Paul Birch

Paul Birch

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

As the faithful of the Diocese of Superior continue to pray for vocations to the priesthood, lay people are doing what they can to support the clergy and keep their faith communities strong.

Lay Leaders of Prayer are parishioners trained to conduct prayer services in the absence of a priest. They can lead weekday Communion services, distribute Communion in nursing homes and other offsite venues, and, in emergency situations, lead Sunday Communion services in the absence of a priest.

Currently, more than 150 laypeople across the diocese are trained Lay Leaders of Prayer, a certification that requires initial formation, ongoing formation and recertification every four years.

To attend training, parishioners must be recommended by their pastors.
“Their call for this needs to come from the parish,” explained Paul Birch, director of the Office of Worship. Accompanied by former parish director Pat Pintens and Sr. Marla Lang, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, Birch teaches annual training sessions for recruits.

The diocesan program began in the 1980s as a practical means of addressing the priest shortage, Birch said. Approximately 12 to 15 people undergo training annually, which involves two weekends of initial formation in the fall and two days of ongoing formation in the spring.

Sessions include instruction on gestures and postures, proper handling of the Blessed Sacrament, leading liturgical prayer and understanding differences between Communion services and the Mass. Most importantly, there is no Liturgy of the Eucharist in services, he added, and lay leaders may not give homilies. Besides bishops and priests, only deacons with preaching faculties are permitted to preach.

According to Birch, participants’ least favorite aspect of training is usually their homework. After the first weekend, they are required to make a video recording of themselves conducting a simulated prayer service with unconsecrated hosts. Trainees review the videos during the second weekend.

“They have to be able to demonstrate that our instruction has taken hold to a certain degree,” he added. “The video helps us to discern if things are moving in the right direction.”

Although participants often feel self-conscious during both filming and viewing, Birch said the exercise is valuable for two reasons. First, the collaborative nature of the assignment requires support from the parish community – trainees have to find around a dozen people to participate in the simulation – and second, viewers provide both praise and suggestions for improvement.

“Every group tends to bond,” Birch commented. “We all learn from each other’s strengths and each other’s weaknesses.”

The viewing session also ensures lay leaders are given proper guidance.
“We stress that the official ritual is what needs to be adhered to,” said Birch. “We try to aim for a respect for the official liturgy or ritual of the church, and then allow for necessary pastoral adaptations.”

Lay leaders generally assist on an as-needed basis, and Birch wants to make sure they aren’t getting rusty in the interim. Four years after their certification, he calls parishes to ask whether the arrangement is mutually beneficial. If a lay leader is still useful, he or she will be recertified by the diocese.

Deacon Roger Cadotte serves the five-parish cluster of Holy Family, Bayfield, which has five lay leaders.

“It is definitely helpful to have Lay Leaders of Prayer available to provide services in the absence of a priest,” the deacon said. “Although this rarely happens on a weekend in our cluster, in the event it does, without qualified leaders of prayer, what could be provided for the faithful would be limited.
“These leaders also serve their individual parishes in other ministries, such as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, readers, ministry to the home-bound and serve on parish councils,” he continued. “In addition, they are available to provide Word and Communion services on a weekday when needed.”

Sharon Hacker, Washburn, received her certification in December. A bookkeeper for St. Louis Parish, Hacker was already taking Communion to the homebound when she was approached about becoming a Lay Leader of Prayer.

“When I was asked if I would consider doing this, I was taken back, but yet delightfully surprised that I could expand my service to our parish, but also to our Lord,” she said.

Toni Sendra, a member of St. Isaac Jogues and Companions, Mercer, already served her parish as a reader and leader of the rosary, among other functions, when she agreed to join the Lay Leaders of Prayer training. She wanted to help fill the void created by the loss of one of St. Isaac’s lay leaders and offer support to parish clergy.

“It was more of a needs-based thing than anything,” Sendra added. “This was just another step in my commitment to my faith.”

Both women said they found the training to be a faith-enriching experience.

“I am truly grateful that I took the leap,” Hacker said. “The reward for me personally has been that I have a much better understanding why I have chosen to be Catholic, and why I want to help others to grow in their own faith. I want to help them stay connected through the prayer services and offering the closest connection of all, Holy Communion.”

To learn more about the program, visit