruise ships, but also on cargo ships or fishing boats in conditions that are difficult and often dangerous – yet on whom our economy depends.”