A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Gospel Reflection by a Layperson?
ROME, 27 JULY 2004 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: After the Gospel reading, sometimes our priest sits in the congregation and a lay minister gets up to give a reflection. When I questioned this practice with our bishop's office, I was told (not by the bishop) that as long as the priest gives a homily, whose duration could be one minute, the lay ministers can give the "reflection." Is this true? — K.H., Minnesota
A: The recent instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" has dealt with this point quite clearly and in several places.
No. 64 states: "The homily, which is given in the course of the celebration of Holy Mass and is a part of the Liturgy itself, 'should ordinarily be given by the Priest celebrant himself. He may entrust it to a concelebrating Priest or occasionally, according to circumstances, to a Deacon, but never to a layperson.'"
No. 65 continues: "It should be borne in mind that any previous norm that may have admitted non-ordained faithful to give the homily during the eucharistic celebration is to be considered abrogated by the norm of canon 767 §§1. This practice is reprobated, so that it cannot be permitted to attain the force of custom."
No. 66 adds: "The prohibition of the admission of laypersons to preach within the Mass applies also to seminarians, students of theological disciplines, and those who have assumed the function of those known as 'pastoral assistants'; nor is there to be any exception for any other kind of layperson, or group, or community, or association."
This theme is taken up once more in No. 74: "If the need arises for the gathered faithful to be given instruction or testimony by a layperson in a Church concerning the Christian life, it is altogether preferable that this be done outside Mass. Nevertheless, for serious reasons it is permissible that this type of instruction or testimony be given after the Priest has proclaimed the Prayer after Communion. This should not become a regular practice, however. Furthermore, these instructions and testimony should not be of such a nature that they could be confused with the homily, nor is it permissible to dispense with the homily on their account."
And finally in No. 161: "As was already noted above, the homily on account of its importance and its nature is reserved to the Priest or Deacon during Mass. As regards other forms of preaching, if necessity demands it in particular circumstances, or if usefulness suggests it in special cases, lay members of Christ's faithful may be allowed to preach in a church or in an oratory outside Mass in accordance with the norm of law. This may be done only on account of a scarcity of sacred ministers in certain places, in order to meet the need, and it may not be transformed from an exceptional measure into an ordinary practice, nor may it be understood as an authentic form of the advancement of the laity. All must remember besides that the faculty for giving such permission belongs to the local Ordinary and this as regards individual instances; this permission is not the competence of anyone else, even if they are Priests or Deacons."
Therefore it is quite clear that the answer you received from the chancery office (which may have been before the publication of this new instruction) is now quite incorrect. Before this clarification was published it was considered possible that a bishop could authorize a layperson to read a prepared text after the homily on some special occasions. This was always seen as an exception and never a habitual practice.
The reason given in the document for this disposition is that the homily is part of the liturgy itself. As such it is a sacred action and only a sacred minister may carry it out.
Because of this sacred character the Church teaches that the homily is endowed with a special presence of Christ that Pope Paul VI did not hesitate to call a "real presence" on a par with the real presence of Christ in the assembly, in the readings, and in the person of the minister although not on the same level as Christ's substantial presence in the Eucharist.
This special presence, which gives a spiritual efficacy to the homily surpassing the minister's oratorical skills, is possible only if preached by a sacred minister acting as Christ's representative.
No "reflection" of any kind may be given by a layperson during Mass except for those brief, prepared commentaries that may introduce some parts of the celebration according to liturgical norms.
On exceptional occasions, such as when a lay missionary makes an appeal, a testimony may be given after the prayer after Communion. But the homily may not be omitted for this purpose, although the priest may give a briefer than usual homily if the time between Masses is rather short.
The priest may sit to listen to a lay testimony after Communion. But he should keep his place at the presidential chair and not sit among the congregation. ZE04072722
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Follow-up: Gospel Reflection by a Layperson? [08-24-2004]
In the wake of the July 27 column on the abuse of lay people giving homilies at Mass, I will take the opportunity to answer a couple of related questions.
A reader from Prague in the Czech Republic asks if the homily is obligatory on weekdays.
The homily is obligatory on Sundays and holy days of obligation at all Masses that are celebrated with the participation of a congregation. On these days it may only be omitted for grave reasons.
Regarding other days, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 66, states: "It is recommended on other days, especially on the weekdays of Advent, Lent, and the Easter Season, as well as on other festive days and occasions when the people come to church in greater numbers."
Therefore a homily is recommended every day although on weekdays it may consist of a brief reflection or even be omitted if, for example, those attending are commuters with limited time.
A priest from New Zealand asked if it legitimate for a priest to deliver a prepared sermon from a liturgical Internet site instead of preparing his own homily.
The instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 67, dwells on the quality of the homily:
"Particular care is to be taken so that the homily is firmly based upon the mysteries of salvation, expounding the mysteries of the Faith and the norms of Christian life from the biblical readings and liturgical texts throughout the course of the liturgical year and providing commentary on the texts of the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass, or of some other rite of the Church.
"It is clear that all interpretations of Sacred Scripture are to be referred back to Christ himself as the one upon whom the entire economy of salvation hinges, though this should be done in light of the specific context of the liturgical celebration.
"In the homily to be given, care is to be taken so that the light of Christ may shine upon life's events. Even so, this is to be done so as not to obscure the true and unadulterated word of God: for instance, treating only of politics or profane subjects, or drawing upon notions derived from contemporary pseudo-religious currents as a source."
Certainly there are many valuable resources found on the Internet as well as in specialized reviews and books of reflections on the liturgical year.
These may all be profitably used in order to draw insights and inspiration from the sacred texts. But such reflections are usually designed to be read and not delivered orally. They usually read like a scriptural commentary and they are not tailored to the spiritual needs of the specific congregation.
All the same, there is no explicit prohibition of using pre-prepared homilies and in times when the shortage of clergy makes such huge demands on a priest's time they may considerably shorten the time required to prepare a personal homily.
This personalization requires the prayerful mediation of the priest as he tries to weave the insights garnered from others into a cogent whole and applies it to the needs of his faithful.
I personally believe that the priest should start preparing Sunday's homily on the previous Monday morning, preferably by meditating on the texts so that he delivers to others the fruits of his contemplation.
Even when a priest decides to closely follow a prepared text he should strive to assimilate it so that it is delivered from the heart and not consist of mere reading which is rarely efficacious and often fails to move the congregation.
Recourse to prepared texts should never spring from laziness on the part of a priest as this would also indicate a lack of due care for the spiritual welfare of those entrusted to his pastoral care.
Still, the grace of God is greater than man's weakness. If God was able to deliver a spiritual message through the mouth of Balaam's donkey (Numbers 22:28) then Christ can give spiritual inspiration through an unprepared homily.
As the poet George Herbert said about preachers:
"God calleth preaching folly: do not grudge
To pick out treasures from an earthen pot
The worst speaks something good; if all want sense
God takes a text and preacheth patience"
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