Homilies at Communion Services

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

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Q: During the rite of the Liturgy of the Word (absent the priest or deacon), is a lay minister, that is, an instituted lector or acolyte, allowed to give a brief homily to explain the readings proclaimed during the rite? — S.F., Italy

A: Laypeople may preach on certain occasions. The 2004 instruction «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» in No. 161, states:

«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. [The Code of Canon Law, Canon 766] 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.»

Some canonists argue that «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» along with a 1997 instruction regarding the collaboration of the laity with the priestly ministry, «Ecclesiae de Mysterio,» is more restrictive regarding lay preaching than the Code of Canon Law.

This indeed appears to be the case and was perhaps intentional. Certainly the documents in question were all duly approved by Pope John Paul II, who also promulgated the Code.

The prohibition of laypeople delivering the homily is even more stringent, and the Holy See has even gone so far as to state that the diocesan bishop does not have the authority to permit a layperson to give the homily.

The reasons why the bishop cannot give this dispensation were adduced in the above-mentioned 1997 document: «[T]his is not merely a disciplinary law but one which touches upon the closely connected functions of teaching and sanctifying» (Article 3, No. 1).

Regarding the particular case presented by our reader, the Italian version of the Rite for Distributing Holy Communion Outside Mass says in the rubric regarding the homily: «31. As opportune, the priest or deacon may give a brief explanation of the text that has been read.» Since it has distinct formulas for an ordained minister and an extraordinary minister of Communion in other parts, it is fairly clear that the rite does not permit a homily if led by a layperson.

The English version of this rite does not foresee any preaching. The rubric states: «There may be one or more readings, the first being followed by a psalm or some other chant or by a period of silent prayer. The celebration of the word ends with the general intercessions.»

Also, the Italian rite is designed for particular circumstances during the week, for example, hospitals or homes for the aged. It is not formulated for a Sunday celebration of the Word with or without distribution of Holy Communion; that requires a special rite that is still quite rare in Italy.

However, since this rite is necessary in some countries, in 1988 the Holy See issued some general indications for Sunday celebrations in absence of a priest that could be adapted by the bishops’ conference. Regarding the homily this document says:

«43. In order that the participants may retain the word of God, there should be an explanation of the readings or a period of silence for reflection on what has been heard. Since only a pastor or a deacon may give a homily, it is desirable that the pastor prepare a homily and give it to the leader of the assembly to read. But in this matter the decisions of the conference of bishops are to be followed.»

The relatively few Italian dioceses which have authorized such Sunday celebrations have adopted different policies. Some have allowed only permanent deacons to preside over them, while others have allowed for lay guidance by a liturgical group under the direction of a priest. In this latter case the preference is to use the reflection or homily prepared by the parish priest, and read it after the readings. In some cases the group itself may prepare a text to be read that explains the readings of the day.

Similar guidelines have been issued in other countries. A typical guideline from one American diocese says the following regarding preaching:

«Lay leaders must be trained prior to being allowed to preach at a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest. They must also be appointed by the Bishop. Deacons may preach provided they have been given faculties to do so. The pastor or pastoral administrator may provide a text for the leader to read, or if the bishop has authorized the leader to preach, the minister preaches in his or her own words. «

Other dioceses foresee only a period of silent reflection if a lay leader guides a celebration of this kind.

Therefore, in answer to our reader, a competent layperson may preach during a Liturgy of the Word, or in other circumstances, if duly authorized by the diocesan bishop. This may also be done during a Sunday celebration in the absence of the priest, although the preference is that the lay leader read a text prepared by a priest.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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