The National Catholic Review

The reminiscences of Walter Burghardt, S.J., of his 75 years as a Jesuit and the delight this renowned preacher has experienced in nourishing the heads and hearts of those hungry for God’s word (America, 3/20), recall a memory of my own. I am one of many thousands who have listened spellbound to Father Burghardt’s homilies or, fascinated, read his articles and autobiography. I have thanked God for his impact on so many and wished there were more preachers like him. And although my gifts are in a lesser league, I have longed to be invited into the pulpits of my church, to proclaim God’s love and to obey Isaiah’s injunction: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated” (Isa 40:1-3).

 

Twenty-five years ago last December, I published an article in America entitled “Preaching: A Ministry in Distress.” I expressed my sorrow over wasted passion and lost opportunities. Little has changed in the two-and-a-half decades since then. Those church leaders charged with proclaiming the good news, for the most part, have banned from the pulpit qualified, gifted lay women and men in whom God’s word, the fire in Jeremiah’s bones (Jer 20:9), has also ignited a passion to preach. It is true that with conditions, a few limited provisions in some of the new canons do allow for occasional lay preachers, but few parishes recognize or honor these.

Meanwhile, some lay Catholics who for many years have shared my desire to preach have given up or gone away, while others stand as monuments to obstinacy, still waiting in life’s storms for the time when those in charge will welcome us as collaborators in the blessed enterprise of proclamation.

Meeting With a Bishops’ Commission

Here is the event that led me to bring the concern to America a quarter-century ago, when my hair was dark and my heart was filled with hope. In spring 1980, the late, beloved Bishop P. Francis Murphy came from Baltimore to Brooklyn’s St. James Cathedral Basilica as part of its Shepherds Speak lecture series. His topic was “Women in the Church.” As a reporter for the diocesan newspaper, The Tablet, and as a personally interested member of the audience, I raised a question that he answered respectfully, but not to my satisfaction: “When will competent, qualified lay women and men be allowed to preach during eucharistic celebrations?”

Later he sought me out and invited me to bring my concerns to the Bishops’ Commission on Women in Church and Society that would be meeting in Chicago in August that year.

“Who’s going to pay my way?” I asked.

Unruffled, Bishop Murphy replied, “Why don’t you invite others who share your interest to contribute to your trip?”

I contacted friends, asking each to send me a dollar. The generous re-sponse was enough to cover airfare for a companion and me. Encouraged by such enthusiastic support, I retreated to Mount Saviour, a Benedictine Mon-astery outside Elmira, N.Y., for 10 days of prayer and preparation. Upon my arrival, I found books on canon law, their sections on preaching marked for me by Father Martin Boler, prior at Mount Savior then and now. I learned that Canon 1342 specifically bars lay people from participating in the official preaching of the church, but Canon 1327 states that it is within the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop to commission individuals within his diocese to preach in special circumstances or when it would redound to the good of the faithful.

I was heartened by Father Martin’s support and counsel. He recommended that I visit Barbara Moore, R.S.M., a Sister of Mercy who was a revered preacher at St. Monica parish in the Diocese of Rochester. That encounter proved valuable, but the aftermath discouraging. Bishop Matthew Clark, newly installed, felt constrained to obey a recently promulgated Vatican document, Inestimabile Donum, which sought to avert abuses in the liturgical celebration. He ordered lay people to stop preaching during eucharistic liturgies. Sister Moore was devastated, as were the priests with whom she worked and the parishioners who valued her insights. The Rev. Robert Kennedy, director of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission, had nothing but praise for her preaching, and told me that hers were among the best homilies he had ever heard. Moore left parish work and that November became director of an interfaith jail ministry. As satisfying as her new commitment was, she still longed to preach and accepted occasional invitations from other denominations. Years later a very pastoral Bishop Clark asked her forgiveness. They were reconciled, each recognizing the power of the law to crush the spirit.

Three years after Sister Moore was excluded from St. Monica’s preaching team, the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law reaffirmed the proscription against unordained preachers. This time, however, it opened the door a crack to allow qualified laypersons to engage in a dialogue homily with the priest or deacon. To permit this, the pastor, citing parish needs, had to request faculties from the bishop. Moore, who now occasionally takes part in such dialogic homilies, says some pastors and preachers handle this technique better than others. Parishioners, for the most part, welcome good preachers, ordained or not. A few, however, assume a watchdog role and note “abuses,” real or imaginary, which they report to ecclesiastical authorities. This hardly constitutes a welcome to the homilist aflame with love of God and God’s people.

But I have digressed.

I arrived in Chicago for my meeting with the bishops’ commission in mid-August 1980. The document I had written, recorded and nearly memorized, took about a half-hour to deliver. To my disappointment, several members of the commission were not present, but one sister, one laywoman and three bishops were. The women seemed indifferent; Bishop Murphy’s expression was encouraging; his brother bishops’ body language telegraphed annoyance. As soon as I finished my carefully crafted presentation, one bishop criticized a point of canon law that he found incomplete; the other challenged my assertion that some people were not attending Mass because of the poor homilies. “No Catholic would ever miss Mass for that reason,” he objected.

