ALLOUEZ — Who was that man standing next to Bishop David Ricken at Christmas Mass? He was there for that parish anniversary, too. He’s wearing a black cassock and surplice. Is he an altar server? A seminarian? A priest?
He’s Michael Poradek, the diocese’s divine worship director and Bishop Ricken’s primary master of ceremonies.
At 26, Poradek is one of the youngest, if not the youngest, primary emcees for a bishop in the country. He is also one of the only laymen serving in a role traditionally held by deacons or, in the past, by the bishops’ priest secretaries. However, it is not required that an emcee be a cleric, only that he know a lot about the liturgy and the rubrics of the Mass.
“Generally, at the liturgy, the emcee is the person who oversees the various ministries,” explained Poradek, “to make sure that everything is coordinated and flows well. They don’t really have an actual role within the liturgy itself, but they assist everyone else in their roles and making sure everything goes smoothly.
“At Mass,” Poradek added, “I try to be as discreet as possible and kind of hide; which is a hard thing to do for emcees because of the fact that you have to be present, reminding everyone. It is a bit of a skill to be discreet on the altar. I have to remember how I’m moving, minimize movement, talking and hand motions and all that, but at the same time keep it all going smoothly.”
He isn’t, Poradek stressed, “in charge.” That role, he explained, belongs to the priest celebrant, “who determines the texts to be used, which optional ritual elements are included or omitted and what is to be sung or recited. In preparing the celebration, the master of ceremonies may make suggestions to the celebrant as to what is most appropriate. But the final decision rests with the celebrant.”
Poradek also credits advance preparation by the diocesan worship coordinator, Clare Sturm, for the even flow of the bishop’s Masses.
The more complex the Mass, the more that needs overseeing. For example, at a Rural Life Day Mass, seeds and animals need the bishop’s blessing. There are also outdoor Masses with unique requirements. At a parish celebration, there are parish altar servers, cantors, lectors and worship directors to coordinate with. At the diocesan Chrism Mass during Holy Week, Poradek helps the deacons clean cups — since the large number in attendance means more than a dozen cups for holy Communion. (He has been specially instituted as an “acolyte,” so that he can purify altar vessels.)
At ordinations, a big part of his job “is guiding all of the concelebrants to where they need to go for the procession, for the laying on of hands, the kiss of peace and the recession. Another big thing,” he said, “is making sure servers get where they need to go, with what they need to have, so the bishop isn’t left waiting for something. Luckily, for big Masses, we have several emcees, so things go smoothly.”
There is an occasional misstep, such as a missing readings book or a dropped crozier. Pordadek said that, until they were replaced last year with metal urns, he lived in fear that one of the three huge, glass vases that held oil to be blessed at the Chrism Mass would fall and shatter. (One never did.)
For Masses at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Poradek works with pontifical servers, a group of servers — usually students in middle and high school — who are nominated by parishes from around the diocese and specifically trained to serve the bishop’s Masses. Working with these young people takes Poradek back to his own roots.
He was a pontifical server from St. Anthony Parish in Oconto Falls. It’s his home parish and he attended school there. He served at school Masses and, later, weekend Masses. Soon he was asked to lector, and then to cantor. (For Bishop Ricken, he has served as cantor for the Christmas Proclamation and the Easter Vigil Exsultet.) Soon he was leading the parish choir and helping the sacristan.
“I was always drawn to the liturgy, growing up,” he said. “People often take on different preferences of how they approach their faith and grow in their faith, and I was always drawn to the liturgy and understanding the liturgy.”
Poradek attended St. Norbert College for his undergraduate degree in political science, Upper Iowa University for a master’s in higher education administration and then Catholic Theological Union in Chicago for his master’s degree in liturgical ministry.
He says that it was in Iowa where he learned how important the Mass is in welcoming strangers. In Oconto Falls, he had always known everyone in town. But then he found himself alone in Fayette, Iowa.
“It was hard to find a whole new parish community; I knew no one there,” Poradek said. “I was suddenly the stranger coming to the parishes, to try to find community. That experience has helped me in the role of emcee, and in the worship office, with understanding the importance of our hospitality, our engagement in the ministries and our welcome.”
Poradek has always loved the flow of liturgy, and he sees his role as master of ceremonies as part of his personal ministry and vocation.
“I see (my role) as a prayer itself and that’s just another way we participate,” he said. “It helped me realize how, in all the different ministries, we have to focus on our unique parts. … That’s our form of prayer. Our preparation is a prayer and our actual exercise of ministry is a prayer connected to our communal prayer and the greatest prayer we can have — which is the Mass.”
Poradek added that, as he has grown into the role of emcee, “it all makes sense. … It’s not just organized chaos all the time; it’s the ability to enter into it in a different way than everyone else who comes. We’re able to serve one another and Christ when we come together. We all have our unique roles, and they all come together. And when everything goes smoothly, that’s when we can truly experience Christ. …”
When asked about what is most challenging in his role, he mentions microphones — “for some reason Bishop Ricken and microphones just don’t get along.”
But the little things — like missing books and even a missing Easter candle at one Easter Vigil — pale beside the benefits. Those include standing at the bishop’s side for so many special Masses.
“I have what I consider the best view of the whole place,” Poradek said. “To be right there present for the ordinations, or when the bishop’s baptizing infants or consecrating altars, and when he’s with students or new deacons. All these different groups, and I get to be there and experience that. It’s humbling. You see the church with a new perspective. It’s exciting and very rewarding.”