ROME, 16 MARCH 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: Our last cruise vacation left Florida on Saturday afternoon the day
before Easter. When we got on board we were told that there was a priest
on board and there would indeed be an Easter Mass and daily Masses. Being
a good Catholic and Knight of Columbus, I even offered to assist the
"priest." It wasn't until the Monday daily Mass that I learned that he was
married and had left his clerical role and recently became a
"rent-a-priest." My wife and I were appalled that the cruise line and he
would do this to unwary Catholics. Is the Church doing anything to
discourage cruise lines from using them and purporting that they are
J.T., Ypsilanti, Michigan
A: I do not know of any specific action on the part of the Church to
prevent such unfortunate incidences, and while little can be done in the
face of a determined act of disobedience to the Church's norms, certain
action can be taken.
From a personal standpoint you should write a letter of complaint to the
cruise company explaining your position and also inform whichever bishop
might have jurisdiction in the matter. This could be the bishop of the
ship's home port or, probably better, that of the cruise line's head
It is unlikely that a commercial company would willfully go out of its way
to affront the religious sensibilities of its customers. It probably acted
in ignorance of the Church's norms and Catholic sensibilities on this
issue. Thus the authoritative voice of the bishop would be best able to
clarify the situation and halt the practice.
If you are aware of the priest's diocese of residence you should also
inform his own bishop of his actions.
There have been unfortunately several similar cases over the last few
years of priests who, having received a dispensation, or who simply
abandoned their ministry without seeking a dispensation, later offer
themselves for several purposes such as Masses for particular groups and
weddings for those who would not be allowed to marry in Church.
While respecting whatever reasons of conscience may have moved a priest to
request a dispensation from the clerical state, he knows that, although he
remains a priest forever, once the petition is granted he loses both the
obligations and the rights pertaining to his ordination. He may no longer
exercise any function reserved to the ordained and he is forbidden to
present himself as a priest (see Canon 292).
An exception to this is the case of a person in imminent danger of death
who may be absolved by any priest whatsoever, no matter what his canonical
status (Canon 976).
Thus a Mass celebrated by a priest in this situation would be a valid but
illicit act insofar as it is contrary to the will of the Church.
A wedding performed by a priest in this situation would be invalid in the
eyes of the Church, and likewise most confessions would be invalid
although a penitent who is unaware of the priest's status would obtain
Because of the grave spiritual danger that could be caused to the
faithful, any simulation of a sacrament implies the imposition of a
canonical penalty, and a person guilty of simulating the sacrament of
reconciliation automatically falls into the canonical state of interdict
and may no longer receive Communion or the other sacraments (see Canons
1331, 1332, 1378, 1379 and 1384).
Any Catholic who is aware of a celebration to be carried out in these or
similar circumstances should not assist.
While only God can judge the human heart it is certainly a tragedy that
someone who was probably instrumental in bringing others closer to God
during his ministry and is in no way impeded in reaching sanctity as a
well-formed lay Catholic should act in such a way as to cause great
distress to the faithful and expose his own soul to grave danger.
Cases such as these show once more the importance of prayer for all
* * *
Follow-up: Cruise Line
As a result of our column on the problem of a "rent-a-priest" on a cruise
line (March 16) many readers sent in valuable information showing that
this particular case was probably an exception and that most cruise lines
take great care in assuring that chaplains are priests in good standing.
The cruise lines are also usually happy to have Catholic priests because
in general they are also highly appreciated by non-Catholic passengers.
Several correspondents from Australia and the United States informed me
that an initiative to find a viable solution to this problem is under way.
Last October, the U.S. bishops' Office of Migration & Refugee Services
sent a letter to every priest in the United States, inviting priests to
serve as cruise ship chaplains. The letter was signed by Father John
Jamnicky, national director of the Apostleship of the Sea. Father Jamnicky
indicated that all the major cruise lines have agreed to allow only those
priests who are members of Apostleship of the Sea of the United States to
serve as cruise ship chaplains.
The address of Apostleship of the Sea of USA is:
1500 Jefferson Drive
Port Arthur, TX 77642-0646
A correspondent from Houston asked for further information about our
statement that "most confessions (of a dispensed or suspended priest)
would be invalid although a penitent who is unaware of the priest's status
would obtain forgiveness."
He asked: "If someone confesses and discovers the priest's status the next
day, must the penitent confess the same sins at a later point?"
In most cases it would not be necessary as this would be a case of "common
error" in which the bona fide penitent has no reason to suspect that the
priest in question lacks proper faculties for hearing confessions.
In these specific cases the Church supplies the deficiency of faculties in
virtue of Canon 144 of canon law so that the penitent may not be deprived
of sacramental grace.
There may be some specific cases of sins in which priests would normally
have to recur to the bishop or the Holy See before granting absolution,
and in this case it would be necessary to confess to another priest. But
these cases are usually rare.
Even though the penitent receives grace, it remains a very grave fault on
the part of the priest to hear confessions without the proper faculties.