When are the Laity Permitted to Preach?

Q:  I have a question about preaching: what happens in times and places where there is no priest or deacon available to hold Mass, and a communion service or another form of liturgical prayer is held? –Mark

A:  While the scenario that Mark describes is not the norm, there’s no denying that in some parts of the world it’s unfortunately becoming increasingly common.  Let’s see first what the code says about preaching in general, and then look at what the Church has to say about preaching in those particular situations where, due to a shortage of clergy, no priest or deacon is available.

In “Who May Preach?” we saw that the definition of the term “preaching” is very precise, as the word pertains to public explanations of Sacred Scripture and church teachings.  The Code of Canon Law makes multiple references to “preaching the Word of God” (cf. c. 763, for example) and “proclaiming the Divine Word” (cf. c. 768.1).  Consequently, when (for example) someone stands in the podium during Mass in order to report to the parishioners on the state of the parish’s finances, or eulogizes a relative or friend at a funeral, this does not constitute “preaching” in the canonical sense.

The homily,  which is an explanation of the Scriptures that takes place during the liturgy itself, is the most important form of preaching (c. 767.1), and can only be done by a cleric.  Note that deacons are clerics, and so they can preach the homily just as priests can.  (See “What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?” for more on this.)  According to the same canon, the homily is not to be omitted on Sundays and holydays of obligation except for a grave reason.

At a typical Sunday Mass at a typical parish, therefore, there must be a homily.  But what happens in those Sunday celebrations which are conducted in regions where no cleric is available?

Canon 517.2 addresses the possibility of such a situation in very general terms.  If a diocesan bishop determines that because of a shortage of clergy, he has no priest available to assign to a particular parish, he can instead entrust the parish to the care of a deacon, or to some other person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons.  The bishop is nonetheless required to designate some priest—perhaps, although not necessarily, the pastor of a neighboring parish—to be the overseer of pastoral care at this priest-less parish.  In a diocese where, let’s say, there are 78 parishes, but only 74 priests, and the bishop determines that closing/merging parishes is just not demographically feasible, he may have no other alternative but to leave some parishes in operation without a proper pastor.

This canon is new to the current Code of Canon Law, which was promulgated in 1983.  There was no equivalent canon in the previous code, and so those who tried to navigate this canon quickly found themselves in uncharted waters.  How exactly is this supposed to work in practice?  In the course of daily parish life, who is in charge of what, and what are the non-priests at such a parish permitted to do?

To be sure, certain practical aspects of implementing the canon in such a situation are already clear, and so it’s possible to answer one part of Mark’s question right away.  If the diocesan bishop puts a deacon in charge of a parish without a priest, the deacon of course can’t celebrate Mass—since only an ordained priest can do that, as per canon 900.1—but a deacon can certainly preach a homily at a Communion service that, when no priest is available, is held in lieu of a Mass.  Canon 764 states clearly that like priests, deacons have the faculty to preach everywhere, unless that faculty has been restricted by the competent bishop.  So if a bishop puts one of his permanent deacons in charge of a parish, that deacon can logically preach there at any time, with no special permission needed.

But what is supposed to happen in those parishes where a layman, or a religious brother or sister, or maybe a whole convent of sisters has been assigned to care for a parish?  Canon 767.1, as seen above, is quite strict in saying that only a cleric can preach a homily.  Is it permissible to make an exception in the case of a parish where no priest or deacon is available to preach on Sunday?  Since canon 517.2 speaks only in very broad terms, many bishops and canonists were left scratching their heads.

This is only one of many issues that soon arose after canon 517.2 came into force.  Bishops began asking Rome for clarification on how best to implement this law in their dioceses.  This uncertainty was actually only one part of a much larger picture, as questions repeatedly arose about whether, and when, the laity are in general permitted to perform actions which were traditionally the purview of the clergy.

In 1997, the Vatican issued some directives which were designed to resolve common areas of confusion.  Entitled Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest, the document was a joint effort by a total of eight different Vatican Congregations and Pontifical Councils.  Given the degree of involvement by the Vatican’s top officials in compiling this Instruction, it’s both surprising and unfortunate that it doesn’t receive more attention—because it contains a beautifully written, general explanation of the roles of both the clergy and the laity in everyday parish life.  And after all, without first understanding the fundamental Catholic theological teachings which underlie the regular rights and responsibilities of a priest assigned to minister in a parish, it’s pretty difficult to know what’s supposed to be done in the case of a parish that has to try to function without one!  So let’s first see what this Instruction has to say in general about the clergy and the laity, and then turn to the part which pertains specifically to preaching—and then we’ll be able to understand the rest of the answer to Mark’s question.