At my request, the commission chairman promised to respond to some questions I left with the secretary.

Still Waiting

I am still waiting. So are the faithful who continue to come to church. While there are certainly some excellent priest homilists who put their heart and soul into their preaching, there are not enough of these to go around. In the 25 years since I pleaded on behalf of the common good, many outstanding preachers have died or retired. Others have found their workload doubled or tripled as vocations decrease. Many newly ordained priests are men for whom English is a second language and whose spiritual formation is outdated and out of touch with Vatican II theology. Some of their sermons would make Jesus cringe. I personally heard one foreign-born priest insist on the letter of the law of Paul’s admonition: “Wives, be subject to your husbands,” even if he drinks too much and becomes abusive.

“Did I hear what I think I heard?” the usher asked.

Alas, he did.

The instance revives a suggestion I offered long ago: that the bishop, who is entrusted with the supervision of preaching, might examine and evaluate the theological, linguistic and pastoral abilities of celebrants, the demands placed on clergy responsible for multiple Masses and the availability (or potential availability) of alternate preachers within the faith community. Are more and better preachers needed? Are they trainable? Is it possible that a homily by a competent, qualified Catholic layperson might serve the common good? Is it possible that it might serve as well as or better than that of an incomprehensible or ineffective ordained priest?

This raises the concern as to what constitutes an acceptable preacher—one whose gifts are authentic, whose service is valued and whose ministry is commissioned. A person who failed that test was well known in Galilee. Mark’s Gospel records the hostility that greeted Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath after he restored life to the daughter of Jairus. Although his hearers were astonished at Jesus’ wisdom, they denied his right to preach to them. “Where did this man get all this? Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary? Don’t we know his brothers, James and Joseph, Jude and Simon? His sisters, too?” Mark observes, “They would not accept him.”

There is no comfort to be found in the fact that the unordained who may not preach are in good company. For many who are both qualified and eager, the day is too far spent.

After a quarter-century of waiting, however, I have offered my services to the executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches and have found in the Rev. Tom Goodhue the welcome I long for in my own church, my heart’s home.

Author’s Postscript

As this article went to press, I received my first invitation to preach in a local Catholic church. The pastor extending the invitation knew nothing of this article nor of my longing for the ministry of preaching. Both of us share amazement at the providential timing of his invitation.—C.D.

Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., has been the Catholic commentator for 1010 WINS radio since 1973.

Comments

Pat Lovejoy | 10/16/2006 - 2:01pm
There is an answer to the distress in the preaching ministry. Why not use technology to deliver sermons from good speakers? Identify good speakers and have their sermons recorded. A parish could deliver the sermon by using large screen monitors and DVDs.

There is a precedent for this. In my youth we all gathered in front of the tv to listen to Bishop Sheen. He was a dynamic speaker. Why can’t we bring that energy to our churches?

I have actually been to a small parish here in Florida where they have screens that display the words and music for the liturgy. So, the technology can be used, it’s just a matter of identifying the speakers. I would volunteer the speakers at my parish, St. Thomas More. All the priests are good speakers. But Fr. Harris is the best. I think people actually come to his masses to hear him speak.

I don’t see enough young people in church. But I wonder if they would at least listen if there were some good sermons broadcast to their computers and cell phones. Maybe we could publicize good speakers and sermons. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were standing room only for catholic speakers?

We could also hear and see speakers from around the world. What a wonderful way to find out what our fellow Catholics are hearing.

Nicholas Clifford | 9/15/2006 - 7:58am
Camille d'Arienzo's refreshing article on lay preaching raises once again the question of why lay preaching is almost always discouraged, and in some cases (delivering the homily) clearly forbidden by canon law. Yet this summer, while attending Mass in Europe, I heard a woman give the homily, while the priest, having just read the Gospel, sat approvingly behind the altar. Two points. First, though I have no idea how usual the custom is in that parish, none in the congregation seemed particularly surprised, and certainly not offended. Second, though I don't consider myself particularly fluent in the language she used, I grasped enough to find her preaching both interesting and inspiring.

For fear of those who, as d'Arienzo says, "assume a watchdog role," I will identify neither the parish nor the country. But the experience certainly set me thinking again why we (or rather "they," since "we" have no voice in writing canon law) impose this particular limitation. Certainly it is not to advance the mission of the Church. Most of us are fortunate enough to know that ordination and good preaching can go together. Still, ordination, per se, confers neither the gift of wisdom nor that of a silver tongue, and most of us are unfortunate enough to have sat through countless homilies where the preacher assumes he has done his duty if he repeats, in many more words, what we have just heard Paul, or Mark, or John tell us in language far more succinct and far more powerful.

I'm grateful to learn from d'Arienzo of the possibility (at least) of dialogic homilies, though I have yet to hear one. Unless you count the sort of homily that takes place sometimes at a children's Mass, where children standing near the altar are asked certain questions about what the readings might mean. But the idea that adults might be extended a similar courtesy (or curiosity) never seems to cross anyone's mind.

