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Cover story

Entrusting God’s Word to the entire church


The Catholic church in the United States is separating into two entities -- parishes with priests and parishes without. One key to keeping the two entities solidly bound in the one church is quality preaching. And in some dioceses lacking priests, the rise of the lay preacher is the good news about the Good News.

Thirteen percent, or 2,300, of the country’s 19,000 parishes have no resident priest (parish lay administrators are the major element in the spiritual superglue holding the priestless parish church together).

With the average priest now age 61, the current vacancy rate will double in the next couple of decades. And with seminaries providing only 30 to 40 percent of the needed replacements -- without factoring in a growing Catholic population -- the figure will double again before the century is out. Overall, the church in the Midwest and West is experiencing the greatest priest shortages. But there are pockets of need everywhere, and lay preachers appear to be a major response.

There’s good news for preaching, too, in the increased emphasis by St. Dominic’s Order of Preachers on collaborative preaching teams. Further, there’s the work of the Catholic Coalition on Preaching, since the U.S. bishops two decades ago approved the landmark preaching document, “Fulfilled in Your Hearing.”

Lay preachers are a new feature of the Catholic landscape in the 94,000 square-mile diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Mont., where Bishop Anthony Milone in 1999 commissioned his first 80 lay preachers. The diocese has 41 active priests for its 50,000 Catholics living mainly in remote rural communities.

‘Open to the Spirit’

Without the lay preachers, “the continuation of the Catholic faith as we know it is at stake,” said Sister of Charity of Leavenworth, Kan., Eileen Hurley, describing the needs of the Great Falls-Billings diocese. Hurley, who directs the diocese’s lay ministry and worship offices, said, “If we were to close some of these local faith communities, 50 miles or more from the next Catholic community, the people would not come to a Catholic church. That does not mean the faith of the people is jeopardized. No. They would go to the community church, whether Methodist or Lutheran or whatever.

“The struggle and tension we have has to do with the Catholic presence.” To ensure its continuance, she said, “we have to be open to the Spirit.”

The need for lay preachers is paramount, said Patricia Hughes Baumer, who with her husband Fred began training preachers a decade ago and founded the Partners In Preaching training program.

While there’s been no national survey on the incidence of lay preaching, said Hughes Baumer, “without lay preaching, in many settings there’d be no preaching at all. Their work, over the past decade, has been integral to the development of lay preacher programs in a dozen St. Paul-Minneapolis parishes, and in the Great Falls-Billings and Saginaw, Mich., dioceses.

Their work began when the Baumers, with their two young children, moved to Eden Prairie, Minn. in the early 1990s, just as their parish, Pax Christi, was seeking to enable new voices to preach the Word of God. The pastor, Fr. Tim Power, fully encouraged the discussion. And during an early meeting, Hughes Baumer, who has a master’s of divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago, volunteered to help. Since then, the Baumers -- Fred has a doctorate in communications and had previously taught preaching -- have helped prepare 261 lay preachers in several dioceses.

Hughes Baumer explained that the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law made a complete break with the 1917 code, which reserved all preaching to the priest. New Canon 766, she said, authorized lay preaching “in churches or oratories when useful or necessary,” at the same time Canon 767 says the homily “is a part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or a deacon.”

The phrase “when useful or necessary” is interpreted differently from place to place.

The U.S. bishops had earlier voted on U.S. norms governing preaching, but the Vatican was dissatisfied with some of the provisions and sent them back for revisions. Proposals for new norms were to be voted on during this month’s bishops’ meeting. For further coverage of the preaching issue as it was discussed at the meeting, see story on Page 7.

The proscription against laypeople preaching at Mass is applied strictly in some dioceses and parishes, more leniently in others. In St. Louis, for instance, Archbishop Justin Rigali in 1999 told the Dominican-run Aquinas Institute of Theology that Dominican sisters could no longer preach at the institute’s eucharistic services -- a ruling that has been followed. These same sisters, many of whom teach preaching, nonetheless preach in other dioceses as part of a Dominican mission team.

In Saginaw, Mich., Servant of Jesus Sr. Roberta Kolasa of the Center for Ministry explained that the Baumers’ Partners in Preaching has also trained teachers of preachers -- mentors -- so the diocese can run its own program. Saginaw Bishop Kenneth Untener first established a lay preacher program in 1993.