As befits its name, this document provides instructions on how Sunday celebrations, baptisms, funerals, weddings, and homilies (among other things) are to be handled in parishes without a priest.  It describes what the non-priest administrator of a parish is permitted to do, and what he/she may not do—which can sometimes vary, as we’ve just seen above, depending on whether the administrator is a deacon or a layperson.  But while the main thrust of the Instruction is pragmatic, the first half of it focuses entirely on the Church’s theological understanding of what parish ministry is all about, and the theological rationale for the different roles of clergy and laity in the life of the Church.

For these two roles are not interchangeable!  The Instruction emphasizes throughout that the situation of a parish without a pastor is an extraordinary one—a “situation of emergency” and a “temporary solution.”  While the lay-faithful may and do take care of many aspects of parish life in a priest-less parish, collaborating with the diocesan clergy as needed,

…“collaboration with” does not, in fact, mean “substitution for”….  the ordained priesthood is absolutely irreplaceable.  As an immediate consequence of this there is the necessity for a continuing, zealous and well organized pastoral promotion of vocations, so as to provide the Church with those ministers which she needs….  Any other solution to problems deriving from a shortage of sacred ministers can only lead to precarious consequences (Premiss).

Thus the Instruction recognizes, on the one hand, the need to arrange for pastoral care in priest-less parishes; but on the other hand, it insists that the situation of a parish without a priest is not to be regarded as inevitable and/or permanent.  It’s easy enough to understand the Church’s concern about the potential confusion that can arise, if laypersons routinely perform actions that are normally the purview of the clergy!  What will ordinary Catholics naturally begin to think if, instead of a priest, they regularly see a layperson standing in the sanctuary, leading the people in prayer on Sunday morning?  And why would a young man decide to answer God’s call to the priesthood, if he’s led to believe that there’s really not much difference between being a priest, and being a Catholic layman who’s active in his parish?  That’s why the document stresses “the essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood”—the two are neither synonymous nor on an equal footing.

The term “common priesthood of the faithful” first came to the fore during the Second Vatican Council; but its parameters were prescribed the moment it was defined.  As the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church explained nearly 50 years ago,

Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ.  The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist.  They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity (Lumen Gentium 31).

So how does preaching a homily on Sundays in a priest-less parish fit into this whole equation?  Well, the 1997 Instruction is totally consistent with both the above Vatican-II document and the Code of Canon Law: it notes that

[T]he homily, being an eminent form of preaching… also forms part of the liturgy [and] therefore… must be reserved to the sacred minister, Priest or Deacon to the exclusion of the non-ordained faithful, even if these should have responsibilites as “pastoral assistants” or catechists…. This exclusion is not based on the preaching ability of sacred ministers nor their theological preparation, but on that function which is reserved to them in virtue of having received the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Article 3).

The Instruction goes on to say that bishops are not able to dispense from this law.  (The concept of dispensation, or the relaxation of a merely ecclesiastical law in a particular case [c. 85], was discussed at greater length in “Marriage between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.”)  In full accord with canon law, the Instruction explains that “this is not merely a disciplinary law [which in that case could be dispensed], but one which touches upon the closely connected functions of teaching and sanctifying.”  In other words, the connection between sacred ordination and the ability to preach a homily during the liturgy is rooted in theology, and so bishops cannot make any exceptions.

Note, however, that this prohibition pertains only to the preaching of a homily.   There are other kinds of preaching which don’t constitute a homily.  In such situations, canon 766 applies.  This canon asserts that with regard to non-homiletic preaching, the lay faithful may be allowed to preach in a church, if in certain circumstances it is necessary.

The Instruction quotes canon 766, but rightly notes that the wording of the canon makes clear that the laity have to have permission to do this by competent authority (in this case, the diocesan bishop): “In no instance is this a right, such as that which is specific and proper to the Bishop or a faculty such as enjoyed by priests and deacons” (Article 2).  A layperson appointed to administer a parish lacking a priest cannot, therefore, decide on his own that he’s going to stand up at the parish recitation of the Rosary and (let’s say) preach on the Joyful Mysteries—even if that layperson happens to be a world-renowned expert on that subject!  Only the bishop can permit a layperson to preach in such circumstances, period.

So now we have the full answer to Mark’s question.  If a parish lacks its own priest, and is entrusted to the care of a deacon, that deacon can certainly preach to the parishioners, including a homily at a Sunday-morning Communion service.  Otherwise, no layman, no religious sister or brother, has the authority to preach a homily during the liturgy at such a parish—although he/she might be permitted to preach something other than a homily in a non-liturgical ceremony in the church.  We can see here the Church’s insistence that preaching the Word of God is intrinsically connected to ordination to the clerical state.  And at the same time, we can find here another reason to pray for more vocations to the priesthood.

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