Preaching to the Masses?

19 Sep

On occasion the issue arise as to who may give the homily at Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) provides clear guidance on this issue:

“The Homily should ordinarily be given by the priest celebrant himself. He may entrust it to a concelebrating priest or occasionally, according to circumstances, to the deacon, but never to a lay person. In particular cases and for a just cause, the homily may even be given by a Bishop or a priest who is present at the celebration but cannot concelebrate” (no. 66, footnote omitted).

Similarly, the Code of Canon Law, canon 767, provides:

“Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year. . . . It is for the pastor or rector of a church to take care that these prescripts are observed conscientiously.”

The requirement that the homily be given by an ordained minister is not a denigration of the laity. In fact, it should be noted that all baptized Catholics have the right and duty “to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 900). Through Baptism, all Christians participate in Christ’s prophetic office, and are called to bear witness to the Gospel not only by example, but also by proclaiming the Word of God to believers and non-believers alike (cf. Catechism, nos. 904-07).

Further, lay persons may be allowed to preach in church under certain specified circumstances (canon 766), though the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has clarified that “the lay faithful who are to be admitted to preach in a church or oratory must be orthodox in faith, and well-qualified, both by the witness of their lives as Christians and by a preparation for preaching appropriate to the circumstances.”

But the line is drawn at the homily. Preaching by the lay faithful may not take place during Mass at the time reserved for the homily.

We see in all this a delicate balance: On the one hand, preaching the Word of God is one of the principal duties of ordained ministers, and preaching a homily is a liturgical task reserved to ordained ministers. On the other hand, lay people have the duty to spread the faith, and this duty entails “preaching” in a variety of contexts.

Unfortunately, in recent decades some have not accepted this balance. In some places, lay people are encouraged to preach after the Gospel. It is styled a “Gospel reflection” or “reflection on the readings” to circumvent the requirement that only an ordained minister may give a “homily.”

The Vatican office that oversees liturgical matters (the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments) addressed this concern in a 2004 instruction entitled Redemptionis Sacramentum, which was formally approved by Pope John Paul II. This document provides in relevant part:

“The homily, which is given in the course of the celebration of Holy Mass and is a part of the Liturgy itself, ‘should ordinarily be given by the Priest celebrant himself. He may entrust it to a concelebrating Priest or occasionally, according to circumstances, to a Deacon, but never to a layperson. In particular cases and for a just cause, the homily may even be given by a Bishop or a Priest who is present at the celebration but cannot concelebrate.’

“It should be borne in mind that any previous norm that may have admitted non-ordained faithful to give the homily during the Eucharistic celebration is to be considered abrogated by the norm of canon 767 §1. This practice is reprobated, so that it cannot be permitted to attain the force of custom.

“The prohibition of the admission of laypersons to preach within the Mass applies also to seminarians, students of theological disciplines, and those who have assumed the function of those known as ‘pastoral assistants’; nor is there to be any exception for any other kind of layperson, or group, or community, or association” (nos. 64-66, footnotes omitted).

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