Wednesday, May 7, 2008

It was worse than we imagined. 29 parishes, not three, in the archdiocese were using lay homilists at Mass.

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And some may not stop. We may have a schism on our hands.

Many of us laid the blame for the poor catechesis of Catholics on poor preaching techniques of priests (and deacons). It turns out that in many parishes (15% in the Archdiocese), priests and deacons apparently weren't preaching at all. No wonder there are so many goofball theologies circulating.

Father Terry Rassmussen, pastor of St. Joseph in New Hope, finished reading, closed the Book of the Gospels, and stepped away from the ambo. From the congregation, Ginny Untiedt stepped forward.

Clad in a white robe, Untiedt bowed as Father Rassmussen laid his hands on her head and blessed her. She looked up, walked to the ambo and began preaching for the last time.

As many as 29 parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have used lay preachers at Mass during the past 25 years. In January, however, Archbishop Harry Flynn instructed pastors to discontinue the practice. He gave his retirement date - May 2 - as the time by which parishes should develop "a pastoral plan" to end lay preaching at Mass.

In his January letter to pastors, Archbishop Flynn referenced the 2004 Vatican instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," which called eucharistic lay preaching - a non-ordained person reflecting on the Gospel reading at the place in Mass usually reserved for a homily by a priest or deacon - a liturgical abuse.

Only an ordained person should preach after the Gospel at Mass, Archbishop Flynn said.

Many lay preachers have expressed "enormous grief and anger" over the directive to stop the practice, said Patricia Hughes Baumer, who co-founded the lay preaching training organization Partners in Preaching with her husband, Fred, in 1997.

Proponents of lay preaching argue that canon law allows the practice and that both the congregation and pastors benefit from hearing Gospel reflections from diverse voices.

Ending the practice

For many lay preachers, some of whom have been preaching in the archdiocese for more than 25 years, the biggest question is: Why now?

Archbishop Flynn told The Catholic Spirit he was aware of a few parishes practicing lay preaching and that local leaders in the lay preaching movement were aware of his disapproval. He wrote the January letter only after becoming aware that the number of parishes with lay preachers was larger than he realized, he said.

Some have speculated Archbishop Flynn's letter came at this time because he wanted to "clean house" before Archbishop John Nienstedt assumed leadership of the archdiocese, but Archbishop Flynn said this is not the case.

Archbishop Flynn said he has explained to Baumer on two occasions why lay preaching during the Mass cannot be promoted. He said canon law does not support the practice of lay preaching at the place of the homily during Mass. The education, formation and ordination of priests and deacons make them uniquely suited to preach during Mass, he said.

"There has to be that kind of training and theological background that even a person with a master's degree in theology would not have," he said. "The church does not want people just standing up there and giving opinions or even things they've read in books, but [rather]: What is the clear teaching about this mystery of our faith?"

To allow a non-ordained person to preach would also interrupt the action of the Mass, he said. The Scriptures make it clear that it was the role of the presbyters to preach, he added.

"To preach the Gospel is an extremely important part of the mission of any priest - I cannot overemphasize its importance," Archbishop Flynn said. "I would feel deprived, because this is my vocation to preach the Gospel. And if I were celebrating Mass, and it came time for me to preach - which should be the fruit of my prayer, my experience and the experience of those who [are] in [the] congregation - it would be disruptive to me to have someone else come and break open the Word of God."

As for priests who appreciate the break from preparing the homily when lay people preach, Archbishop Flynn said they should pray and spend more time in homily preparation because that is the work of the priest.
Archbishop Flynn has received letters both from Catholics who support lay preaching and from those who have been deeply distressed by it, he said.

If a lay person must speak or preach at Mass, it would be appropriate for him or her to address the congregation after the prayer after Communion, he said. Lay people may also preach outside of the Mass.

Feelings of loss

For parishioners accustomed to hearing lay people preach on the Gospel, and for the lay preachers themselves, understanding and accepting this change has proven difficult.

Ruth Hunt, 52, a parishioner at St. Joseph in New Hope, has been preaching for 13 years. The number of lay preachers at her parish has fluctuated between five and about 12, she said. When she first heard that lay preaching would end in her parish, she was filled with a very deep sadness and a sense of loss. The response of many St. Joseph parishioners was similar, she said.

"I was sad that this role of the laity could be something that Jesus didn't want," she said.