One teacher/mentor is Fr. Fred Kawka of Blessed Trinity Church in Frankenmuth, Mich. With lay preachers coming on stream, the diocese has subsequently developed its own lay presider training program. Many parishes now have a lay presider on hand for those times a priest cannot be present.

At St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Bay City, Mich., Linda Studniarz finds she’s presiding/preaching at least once at week. Studniarz conducts almost all of the parish’s wake services -- and St. Stanislaus averages between 50 and 70 funerals a year. She began the ministry because on one occasion a parish staff member said, “You need to do this because there’s no one else here to do it.”

A rapidly expanding role

In the United States, the Dominican sisters’ preaching role has expanded rapidly as the order emphasizes the preaching charism as a gift to all Dominicans. Akron, Ohio, Dominican Sr. Mary Catherine Hilkert is a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. With Adrian, Mich., Dominican Sr. Joan Delaplane of the Aquinas Institute, she is someone often named by Dominicans sisters as one of their top preachers. Hilkert is author of Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination.

Said Hilkert, “The tragedy is Catholics can’t find good preaching -- the People of God are not getting enough of it to live on.” And this is 35 years after Vatican II (1962-65) and the document Dei Verbum, which, she said, declared that “the Word of God has been entrusted to the entire church.”

There is a link, said Hilkert, between the powerful speech given by Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens of Malines-Brussels, Belgium, to the council bishops -- in which he asked, “Does not each one of us know laypeople, men and women, in his own diocese who are truly called by God?” -- and Paul’s saying to Timothy, “The Word of God will not be chained.”

Paulist Fr. Bob Rivers, a member of the Catholic Coalition on Preaching, is part of a two decades-long thrust to improve homiletic training for priests. The coalition decided to hold in late 2002 a conference on what can be done to improve the quality and scope of Catholic preaching. “The quality is improving,” he said. “We’re getting there. In the best parishes, preaching is alive. If we fail in a more creative approach to the availability of preaching, within the options given to us now, we could be choked,” said Rivers. “The idea that only the priest can preach the homily is killing us.”

Within the global Dominican community, the preaching emphasis has been marked since Master General Damien Byrne (1986-93) wrote to all Dominicans that it is when the talents of everyone are used, when the communities of both men and women are engaged “that our preaching will be seen to be more effective.”

In 1998 at the Dominicans’ Bologna, Italy, general chapter, the order created an international commission to examine the preaching charism. In the United States, the Dominican Leadership Conference works with the orders’ four regional Promoters of Preaching teams to refine these approaches.

Typical of the work being done by Dominican women promoters is that of Oakland-based San Rafael (Calif.) Dominican Sr. Patricia Bruno. With a priest, she does about 14 missions a year -- each lasting a week -- plus retreats. As this issue goes to press, she’s on a series of collaborative missions on the East and West coasts.

“In most dioceses,” she said, “there has long been a tradition of lay preaching at Eucharist -- even people sponsored by the diocese come and give a talk after the gospel and without introduction. Often they are advertising a particular program or raising money.” On missions she alternates with the friar giving the Morning Eucharist homily and the evening prayer service homily.

Making Dominican collaboration work

What in part has made the Dominican collaborative system work in the United States, explains Dominican Fr. Paul Philibert, stems from the early commitments of those he calls “Vatican II fundamentalists,” which he describes as “people like myself, ordained before or around the council.”

“For that generation of friars,” the Aquinas Institute theologian said, “it goes without saying that collaborative ministry of men and women is important. The Parable Conference for Dominican Life and Mission was only possible because a core group of friars encouraged and helped the sisters to form this venture promoting shared preaching.”

Oxford, Mich., Dominican Sr. Connie Schoen directs the 25 year-old Chicago-based Parable Conference that provides Dominican mission and retreat teams nationwide. She’s on the road a lot; her Parable colleague Sinsinawa Dominican Sr. Ann Willits, even more so.

“We’re always teamed with a friar. We preach at Eucharist at the invitation of the pastor,” she said.

“There have been isolated cases of women not being [allowed] to preach. What we find generally though is if a parish invites us, it wants that kind of preaching. They know about Parable, and the pastor is doing his best to bring in some good preaching. Sometimes a parish mission can be in that category of a ‘particular event’ that the code allows.

