Skip to content

'While Father’s away’ — The priests who cover Masses, and the secret shoppers who grade them

When the pastor of a one-priest parish needs a vacation, he has just a few options. 

Credit: Mateus Campos Felipa via Unsplash. Edits via The Pillar.

First, he might ask a retired priest from his diocese to cover Masses for him. Or there might be a priest who works at the chancery or tribunal, without a standing parish assignment, who can pick up his Masses and confessions. 

Failing that, he can check whether a priest in studies or working at the local Catholic college is available — if there is one nearby. Or, maybe, just maybe, a few of his neighbor priests can divide up his weekend Masses, or at least some of them.

But if none of that pans out, what can he do? He could cancel Masses, perhaps arranging for a deacon or a layperson designated to offer a liturgy of the Word, perhaps with the distribution of the Eucharist.

Or he could call a missionary outfit, like Cross Catholic Outreach, and arrange for a supply priest to hear confessions and offer Masses for his people. From Cross Catholic Outreach, the service is free, generally reliable, and available anywhere in the country. 

And it has a quality control measure you might not expect — professional “secret shoppers,” hired to quietly assess the preaching of the visiting priests who share the mission of Cross Catholic Outreach.

Leave a comment

‘To support pastors’

Launched in 2001, Cross Catholic Outreach is a Florida-based nonprofit which works with NGOs and churches in more than 30 countries, to give grants for wells, food, housing, and healthcare projects, and to provide disaster relief around the country.

Recognized in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, as a Catholic entity, the nonprofit took in some $384 million in 2021, and distributed almost $340 million in grants. With that money, according to its annual report, Cross Catholic helped serve more than 25 million meals, provided almost 400,000 people with clean water, and distributed nearly 3 million bottles of medicine.

Cross Catholic’s board chairman is Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis; six other bishops serve as its board of directors

The scale of Cross Catholic’s work is remarkable. According to its tax documents, the most aid is given to charitable work in the Caribbean, but Cross Catholic grants are distributed on every continent but Antartica. 

Cross Catholic does a lot to raise the millions it distributes each year. Among its fundraising initiatives is its Outreach Priest program, by which priests — mostly retired — are hired by the nonprofit to provide supply work in the absence of parish pastors.

Parishes pay nothing for a Cross Catholic priest to cover for the weekend. The outreach priest takes the Masses and confession of an absent pastor, and preaches during the homily about the work of Cross Catholic Outreach. 

While there is no second collection for the nonprofit — second collections are highly regulated in most U.S. dioceses — parishioners are invited to support Cross Catholic, and brochures and envelopes are placed in the pews. 

By some accounts, it’s a win-win — Father Pastor gets a much-needed vacation, and a worthy charity gets a chance to share its work. 

Sandi Pino, senior director of parish and community services for Cross Catholic Outreach, told The Pillar that the outreach priest ministry began soon after Cross Catholic was founded, and was envisioned as a way to spread the news about Cross Catholic Outreach, and to build a broader donor base. 

The organization launched the project because “we felt most Catholics in the U.S. were unaware of the extremely positive things Church ministries were doing to help the poor and the developing world and because we felt those international missions could benefit from donor support,” Pino explained.

“It also fit perfectly with our organization’s overall mission, which is to mobilize the global Catholic Church to transform the poor and their communities materially and spiritually for the glory of Jesus Christ. The Outreach Priests were able to share this vision directly with U.S. Catholics and provide compelling evidence of how the Gospel — and particularly works of mercy — have become a critical source of hope for families in need.” 

“On a practical level,” she added, “this ministry also became a way to support pastors who are unavailable to meet the sacramental needs of their parish while they were away.”


According to its tax documents, Cross Catholic spent $5.5 million from July 2021 to June 2022, to provide parish coverage on 1,068 occasions, averaging roughly 20 parishes each weekend — at average cost to the nonprofit of $5,198 per parish visit.

Pino declined to say how much financial support comes to Cross Catholic through the outreach program annually. But she did say the program “encourages U.S. Catholics to support the poor,” and that “a portion of our donors do learn about Cross Catholic Outreach through this ministry.”

Cross Catholic is not the only missionary organization to offer fill-in help, but it is one of the largest and most prominent. 

For their part, some pastors who have used Cross Catholic priests for substitute help told The Pillar that the organization is well-organized and professional.

“My main motivation for inviting a missionary priest in like this was precisely to provide coverage on the weekend. I have five weekend Masses, minimum, and it is very hard to get coverage, so if I'm ever to be gone, this is a way to do it,” one pastor told The Pillar.

“I found CCO easy to work with. They obviously do this a lot because the person I spoke with several times had all the very specific questions that one would need  — distance between churches, roads, living conditions, etc — They have the system down in terms of communication and organization,” he added.

Another pastor told The Pillar that the organization is always available if he needs time off, and represents “a good way to get supply work” for a parish in a diocese with a dwindling number of priests. 

Some chancery officials told The Pillar that receiving supply priests from any missionary organization — including Cross Catholic — can be logistically difficult, but recognized that pastors often have few options when they need to take time off, despite challenges sometimes to get the required paperwork in order.

One pastor said that while he appreciates their organization’s availability to cover his absences, he has also found that the group can be pushy, requesting frequently the opportunity to visit his parish and make appeals.

Another said he wishes he had another way to get fill-in priests more locally, but “we have almost no coverage for weekends.” Noting that without a missionary organization, he might have to cancel weekend Masses, he told The Pillar, “I figure it’s better than nothing, but I try not to overdo it.”

Most of the pastors who spoke with The Pillar said they were never sure what kind of priest would come when using a supply ministry like Cross Catholic’s — the priest might be an excellent preacher with good liturgical sensibilities, but there were no guarantees. 

