Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Many Voices, One Church

Introducing a new series that recognizes and celebrates the contribution of lay preachers within the local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

Before retiring in May, 2008, Archbishop Harry Flynn ordered an end to lectionary-based liturgical lay preaching in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. He labeled such preaching a “liturgical abuse.”

Writing in the June 13, 2008, issue of The National Catholic Reporter, Kris Berggren noted that: “While Canon 766 of the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law states that lay preaching may be permitted when deemed useful or necessary according to norms developed by episcopal conferences, Flynn’s directive appears to have been guided by the restrictions in the 2004 Vatican instructional document Redemptionis Sacramentum, which narrows the criteria for allowing lay preaching only to accommodate a scarcity of priests or the needs of a specific community.”

Berggren also reported that close to thirty parishes were affected by the ban. Many of these communities had offered “formal ministry training and formation for lay preachers, while others offered informal support and resources.”

Not surprisingly, Archbishop Flynn’s ban, one that has been maintained under Archbishop Nienstedt, has brought a profound sense of loss to many Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. In the years since the ban, however, some parishes have developed ways of keeping lay voices (and preaching) alive.

One may well ask why communities would risk censure to maintain the practice of lay preaching. In Bergren’s 2008 NCR article, a number of local Catholics shared their thoughts on lay preaching’s appeal to many within the archdiocese; an appeal that has not waned. Mary Wilmes, for instance, noted that “different things appeal to different people. When you have a range [of preachers], you are going to be touched more than you will ever be touched by one preacher. Many parts, one body, isn’t it? It is an incredible richness.”

Another local parishioner, Frank Schweigert, highlighted the importance of lay preaching in setting an example of living, especially “in a formative way for boys and girls. It did a lot to enhance ecclesial understanding of what it means to be a baptized Christian.”

Because the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice recognizes and celebrates the richly diverse spiritual gifts and insights that lay preaching continues to manifest within the local church, we begin today an ongoing series that highlights homilies delivered by lay preachers within the church of St. Paul-Minneapolis. To avoid possible negative consequences, names of preachers and parishes will not be disclosed in this series.

The first homily of this series is reprinted below. It was prepared by “FS” for last month’s Feast of the Epiphany.


I have been looking forward to breaking open the word on this great feast of the Epiphany. Manifestation. The showing of our God.

I love the celebratory 1st reading. Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem. Your light has come. The glory of God shines upon you. This message from the prophet Isaiah was for the Jews who had just returned from exile to a devastated Jerusalem. Yet they are told, Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.

We hear these words today and ponder what they mean for us.

Just as our ancestors in the Faith frequently reflected upon and interpreted their Scriptures creatively to help them understand and explain Jesus, so too did their Christian descendants throughout the ages, including professional theologians and all of us continue that creative reflection upon Matthew's story of the Magi’s visit to the newborn Jesus, and, I add, to subsequent teachings.

So we ask: What did the Magi see? A child whom they believed to be the King of the Jews. They offered gifts and paid him homage befitting a King.

They did not know that this child was The Light of the World. Simeon knew it, praising the infant Jesus as a revealing light to the gentiles. We do, because in John’s Gospel Jesus proclaims: I am the Light of the World; in Matthew he tells his followers – us – You are the light of the world. That’s a big responsibility.

The coming of the Magi, and they represent us, highlights the important lesson of this feast: that the messiah came for all, not only for the “chosen people.” That was a hard lesson for the Jews of Jesus’ time to learn. In the New Testament we read of the tension about welcoming others, non-Jews into their community. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, our second reading, affirms to his readers that “The Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

How welcoming are we? This year the U.S. Bishops ask us to remember immigrants and their struggles to be welcomed in our country. Perhaps each one of us should ask: Are there people I do not welcome into my circle?

Back to the Epiphany scene: What do we see? God incarnate in human flesh, the human face of God. Was it the first time? Not according to Diarmuid O’Murchu. In Ancestral Grace, he writes: “I want to reclaim the notion of incarnation for that primordial time of seven million years ago when God was fully engaged with our emergence as a newly evolving species. This is where the incarnation of God in humanity begins.”

He continues: “In evolutionary terms, Jesus marks the culmination and fulfillment of a process, not its beginning. In Jesus ancestral grace reaches a new threshold of elegance, growth and fulfillment. ... The birth of Jesus can be seen as a maturation of all that has been growing, developing, and flourishing through the human species now reaching a critical threshold, inaugurating a new evolutionary phase, a novel breakthrough for humanity ...”

