Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university (Rome, Italy).
Q: In a talk at the International Eucharistic Congress in Lourdes in 1981, Professor Balthasar Fischer listed the possibility of the faithful intervening, instead of the commissioned homilist, in order to share among themselves the “bread of the Word broken for a new world” by replacing preaching with their own sharing. The ruling of the German episcopal conference on small group Masses has expressly authorized such free sharing as a legitimate possibility alongside the homily of the minister (who must, however, as official minister take responsibility for coordinating the sharing). It is significant that the basic Congress document takes account of this possibility: “When believers listen together to what the Spirit says to the Churches, whether in silence, through the homily of the priest, or through the sharing of their experiences as enlightened by faith, they discover what God is saying to them in their daily lives.” Is such sharing legitimate? Is it mentioned in any official document? — J.A., Prestwich, United Kingdom
A: Father Balthasar Fischer (1912-2001) was an eminent German liturgist who worked on the preparatory commission of the Second Vatican Council but is best remembered for his post-conciliar work in chairing the commission that developed the new Rites of the Christian Initiation of Adults. He also wrote many books such as “Signs, Words & Gestures” (1992).
In order to answer this question I think it is necessary to consider the timeline. Father Fischer and the German bishops were speaking at a time when this topic was still debated and the new Code of Canon Law had not yet been promulgated. From a strictly legal point of view it would seem that the proposal could not be generally admitted. Thus canon law states:
“766. Lay persons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory, if necessity requires it in certain circumstancesor it seems advantageous in particular cases, according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops and without prejudice to ⇒ can. 767, §1.
“767 §1. Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is preeminent; in the homily the mysteries of faith and the norms of Christian life are to be explained from the sacred text during the course of the liturgical year.
“§2. A homily must be given at all Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation which are celebrated with a congregation, and it cannot be omitted except for a grave cause.”
These canons are placed in the section regarding the Church’s teaching office. On the one hand, this helps to understand why the homily is reserved to the ordained minister as part of his teaching ministry. On the other, it also explains that while lay persons can preach, this is with permission of the local bishop and said permission also places them within the teaching office of the Church.
This would explain why spontaneous reflections by laity could not usually be admitted as they would lack that character of forming part of the Church’s teaching office.
There are several other documents published after this which repeat the same points. The clearest is perhaps the 2004 Instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum”:
“64. 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. In particular cases and for a just cause, the homily may even be given by a Bishop or a Priest who is present at the celebration but cannot concelebrate.’”
“65. 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.
“66. 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.”
By using the word “reprobated,” any local norm or custom is moot. Later the document states:
“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.”
An application of this change can be seen in the evolution of the Statutes of the Neocatechumenal Way approved as “an itinerary of Catholic formation.” The statutes approved for five years in 2002 contained the following footnote:
“52) Cf. notification of the Congregation for Divine Worship on group celebrations of the Neocatechumenal Way, in L’Osservatore Romano, December 24, 1988: ‘The congregation permits that among the adaptations provided by the instruction Actio pastoralis, nos. 6-11, the groups of the of the aforementioned Way may receive communion under both species, always with unleavened bread, and may move, “ad experimentum,” the rite of peace to after the universal intercessions.’ Following the indications in the instruction Ecclesia de mysterio (art. 3, § 3), in order to prepare the assembly to better receive the homily, the priest, with prudence, can provide an opportunity for some of those present to express briefly what the Word that has been proclaimed says in regard to their own lives.”
However, in 2005 the Congregation for Divine Worship sent a letter to the leaders of the “Way” regarding some aspects of the Eucharistic celebration. It stated among other things:
“3. The homily, because of its nature and importance, is reserved to the priest or deacon (cf. Codex Iuris Canonici, can. 767 § 1). As for the occasional contribution of testimonies on the part of the lay faithful, the proper places and methods for these are indicated in the Interdicasterial Instruction ‘Ecclesiae de Mysterio,’ which was approved ‘in specific form’ by Pope John Paul II and published on August 15, 1997. In this document, sections 2 and 3 of article 3 read as follows:
“§2 – ‘It is permitted to have a brief instruction that helps explain better the liturgy that is being celebrated, and even, in exceptional circumstances, a few testimonies, as long as these conform to the liturgical norms, are offered on the occasion of Eucharistic liturgies celebrated on particular days (for seminarians, the sick, etc.), and are thought truly helpful as an illustration of the regular homily delivered by the celebrating priest. These instructions and testimonies must not assume characteristics that might cause them to be confused with the homily.’
“§3 – ‘The possibility of “dialogue” during the homily (cf. Directorium de Missis cum Pueris, no. 48) can be used occasionally and with prudence by the celebrating minister as a means of exposition, which does not transfer to others the duty of preaching.’
“Careful attention must also be paid to the instruction ‘Redemptionis Sacramentum,’ No. 74.”
In the light of the above, when Pope Benedict XVI definitely approved the Statutes of the Neocatechumenal Way in 2008 the relevant footnote no longer mentions the priest’s invitation to the faithful to express themselves regarding the Word:
“13 §3. For the celebration of the Eucharist in the small communities the approved liturgical books of the Roman Rite are followed, with the exception of the explicit concessions from the Holy See (49).
“49) Cf. Benedict XVI, speech to the communities of the Neocatechumenal Way, January 12, 2006: Notitiae 41 (2005) 554-556; Congregation for Divine Worship, letter dated December 1, 2005: Notitiae 41 (2005) 563-565; notification of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, on the group celebrations of the Neocatechumenal Way, in L’Osservatore Romano, December 24, 1988: ‘The congregation permits that among the adaptations provided by the instruction Actio pastoralis, nos. 6-11, the groups of the of the aforementioned Way may receive communion under both species, always with unleavened bread, and may move, “ad experimentum,” the rite of peace to after the universal intercessions.’”
On the other hand, the 2008 Statutes include a weekly celebration of the Word of God with four readings. In this form such an invitation is a legitimate and indeed a wonderful opportunity to grow in faith.
“§2. In the celebration of the Word of God, before the homily, the presbyter invites whoever wishes among those present to express briefly how the Word which has been proclaimed has spoken to his life. In the homily, which holds a privileged place in the instruction of the Neocatechumenate, the presbyter extends the proclamation of the Word, interpreting it according to the Magisterium and actualizing it in the ‘today’ of the journey of faith of the neocatechumens.”
What is true for the “Way” would be equally applicable to any other group that desires to go deeper into God’s Word. Except for the circumstances mentioned above in the quote from “Ecclesiae de Mysterio,” the most fruitful manner of sharing the Word is not in the context of the homily of the Mass but in other situations such as a Celebration of the Word. Such celebrations also have the advantage of affording the necessary time for those who wish to share their reflections.
It is in this context, as our reader quoted, “When believers listen together to what the Spirit says to the Churches, whether in silence, through the homily of the priest, or through the sharing of their experiences as enlightened by faith, they discover what God is saying to them in their daily lives.”
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