Indeed, the roster of Cross Catholic’s priests is diverse. Some are retired, including several who spent their careers as military chaplains. 

Some are diocesan priests, some religious — some have transferred their incardination from religious institutes to dioceses. One works during the week as a federal prison chaplain, others work in hospital ministry, a few work in seminaries. 

One boasts a terrifically impressive mustache.

In all, Cross Catholic lists 54 priests who serve in the nonprofit’s outreach ministry.

Pino told The Pillar that the organization “recruit[s] priests who share our values and vision through partnerships with various Catholic networks, dioceses, and religious orders.”

“All Outreach Priests from Cross Catholic Outreach are in good standing with their sponsoring diocese and are certified by VIRTUS/Child Protection,” she wrote in response to the The Pillar’s questions.

Like this? Upgrade your subscription

‘Mystery shoppers’

With 54 priests, visiting more than 1,000 parishes annually, it’s no surprise that Cross Catholic might have difficulty assessing how effective their parish outreach program really is.

To help manage that, the organization makes use of a surprising approach found mostly in the world of big-box retail: secret shopping.

According to documents obtained by The Pillar, the group contracts with Confero, a firm which calls itself a “leading provider of customer experience research services to leading brands.”

Confero’s clients include Coca-Cola, Jiffy Lube, Staples, Nissan, Wendy’s, and AMC theaters. And, of course, Cross Catholic Outreach.

Here’s how it works:

The firm develops a network of “mystery shoppers” and “auditors” who are contracted for specific “shops” or “audits” — which usually involve visiting a retail store and purchasing a product, or checking to see whether the right marketing materials are displayed, and other company policies are being followed. 

Jobs are arranged through an online job board, and with a regional scheduler, and come with a specific pay rate, plus reimbursement of some expenses.

In its work with Cross Catholic, Confero contracts “shoppers” to attend specific Sunday Masses, where Cross Catholic outreach priests will be offering Mass.

In a recent weekend — August 5 and 6 — Confero offered secret shoppers the chance to attend Mass at any of the 31 parishes where Cross Catholic priests would be offering Mass — including one diocesan cathedral. 

The job, which would pay a secret shopper $22, came with direct instructions:

“Arrive to the mass [sic] on time.”

“Listen carefully during the homily when the priest will discuss Cross Catholic Outreach.”

Complete a survey, which will ask the following:

  • Did the priest mention visiting the Cross Catholic Outreach website?

  • Did the priest suggest a large gift of $1,000 or more to help build a home for a poor family?

  • Did the priest mention recurring monthly giving?

To prove their attendance, shoppers were also required to place a $5 bill (reimbursable) in a Cross Catholic donation envelope, and to hand the donation envelope to the priest — using a Confero supplied fake name, to help Cross Catholic identify the envelope as coming from a secret shopper — and verify for the client that Confero’s secret shoppers were actually being deployed.

To prove to the company that they really went to Mass, shoppers were also required to take a picture of a $5 bill in the envelope, and to take a photo of the outside of the church, “taken discreetly, as you leave.”

The Confero protocol did not require that mystery shoppers be Catholic. And perhaps surprisingly, it did not give any instructions for suitable behavior at Mass, including any admonition about the Church’s guidelines for the reception of Holy Communion — allowing for the possibility that some non-Catholic mystery shoppers might have presented themselves to receive the Eucharist. 

The company did require that mystery shoppers had to be over 21 years old, and discreet.

“Do NOT reveal that you are a mystery shopper. If you are discovered as a shopper, you will no longer be able to complete any assignments for this client. If you think you were recognized as a shopper, inform Confero immediately,” the company warned.

“Do NOT contact any Cross Catholic Outreach or a church employee directly for any reason! If you have any questions or concerns about your assignment, about what happened during your shop, contact your scheduler immediately,” it added. 

Pino confirmed to The Pillar Cross Catholic’s use of a market research firm, but did not provide details.

“We have contracted with an organization to help us audit our Outreach Priest ministry,” she explained. 

“This helps ensure we are meeting the compliance requirements outlined by auditors.”

The audit might well be worth it.

The Pillar listened to four Aug. 6 homilies from Cross Catholic priests, chosen at random from the Confero-generated list.

In light of the Confero questions, only two of four mentioned directly that giving at a particular level could help build a family a home, and only one mentioned directly the Cross Catholic website and recurring giving.

But each of the priests did preach on the Transfiguration for a few minutes, and then preached on the work of Cross Catholic Outreach. Each shared stories of extraordinary need, and of the missionaries aiming to serve that need. Each mentioned that prayer is at the heart of Cross Catholic Outreach’s work. Each invited Catholics to become donors to Cross Catholic Outreach. 

In short, each seemed to meet the basic expectations for Cross Catholic priests, as Pino explained them to The Pillar: “The Outreach Priest will always offer a homily that is relevant to the liturgical readings for the Sunday Mass. They also share inspiring stories about faithful Catholic Church ministries serving the poor in remote locations around the world.”

Were The Pillar a “mystery shopper,” those observations might have netted some $88.

Give a gift subscription

It is not clear whether other missionary organizations are making use of similar “secret shopper” accountability and auditing methods — or whether they might have broader use in the life of the Church.

But one thing is certain:

The next time there’s a visiting priest at your parish — preaching about missionary work around the world — you might not be the only one who is quietly judging his homily. In fact, there might be someone getting paid for it.

Subscribe now

Editor’s note: Shortly after the publication of this report, Cross Catholic Outreach informed The Pillar that it has added instructions to its Confero “mystery shopper” ad, instructing that secret shoppers should observe the Church’s norms regarding the reception of Holy Communion, and that non-Catholics should not receive the sacrament during their visit to the parish.

Comments 26