Questioning Lay Preaching

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?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Questioning Lay Preaching

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    Some of the best homilies I have heard at my parish have been given by lay men and women and non-Catholic ministers.

    To a missed them because of some arcane, cleric-protecting bit of church discipline would have been a tragic loss.

  2. smf says:

    I take exception to a few parts of the response.

    First, if what was delivered was a homily, that is never permitted by a lay person. Certainly a lay person can speak at mass in certain contexts, but not the homily.

    Also, preaching is not strictly limited to those in holy orders. The same section of cannon law deals with this too. Bishops can allow lay preaching outside of the mass.

    Finally, it is absurd to suggest a moral advantage in participating in that which is illicit. To simply “grow” when faced with violation of church law seems ridiculous.

    p.s. The change from viewing the homily/sermon as something not strictly part of the mass, to the new view that it is a part of the mass, actually makes the argument that only those ordained can do this very much stronger.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for commenting here.

      I think I covered your first two points, but didn’t say it the way you would say it.

      Your final point doesn’t quite follow, as I broadened the question out for a more general message to people who feel, for strong reasons, it’s time to get up and leave Mass.

      Being present to something doesn’t equate with participation. And sometimes the content of a homily can be challenging to a person’s views. But in some instances, isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in moral correction, for example? Are you saying that pro-life sermons (for example) are just opportunities to preach to the choir, as it were? Or are they intended to persuade? Or even to challenge?

      As for a lay person speaking after the Gospel, and a person being tempted to walk out, the context is different for a daily Mass, for a Sunday Mass (if the protester has no option for fulfilling her Sunday obligation later) or a special event where a godparent of a first communicant walking out might have other social implications. Context always informs our prudential choices.

    • Jimmy Mac says:

      Given a choice between much of the “illict” homilies that I have heard versus some of the inane “licit” drivel that I have heard on more than one occasion, give me Illicitness or give me Death.

  3. CKH says:

    After reading the article above, the Canon’s that are quoted don’t support lay persons giving reflections during Mass.
    Canon 766
    Impediments are multiplied when they arise from different causes,not however by the repetition of the same cause, unless it is acase of the impediment arising from voluntary homicide or from the procurement of a completed abortion.

    Canon 767

    1. The eparchial bishop or the hierarch of an institute of
    consecrated life can dispense his subjects from the impediments from receiving or exercising sacred orders except in the following cases: (1) if the deed, upon which the impediment is based,had been taken to the judicial forum; (2) from the impedimentsmentioned in can. 762, 1, nn. 2-4. 2. Dispensation from theseimpediments is reserved to the patriarch for candidates or clerics who have a domicile or quasi-domicile within the territorial boundaries of the Church over which he presides; otherwise, it is reserved to the Apostolic See. 3. A confessor has the same powers of dispensing in the more urgent occult cases, in which the competent authority cannot be reached and there is a dangerof grave harm or infamy, but only to ensure that the penitents can licitly exercise the sacred orders already received, with due regard for the responsibility of approaching that authority as soon as possible.


    The instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum” which is a follow up to the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia has dealt with lay persons speaking during Mass quite clearly and in several places.

    No. 64 states: “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.'”

    No. 65 continues: “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.”

    No. 66 adds: “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.”

    This theme is taken up once more in No. 74: “If the need arises for the gathered faithful to be given instruction or testimony by a layperson in a Church concerning the Christian life, it is altogether preferable that this be done outside Mass. Nevertheless, for serious reasons it is permissible that this type of instruction or testimony be given after the Priest has proclaimed the Prayer after Communion. This should not become a regular practice, however. Furthermore, these instructions and testimony should not be of such a nature that they could be confused with the homily, nor is it permissible to dispense with the homily on their account.”

    And finally in No. 161: “As was already noted above, the homily on account of its importance and its nature is reserved to the Priest or Deacon during Mass. As regards other forms of preaching, if necessity demands it in particular circumstances, or if usefulness suggests it in special cases, lay members of Christ’s faithful may be allowed to preach in a church or in an oratory outside Mass in accordance with the norm of law. This may be done only on account of a scarcity of sacred ministers in certain places, in order to meet the need, and it may not be transformed from an exceptional measure into an ordinary practice, nor may it be understood as an authentic form of the advancement of the laity. All must remember besides that the faculty for giving such permission belongs to the local Ordinary and this as regards individual instances; this permission is not the competence of anyone else, even if they are Priests or Deacons.”

    Before this clarification was published it was considered possible that a bishop could authorize a layperson to read a prepared text after the homily on some special occasions. This was always seen as an exception and never a habitual practice.

    The reason given in the document for this disposition is that the homily is part of the liturgy itself. As such it is a sacred action and only a sacred minister may carry it out.

    Because of this sacred character the Church teaches that the homily is endowed with a special presence of Christ that Pope Paul VI did not hesitate to call a “real presence” on a par with the real presence of Christ in the assembly, in the readings, and in the person of the minister although not on the same level as Christ’s substantial presence in the Eucharist.

    This special presence, which gives a spiritual efficacy to the homily surpassing the minister’s oratorical skills, is possible only if preached by a sacred minister acting as Christ’s representative.

    No “reflection” of any kind may be given by a layperson during Mass except for those brief, prepared commentaries that may introduce some parts of the celebration according to liturgical norms.

    On exceptional occasions, such as when a lay missionary makes an appeal, a testimony may be given after the prayer after Communion. But the homily may not be omitted for this purpose, although the priest may give a briefer than usual homily if the time between Masses is rather short.

    The priest may sit to listen to a lay testimony after Communion. But he should keep his place at the presidential chair and not sit among the congregation.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for commenting, CKH. In formulating my original response to the question, I was being held to a word limit, and didn’t reference RS directly, only referring to a needfully vague reference to lay preaching being treated differently prior to the 1990’s or so.

      You make some interesting points in your commentary that might well be worth exploring in even more detail.

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