On Working With Priests

(This article is primarily aimed at music directors, but applies at least a little to every parish musician.)

Ah yes. If you work for the Catholic Church, you will have to know how to work with priests. This is a special power hierarchy dynamic that you don't get in the workplace in other jobs. It's a little bit like how I imagine working with princes would be - there is more at play than the person himself. Depending on your own position in the parish, you will have to work with Fr Person, Fr Pastor, and Fr Persona Christi. (And sometimes Fr Confessor, so if you grouch or gossip about your pastor, this can get awkward fast. Ask me how I know.)

When in a meeting with your pastor, remember your respective positions. By virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, Fr Pastor has grace of state to guide his flock. That doesn't mean he can't be wrong, but it does mean that it is wrong to work against him. (There are always at least fifty times more things going on in your parish than you know about, you can't even imagine the different forces he has to work with.) If you disagree on something, do your research, present your case clearly, and accept his decisions. Always respect his office and his position. As for your position, he hired you to be the music director. You are also deserving of a measure of deference, in proportion to the time and effort you have made to learn about the liturgy.

If you are working with your pastor to try and bring about change in your parish, meet frequently! Establish a common vision for your parish. Try new options, and ask him for feedback. Remember that parishioners will go to the musicians with compliments and to the pastor with complaints. This can lead to a disconnect between your perceptions and your pastor's - you may come to the meeting thinking everyone loves everything you do, while he thinks the entire parish is disgruntled and uncomfortable. To counteract this tendency, when graciously accepting a specific compliment from a parishioner, ask them to share it with your priest. Be sure to tell your pastor to make the same request of people delivering complaints. You can take it!

The most important interaction you have with the priest is in the liturgy itself, of course. This cooperation works best if preceded by a more mundane interaction with Fr Person, before the Mass begins. Upon hiring, your pastor and you will need, at the very least, to have a meeting to determine standing practices - basic rubrics options for normal celebrations. These options include, but are not limited to, determining:

1. Should the opening hymn come to a close as soon as Father has venerated the altar, or does he want you to finish all the verses? (The GIRM says cover the action, but some priests like you to keep singing.)
2. Which Penitential Rite option will normally be used? (This may differ depending on whether there is a choir or a cantor. Ask about that.)
3. How much space for reflection does Father want there to be between the readings and the Psalm?
4. At the Offertory, should the music end once the gifts are placed on the altar, or does Father want it to continue through the preparation of the gifts, until he washes his hands?
5. Will he speak or sing the words "the Mystery of Faith" after the Consecration? (The Memorial Acclamation should match.) If spoken, is it up to you to choose an acclamation, or should you wait for him?
6. Will the Our Father be sung or recited?
7. How long should you wait at the Sign of Peace before beginning the Agnus Dei?
8. When can the musicians receive Communion?*
9. At what point after Communion should the music stop? Once everyone has received? After the vessels are purified? Once Father returns to his chair?
10. Any other particulars?

Until you are certain of these preferences, or any time you have a visiting priest (or you are visiting a new parish), you should do a quick confirmation before the beginning of Mass of at least items 2, 5, and 6. If the visiting priest says "whatever you prefer," be sure to tell him precisely what that is - have the list ready to rattle off. As long as either you or the priest have a few years' experience, you can pretty much adjust on the fly to the rest. In addition, before any Mass (especially feast days), check in for surprises, such as:

Will there be incense during the Mass?
Are there any unusual extras happening in today's Mass, like special blessings for parish groups, a baptism, a Sequence?

If the priest springs something on you last minute, take it as a gesture of confidence in your abilities. It's a good practice to keep a running list of Things That Came Up, for future reference - after a special liturgy, I will make notes while the memory of the needs (i.e. mistakes I made) are fresh in my mind. After a couple of times around the liturgical block, you will be able to bust out a Litany of Saints, or make up a quick a cappella Psalm Tone like a pro (because you are a pro). Surprises keep it from getting stale, right?

I'm going to write an entire post in the near future about weddings and funerals, as they have even more fun variables, such as Brides and Bereaved Relatives.


*There are a number of options for musicians receiving Communion. I was going to write a footnote with a list of ideas, but it got so long that I decided to make it my next blog post. Whee!

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