Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Profound and Devastating Loss

Minneapolis-based writer Kris Berggren’s latest piece in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) surveys the responses of parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis to an impending ban on lay preaching. A number of folks from St. Stephen’s, the Catholic community I worship with, are quoted in Berggren’s article, excerpts of which are reprinted below.


Minnesota Parishes Tussle with
Impending Ban on Lay Preaching
By Kris Berggren
National Catholic Reporter
June 13, 2008

An archbishop’s recent order to end lay preaching in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese has brought a deep sense of loss to Catholics who believe in the practice and the theology behind it. In some parishes, lay leaders are seeking ways to register their disagreement with the new ban or to keep lay voices alive despite it. And some people are voting with their feet and finding other places to worship.

Archbishop Harry Flynn sent the letter in January to all archdiocesan pastors instructing them to end lectionary-based liturgical lay preaching by May 2, his retirement date, calling such preaching a “liturgical abuse.” While Canon 766 of the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law states that lay preaching may be permitted when deemed useful or necessary according to norms developed by episcopal conferences, Flynn’s directive appears to be guided by the restrictions in the 2004 Vatican instructional document Redemptionis Sacramentum, which narrows the criteria for allowing lay preaching only to accommodate a scarcity of priests or the needs of a specific community.

Some 29 parishes here are affected by the ban. Some offered formal ministry training and formation for lay preachers, while others offered informal support and resources.

The targeting of lay voices deeply disturbs Patricia Hughes Baumer who, with her husband, runs Partners in Preaching, an Eden Prairie, Minn., organization that has trained 500 lay preachers here and in five other dioceses since 1997.

“[Lay preaching] isn’t an abuse now and it wasn’t even by constructionist standards,” said Baumer, who believes the ban ignores “the direction of canon law” away from prohibition and toward authorization of lay preaching since Vatican II.

Some have speculated that Flynn was cleaning house for his successor. Baumer said, “It was widely anticipated that Archbishop [John] Nienstedt would not be open to the continuation of [lay preaching] and that Archbishop Flynn made the request so that parishes could attempt to respond with grace, that it was not going to be an immediate termination, [which] would be experienced as far more harsh. Clearly, if you believe something is an abuse, you don’t give people four months to terminate it.”

Bishops can and do interpret instructional documents and episcopal norms differently, said Passionist Sr. Elissa Rinere, a canon lawyer. “The fact that it can change easily is the nature of the system.” It is important to understand how that system works, she said. For example, instructional documents such as Redemptionis Sacramentum may well inform a bishop’s decision-making but should not supersede canon law itself.

In a 2006 article for Preach magazine, Rinere called the language on lay preaching in the instruction “chilling.” She explained that the instruction not only lacks the legislative standing to trump existing canon law or episcopal norms, but contains discrepancies in wording compared with the canon’s text. Rinere wrote: “The instruction cites the canon as saying ‘Laypeople may preach outside Mass in churches or oratories (161).’ Canon 766 does not contain the words ‘outside Mass.’ ”

Catholics who support lay preaching have expressed dismay, even grief, at the ban.

“I just feel as if somebody stole my church,” said Miriam Meyers, a retired professor of linguistics and a longtime member of St. Stephen Parish in Minneapolis, which has involved lay preachers for almost two decades. “I think the loss [of lay preaching] is profound and really rather devastating.”

Mary Wilmes, also of St. Stephen, resents the effective silencing of the voices of women and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. As the unofficial archivist at St. Stephen, she has collected 336 sermons, which she e-mails to parishioners who request them.

“Different things appeal to different people,” Wilmes said. “When you have a range [of preachers], you are going to be touched more than you will ever be touched by one preacher. Many parts, one body, isn’t it? It is an incredible richness.”

Frank Schweigert of St. Frances Cabrini in Minneapolis spoke emotionally about the importance of lay preaching in setting an example of living with faith for other laypeople, especially “in a formative way for boys and girls. It did a lot to enhance ecclesial understanding of what it means to be a baptized Christian.”

Parishes are wrestling with how to comply yet retain lay presence and perspective. A typical solution is to schedule the lay preacher before Mass.

St. Joan of Arc changed its preaching model well before Flynn’s letter, said associate pastor Fr. Jim Cassidy. Formerly, lay preachers spoke after the Gospel. Now they’re scheduled before Mass. The priest preaches a homily. The advantage to the community, Cassidy said, “besides wanting to respect the guidelines of the liturgy,” is that the two often complement each other. “It is a win-win situation.”

Others find two speakers unwieldy. Staff liturgist Chris Kosowski at St. Frances Cabrini said laypeople have preached for some four decades with the “invitation, encouragement and support of pastors. We have had a feeling of mutuality between lay and clergy.” Parishioners feel various proposals to keep lay preaching in different ways have shortcomings, said Kosowski. “The proposals we have to consider place [clergy and laypeople] on different planes. There’s the sense of not wanting two ‘homilies’ in one Mass. And just the feeling of how can something that was OK, allowed by canon law since 1983, all of a sudden not be OK?”

