Put laypeople in the pulpit!

WE ALL HAVE DIFFERENT GIFTS--and some laypeople have the gift of preaching. Liturgist David Philippart argues that laypeople should be allowed to give the homily at Mass, as they did in the first centuries of Christianity.

In a parish without a resident priest, a religious sister is the ecclesial lay minister. And she is well-suited for the position. She has a master of divinity degree (the same degree that priests earn before ordination) as well as years of experience. She’s a woman of deep prayer and even deeper compassion for the people she serves. She has even learned the two languages besides English that are spoken in the community. Day in and day out she accompanies the parishioners in their struggles to live the gospel and love more deeply.

A priest who works full time in university ministry some miles away has been assigned as the parish’s sacramental minister. The sister and the priest both agree that she should normally preach the homily, but the bishop has warned her not to. Sometimes she does anyway, and she feels conflicted about disobeying the bishop. And when a substitute priest comes, she doesn’t dare. Then the parish yawns its way through a homily that is so generic and distant from their experience that it could have been given anywhere in any year between 1979 and now. And she is forced to translate it simultaneously, phrase by phrase.

At another large suburban parish with a resident pastor, weekend priest assistants, and two permanent deacons, a layman is the full-time pastoral associate. He has a master’s degree in theology—more formal academic training in scripture than both of the deacons combined.

One of his responsibilities is to work with the parents of infants and children to be baptized. And work he does. He gets to know the parents during pregnancy and accompanies them through their odyssey of expectation and birth. He visits them in the hospital after their babies are born, and again at home. He introduces the new parents to each other, forming a small community and doing the catechesis. He prepares the baptismal liturgy, runs the rehearsal, and can even tell each infant apart.

The day for Baptism comes, and he is full of joy. He’s a dad himself, after all. The deacon is assigned to preach the homily. He has never met the families before. He has carefully prepared his homily and even tries to use the infants’ names. But nothing can substitute for the bond that the pastoral associate has created with these families. The homily falls a bit flat as the pastoral associate sits in his pew thinking about all the things that he could have said.

Experiences like these suggest that the current church law that prohibits laypeople from preaching at Mass should be changed. Lay ministers who have the talent and training should be allowed to take turns with priests and deacons—coordinated by the pastor—in preaching the homily.

God is very generous in showering gifts on the church. Many laypeople—including vowed religious sisters—clearly have been given the gift of being able to proclaim God’s Word in ways that move hearts and minds closer to Christ. It makes no sense to exclude them from giving the homily at Mass.

The homily is the premier form of preaching in our tradition. Given at the apex of the Liturgy of the Word, the homily reveals the significance of the ancient texts in our time and place. It serves as a bridge from the spoken word of the gospel to the gospel-act of the Eucharist. If, akin to the Eucharist, the scriptures are like bread, then the homily is the breaking of that bread so all may share in it. For some 30 years now, the ministry of sharing the broken bread that is Christ’s body has been restored to lay ministers of Communion. Why not restore permission for qualified laypeople to preach the homily?

I say “restore” the ministry because it was not until the year 453 that laypeople were banned from preaching by Pope Leo the Great. It’s easy to understand why. By the end of the fifth century, Europe was entering the Dark Ages, a time when most people lacked any formal education. While deacons and priests received at least some schooling, most laypeople, except for the royal and the rich, had no such opportunity. It was probably a wise decision to restrict preaching at that moment in history.

But times have changed. Today more and more laypeople have comprehensive theological training, have undertaken serious scripture study, and have extensive experience in pastoral work and ministry in the marketplace. Think of what perspectives they could contribute!

Eventually, by the Middle Ages, not even all deacons and priests were allowed to preach. Permission to preach a homily did not come automatically with ordination but was a distinct “faculty.” Those priests who lacked sufficient skill or training came to be known as “Mass priests” because they could say Mass but could not preach or hear Confessions. So the church has long acknowledged that presiding at Mass and preaching at Mass are distinct ministries that need not be exercised by the same person.

And rightly so. St. Paul reminds us that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. . . . it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4, 7). The scriptures themselves are comprised of many and various voices—a kaleidoscope of telling what God has done for us, a patchwork of experiences, a whole choir of different preachers. And as the church wisely notes in the Lectionary for Mass, “In the celebration of the liturgy, the Word of God is not voiced in one way nor does it stir the hearts of the hearers with the same power. Always, however, Christ is present in his Word.” In other words, different people hear the scriptures in different ways. So why not create an expanded “order of preachers,” some of whom are ordained, some of whom are not, all of whom are rigorously trained?

When we hear of the marriage of Adam and Eve, why not hear a homily by a qualified married person? True, the deacon may be a husband, but why not hear a wife’s take on the scripture? We proclaim the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Mary’s singing of the Magnificat when the yet-to-be-born Savior leapt in her womb every year on August 15, the solemn feast of the Assumption. Imagine in what ways our ears might be opened and our hearts moved to conversion if a woman preached on this gospel.

The pope and the bishops acknowledge that God gives the church qualified and talented lay preachers. They certainly remember and venerate St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena, to name just two talented lay preachers in our history (although it was unlikely that either saint preached at Mass). Canon 766 of the Code of Canon Law (1983) allows that “laypersons can be admitted to preach in a church or oratory if it is necessary in certain circumstances or if it is useful in particular cases according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops and with due regard for canon 767.1.” Canon 767.1 then goes on to prohibit a layperson from preaching a homily at Mass.

But a decade earlier, when the Vatican itself issued the Directory for Masses with Children, it wisely noted that “with the consent of the pastor or rector of the church, one of the [other, nonordained] adults may speak to the children after the gospel, especially if the priest finds it difficult to adapt himself to the mentality of children.” If it is helpful to encourage the full, conscious, and active participation of children in the Mass to have qualified laypeople preach at Mass, would it not likewise be helpful for others in the church as well? Since qualified laypeople can preach at other official liturgies in church—morning or evening prayer, the funeral vigil, a wedding outside of Mass, for example—why not at Mass, too?

Some will say that to allow laypeople to preach at Mass somehow downgrades deacons and priests. It simply isn’t true. They are still the only ones wearing fourth-century Roman clothes, and the priest still does most of the talking. We Catholics love and cherish our deacons and priests. We understand that ordination sets them apart as effective signs of Christ’s presence as head of his body the church. We may disagree over who is admitted to ordination or how the offices are exercised today, but we certainly all agree that ordination is a sacrament essential to the life of the church.

Allowing qualified laypeople to preach at Mass will no more change that than has admitting qualified laypeople to read the scriptures at Mass. It’s time for the pope and the bishops to restore the ministry of preaching the homily at Mass to all those in the church to whom God has given the talent. Then, just like the crowd that heard the disciples who were filled with the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost preach, we will give thanks and praise that “each of us, in our own native languages ... hears them speaking of God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11)

David Philippart is a liturgist who lives and works in Chicago. This article appeared in the May 2004 (Volume 69, Number 5) issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles