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Cruise ship priest keeps passengers’ spirits up during coronavirus scare


Roderick Eime | Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

John Burger - published on 02/13/20

'Westerdam' wasn't able to dock for almost two weeks, but chaplain continued saying Mass, novena for viruses.

A cruise ship that has been refused entry into a number of ports because of fears of coronavirus is expected to allow passengers off in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The Holland America line’s Westerdam had been at sea for almost two weeks after visiting Hong Kong, which has had some 50 cases of the ailment, now being called COVID-19.

But a U.S.-based organization that places Catholic priests on cruise ships to ensure that Catholic passengers have the sacraments while on vacation says that the priest on board the Westerdam has been helping to provide calm in a very anxiety-ridden situation.

Doreen M. Badeaux, Secretary General of the Apostleship of the Sea of the United States of America, said in an interview Wednesday that the Westerdam was nearing the end of the two-week period in which any sign of COVID-19, which originated in China, would show up. There has been no illness reported on board so far.

And the World Health Organization’s head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference Wednesday, “Based on what we have been told, there are no suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 on board the Westerdam.”

The Westerdam began a 30-day cruise in Singapore January 16 and made stops in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, according to Its last stop before it was refused further landings was in Hong Kong, where it spent about 34 hours. The vessel, with 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members, was denied entry by Japan, the Philippines, Guam and Thailand.

Holland America Line is one of four lines that participate in the Apostleship of the Sea USA’s Cruise Ship Priests program. Badeaux said that so far, none of the cruise ships that currently have AOS-USA cruise ship priests have reported cases of COVID-19.

She said that the priest on board the Westerdam, with whom she’s been in touch on a daily basis, “said it’s unusual not to have someone sick — you know, with the flu or someone who broke a leg or something like that.” He told her that he declined being interviewed because “he prefers to be there for passengers and crew and concentrate on them,” she said.

“He said that on this ship absolutely no one is ill,” she reported. “They’re getting along well; they’re enjoying really good food, and if anything they’re kind of laughing about how their families are so worried about them that they keep telling them ‘We’re just fine.’”

Fr. Sinclair Oubre, chaplain in the Port of Beaumont, Texas, where AOS-USA is based, reported that the Westerdam priest is celebrating a public Mass and hearing confessions every day, and also providing pastoral care for the crew.

“Certainly there’s anxiety there. It’s a very serious situation,” Fr. Oubre said Wednesday. “It’s become an international concern, and justifiably so, but at the same time, because of 24-hour press, it may be raising the anxiety higher.”

He said that since nobody has been going ashore, “there’s a rhythm that develops on the ship that probably helps [the chaplain] be even more pastoral and interact with the crew members more than usual. You don’t have that frantic nature of getting ready for coming into port and leaving port and that type of stuff. More like everybody taking care of the three squares and whatever else.”

At the request of the Westerdam chaplain for a novena for illness or virus that he could adapt to this particular situation, Fr. Oubre said he “googled ‘novena for plagues,’ and what I got was something called the 14 Holy Helpers Novena and also St. Roch, who is patron saint for those stricken with sickness. The priest formed it into a novena.”

Badeaux said that the presence of the priest was an important factor at a time when the stress and anxiety of passengers and crew could make matters worse.

“The crew and staff are themselves under great anxiety and stress, worrying about themselves getting ill and worried about taking care of their people,” she said. “The captain asked everyone on board to please not take out their stress or anxiety on the staff and crew and to remember that they too are not getting to get off the ship and are under the stress of this thing.”

Badeaux said the priest has been a “real model for priests to have on board, to be sharing with people and making sure he shares the novena with the captain.” Although the situation is serious, it’s not as bad as Carnival’s Diamond Princess, where at least 174 passengers have been diagnosed with COVID-19. That ship is docked in Yokohama, Japan, but has passengers quarantined to their rooms.

Princess is not one of the lines that cooperates with AOS-USA.

If a ship with cases of COVID-19 did have a priest on board, it would be doubtful he would be able to conduct services in a public area. “It would be up to the ship whether it would allow [a priest] to provide a short prayer over the intercom, and since not everyone on board is going to be even Christian, maybe they would ask him to at least give a comforting word,” Badeaux said. “But again, if you’re doing quarantine, for the most part you’re going to want to keep him in his room and everyone else in their room. And just avoiding as much spread of disease as possible.”

Fr. Oubre added that the case of the Westerdam “really points out the importance of this ministry, because we are clearly considered a marginal ministry. … This became really clear at the Costa Concordia sinking, where the priest was present and was able to be a consolation to the crew members and to be lifting up in prayer and being a strength during that critical time. And here is another time where a priest on the Westerdam, which is very fortunate, can be that source of strength.”

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