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Let laypeople preach.

YOU ARE SITTING IN THE PEW ON A Sunday morning listening to a priest expound on the same points he seems to make in all his sermons. You feel like you've heard it a hundred times before. You say to yourself, "I can do better than that."

Maybe you can't. Then again, maybe you can. Most likely, though, you'll never have a chance to try since existing church law allows homilies only by ordained persons (bishops, priests, and deacons). Laypeople nearly everywhere are discouraged from preaching outside of Mass, as well. Why? Because in past centuries clerics were the only people with a theological education. But today we have an ample supply of educated parishioners--some even with degrees in theology. Yet laypeople and religious sisters are kept in silence by archaic attitudes--their wisdom untapped, their baptismal vocation ignored.

I say, let laypeople preach. Some churches, convents, and retreat houses are already doing it--with the law or in spite of it. Places that allow some degree of lay preaching have discovered a wonderful liberation of spirit and have grown closer to God's word in the scriptures and closer in community as a result of the shared experience. I've been in such communities, and I can tell you it works.

But, you ask, isn't this against tradition? Hasn't preaching been restricted to the clergy ever since the time of the apostles? The answer to both questions is no. For one thing, Jesus was a layperson. There's evidence of laypeople preaching in church during the first centuries of Christianity. In the Middle Ages many of the mendicant friars who went about the countryside preaching the gospel were not ordained.

As for canon law, it's true that the 1918 code expressly prohibited laypeople from doing any kind of preaching. But the revised code issued after the Second Vatican Council emphatically lifted that restriction, declaring that "lay persons can be admitted to preach in a church or oratory if it is necessary in certain circumstances or useful in certain circumstances" (Canon 766). The same canon authorized conferences of bishops to establish guidelines for lay preaching, which the American bishops did in 1988. Their guidelines, however, while paying lip service to canon law, served chiefly to reassert the right of individual bishops to govern preaching in their dioceses. Perhaps it was felt that encouraging others to preach would further reduce vocations to the priesthood. If so, the attitude shows little regard for the wisdom of the laity. The issue turned out to be moot since the Vatican refused to ratify the U.S. guidelines, and they were never officially promulgated.

IN THEIR TREATMENT OF PREACHING, CHURCH documents make an important distinction between preaching in general and the particular kind of preaching that takes place at a eucharistic service. Preaching in general--for instance, at a retreat, a Reconciliation service, or some other kind of non-eucharistic service in church--is completely open to laypeople if invited by the diocesan bishop or the local pastor. The preaching that takes place at Mass, however, is called a homily, and that is still the sole jurisdiction of priests and deacons according to canon law (Canon 767).

However, even at Mass, in spite of the law, old barriers to lay preaching are beginning to fall. The Directory for Masses with Children notes that some priests may not have the skills necessary for communicating with youngsters, in which case a lay preacher may substitute. Other demands are

By Don Brophy, managing editor of Paulist Press in Mahwah, New Jersey. coming from parishes that don't have priests--parishes administered by sisters or laypeople who do ministry and preside at Sunday services. Imagine, for instance, a parish that has a lay administrator and a circuit-riding priest who occasionally comes to celebrate Mass on Sundays. When the time comes for a homily, should it be given by the priest who doesn't know the community or the lay administrator who does?

In 1994, moved in part by the plight of priestless parishes, Milwaukee became the first diocese in the United States to promulgate guidelines for lay preaching. The guidelines noted that "by reason of their Christian initiation, lay persons are to be witnesses to the gospel message and are to cooperate with the bishops and priests in the ministry of the Word. At times this cooperation in the ministry of the Word may include a preaching role."

The Milwaukee guidelines go on to describe the qualities of laypeople who preach: they must be emotionally and spiritually mature, have good theological and liturgical sense, be able to communicate effectively, and have academic credentials in scripture, theology, liturgy, spirituality, and homiletics (the science of preaching). This is not your typical parishioner, perhaps, but a surprising number of laypeople--especially sisters--fulfill all the requirements already.

Most important, the Milwaukee guidelines permit laypeople to preach at Sunday and weekday Masses, marriages, funerals, and other sacramental services if done with permission of the bishop. In practice, such authority can be delegated to the pastor. You may wonder, what about the canonical prohibition against laypeople preaching homilies? The guidelines get around it by observing, with a straight face, that a sermon preached by a layperson at Mass "is not called a homily." The Milwaukee document observes that "in the future, lay persons will share a greater role in the ministry of preaching."

The present guidelines are just an interim solution. In fact there are already hundreds of Catholic churches and religious houses in North America where preaching by laypeople is welcomed by congregations and tacitly accepted by church leaders. In some places, the priest proclaims the gospel, says a few words of homily, then steps aside in favor of a parishioner. This preserves the Priest's canonical responsibility. In other places, the lay preacher does the whole sermon.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS TO BE GAINED from lay preaching? Results may vary from place to place, but I've noticed the following positive qualities of lay preaching in places where I've worshiped:

* Lay preaching uses more storytelling. By this, I don't mean pious anecdotes taken from spiritual books. Laypeople like to talk about their lives--the way they raise their kids, their experiences in the workplace, and daily struggles to get by. God is revealed as we break open ourselves as well as the Word to each other. In a given community, this style of preaching begins to color the way clergy preach, too, and gradually creates a deeper sense of intimacy.

* There is an enhanced quality of listening. This stems partly from the novelty of seeing a layperson before us and partly from the power that seems to come upon the preacher. We laypeople have so few chances to reveal the way God moves in our lives that each opportunity is especially holy. Congregations sense it and listen with a new quality of attention.

* Room is made for the wisdom of women. Women and men respond to scripture, and to God, in ways that are mutually enriching. Take away one side and our spirituality suffers. It appears, sad to say, that women will not become ordained preachers in the near future, but we still need to hear their voices in the assembly. We, as a community, become more whole when we are nourished by women's wisdom as well as men's.

* It promotes understanding between clergy and laity. Historically priests have been forced to behave in the church as if they were the sole fonts of knowledge, which is unhealthy for their own growth and builds a wall of separation between them and others. Lay preaching spreads the burden around, acknowledges the free movement of the Holy Spirit, and fosters compassion between clergy and people.

The pastoral theology of preaching for laypeople is still in the process of being worked out. Eventually people will be called to preach as an expression of their baptism in Christ, responding to the movement of the Spirit as discerned by the community. It needs scholarly study, but it also needs experimentation in prophetic communities.

Ultimately, lay preaching must be more than a desire for a novel experience. It must be a call from God. The Second Vatican Council, in its Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, notes that laypeople are called to witness Christ by their lives in the world, then goes on to add that lay Christians also have an obligation to proclaim Christ in words directed to unbelievers and to each other. The document declares, "The words of the Apostle [Paul] should echo in every Christian heart: 'Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel' (1 Cor. 9:16)." It's time to let it happen.
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Title Annotation:Feedback; Sounding Board; includes responses of subscribers to article
Author:Brophy, Don
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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