Liturgy Lines: Who Ministers?

by Elizabeth Harrington. This article originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on June 22nd, 2017.

A parish community recently asked for my advice on how to deal with a parishioner who had faithfully played the organ at Mass for many years but was no longer able to fulfil satisfactorily the requirements of the role. Members of the parish were becoming increasingly frustrated by her refusal to play any music other than the repertoire she had used for the last 40 years.

The rule of St Benedict written early in the 6th century contains a passage which remains relevant after all this time: “The members of the monastery will read and sing, not according to rank, but according to their ability to benefit their hearers”. In other words, the liturgical ministries of music and reading are based solely on skill, aptitude and competence and not on claims of age, rank or seniority.

Sometimes one person has to be ‘hurt’ for the sake of the rest of the assembly and their worship. The situation has to be handled with great pastoral sensitivity. Perhaps the experienced organist could be asked to mentor one or two young musicians.

Around the same time I was contacted by a parish musician who had been removed from her role and replaced by a musician from outside the parish. She was particular hurt because the new person was being paid whereas she had never been. Does the Rule of Benedict suggest that she should happily make way for a more skilled musician? The issues here go beyond skill alone.

One consideration is whether outsiders have been brought in because parishioners have expressed dissatisfaction with the current musicians or whether the decision was made by the parish priest alone. I once heard a priest comment that a certain cantor should be taken off the roster because “He will never cut a CD”. The person concerned has a very pleasant, tuneful voice and a manner which encourages the assembly to sing.  He does not sing over the top of the assembly like those cantors who consider themselves to be performers rather than animators.

I have been at a Mass when visiting musicians have sung hymns and Mass settings that the assembly does not know and ignored regular – and correct – parish practice. The question “Whose Mass is it?” springs to mind.

Two further matters need addressing here. Firstly, how can the knowledge and skills of existing and potential parish liturgical ministers be improved? Is the parish prepared to pay for formation and suitable resources?

Secondly, should people who have not been part of the worshipping community be expected to attend some parish liturgies and be well informed about parish liturgical practice before taking on any liturgical ministry roles?

Dealing pastorally with these situations requires an understanding of liturgical ministry, open communication with and co-operation between liturgical ministers, sensitivity to the needs of the assembly, and commitment to the liturgical principal that ‘full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else”.

© Liturgy Brisbane. Liturgy Lines columns are accessible on the Liturgy Brisbane website.


  1. should people who have not been part of the worshipping community be expected to attend some parish liturgies and be well informed about parish liturgical practice before taking on any liturgical ministry roles?

    I’m sure Elizabeth Harrington didn’t have this in mind when she was writing, but her question applies not only to lay ministers but equally to priests and deacons.

    One of the problems is that priests often think that Mass is pretty much the same everywhere, and that the way they preside is pretty much the only way to do it. Sometimes they have not had any real liturgical formation and have simply picked up their presiding style and practices from watching the seminary faculty, who picked up their presiding style from their own seminary faculty, and so on, back over the decades. I have seen supply priests come in who did not take the trouble to find out what the community’s celebrating traditions were and simply rode roughshod over them, sometimes unwittingly but often not.

    That is fairly easy to deal with when you know that the supply priest will only be there for a matter of weeks. More difficult is the whole area of priestly transitions and permanent appointments.

    A “traditional” priest is assigned to a parish that is liturgically a long way ahead of where he is or can imagine being. He tries to stamp out practices that he does not approve of, and presides in a style that may not have been seen in the parish for 60 years. This causes ill-feeling and resentment among the people, who think he is trying to put the clock back. Relationships collapse. People walk away

    A “progressive” priest comes into a parish that has been a liturgical backwater and finds that the people are not ready to move forward with his new ideas. This time much of the ill-feeling and resentment is inside the priest, who doesn’t understand why people are not responding to his enthusiastic efforts to move things on. Surely they should be grateful that I’m here?!

    Quite apart from the obvious fact that those responsible for clergy assignments seldom consider the characters both of the parish and of the priest, let alone try to match them, there is an issue of formation. Some dioceses have even proposed a mandatory transitions policy whereby any priest assigned as pastor of another parish must go through a refresher liturgical formation course before taking up his appointment. If he does not, the appointment is not confirmed and he cannot take up residence there. Similarly, any parish awaiting a new pastor must go through a refresher liturgical formation course, otherwise they will not receive a new priest. The idea is to avoid the kind of problems I have just been talking about, but I don’t know of a single diocese, thinking along these lines, who actually implemented such a policy. Many people don’t actually understand what the problem is — after all, the Mass is the Mass, isn’t it? — and so they see no mileage in trying to change anything.

    Liturgical formation is equally a hot potato question in seminaries, which are often reluctant to admit that they may not be omni-competent. To do something about the osmosis phenomenon I mentioned above, where students simply copy their professors’ habits, bad as well as good, would require refresher liturgical formation courses for the seminary faculty too; and most seminary staff would not admit that they needed such (re)training.

