“Who May Preach?”

Q: Nowadays in our parish we constantly have guest speakers preach at Sunday Masses. Sometimes it’s a visiting missionary priest, or somebody from the bishop’s office; other times it’s the parish council president, or the school principal, or the head of some new youth ministry or something. I always thought that the priest celebrating the Mass was the only one who could preach the sermon. Am I missing something?  –Eva

A: In casual conversation, we tend to use terms like “preaching” and “sermon” more loosely than does the Code of Canon Law. Before addressing this specific question, let’s look at the way these terms are actually defined.

First of all, preaching refers to an explanation of Sacred Scripture and church teachings. The canons of the code which address the office of preaching is subtitled “Preaching the Word of God;” they are contained in that book of the code titled “The Teaching Office of the Church.”  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. 

Secondly, the code distinguishes between preaching during the Mass, and preaching that is done in other contexts. At Mass, the talk that is given 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 Eva’s question. Canon 767.1 states that the homily, which is part of the liturgy, is the most important form of preaching, and is reserved to a priest or deacon. A layman, therefore, cannot stand up after the Gospel is read at Mass and interpret it for the congregation. This office can only be performed by the clergy. (Note that the homily need not be given by the priest who is celebrating that particular Mass; it is quite possible for a Mass to be offered by one priest, while the homily at that Mass is preached by another.) Canon 762 notes that proclaiming the Gospel of God to all is among the principal duties of a cleric, and that the people are entitled to it.

That’s why a homily is actually required at all Masses on Sundays and holydays of obligation (c. 767.2), and it cannot be omitted except for a grave reason. If Father is physically unable to preach because he has laryngitis or the flu; or if the snow is falling thick and fast and it is prudent to finish Mass as quickly as possible, to ensure that the congregation can make it home safely, a priest may reasonably judge it best to skip the homily. But the law makes clear that this is an exception, and not one which may be made lightly!

At times we have all heard a priest talk at Mass about those non-spiritual topics mentioned previously, like the leaking roof that must be repaired or the need for more volunteers on Bingo night. Since such discussions do not even constitute preaching, they definitely do not meet the definition of a homily. They cannot be substituted for the homily required by canon 767.1. But if you listen closely, you’ll find that in general, priests who address such topics at Sunday Mass will first speak, however briefly, about the day’s Gospel reading, and will talk about these more mundane subjects afterwards. They understand the need to provide the congregation with some exposition of Sacred Scripture at Mass, and that a fundraising talk does not suffice!

Does a person who preaches outside of Mass — at the parish’s 40-hours’ devotions, for example – have to be a cleric too? Canon 766 provides the answer. If it is necessary in certain circumstances, the laity may be allowed to preach. This means that as a rule, in ordinary situations, only a priest or deacon is permitted to preach at such functions. Preaching by a layman in these situations is an exceptional event.

Note that a religious sister or brother is, according to the code, a member of the laity. Only if a religious has been ordained a priest or deacon is he a member of the clergy (cf. cc. 207.1; 1009.1).

So how does all this apply to Eva’s question? Well, there is certainly nothing canonically improper about a visiting missionary priest giving the homily at a Sunday Mass – or at all the Sunday Masses, as frequently happens. As a cleric, he has the right to expound on the day’s Gospel reading for the instruction and edification of the congregation, and then describe his missionary activities for them. It makes no difference whether he is the priest actually celebrating the Mass or not.

Presumably the parish council president, the school principal, and the head of youth ministry in Eva’s parish are all members of the laity. As such they cannot preach at Mass, as we have already seen. But it is more likely that they spoke at Mass on practical issues like finances or school enrollment, and did not engage in any exposition of the scripture readings for that Sunday. If so, they simply gave a talk, not a homily or a sermon. There is no particular reason why they would not be able to do this – provided that the priest gives a homily as well. In such a case the priest is the one doing the preaching; the layman is merely “speaking.” It is, of course, easy for the average Catholic to confuse the two, since both occur during Mass, and both persons may do their talking from the same pulpit. But if we keep in mind that preaching a homily involves explaining the day’s Gospel reading, and that other talks do not constitute preaching, the distinction should be clear. Very often parish priests also try to keep the two separated by further ensuring that the homily is preached at the regular time, immediately after the reading of the Gospel, while any talk by a layman is given at another point during the Mass.

Eva does not specify whether the person “from the bishop’s office” is a member of the clergy or not, nor does she mention the subject of his talk. Once again, if he is a cleric, he is certainly permitted to preach the homily at Sunday Mass. If he is there for some other reason (encouraging prayers for vocations, for example), then this is of course permissible so long as a homily is also preached, as we’ve seen above.

The bottom line is that everyone who gets up at Mass and speaks is not necessarily preaching! From what Eva has described, there is no reason to suspect that anything is amiss at her parish. So long as the people hear from a cleric a further explanation of the Word of God which is proclaimed in the Gospel that day, their rights are safeguarded and the clergy’s duty is being done.

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