Non-Catholics Preaching the Seven Last Words

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Non-Catholics Preaching the Seven Last Words


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: For the past few years, a growing number of parishes in my archdiocese have been inviting mainly Protestant but also even Jewish or other non-Christian religious leaders to preach the Seven Last Words in a series of meditations that take place between the hours of noon and 3 p.m. on Good Friday. Are the pastors of these parishes obligated to obtain approval from the local ordinary prior to this taking place? The reason cannot possibly be that there are not enough educated and orthodox Catholics available in our archdiocese. Are there any guidelines on this practice from Rome? And also, do the texts of what these non-Catholic preachers publicly teach have to be passed by any Catholic authorities before they are presented to the faithful? — K.M., U.S.A.

A: I believe that there are two possible sources for an answer to your question. The first is the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" and the second the Ecumenical Directory.

"Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 161, says: "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."

If inviting a qualified Catholic layperson to preach outside of Mass requires the explicit permission of the bishop, then it follows that inviting a non-Catholic would require it even more.

From the Ecumenical Directory perhaps the most relevant number could be 114 in the chapter on "Prayer in Common": "Under the direction of those who have proper formation and experience, it may be helpful in certain cases to arrange for spiritual sharing in the form of days of recollection, spiritual exercises, groups for the study and sharing of traditions of spirituality, and more stable associations for a deeper exploration of a common spiritual life. Serious attention must always be given to what has been said concerning the recognition of the real differences of doctrine which exist, as well as to the teaching and discipline of the Catholic Church concerning sacramental sharing."

Although this would mean that, theoretically at least, it would be possible to invite a non-Catholic Christian to offer some reflection on a theme such as Jesus' Seven Last Words, this is not quite the circumstance envisioned by the directory, which considers this prayer in common as especially apt to situations where Christian unity is the central theme.

Here we cite Nos. 109-110: "109. Prayer in common is recommended for Catholics and other Christians so that together they may put before God the needs and problems they share — e.g., peace, social concerns, mutual charity among people, the dignity of the family, the effects of poverty, hunger and violence, etc. The same may be said of occasions when, according to circumstances, a nation, region or community wishes to make a common act of thanksgiving or petition to God, as on a national holiday, at a time of public disaster or mourning, on a day set aside for remembrance of those who have died for their country, etc. This kind of prayer is also recommended when Christians hold meetings for study or common action.

"110. Shared prayer should, however, be particularly concerned with the restoration of Christian unity. It can center, e.g. on the mystery of the Church and its unity, on baptism as a sacramental bond of unity, or on the renewal of personal and community life as a necessary means to achieving unity. Prayer of this type is particularly recommended during the 'Week of Prayer for Christian Unity' or in the period between Ascension and Pentecost."

None of these documents contemplate the possibility of a Jewish or other non-Christian preaching to Catholics. This does not mean that a Jew could never speak to Catholics in some spiritual context, as was demonstrated recently by a rabbi addressing the Holy Father and the synod of bishops. Likewise, many Catholics have benefited from the spiritual insights of Jewish authors.

That said, however, the context of the Good Friday reflection on the Seven Last Words is not an appropriate venue for such contacts. Only someone who firmly believes that Jesus is God as well as Lord and Savior of mankind can truly savor the import of these Words and penetrate their deepest meaning.

Even a Protestant Christian would probably miss certain spiritual values and theological nuances in these Words that are of fundamental value to Catholics, such as the Gift of Mary as Mother of the Church. A non-Catholic Eastern Christian would not have this difficulty.

In conclusion, therefore, we would say that while ecumenism and Jewish-Catholic dialogue are good things, the traditional Good Friday reflection on the Seven Last Words is not the right locus.

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