    So, please, let’s not only bewail the shortcomings of lay liturgical ministers. They apply just as much to the ordained. I have not said anything about liturgy and deacons, but this, too, is an area where a lot of work is needed.

    1. Let’s lay off our hard working priests for a minute. I know several priests who sit on clergy assignment boards in different dioceses and this claim that they “seldom consider the characters both of the parish and of the priest, let alone try to match them,” is completely false in my experience. That is the very reason their board exists! Some parishes of course are so troubled that they need a “fixer,” but by and large every diocese slaves over the task of finding the right priests for their parishes because believe it or not, no bishop wants division in their parishes. Indeed sometimes this philosophy works to a fault where same-minded priests serve a parish for so long that habitual problems arise. I’m not saying every single decision a priest makes is beyond reproach, but the education they have, the amount of work they’re expected to do, the long hours they’re expected to work, and the sacramental graces they’ve been bestowed are enough that they deserve a fair shake for us layfolk.

      1. While I’m sure that in many dioceses, clergy personnel boards, assignment boards, vicars for clergy, do make an effort to match priest to parish, there are also many who don’t. Often it’s a band aid approach where it’s a case of whoever’s available to plug a gap. I’ve lost count of the numerous times that I’ve seen, on both sides of the Pond, stress and anxiety caused by priests who imposed their own idiosyncratic way of doing things on the community. This very week on Facebook there have been multiple horror stories illustrating this, with liturgical abuses by the wagonload.

        I want to emphasize that I’m not saying that all priests are like this. Many are not. But the fact remains that my main point, that most priests assume that the Mass is more or less the same wherever they happen to show up, remains true. That assumption needs to be challenged.

        This is not a criticism of good, hard-working priests. It’s a criticism of the formation they receive and, as others have pointed out, of the ongoing formation that they don’t receive. Both priests and communities need constant nurturing in this regard.

        The same is true of lay ministers, many of whose formation is inadequate, so this is not just about priests. But it’s not just about lay people either. We’re all in this together.

    2. Out of curiosity, what do you mean by presidential style? Choice in EPs? How the texts are recited or sung? Use of incense? Or are you referring more to music choices which I would differentiate from the way a celebrants prays Mass?

      I second Patrick’s comment about the diocesan priest board carefully considering matching a parish with a priest which is the practice in my diocese. Though even in a diocese where there are enough priest for parishes, the best fitting priest for a particular parish may already be assigned else where and cannot easily be moved. But priests and parishes as in other aspects of life have to deal with what is feasible and not necessarily ideal.

      1. By presiding style, I’m talking about a number of things. Yes, choice of prayers. Yes, how they are recited and sung. Not so much about music choices, which a priest should leave to the music director, assuming that that person is competent.

        But I’m also talking about the use of voice, the use (and abuse) of gesture, overall body language, and general attitude towards the assembly. Many priests celebrate Mass every day. For a certain proportion of them, autopilot becomes the norm. A lack of awareness of the community, and a lack of flexibility, result from this. The priest gets stale. Mass becomes a ho-hum going-through-the-motions exercise.

        It’s an art to preside at Mass as if this was the first Mass you had ever presided at, by which I do not mean nervousness and unsure-ness but freshness and newness. A good presider energizes the people because he gives off energy himself. He puts all of himself into what he is doing. Every time. For those celebrating several Masses on a weekend, that can be exhausting, which gives rise to the temptation to pace oneself and hold back, a temptation that needs to be resisted.

        Rubrics need to inhabit the presider. An example: at the greeting “The Lord be with you”, the priest is directed to extend his hands. A proportion of priests do this in a mechanical way, not putting anything of themselves into it. The people need to know from the gesture that the priest really means the words he is saying. He needs to inhabit the gesture. It must become a part of his being, not something that he does just because the rubric says so.

        It’s also an art to be able to adapt to the community and the community’s mood on a particular day.

        Some priests show by their demeanour that they actually don’t care about the people. They can be sloppy, or just routine, sometimes verging on the zombie. In extreme cases, such as the late Cardinal Bevilacqua, the presider can actually behave in a rude and offensive way towards the people.

        Ars celebrandi is far more than just saying the black and doing the red!

      2. Paul, in my experience, that a priest may celebrate mass differently than the community is used to does not necessarily mean they carry a “people be damned” attitude, or even that he’s failing to be “pastoral.” The church where I attended daily mass last year had two assigned priests who were fairly charismatic and cheerful. But every now and then the diocesan exorcist would help out, and he had a very old-school almost Tridentine intentionality to the mass (Fiddlebacks, missal antiphons, Penetential Act I, no Sign of Peace, the gang was all there). One could easily interpret his “style” as cold and uncaring, but I think it came from a radically sincere intentionality to the Holy Sacrifice than out of any lack of concern for the local church community, especially given his line of work. Dare I say it, his intentionality brought diversity to the noon mass experience that we all genuinely appreciated, and I trust we were in his heart during every second of it, even if he didn’t say “have a good day” after the final blessing (he also gave great two minute homilies).

