Anchored by faith: in his downtime, Father Eric Groner journeys for Jesus on the open seas

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

June 12, 2020

Fr. Eric Gronerfr. Eric Groner
Father Eric Groner, SVD, is pictured at St. Rita Parish in Fort Worth. (NTC/Ben Torres)

Once or twice a year, Father Eric Groner leaves the routine of parish life to set sail on the open seas.

While a fellow priest from his religious order, the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), fills in for him at St. Rita Church in east Fort Worth, the energetic missionary boards a cruise ship that takes him to exotic and historic ports around the globe.

But the maritime excursions aren’t for pleasure. Fr. Groner is a member of the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) USA — a professional association dedicated to providing sacramental and pastoral care to seafarers, fishermen, dock workers, “and all who work or travel on the waterways of the world.”

“It’s not a vacation. It’s work,” insisted the pastor, recalling how his SVD provincial described the maritime chaplaincy. “It’s a ministry for the people of the sea.”

A veteran of 21 cruises, Fr. Groner celebrates daily Mass for passengers, a late-night Sunday Mass for the crew, and a Sunday non-denominational service for anyone who wants to attend. His faculties on the boat are non-territorial — meaning he doesn’t need permission from a local bishop to meet the pastoral needs of voyagers.

In addition to celebrating liturgies, he helps cruise line employees continue sacramental preparation started by other chaplains and offers comfort or counseling when the unexpected happens. And the unexpected happens more than you think, the seafaring padre points out.

Leisure cruises typically attract an older demographic of people who may have age-related heart problems or other health issues.

“On a boat, you’re the chaplain and not just the Catholic chaplain,” Fr. Groner said, explaining a call to a stateroom can mean someone has died or is seriously ill and they’re sending for a helicopter. “You’re out at sea but your job is just like it would be for a parishioner. You take care of their pastoral needs. That can mean anointing the person and comforting the family.”

Sometimes tragedy affects more than just a few passengers.

“We were in Grand Cayman where some people went scuba diving,” the priest continued. “One of the men — who was relatively young — had a heart attack and drowned in the water.”

An incident like that casts a shadow of gloom over everyone’s trip. “So, you provide pastoral ministry,” he added.

Serving the crew
AOS-USA screens and assigns its 450 to 500 Catholic clergy membership to major cruise companies, like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, during Christmas and Easter holidays, or if a cruise itinerary is longer than a week and involves many days at sea. Holland America has 14 ships with a priest onboard every cruise.

With many of its priests aging and no longer able to travel, the AOS-USA is seeking more volunteers. Maritime chaplains receive a free trip but are responsible for paying their own gratuities and other expenses.

“You’re not considered a passenger. You’re part of the crew,” disclosed Fr. Groner, who lodges in an interior room on the navigation deck of the ship.

Being available to the crew is a large part of the ministry. Most of the people hired by cruise lines sign six to nine-month contracts.

“They come from the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Eastern Europe and work 12 to 14 hours a day,” he asserted. “Many are Catholic and the only opportunity for church is when we provide it.”

Cruise line employees are considered migrant itinerant workers — not unlike farm laborers who move from one agricultural job to another.

“Migrant workers can be in a field or on a boat, but we provide pastoral ministry to them,” Fr. Groner said, noting that Pope John Paul II formed the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People in 1988. It now falls under the auspices of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

“These people sacrifice not being with their families because, economically, they can earn two to three times more money than at home.”

Hearing confessions and counseling — especially for crewmembers — keeps the chaplain busy. Long shifts, living in close quarters, and stress can lead to relationship problems between coworkers.

“People have issues and if there’s a blow up on the boat, I may be asked to talk to someone,” Fr. Groner explained. “Sometimes counseling is the last resort before a contract is terminated.”

Promoting ecumenical dialogue
The best part of traveling the high seas for the adventurous priest isn’t the view from the deck or interesting ports of call. Ordained in 1996, the Missouri native says his work on a cruise ship allows him to practice his vocation as a missionary in a different way.

“You’d be surprised how many people want to talk about religion when you sit down at a table,” observed Fr. Groner, whose clerical collar seems to prompt dinner invitations.

A form of evangelization, the presence of a priest on a cruise ship exposes guests to the Catholic faith. After attending the non-denominational Sunday service he conducts, participants will tell Fr. Groner they didn’t know Catholics read the Bible.

“There’s an ecumenical dialogue — an outreach to these people,” the chaplain suggested. “I get all kinds of questions.

People ask me what I think about Pope Francis or want to know the Church’s view on moral issues like [same-sex unions]. Based on their personal experience, people have a good or bad opinion about the Church.”

Catholic passengers also welcome the availability of a priest onboard and use the opportunity to go to confession. Others take advantage of Fr. Groner’s approachable nature to discuss family problems or reasons why they no longer attend Mass.

“In many ways, this outreach ministry is providential,” he added thoughtfully. “You meet people who may be at a crossroads in their life or haven’t practiced their faith. They can sit down and tell me anything because they’re never going to see me again. It’s ministry in a different setting.”

Special circumstances
Sunday Mass, celebrated in one of the cruise ship’s entertainment theaters, usually draws about 200 people according to Fr. Groner. But circumstances can bump up that figure.

During one cruise, the ship stayed out at sea because of sustained winds from Hurricane Ophelia. With churning waves rocking and rolling the boat, the Sunday crowd of 100 people grew to 500 for the daily service.

“They say there’s no atheist in a foxhole. Well, I guess there aren’t any atheists on a cruise ship in a hurricane either,” he added with a light-hearted chuckle.

Fr. Eric Groner

Once or twice a year, Father Eric Groner leaves the routine of parish life to set sail on the open seas.

Published (until 6/3/2037)