Speaking from experience

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Article Parish Life

Editors' note: Sounding Board is one person’s take on a many-sided subject and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

Having laypeople preach at Mass would give voice to a much-needed perspective on how to live the faith. 

Here I am once again, listening to a boring homily. “God is merciful. And, you know, you can seek God’s mercy whenever you need it. Because God always forgives you if you are really sorry. As I said, God is full of mercy.” I want to stand up and ask: “Have you had any experience with God’s mercy? Do you know anyone who has? Do you at least know a story about it, or are you just going to read from the catechism?”

The homilies I hear aren’t always boring. Some are just bizarre. One year during Advent I heard this at daily Mass: “Did you see the movie The Nativity? Well, Hollywood is wrong. Mary did not have any pain when Jesus was born. We know she didn’t because the Bible says she wrapped him in swaddling clothes. Now if she’d had a regular delivery she couldn’t do that, she’d be too weak.”

I looked around and thought, “Are these other people really listening? Have billions of mothers been so weak after childbirth they could not wrap their baby in a blanket?” I didn’t see anyone rolling their eyes, though, so I guess they were just thinking about what they needed to get at the store.

Yes, I have at times been frustrated with poor preaching. I have also been fortunate to hear hundreds of really good homilies in my home parish. But by limiting preaching only to those who are ordained, we’re missing an important ingredient that could make homilies much more relevant to the people in the pews.

Once I was invited to give a reflection at Sunday Mass on Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Life. I spoke of the pope’s concern for women as he declared that they were also victims in cases of abortion, something I had never before heard anyone actually say in church. I explained the unique role of mothers and women in building a world that values life in all its dimensions, and people later told me they were touched by my description of the bond I had with my babies before they were born. They had never before heard someone speak from the pulpit who had actually been pregnant.

While it seems most Catholics are supportive of their priests regardless of the quality of their preaching, if you get them talking many will say they wish the homilies they hear on Sundays were better.

The main comment I hear from Catholics is that the homily should relate to our real lives. Many say that the bar is set low and the most they hope for is a short sermon. They would like to hear one central message, inspired by the scriptures and illustrated by real-life stories.

Of course, being a good homilist requires effort and talent. I don’t have to work too hard to make the case that not everyone is gifted with public speaking skills. Some speak too low, repeat pet phrases too often, or are just really uncomfortable in front of an audience. While most seminaries require classes in preaching, they do not guarantee success.

As a public speaker, I know that the shorter the amount of time I have for a talk, the greater the challenge. It would be easy to just start talking, rambling at will, giving lots of information without filtering it.

But to deliver an effective message in a limited time requires editing and proper organization of the material. Before I give a speech, I prepare it and give it aloud to myself. That kind of preparation takes time. These days many parishes in the United States have only one priest, and, being the pastor, he must plan and attend meetings, counsel people, prepare liturgies, meet with couples to be married, celebrate sacraments—all by himself.

While I sympathize with these demands, they can lead to subpar preaching. Many priests just lack the time to plan a good homily.

That’s why it is time for the church to allow lay Catholics to preach. I propose that there be a program within dioceses to train nonordained preachers. Candidates would need to be gifted in public speaking and have a solid background in scripture. They would be people well-known to their pastors, who would assign them to speak on occasional weekends. They would be approved by the local bishop and have his stamp of approval: I can be trusted, I am trained, I will teach in the name of the bishop.

As was the case with my own “reflection” at Sunday Mass (technically, a layperson cannot give a “homily”), many pastors do currently allow people other than priests and deacons to speak at Mass. It may be directly about the readings for that Sunday, or it could be on a different topic that is relevant to the parish community. Occasionally it is just a talk by a member of the parish finance committee.

When I served as director of faith formation at a parish, I spoke each year around the time of Catechetical Sunday on the importance of lifelong learning and spiritual growth in the midst of raising kids. My friend Jill, who now attends my parish in St. Charles, Illinois, recalls that her former parish in New Jersey invited laypeople to speak on special occasions, including Mother’s Day. She remembers the powerful witness the mothers would give of God’s presence in their lives.