Now we come to the question: Why was the Word made flesh? We probably think we know the answer: To redeem us, to save us from our sins, but that’s not the only answer.

Listen to this: In the 13th century a theological debate broke out between Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus. The debate circled around the question, “Would Christmas have occurred if humanity had not sinned?”

Whereas Aquinas viewed the Incarnation as God's remedy for a fallen planet, his contemporary saw much more at stake. For Duns Scotus, the Word becoming flesh as described in the prologue to John’s Gospel must surely represent the Creator’s primary design, not some kind of afterthought or Plan B.

Aquinas pointed to passages emphasizing the Cross as God’s redemptive response to a broken relationship. Duns Scotus cited passages from Ephesians and Colossians on the cosmic Christ, in whom all things have their origin, hold together, and move toward consummation.

Did Jesus visit this planet as an accommodation to human failure or as the center point of all creation? Duns Scotus and his school suggested that Incarnation was the underlying motive for Creation, not merely a correction to it. Perhaps God spun off this vast universe for the singular purpose of sharing life and love, intending all along to join its very substance.

Ultimately the church decided that both approaches had biblical support and could be accepted as orthodox. That’s certainly a well kept secret. Though most theologians tended to follow Aquinas, in recent years prominent Catholics such as Karl Rahner have taken a closer look at Duns Scotus.

Think what a difference this makes in our understanding. There would be no teaching of God so offended by human sin that only the sacrifice of his divine son could make amends. I’ve always had trouble with that. We wouldn’t sing that the baby Jesus came to die.

We would understand that Bethlehem is more important than Calvary. Or, in Godfrey Diekmann’s colorful words: “It’s not the Resurrection, damn it! It’s the Incarnation that is the key to our Christian life and theology.”

What do we do with this information?

Bishop Kenneth Untener in The Little Blue Book: Advent and Christmas Seasons, writes that the way to deal with issues that concern us in the church and in our lives is to be in touch with the great mystery of God, to experience first hand the breadth and depth of the magnificent reality that lies at the heart of our lives and spreads out in a panorama that the whole universe cannot hold. The whole expanding universe. Ponder that.

We need time to take this in; that’s why we have a Christmas season – and a lifetime.

Let the people say: AMEN.


  1. There is nothing wrong with lay preaching. It may be done before or after the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    It may not be done at the designated time for the homily, right after the reading of the Gospel, during the Mass.

    Check with the Joanies!

  2. Hi Ray. There seems to be somewhat of a disconnect in what you're saying.

    On the one hand, you're saying that there is "nothing wrong" with a lay person delivering a homily, yet on the other hand you say that this homily can't be preached at the "designated time" for the homily. See what I mean by a disconnect?

    Clearly, there must be something "wrong," something insufficient about a homily presented by a lay person if it can't be delivered when the homily is presented during the Mass.

    For many Catholics, this way of thinking doesn't make sense - especially when they've experienced homilies by lay people that have been just as spiritually nourishing, insightful, and inspiring as a homily that's been delivered by a priest.

    Are we really to believe that the priest, simply by virtue of being a priest, has some special quality that ensures his homilies are always better than a lay person's? Do we really want to encourage this type of magically thinking within our Church?



  3. Michael,

    You are right in saying that preaching by lay people can be just as spiritually nourishing. In addition, you are right in saying that the priest does not necessarily have homilies better than a lay preacher. Believe you and me, we have heard our share of bad homilies from priests!
    The issue however, revolves around the question of: what is it about the ordained priest that sets him apart from the lay preacher? Is it quality of preaching? No. It is his duty and obligation to teach the faithful, leading them into closer communion with God. In a very real way, he does this through his homilies- but of course, this should be evident through all his actions.
    This is not to say that lay people are off the hook. You and I share in the common priesthood of the faithful, and as such, must also preach the Gospel through our words and actions. It is great if we have the gift of effective preaching. This gift, however, is not properly exercised in place of the preaching of the priest.

    Thank you.

    Thoughts, comments?

  4. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    I guess I'm still unclear as to the reasons for why the "gift" of lay preaching can never be "properly exercised in place of the preaching of the priest" - especially when for many Catholics, lay preaching is indeed experienced as being "properly exercised" during the designated time for the homily.

    How does placement before, after, or during the Mass affect the "proper exercising" of a homily delivered by a lay person? Would a homily delivered by a priest outside the designated time be one that wasn't properly exercised? That we are grappling with such questions suggest that the church has become pedantic in this matter?