. . . Wilmes has decided to worship with a breakaway group from St. Stephen that retains ties with the parish but has arranged for offsite worship space on Sunday mornings. [See the previous Wild Reed post: “The Shrinking Catholic Tent”.] She’s joined by at least 100 parishioners who feel similarly, including Miriam Meyers.

Others aren’t taking the order lightly, either: One parish council is considering its finance committee’s request to withhold 10 percent of the parish assessment to the archdiocese until lay preaching is restored, according to a lay preacher at that parish.

. . . Partners in Preaching will continue to offer training. Its board has commissioned Baumer to work on a book documenting the impact of lay preaching on the Catholic church. She said, “We will continue to advocate for diversity of voices, believing it really is a need of God’s people.”

Kris Berggren
National Catholic Reporter
June 13, 2008

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Talk of the Archdiocese
Thoughts on Archbishop Nienstedt
The Shrinking Catholic Tent
Reflecting on Inclusive Language
Celebrating and Embodying Divine Hospitality
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
What it Means to be Catholic

For two lay homilies that I’ve delivered, see:
A Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany (St. Stephen Catholic Church, January 2, 2000).
Somewhere In Between (St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, January 15, 2006).


Anonymous said...

Well, the homily has been reserved to clerics before RS in 2004. Even the USCCB's norms (the norms that Canon 766 clearly defers to) acknowledge that:

And, one cannot cite the thrust of Canon law against a subsequent authoritative clarification with the approval of its legislator. To do that is to think that Roman law works like Anglospheric law. It's doesn't, and so many Catholics of the Anglosphere labor under that misimpression. Abp Flynn was fully within his power and authority to do what he did. That doesn't mean one cannot question it, but trying to imply it's somehow not quite fully legal is simply not credible.

Anonymous said...


I will need to pick up a copy of NCR to give this article mor ecomplete attention and response in that venue.

It would seem that those who would promote 'lay preaching' seem perfectly content - not to honestly view canon law, but rather to impose there wishes and attitudes on the law itself.

While KB refers to canon 766 as the authority for 'lay preaching' she seems to ignore what that particular canon says.

The parentheses are provided for emphasis to the words of which I am referring.

"Lay persons (can be permitted)to preach in a church or oratory (if necessity requires it in certain circumstances or it seems advantageous in particular cases, according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops and without predjudice to canon 767.1)

The phrase 'can be permitted' necessitates asking the question- permitted by whom?

While pastors and those in charge of particular churches or oratories may, in the course of fulfilling their responsibilities may assign a lay person to preach- following the guidelines of this canon- their ability to do so is limited by the authority and direction of the ordinary.

The canon itself does not view lay preaching as a substitute - or in the cases of some parishes, preferable- for clerical ministry.

Lay preaching- as prescribed according to this canon: "if necessity requires it in certain circumstances or it seems advantageous in particular cases, according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops and without predjudice to canon 767.1" simply does not replace the offering of a homily as given by the ordained. But to understand this one must be willing to actually read canon 767:

1. Among the forms of preaching (the canon itself recognizes a variety of forms of preaching), the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved for the priest or deacon, is preeminent;

2. A homily must be given at all Masseson Sundays and Holy Days which are celebrated with a congrergation, and it cannot be omitted except for grave cause.

The authority of pastors, or others responsible for churches or oratories may have their ability to authorize lay-preachers limited by diocesan or conference wide regulations.

There are several reasons why it might make sense- out of necessity or circumstance - for a lay person to offer a non-homiletic form of preaching during Mass- it may even be advantageous to do so in certain communities. But the suggestion that an ordinary who carries out his authority- as specifically identified in the canon that permits the activity- is somehow in violation of the intent and spirit of that same law is simply ridiculous.

It is exactly because of such contorting of Church Law that documents and regulations have had to be provided to clarify errant teaching.

I wonder how much richer our liturgies might be if those who seek valid engagement with the teachings and laws of our church whould truly engage in collegial discourse between clergy and all faitful baptized.

The clarifications being given by the bishops and particularly in the Archdiocese provide ample opportunity to ask several intelligent questions:

If not the Homily- what genuine opportunities exist for lay-preaching? When and in what context night this occur?

If the only motivator is to rail against legitimate authority- well have fun. If development of a common understanding of church law and so engage in authentic participation in our common Christian mission is the goal, then the clarifications provided by the bishop might encouraqe a new cponversation.

Anonymous said...

Quoting the canon: "lay preaching may be permitted"

May. Not "must." "May." Who makes that decision? The bishop.

I've lived in 3 diocese/archdiocese in my adult life - Omaha, Jefferson City and Monterey. I've also been pretty well informed about what goes on in other, major diocese/archdiocese - Kansas City/St. Joseph, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I never heard of or experienced lay preaching in any of them except as the rare exception, which I can count on 2 hands in 30 years.

So what happened in the Twin Cities was an experiment, perhaps a much beloved experiment, but an experiment nontheless, and now that experiment is over. Next topic.

Besides, lay people have had, are having, and will have their say, though maybe now not from the pulpit for 15 minutes a week. There are 168 hours in the week, yes? Plenty of time to get the word out, even if informally.

I can understand people's grief, but given the great number of things worth worrying about, lack of lay preaching isn't one of them.