In such cases the celebrating priest often gives a short homily or just makes a few comments before turning it over to the layperson. Pastors have mentioned to me that they often have to fend off criticism from a few folks for allowing laypeople to speak at Mass, but they make these exceptions in cases where there is an important message best delivered by an expert on the issue.

In some parishes a religious sister on the staff regularly preaches. Deacons, who can often add the perspective of someone with a wife, children, and a career outside the church, usually have the faculty for preaching but are still not often given this role. I know that many priests love the preaching part of their ministry. Others are less enthusiastic and may welcome occasional relief from this obligation.

Canon law does make it clear that the person who should preach is the priest celebrating the Mass, but there is a narrow opening for the necessity of others taking on this role. The General Instruction for the Roman Missal states that a priest celebrant “may entrust the homily to a concelebrating priest or occasionally to a deacon, but never to a layperson.”

The U.S. bishops in 2001 addressed the role of lay preachers, saying “if necessity requires it in certain circumstances or it seems useful in particular cases, the diocesan bishop can admit lay faithful to preach . . . when he judges it to be to the spiritual advantage of the faithful.” The bishops clarified, however, that the homily is always reserved for ordained ministers and that no bishop can authorize a layperson to preach at this time during the Mass.

It is suggested that laypersons may speak at other types of events outside of Mass. In certain circumstances they can speak during Mass, but this should never be confused with a homily.

In light of our current situation of priest shortages and the growing role of laypeople in parish life, the church should give serious consideration to changing this thinking. If the bishops have already recognized the value of lay preaching, why not take the extra step of allowing laypeople to give the homily?

The Catholic faithful have a lot to gain from listening to nonordained preachers. They can offer expertise in catechesis, medical ethics, social justice, or family life. They can bring a different perspective—one of being married or a parent or a woman or someone in a workplace facing the challenges of living the gospel. Many laypeople lead retreats, teach in diocesan programs, are theology professors, or write books. But their audiences are ordinarily small compared to the Sunday assembly.

Why not give the folks in the pews a chance to hear some of these different voices? I have found that many Catholics are open to this idea. Imagine the insights that would be possible if preaching in the church were opened to the gifts so many laypeople have to offer.

As St. Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit . . . . To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (12:4-7). He goes on to list the many different types of gifts that believers may share.

Surely, we as a church so many years later can still be open to hearing the wisdom of those who have a different calling than the priesthood. After all, Paul himself was a great preacher, called by our Lord into service of the Word—even if he wasn’t ordained.

And the survey says...

1. I would love to hear laypeople give homilies at Mass.

72% - Agree
21% - Disagree
7% - Other

2. In general, the reflections I’ve heard given by lay Catholics during Mass have been:

32% - Not better or worse than priests’ homilies, but they do offer a refreshingly different perspective.
25% - Far superior to many priests’ homilies I’ve heard.
7% - About the same in quality as most priests’ homilies.
7% - Inferior to what I am used to hearing from my parish priest.
29% - I have never heard a layperson preach at Mass.

3. As a layperson, if given the opportunity, I would love to be able to preach at Mass.

51% - Agree
36% - Disagree
13% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“I would need to have proper training first.”

4. Allowing laypeople to give the homily at Mass would be a great way of affirming the gifts that lay Catholics have to offer to the church.

77% - Agree
21% - Disagree
2% - Other

5. Just because a priest doesn’t have the same experiences as laypeople doesn’t mean he can’t give excellent homilies on topics like marriage and family life.

65% - Agree
23% - Disagree
12% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“It depends on the priest.”

6. Allowing laypeople to preach is only going to discourage more vocations to the priesthood.

13% - Agree
79% - Disagree
8% - Other

7. Mass would be less meaningful to me if I didn’t have the opportunity to hear a homily from the priest.

17% - Agree
77% - Disagree
6% - Other

8. The one group I’d love to hear preach at Mass more often is:

36% - Any nonordained Catholics.
16% - Lay parish ministers.
14% - Religious sisters.
10% - Deacons.
2% - Religious brothers.
1% - Catholic schoolteachers and principals.
21% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“I prefer homilies from my current parish priest.”

This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 3, pages 29-32).

Image: Fotolia photo by Schmidt