        This isn’t always the case though; some priests truly struggle with burnout and it can have negative consequences on the faithful, especially when liturgical abuses occur. But I think the vast majority of priests enter the mass with their heart focused on the Holy Sacrifice, even if it cuts against the grain of that particular community, which sometimes it needs in order to avoid burnout themselves.

      3. Patrick,

        I’m not so much talking about misfitting so much as how the presider relates to the people he is serving. Both traditional and progressive, to oversimplify the adjectives, can have problems relating to people. It’s not so much about whether you use Penitential Act 1 or 3, wear fiddlebacks or gothic, as to whether you establish a rapport with the assembly or not.

    3. Would it be possible to describe in greater detail how a mandatory ‘refresher liturgical formation course’ for a parish should look like, and how the parish’s worthiness to receive a new priest should be assessed?

      1. Berthold —

        Off the top of my head:

        For parish formation, I would suggest

        (a) Liturgy 101, including general principles and a (very) basic history component. For many years I have presented a three-part course entitled “The Mass under a microscope”. It isn’t just about the Mass, of course, but uses that most familiar of rites to get across basic principles and best practice. People are enthusiastic, and normally have two reactions: Why haven’t we heard all this stuff before? and Do the priests know all this? (often they don’t)

        (b) Liturgical Anthropology 101. Most people have no idea about what is going on in liturgy and how people in the pews perceive it. This is broken down into how things look, how things sound, and how things feel. Once again, people are surprised by what they have noticed subconsciously but never articulated.

        (c) Ministry 101, including interrelationship of liturgical ministers with each other, and relationship of ministers with clergy (“collaborative ministry”). It’s very easy for liturgical ministers to compartmentalize and not realize that they are part of a “network of ministry”.

        (d) A module on liturgical music principles and best practice, tailored to the resources of the parish.

        (e) Refresher training on practical skills for all non-music ministers. Even the most experienced ministers can brush up and learn new things.

        For clergy, I would suggest the same basic structure, but with content rather more focused on the demands of the priestly and diaconal ministry. For example, under (b) I would cover much of the ground I outlined in my response above about presiding style; (c) would include working relationships in the parish; (d) would include ministerial chants; (e) would include using instant-playback video recording of priests and deacons to help them see how they are coming across (I have had a lot of experience with this in years gone by, and clergy generally find it very beneficial).

        Hope these ideas are helpful.

  2. The article highlights a glaring ecclesial problem across all ecclesial ministries, that of mandatory continuing education, and its accountability. There is no such program for priests, deacons or lay ministers (and days of reflection are not enough). Priests may have a weeklong diocesan get together (how much of that time is getting up to speed on the changes that have occurred and are on the horizon), as may the bishops; what best practices and new ideas/programs are learned?

    If continuing education were mandated, no one could get stale. I do not have the time or the money either to do CEUs, but if i do not do my 50 hours per year i lose my Board Certification as a Chaplain (BCC). That is why the USCCB holds NACC certified BCCs as a gold standard…which is irrelevant if a standard is not applied across the board, from the pews up.

    Paul Inwood, your points are well taken. On the first day of our preaching class, one of the foremost American homiletics professors firmly impressed on us that we must exegete the congregation.

    Any person, lay or ordained, preaching, lectoring, serving, presiding or consecrating should exegete the congregation in which they are imbedded, even if only for a day. The entire orienting flow of Eucharist is disrupted when exegesis has not been done. There is nothing worse when preparing for the Eucharistic Celebration, than to have someone stumbling throughout the flow of grace. If you can prepare and research norms prior to having your first meal with your fiancee’s family or your superior/ordinary, why would you not take the same care with Christ’s banquet?

    Patrick Freese, preparation is part of the charism they chose to pursue and they knew the time requirements before they accepted the collar.

    1. Donna, I fundamentally support your argument that CEUs would greatly help our priests. On the whole I think it’s a great idea, so count me in (I think most priests would be to). What I tire of though are broad straw-man suggestions that our priests are just luxuriating in ivory towers without a care for their flock, which I think does an insult to the hard work that they do every day, that many if not most Catholics would never wish for themselves. If we use the ivory tower metaphor, they’re probably more slaving away in the dungeons than sipping champagne in the royal suite, and I think us layfolk should honor and respect that, even if it is indeed a life they chose.

    2. “On the first day of our preaching class, one of the foremost American homiletics professors firmly impressed on us that we must exegete the congregation.”

      I would only note that, at least in the American urban/suburban parish context, a given territorial parish in functional reality may have multiple congregationS that share the same space and staff but may have needs that don’t neatly harmonize into a uniform ministerial program. With that, you have the intersectionality of other sub-groupings of the parish: the Insiders, the School Families, the volunteers in different apostolates, and, that group that is loud in its silence…the Absent (some of whom may be Present elsewhere because the parish failed to retain them). In exegeting a parish, also be sure to be open to notice (1) who is not there, and (2) what is not said.

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