Take cover

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 06:11am on 15th November 2013

A parish priest’s absence may feel like a disaster or a blessed relief.  Clergy holidays, ill-health, family matters, or departure due to a parish move or retirement can leave parishioners welcoming a new man upfront, once in a while, or at every Mass, every day, every weekend, for some time.

Priest and people contribute towards the new temporary working relationship as it flourishes, or flounders.  In my experience, some supply priests make unreasonable demands, while others are delightfully co-operative.   One insisted we sing at the second Mass the Kyrie which had gone well at the first, although no-one in the second congregation or choir knew it, but had prepared a different setting!  And another informed me just before Mass he always sang the Preface Dialogue, so I dashed out to teach it to a congregation who’d never heard it before.  I wonder what the experience is like from the priest’s perspective, visiting an unknown parish and ministering to its people.  The local Ordinary, under whose responsibility each priest celebrates Mass (GIRM92) must feel rather distant.  Some priests are happy to help.  They may undertake jobs during the week which leave them free to serve parishes at the weekend, or live in religious communities which can spare them to assist elsewhere.  Other men are reticent supply priests, called out of retirement or ill-health, or already very busy with their own parishes. 

Before a planned absence, the departing priest can make arrangements for appropriate cover.  Clergy who exercise consistent collaborative ministry prepare parishioners to receive visiting priests with a standardised pattern of preparing liturgies and clear means of communicating accurate information among the laity.  This enables the lay faithful to maintain the positive united identity of the parish even in the absence of its Father.  The best liturgical working relationships (whether with paid or volunteer lay ministers) develop over time, getting to know each others’ expectations and abilities, preferences and quirks.  While we don’t have the luxury of time to prepare with a cover priest, the key elements of trust and communication remain essential.  

One person may take responsibility to liaise with the supply priest, welcoming him on arrival, checking parking space is available, directing him to the sacristy and toilets, offering hospitality, and conveying diverse messages from lay ministers necessary before Mass begins.  Introduce the supply priest to key liturgical ministers, especially any server, MC, or Deacon who will be on the sanctuary throughout Mass.  Ask if the priest has any particular physical needs, for example, preferring to sit to distribute Communion or not to wear a radio mic (if he has a pace-maker).  Show him any announcements he or a lay person will be reading, and mention at what point during the Mass these are given.  Explain what the children of the congregation are expecting: do they spend any of the Mass sitting around the sanctuary or standing around the altar; do they enjoy a Children’s Liturgy or sacramental preparation during Mass, in which case when do they leave and return, and do they share their activity with the wider congregation.  Inform the priest of the usual arrangements for distributing Communion, including distribution to the sick at their seats (when and who will guide him), anyone who receives a coeliac host and where it is kept, any Extraordinary Ministers taking hosts to the housebound. 

Give the priest a music list, noting any parts of the Mass which are sung.  Ask if the priest intends to sing anything himself, and if he would like a starting note.  Ask which version of the Penitential Act will be used (in order to integrate any sung Kyrie), and whether the priest is happy for the Offertory music to continue during the Berakah prayers (Blest are you, Lord …).  Mention the customary pace of the Mass, to avoid any unexpected liturgical silences being misinterpreted as mistakes, or impatience should any aspect of the Mass appear uncharacteristically drawn-out.  Convey the supply priest’s wishes to the relevant lay ministers, and introduce the priest to the congregation before Mass, thanking him for his visit. 

Everyone approaches Mass slightly differently, not always achieving best practice!  This is a good occasion to recognise those practices which are local customs, by contrast to the norms outlined in useful documents like the General Instruction and Celebrating the Mass.  Such adaptations can cause hiccups when celebrating Mass in an unfamiliar church, or with an unknown priest.  Some occur unexpectedly, for example, a recent cover priest abbreviated the Creed to just four lines, off-setting the over-eager priest who on Easter Sunday led both sets of Baptismal Promises.  Some variations become established over time having been initiated for good pastoral reasons.  For example, a parish priest may decide to say the response to the Prayer of the Faithful to demonstrate an appropriate pace after repeated experience with readers neglecting to pause, but if the Readers don’t realise this is unusual, a cover priest’s expectation that lay ministers will lead this response may generate an extended awkward silence!

A familiar pattern and pace of Mass permits worshippers to relax into prayer, creating a safe environment for anything and everything to be expressed to God, to receive from Him both challenges and comforts.  Losing this familiarity can be unsettling, but celebrating Mass in a new place, or with a new priest presents new possibilities for appreciating the depth and variety of the liturgy, and for each of us to examine, clarify and articulate why we celebrate Mass in the way we do. 


Reproduced from Issue 349, Volume 39, Number 2 of Music and Liturgy, October 2013, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory https://www.ssg.org.uk/

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