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Excluding lay preachers stifles the spirit


As of Jan. 15 lay preachers were prohibited by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from preaching “at the moment reserved for the homily” during the celebration of the Eucharist. While pastoral situations and needs commonly made full use of the “wiggle room” found within Canon Law 766, now the nonordained preacher is permitted to reflect only before liturgy begins or after Communion. In light of all the numerous critical moral issues facing the church lately, it is surprising that restricting the preaching of nonordained people should have occupied any significant time and resources on the bishops’ agenda.

For several years, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has published clarifications about who may participate with authority in particular ministries. These directives have focused on the church work of nonordained persons, both full-time lay ecclesial ministers and parish volunteers, and they point out that ordained men have certain privileges that may not be assumed by nonordained persons.

The recent restrictions on lay preaching are rooted in the 1997 Vatican document “On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest, which attempts to both limit the call and exercise of the gifts that nonordained people bring to ministries. It specifies in Section 4 that laypersons should collaborate in liturgical ministries with an ordained pastor and as preachers, only in extreme necessity. Laypersons should also regard their role as temporary because only through the sacrament of orders can one receive permanent authority to minister in roles that have traditionally belonged to the priest.

Although the document recognizes the value of nonordained people who engage in collaborative ministry with priests, its subtext suggests that their ministry is inauthentic on its own for lack of ordination. The document explicitly excludes nonordained persons from preaching the homily at eucharistic celebrations.

Consistent with the Vatican document, the recent decree on lay preaching further demonstrates the thinking regarding the role of lay ministers. Its familiar wording at the beginning of the second paragraph -- “if necessity requires it” -- clearly indicates that the laity’s gifts are useful only when there is need, not because the layperson feels called, has spent time in discernment and has shown evidence of a demonstrated charism.

Unfortunately, with all the “wiggle room” removed from the canon laws governing preaching with the promulgation of this decree, only men will preach to the full assembly. The community may not hear the preaching voice of women because women are not admitted to ordained ministry.

Is it reasonable to assume that most parish communities have never heard women preach? How many priests have ever heard women preach? Most of them may be unaware of how gifted women preachers can complement their own ministry to the word. Laymen may become permanent deacons and receive a commission to preach. Laywomen are not offered that opportunity.

The issue is not just about restricting laypersons because of canonical issues. The church is putting external laws above the value of hearing and sharing the insights that women can bring to the congregation through their preaching. Is this what Jesus would have us do?

A preaching event following the post-Communion prayer, or even before the liturgy begins, makes no liturgical or pastoral sense and must be seen as an accretion to the liturgy. Clearly removing lay preaching to any other time than following the gospel proclamation is patronizing and signals that what a nonordained person has to say is not important enough to be heard as the authentic biblical preaching of the day. And what congregation should be asked to be attentive to two preaching events in one liturgy?

Suppressing the voice of women distresses many laypersons and ordained men alike, but it is particularly painful for those who are excluded, especially for those of us employed as pastoral ministers with significant responsibility for the pastoral care, spiritual life and administration of the parish.

The charism of the ordained pastor notwithstanding, female lay ecclesial ministers contribute enormously to their parishes, and are often involved in several dimensions of the pastoral care of parishioners. From personal experience, I know that lay ecclesial ministers, like priests, become well-known to the community when they are visible to the community at liturgy, witnessing to their spirituality and compassion through their preaching, so that people in crisis can identify with them and feel comfortable calling on them when they need help.

Today’s Catholic parishes depend increasingly on theologically educated and spiritually formed lay ecclesial ministers who perform so much of the church’s pastoral ministry. They are recognized as pastoral leaders for their commitment to their congregations, as well as for the ministerial tasks they perform.

Nonordained women and men are often called by the Spirit to preach, even though they may not aspire to ordained priesthood. Called to be preachers, they discern their call and seek affirmation by the community to assist in identifying an authentic call.

As St. Paul admonishes us, “Do not quench the Spirit,” we must question why anyone would be given the gift of preaching without expecting to use it and develop it further. St. Paul also reminds us: “The Spirit reveals his presence in each one with a gift that is also a service.”

At this time of particular crisis, as trust in the church and its priests has been seriously undermined because of widespread and worldwide sexual misconduct and the deliberate efforts to cover it up, is the healing Spirit calling out to us to proclaim a new aggiornamento, an opening of the door to the voice of women to help the church and its people during this time of struggle? Could women preachers be instrumental in helping to mediate the strong feelings that are turning people from the Roman Catholic church as more and more allegations surface?

The church documents speak of calling into service nonordained persons in extreme necessity. In this new era for the church, we hope the bishops will contemplate the necessity of reopening Sunday preaching to women, not only because priests are overworked, but also to invigorate the church.

How might the untapped potential of women witnessing their faith as preachers dispel the prevailing notion that the Roman Catholic church suppresses the voice of its women? Would women preachers become the new evangelizers, bringing back the alienated, drawing in new members and encouraging current members to participate more in the life of the parish? Oh, that we might put into practice St. Paul’s decree, “Let each one of us, therefore, serve according to our different gifts.”

Audrey Borschel has served as pastoral associate at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis since 1998. She is studying in the doctor of ministry in preaching program at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002