Untiedt, 62, has also been preaching for 13 years at St. Joseph and was instrumental in bringing lay preaching to her parish.

After Mass May 4, a parishioner told her that he enjoys hearing lay preachers because he feels like he can identify with their life experiences, she said.

Barb Frey, 51, a parishioner at St. Frances Cabrini in Minneapolis, described preaching as a "humbling, transformative experience." "It's enriched the ecclesiastical understanding of the community," she added.

Lay preachers at St. Frances Cabrini meet almost weekly throughout the year to read, pray and discuss Scripture together. The parish has had 52 lay preachers in the last 15 years ranging in age from 30 to mid-70s. They are provided seven sources of written material to help them plan what they will say, and many consult additional sources, said Chris Kosowski, the parish's liturgist.

Frank Schweigert, 57, also preaches at St. Frances Cabrini. He grew up in rural Wisconsin where his father sometimes preached in the absence of a priest. He sees lay preaching tied into the archdiocese's Evangelization Initiative and lay people's "ownership of the Gospel."

"Would that we had 1,000 preachers . . . instead of 100," he said. "I don't think that would diminish the role of the priest. It hasn't here."

After Vatican II encouraged greater participation of the lay faithful in the Mass, some pastors across the nation began to invite their parishioners to preach during the liturgy. Lay preaching differs from a homily, Baumer said, and is called "lectionary-based liturgical preaching."

Homilies, she explained, are reserved for a priest or deacon.

Lay preachers do not exist simply to compensate for a shortage of priests, proponents insist. Even if a parish had three full-time priests, it would benefit from lay preachers, said Father Bob Hazel, a retired priest of the archdiocese. When he became pastor at St. Joseph nine years ago, he inherited its lay preaching tradition.

"A good part of preaching is to witness to one's faith - we're not just up there to give catechism," Father Hazel said. "Lay preachers can witness to their faith in terms of the difficulty, the problems in the business world, work-a-day world, and in families, and priests just can't do that in the same way."

Lay preaching was prohibited by canon law until 1983, when a revised Code of Canon Law was promulgated. Canon 766 addresses lay preaching, saying "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," Baumer said.

It is the multiple interpretations of what constitutes a "necessity" or what is "advantageous" that opened the doors to regular lay preaching in parishes across the country, Baumer said. In the archdiocese, the practice varied, from an occasional lay preacher to regular, scheduled lay preaching one or more Sundays each month.

Lay preaching is meant to collaborate with the priest's ministry, not substitute for it, Baumer said, just as it is a pastor's responsibility to ensure the education of the faithful, yet share the actual teaching with lay religious education teachers. In most cases, pastors invited particular men and women they felt may be called to preach to consider the ministry.

Most, if not all, parishes trained their lay preachers to effectively "break open the word of God" through their own program or through Partners in Preaching's nine-month program. Although it is possible that lay preaching could be mishandled, most lay preachers receive guidance from their pastors or liturgists as they prepare their reflections, Baumer said. Some pastors even read the reflection before it is given.

Archbishop Flynn's letter said that a lay person could speak after the prayer after Communion. But to insert something that refers to the Liturgy of the Word after the Liturgy of the Eucharist does not fit the Mass' liturgical flow, Baumer argues.

Lay preaching also brings a woman's perspective to the Gospels, Baumer said. "The suppression of lay preaching is simultaneously the suppression of female voices, because no matter how God has gifted a lay woman . . . to break open the Word, the community will not have access to that word as it gathers on Sunday," she said.

Looking to the future

Some parishes have stopped lay preaching completely. Others are looking for new ways to use their lay preachers. At St. Joseph, lay preachers will reflect on the day's Scriptures before Mass one Sunday per month.

However, it will be hard to effectively "break open the word" while people are still coming into the church and before they have heard the readings, Hunt said.

Archbishop Nienstedt, who now leads the archdiocese upon Archbishop Flynn's retirement, agrees with his predecessor's position, he said.

"It's not a question of a person's God-given talent. There may be better speakers, but this priest or deacon, we believe, has been ordained . . . for this sacred service," he said. "There is the power of the Holy Spirit that goes with him that doesn't go to just anyone who has been baptized."

Archbishop Nienstedt said he hopes that people will be understanding of the church's position, but realizes that it might not be easy for them.

"It's awfully hard to explain to somebody why you can't do something next Sunday that you already did last Sunday," he said. Catholic Spirit

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