“People, particularly young families, are looking for good preaching,” she said, “and they will go to places other than the church to get it. There is a movement of them doing that -- the hunger is there for a deepened spirituality.” The U.S. church has an “untapped reservoir of power -- particularly among the college-age Catholics,” said Schoen. “I find they’re looking for something to live for. There’s part of them knows the good life and consumerism we’re feeding them is bogus. But they have to see real Christians living Christianity. They see a counterfeit real quick. The longing they have is real. The Word of God is touching them where it matters. When they can hear it.”

Right to good preaching

“The People of God, as they have a right to the Eucharist, have a right to good preaching,” said Houston Dominican Sr. Marygrace Peters of the Aquinas Institute.

Referring to both priest shortages and the preaching shortfall, Sister of St. Joseph Christine Schenk of Cleveland-based FutureChurch said, “There’s a crisis in the church and everyone can see it,” she said. “And I think that’s a good place to be. Ten years ago no one wanted to admit there was a problem. Now we all know, and it’s a question of how we address these problems.”

“Clearly,” said Notre Dame’s Hilkert, “we have communities that are without weekly Eucharist. What’s in a sense compounding the tragedy is that we have communities without even the preaching of the Word of God -- which doesn’t require an ordained person.”

Liturgically, she said, “it is the Word of God, and the preaching of the Word of God, that is the source of faith that draws us to the sacraments. So in a sense, without preachers, we’re undercutting even the deeper faith conversion and the attraction to the sacraments. And things are getting worse.”

From the altar of St. Margaret Mary Church in Coalstrip, Mont., population 2,000, Jeannette Bartel looked out at 160 or so of her fellow Catholics, smiled and began to preach.

It was an “every other week” Sunday, one when the priest wasn’t present. The congregation was gathered in the 5-year-old semi-round church for the Word and Communion celebration “without the presence of priest.”

It was just before Lent. Coalstrip is dominated by its employers: the huge coal mines and the enormous power generating plant. Most folks in the church are families from somewhere else. Young families. There’s barely one funeral a year. Bartel talked about “Time. Our time. And time to begin the Lenten journey again.”

She’d preached before, but this day was different. She realized, as she spoke, that something had happened, “that the Word was being heard. Not that I was being heard.”

How did she know?

“There’s a feeling,” said the mother of two grown children. “There’s a hush. There’s an attentiveness. A quiet that comes when the community, the preacher and the Word just all connect. The feeling was one of awe.” As she sat down afterward she understood, she said, “We had all connected. It certainly wasn’t me. It was something far bigger than that. The preacher is just the conduit to it.”

To Parable director Schoen, in the United States “the People of God church is waking up.” She senses a “sleeping giant” on the verge of awakening. “The ‘waking up’ is not millions and millions of people thronging. What you see is individuals, families, small groups in parishes,” she said, “a People of God hungering for something more.”

There’s some resistance still “at the institutional level” to who might preach and when, because “they’re trying to keep some kind of control,” said Schoen. Meanwhile, ordinary American Catholics are wrestling, she said, with who they are and what the world is supposed to be, all the while being confronted by the culture.

Good preaching, she said, is helping them in that confrontation. “There’s something of substance in these searching Catholics. And the Word feeds them.” said Schoen.

If they get the chance to hear it well preached.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s California-based editor-at-large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

For more information

Partners in Preaching, a national ministry of consultation, training and formation for the preaching ministry, describes its mission as “the preparation and support of women and men, ordained and lay, to share in the church’s ministry of liturgical preaching.” For more: www.PartnersinPreaching.org E-mail: info@PartnersinPreaching.org

Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis is the only Catholic higher education institution to offer a doctor of ministry in preaching. Aquinas, with 250 students on-site and online, includes a preaching component in all its post-graduate degrees. For more: www.ai.edu E-mail: Aquinas@slu.edu

Web site for the Order of Preachers (Dominicans): www.op.org

Parable Conference for Dominican Life and Mission (mission and retreat teams): Tel. (708) 771-0088.

FutureChurch, Cleveland: Tel. 216-228-0869. Fax. 216-228-0947.

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001