Lay preachers pop up now and then at our student center. Last year’s mission co-op rep was a lay person from the diocese of Gallup. He was a college student, in fact. He gave one of the best “mission talks” I’d ever heard, and the people responded both in giving and in their praise for the young man.
I have a personal history with a few parishes that engaged lay people, both on staff and off, for preaching. I’ll attest I have no gift or real desire to preach at Mass. Even my occasional turn at large group presentation/catechesis is an occasion of stress and concern. I prefer the artistic, and then let the music speak for itself.
At my parish, we maintain a Q&A box. Some good questions appear fairly frequently. This one on walking out on a lay preacher gets published later this month:
My mother once left a Mass because a parishioner was delivering the homily. She believes it was heretical—was she correct?
There are two issues here. First, the content. If a preacher, ordained or not, proclaims something seriously in variance with the core principles of faith, then the content of a homily might be heresy. Example: Jesus is not truly God. This is heresy. On the other hand, the preacher might have said something outrageous, “Sometimes abortion is okay.” That would be immoral. But it wouldn’t be heresy, only gravely wrong.
The second issue involves who can give the homily. The Church holds that only ordained clergy can. Canon law does make some provisions for lay people speaking at Mass (766-767). This has been interpreted more strictly over the past ten to twelve years, but there are still occasions at which a lay person may speak within Mass. It is largely left to the local bishop to approve the persons speaking or oversee the content of what is said. The exceptions granted today are fewer, but they still exist. And from diocese to diocese, how a bishop interprets canon law, or allows or forbids lay preaching can vary greatly.
Some parishes have a practical approach that places them at the borderline of what the Church or the local bishop might allow. Staff members or seminarians might be invited to preach. A finance council member might give a “stewardship talk.” A lay missionary might promote his or her overseas ministry. Was your mom’s parish “breaking the law?” Possibly. It might also be that the local bishop has given permission in specific or general cases. Was it heresy? Only if the content denied an aspect of faith. Otherwise, at worst, the preacher, and presumably the pastor who allowed it, were disobedient in spirit to the interpretation of canons 766 and 767.
A whole other question is this: should lay people preach at Mass? There is generally no question that some lay people are gifted in knowledge of Scripture and theology. Further, they are able to synthesize and deliver a powerful message. The Church sees the matter as less one of particular competence (or even excellence) and more as one that pertains to one’s office and responsibilities. The preaching ministry is seen as essential and exclusive to Holy Orders. Is this the best approach?
The question above might also be interpreted: is it correct to leave Mass in a troubling situation? This is a harder query to answer in general terms. When something at Mass troubles us, is it a matter in which God is challenging us to change or grow? Is it a matter of being unable to master our emotions at the moment: being overwhelmed with anger or sadness or another strong feeling? Is it a matter of protest, of not wanting to cooperate with what we perceive as unjust or just plain wrong?