The Armchair Liturgist: Late or Absent Priest

armchair1.jpgHere’s one I thought would make for a good discussion here. It’s not really covered in any liturgy documents, so no need to fear being tabbed a heretic or a heterodox. Unless you want to be.

There’s a visiting priest scheduled for one of your Sunday Masses. Fifteen minutes, ten minutes before Mass; no priest, and the sacristan and head usher are getting nervous. Five minutes before and a call to the pastor’s cell phone goes unanswered. Then I arrived, just planning to come to Mass with my family.

I dialed our parish’s retired priest … answering machine–no luck there. The lector, who does prison ministry, says he has a homily on the readings he can give if called upon. But at one minute past Mass time, the guest priest does show up, fully vested, exiting from his car in front of the church. He trades his car keys for the wireless mic, and we’re off within thirty seconds. The handoff was pretty sweet!

But suppose for the sake of the purple chair it’s more than a minute and you have about five-hundred people already at Mass. Do you start a liturgy of the word and hope the guy shows up? Sing all the verses? How long would you delay starting a liturgy? How many phone calls would you make to priests you happen to know who might be otherwise at home? Do you call it off? Would you be prepared to SCAP* it?

*Sunday Communion in the Absence of a Priest


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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7 Responses to The Armchair Liturgist: Late or Absent Priest

  1. Anne says:

    Maybe we should call this situation “SCEP”…Sunday Communion in “Expectation” of a priest. Another thought….Christ is present when we gather to pray. Apologizing and asking everyone to leave doesn’t seem like the proper thing to do. Perhaps all parishes should have a competent lay person prepared to preside over a Liturgy of the Word and communion service. A communion service may not always be possible depending on the number of people and the number of hosts in the tabernacle.

  2. Tony Neria says:

    It’s interesting…I have experienced the opposite problem many times. The priest who is so fixated on starting the liturgy exactly on time (or even a few minutes early)—to the point of distraction. I am a stickler about being on time, so when I’m not ready to start the music when the priest gives the sign, I really have a good reason…or at least something is occurring well beyond my control.

    Many feeling have been hurt over this issue…mine, the incense bearers, altar servers, etc. The result has been some people have actually left their ministry or at least lost some respect for the priest.

    Fr. (insert priest name): No one really cares if the mass starts a minute or two late. Concentrate on being pleasant to all, leading by example, being present to the Spirit, looking people in the eye when you talk to them and not cutting them off…I could go on about this…(gritting my teeth).

  3. brothermattcsc says:

    Thank you for this wonderful “case study” question. This question highlights the importance of creating procedures for a parish staff. It is important to outline such procedures not only to serve the “five-hundred” people waiting for Mass to begin, but also to protect the parish staff and volunteers, who are caught in a bind.

    Guest priests come in two main varieties: the substitute and the missionary. Substitutes are not easy for a pastor to come by if he needs to be away from the parish on a Sunday. Thus, a pastor will want to keep such substitutes in his good graces by making sure the visiting priest has a good experience. A sure fire way to guarantee that a substitute priest will not have a good experience and thus refuse future requests to help the pastor out is for the celebration to start without him.

    Priests on mission appeals and other special promotional tours also make natural visiting (and all too often substitute) priests. Since their efforts are usually supported by the diocese or the religious order/congregation of the pastor, he will also want the missionary priest to have a good experience. This means that the missionary has a “successful visit,” whether that is acquiring funds, prayer pledges, or what have you. Again, starting the mass without the priest gives the pastor a black eye.

    The parish staff and volunteers are caught in a double bind, between unease of the gathered community and the possibility of offending their boss and/or pastor. Thus, this is a legitimate theme for a staff meeting and staff handbook. A plan and chain of command is need when the pastor is off campus and/or unavailable, especially on a Sunday. People, including visiting priests, get lost and accidents happen. The staff person or people in charge should have phone numbers. There should be a time limit set before the staff begins a prayer service other than mass. The specific type of service should be part of the policy. If the pastor would want the SCAP option, then there should be hosts a plenty in the tabernacle. In any event, when the pastor is gone, someone should be ready “in case” to lead the congregation and offer a reflection. When such issues are talked, not only will such a situation be handled smoothly, but the staff, volunteers and the pastor will be somewhat protected from any offense if and when the late visiting priest arrives.

  4. Claude Muncey says:

    Great question, Todd, and good responses.

    To build on Br. Matt’s response, this is one area where preparation is essential, and it must include ample communication with all those affected. Long before Father goes on vacation, he should share with the congregation what the basic procedure will be, including, briefly, what would happen if a substitute is delayed. The priest gracious enough to serve as a substitute deserves to know that the parish staff can handle things if he is inadvertently delayed. And it is important that the situation can be handled smoothly without putting the substitute into a bad position.

    Just as important, putting off saying anything to the congregation, hoping that Father Substitute appears miraculously, is foolish. If you are prepared and can handle things smoothly, you can minimize feelings that the situation is out of control.

    My work is in prison ministry, and we have to deal with clergy delays all the time. It is not unusual for a priest to be inadvertently delayed leaving his parish, or to hit traffic problems on the sometimes long drive to a prison, and it is always hard to estimate just how long it will take to clear security and control coming in. And contrary to the usual stereotype, inmates have limited schedule flexibility — if you run too late, they may no choice but to leave early. And your “worship space” is often scheduled for some other group right after yours.

    Our current practice is to greet the assembly 5 to 10 minutes prior to the scheduled start. This gives us a chance to let them know who we are, to set their expectations for the liturgy, and in some cases to remind them of what behavior is and is not appropriate in this situation. One member of the team will tell them when the priest is expected, but also will remind them that he might be delayed. Then they will quickly review what has already worked out with the visiting priest — how long we can delay the start.

    If things run that long and we cannot raise Father on his cell phone (if he has one) then we call the front desk and leave a message that we have begun. (The front desk also usually calls to inform us that a visitor has made it through security and is on the way.) At this point in the past we would start a liturgy of the word and sort of slide into the prior version of SCAP if necessary. (We are now evaluating what we are going to do in light of the new procedures.) Generally we can smoothly handle anything up to a half hour delay, and can deal with a longer one if we have some advance warning. The key is to set expectations properly and keep everyone properly informed, as appropriate.

  5. EILEEN DALY says:


  6. rollymaestro says:

    Though this piece seems to be an old one, we have a problem there. I am a catechist in a Pastoral Area with about seven outstations with only one Priest. This priest can’t visit all the Churches within the Pastoral Area because of the distance. Can Catechist be permitted to conduct a service in one of the Churche? This issue has long been a very strong case especially as the Church does not even make available the exact prayers to be used during those services.
    The question would then be whether the Catechists are allowed to lead services in the absence of priests or not?

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