When are Priests Required to Give a Homily?

Q: When does a priest have to preach at Mass?

My wife and I attend daily Mass at the cathedral, where there are three priests who take turns saying the Mass.  One of them preaches every single day, with no exceptions.  The second only preaches on Sundays, and not on other days.  The third always preaches on Sundays and sometimes on other days, sometimes not.

Can you explain this discrepancy?  Thank you…. –Charles

A:  In “Who May Preach?” and “When Are the Laity Permitted to Preach?” we saw that not all preaching is equal.  Thus before answering Charles’ question it’s critical that we define our terms.

Preaching refers to an explanation of Sacred Scripture and church teachings.  In general, when someone stands before a group of worshippers and (for example) discusses one of Christ’s parables found in the Gospels, or explains the theology behind the seven sacraments, and does this for the group’s spiritual edification, this may safely be described as preaching.  The term does not, in other words, properly pertain to a talk about fundraising, the parish’s upcoming picnic, or the fine work of the school principal who is retiring.  Such discussions sometimes take place during the Mass or at other liturgical celebrations, but they do not technically constitute preaching.

The code further distinguishes between preaching during the Mass, and preaching that is done in other contexts.  At Mass, the preaching which explicates the Gospel for that day is called a homily.  Outside of Mass, when a preacher at, say, a parish retreat or a novena discusses the mysteries of the Rosary or devotion to the Sacred Heart, this is called not a homily, but a sermon.  As you can see, these terms are not synonymous.

This is all directly relevant to Charles’ question.  When he asks about preaching “at Mass,” he is clearly referring to a homily.  So let’s take a look at what the Code of Canon Law has to say about homilies.  When are they mandatory?

Canon 767.1 tells us that the homily, which is an explanation of the Scriptures that takes place during the liturgy itself, is the most important form of preaching 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.)  The following paragraph is directly relevant here: A homily must be given at all Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation which are celebrated with a congregation, and it cannot be omitted except for a grave cause (c. 767.2; cf. also c. 528.1, on the obligations of the parish priest).

What might constitute a “grave cause” which would allow a priest to skip the homily altogether at Sunday Mass?  As was discussed at greater length in “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” the term “grave cause” is not directly defined in the code; but it is accepted by canonists that it is a higher standard than a merely “just cause” (which is commonly interpreted as a cause that is reasonable).  Ordinarily, common sense tells us when there’s a sufficient cause to justify omitting a Sunday homily: the priest-celebrant may (for example) be unwell, or completely exhausted after just returning from a long journey—and there is no other cleric around who could preach the homily in his stead.  Or maybe it’s snowing heavily outside, and Father realizes that if he doesn’t finish the Mass as soon as possible, the parishioners may get stuck in the snow on their way home.  Perhaps there’s a curfew in the region, and after an exceptionally long Gospel reading, the priest is reasonably concerned that if he preaches a homily at this evening’s Mass, people will be leaving the church too late to arrive at their homes in time.  And of course in regions where the Church is undergoing perennial government persecution, the clergy know full well that they have to be flexible if they’re celebrating a secret/illegal Mass: if word reaches Father that the police are (or soon will be) patrolling the streets, he may need to cut the Mass short, to enable the faithful to return home safely.  Again, applying the law to these kinds of real-life situations is generally a matter of common sense.

In any case, if you take another look at the three priests whom Charles describes, every one of them preaches a homily on Sundays.  But what about holydays of obligation?  Note that canon 767.2 says that a homily is required at these Masses too.  According to Charles, the second priest “only preaches on Sundays, and not on other days.”  If this priest fails to preach a homily at Mass on a holyday of obligation without a grave cause, he is technically in violation of the law—but to be fair, it could be that Charles and his wife simply haven’t attended this priest’s Mass on a holyday of obligation, so they don’t know whether in fact he preaches at such Masses as well.

So the law mandates a homily at Masses on Sundays and holydays of obligation … but what about ordinary weekdays?  Canon 767.3 specifically addresses this:

It is strongly recommended that if there is a sufficient congregation, a homily is to be given even at Masses celebrated during the week, especially during the time of Advent and Lent or on the occasion of some feast day or a sorrowful event.

While there is no actual obligation for the clergy to preach at weekday Masses, it is nonetheless “strongly recommended.”  There’s no need for the code to explain why—we can all appreciate the value of a priest’s explanation of the day’s Gospel reading.  That is presumably why quite a few priests out there won’t hesitate to give at least a quick homily at a daily Mass, even if it’s attended by only 3-4 people.

Still, there are plenty of good reasons why a priest might opt to skip the homily at weekday Masses.  Maybe there are strict time-constraints, because people are attending the Mass on their lunch break, or university students will have to leave fairly soon in order to make it to their next class.  Or perhaps the priest already knows that no matter what he can find to say about a given Gospel passage, the crowd of “regulars” at daily Mass has heard it many times already.

True, as canon 767.3 tells us, it is certainly appropriate to preach a homily at a daily Mass when there’s a special feast day, like (for example) the feast of the parish’s patron saint, or at a weekday Mass that falls on the anniversary of some tragedy.  Rest assured that on September 12, 2001, many American priests preached at their daily Masses, even if they didn’t normally do so—because the grieving congregation really needed it!  The bottom line is that this is left up to the discretion of the priest, and the faithful can’t demand that their clergy preach a homily every single day.

If we return now to the three priests whom Charles describes, there’s no indication that any of them is doing anything that is technically wrong.  Each is evidently using his judgment, and reaching a different conclusion about giving a homily at a weekday Mass—and in this case, that discrepancy is totally okay.  The option to preach—or not—may result in what looks like inconsistent behavior, but all of these priests appear to be acting fully within the law.

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