Progressive Preaching

pulpitThe bishop of my first see has decided to end lay preaching in that diocese. I found a curious statement by the journalist:

The reversal is perhaps the starkest example yet of the contrasting stewardship of Matano with his predecessor, Bishop Matthew Clark, under whom the diocese earned a reputation as among the most liberal in the country.

To be honest, Rochester never struck me as a very liberal place. Not in the culture of upstate New York. Not in ministry, really. Matthew Clark was a mainstream bishop when he was appointed. The movement of the Congregation of Bishops in the period of 1978-2013 basically left him out by himself. But what he was doing in the 80’s: consulting with lay people, encouraging women’s leadership, and such–that was far from a liberal exercise. It’s just what any sensible pastor today would do. That pastors and bishops don’t do this, well, that’s a case for nonsense more than it is orthodoxy.

A few observations …

Putting lay people with divinity degrees in the pulpit is not particularly liberal. Widening the preaching ministry to include non-preachers as well as non-clergy: now that would be progressive. Rochester didn’t have that, in my experience, in the 80’s.

In the parish where I worshiped when I was a grad student, I was a member of the lay preaching group. I preached Communion Services (the pastor’s day off) every several weeks. Long-time members of the group, the original six, were all non-staff parishioners. They preached a weekday noon Mass in rotation. Lay staff preached Sundays.

My sense of it was that lay staff served as a new layer of administration, and that the charism of the original group was somewhat lost. The group was totally different from  how a friend described it to me.

A cleansingfire Catholic:

(Lay preaching) made me very uncomfortable because I knew it was against church law. It felt like I could be talking to this person anywhere else, and it was taking time away from what I really wanted to hear: Preaching from a priest or deacon.

I seriously doubt people were harmed by lay people giving homilies. Preaching from priests is everywhere on the internet these days. It could be that this is more about not letting some people do something.

Theologically, I’m aware of the tenuous thread between Eucharistic presidency and preaching the Liturgy of the Word. I don’t know how that addresses the practical need for good, inspirational preaching. Is preaching a distinct charism serving a real need? Or is it a “right” given to a class of persons by virtue of their ordination? How does one discern good priests? Preach first and ordain later? Ordain first and cross fingers?

I remember that my first exposure to lay preaching was to hear about monthly from the seminarians assigned to our parish when I was a teen. When I went to college, the woman religious chaplain preached every other Sunday. She was good. Was her preaching ministry needful to show we took women Catholics seriously? Wanted them to stay in the Church? Or was the witness more for lay people: to show that we could study theology, explore our faith, and do it on a serious level? The latter was the message I got.

Like many eastern dioceses, Rochester is in decline by most standards. Parishes and schools close. Youth leave after First Communion and don’t come back. A handful of women mostly older than I, get involved as lay preachers. Does that bring back the disaffected? Prevent more loss? Is it about their “participation,” or about the message they bring?

Where is the best place to leave the decision on lay preaching? Could a pastor determine he is not a good preacher, and then either petition the bishop for a deacon or hire a lay person to take the pulpit on Sunday? Should a bishop decide? There’s some traditional precedent for that. There’s probably less tradition behind a bureaucrat on another continent making a call. But that’s where the power is. And preaching is partly about power, isn’t it?

Will Bishop Matano’s new policy improve preaching? That is the question I would ask. And if not, how does he propose to do it?

About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in bishops, Liturgy, Ministry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Progressive Preaching

  1. Pingback: “Say YES to Catholic Lay Preaching in the Diocese of Rochester” | Journal of a Lay Catholic

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