Who Ministers?

Who Ministers?

This week I was contacted on two matters concerning parish liturgical ministers.

First I was asked how a community could deal with the case of 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.

Interestingly, the reverse scenario presented itself when 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 particularly hurt because the new person was being paid whereas she had never been. Her hurt was further exacerbated when she was expected to step in at short notice the previous Sunday when the ‘outsider’ failed to arrive for Mass.

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 say 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 know what it is like to have visiting musicians at Mass who sing hymns and Mass settings that the assembly does not know and ignore normal parish practice. For example, instead of commencing the communion hymn as soon as the presider has taken communion, they wait until after everyone has returned to their places to begin singing. The question “Whose Mass is it?” springs to mind again.

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, is it fair for new people ‘to be thrown into the deep end’ or should they be expected to attend some parish liturgies before taking on the role and be well informed about parish liturgical practice?

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”.


Elizabeth Harrington