Page 9, 11th December 1998

11th December 1998
Page 9
Page 9, 11th December 1998 — Lay preaching at Mass: what is the canon law?

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Lay preaching at Mass: what is the canon law?

From the Revd Clarence Gallagher S.J.

Sir, It seems to me quite irresponsible for the editor of a Catholic paper to permit on the front page of his paper such a headline as "Nun defies canon law to preach". I do not wish to comment upon the content of the article that followed the headline. What interests me here is the sensational headline you attached to the article. The impression this gives to the reader, and presumably is meant to give, is that canon law categorically forbids religious sisters, and lay people generally, to preach in church. As every educated Catholic knows, this is not the case. The Code of Canon Law contains no canon which forbids a lay person to preach in church. On the contrary, canon 766 explicitly allows the laity to preach: "Lay persons can be admitted to preach in a church or oratory if it is necessary in certain circumstances or if it is useful in particular cases according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops and with due regard for can. 767, para 1." It is the parish priest or the rector of the church who admits lay persons to preach in his church when he judges it necessary or pastorally useful.

In such cases, moreover, the law requires no particular faculties on the part of the rector of the church.

What is restricted to the priest or deacon by canon 767 is the Homily. And what is a "Homily"? The homily may be described as an exegetical commentary on the liturgical readings of the Mass. It has been defined quite clearly in an authoritative Instruction issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites: "By a homily derived from the sacred text is understood an explanation either of some aspect of the readings from the Holy Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the Day, taking into account the mystery which is being celebrated and the particular needs of the hearers". It is, then obvious that the legislator, when promulgating the Code, assumed that there will be in the Church, and perfectly legitimately, a variety of "forms of preaching", of which the homily is only one, albeit the pre-eminent one.

It is not therefore "defying canon law" for a lay person, on occasion, to preach during the Mass that is celebrated for student at a university. While it is true that such a person may not give the homily, in the strict sense of that word, it is also in perfect harmony with the canon law that a lay person may preach, since preaching has a broader meaning than explaining the text of the Holy Scripture or of the Ordinary or the proper of the Mass: within the liturgy.

Consequently, the misleading headline — "nun defies canon law to preach" — betrays a deplorable ignorance both of the spirit and of the letter of the Latin Codex furls Canonici which was promulgated by Pope John Paul If as long ago as January 1983.

Yours faithfully, CLARENCE GALLAGHER SJ Campion Hall, Oxford.

Fr Gallagher criticises our headline for supposedly implying that it is under all circumstances forbidden for the non-ordained to preach. The headline conveyed no such implication.

It refers to one particular non-ordained person on a particular occasion on which she intended to preach the homily (as defined in Fr Gallagher's letter) at Mass. Fr Gallagher confirms that this was indeed against canon law Our headline was therefore neither "irresponsible" nor "misleading" Editor

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