So I remain baffled about the restrictions of canon law, and the only reasons I can think of for such restrictions are not particularly flattering to those who impose such laws. Perhaps it's time for a refresher course in what Paul might have meant when he taught us about the unity and diversity of gifts that we all share (I Cor. 12:4-11).

Not that there aren't moments, at least, of unintended humor in our present system. I have heard a homilist, for instance, who, in dealing with readings from Acts, refer to Peter, Paul, Ananias, and their fellows, as "Catholics" -- presumably to distinguish them from the Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians prowling about the streets of Jerusalem in c. 40 A.D.

I'm not making this up.

Carolyn Dubuque | 9/14/2006 - 11:08am
“The harvest is plenty, the laborers are few.” Not. The laborers are standing by the side of the road, waving their hands in the air for work while the princes of the church ride by, their minds pre-occupied by whether or not parishioners are holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer and other such heinous liturgical abuses. When will the Church recognize the gifts God has given to His people and allow them to do His work, regardless of whether or not that person is a man or woman, lay or ordained? Like Camille D’Arienzo, I too am still waiting for that day. But when I am asked to pray for vocations, I instead pray that inspired, faith-filled men and women will someday be welcomed by the Church into the vineyard to use the gifts God has given them. Thank you for your article.

Rosemary Billy | 2/26/2007 - 12:54pm
I read the letter of Cathleen Ryan, O.P., (10/30) about the article by Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., on waiting for good homilies (9/18). A priest told me once, “Always eat before you go to dinner” in case the chef runs out of food. He was stressing that each of us should read and meditate on the coming Sunday’s Scripture. Our parish is blessed with one priest and three deacons. All of them deliver homilies relevant to the Scripture and our daily lives. Our parish has formed Lectio groups, one of which meets in my home. There are eight to 10 people, and the coming Sunday Scripture texts are read meditatively four times by different members. We share how the Scripture might speak to us. Nearly all the responses shared are different as we open our hearts and minds to the word of God. Indeed, the “Spirit is moving” as we read, share and pray. This way of Lectio was taught to us by the Benedictines at Piedmont Monastery in Oklahoma.

Cathleen Ryan, O.P. | 2/26/2007 - 12:24pm
I sympathize with Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., as I too am “still waiting” for good homilies and the opportunity to “break open the Scriptures” (“Preaching: A Ministry (Still) in Distress,” 9/18). I become frustrated at our liturgies when the homilies are “canned,” delivered in a tongue I find hard to understand and with examples that are far from relevant. Will there come a time when “preachers” will be in the pulpit—men and women, lay and ordained—who have the call and the gift to bring the word of God to the people of God? I believe the time is coming as we deal with the shortage of priests, the closing of parishes, the laissez-faire attitude of Catholic adults. The church suffers while church leaders ignore the signs. But the time will come when they will realize that the walls have to come down—for the Spirit is moving in our world!

Joseph P. Nolan | 2/26/2007 - 10:12am
I have several suggestions for Sister Camille D’Arienzo, who would like to be allowed to preach in the Catholic Church (9/18).

She can write a new textbook on how to write a good homily. Her publisher can sell it to priests and seminarians.

She can write a book of homilies to be used by priests who have difficulty preparing their own.

She can write for publications that give daily meditations for the entire calendar year.

She could move to a parish that does not have a priest and minister at that church, where she might be allowed to preach.

Bob Keeler | 2/26/2007 - 10:08am
The essay “Preaching: A Ministry Still in Distress,” by Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., (9/18) goes right to the heart of the abysmal level of preaching in today’s Catholic Church. Like many of the unordained, Sister Camille does have the gift of preaching. In fact, she has it in abundance. But far too many of our priests simply do not. Sorry, but the charism of preaching does not always accompany ordination.

All over America, week after dreary week, too many Catholics absorb too many ill-prepared, disjointed, unimaginative homilies, while our bishops continue to exclude qualified lay people and women religious from the preaching ministry. The bishops say they are only trying to protect us all from liturgical abuse. If they really want to protect us, they should sit in the pews themselves, unannounced and anonymous, hear the abuse too many of us are getting at homily time and do something to fix it. That something would include altering the relevant canons, identifying those who have the gift, like Sister Camille, and putting them in the pulpit, and politely directing those who do not have it to leave the preaching to those who do.

(Msgr.) Dino M. Leni | 2/26/2007 - 10:32am
I am a retired pastor of a large Italian parish, so I read with great interest the excellent article on homilies by Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M. Sister Camille has always been an issue-centered person, so I have to be careful that my priestly prejudice does not get in the way. Sister Camille is a courageous woman who always walks the walk.

I somehow feel that preaching and confession go together, but I don’t know how exactly. I wish Sister had touched on this dimension. One becomes a more realistic and compassionate homilist. In the meantime, I hope that the word of God is listened to, whether it be preached by a layperson or a priest.

William J. Duhigg, M.D. | 2/26/2007 - 10:31am
Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., (“Preaching: A Ministry [Still] in Distress” 9/18) has it exactly right. The church needs better preaching. This seemed especially urgent after hearing Walter Burghardt, S.J., on several occasions and recognizing the impact of great preaching. I agree as well that the restriction on nonordained preaching at Mass has diminished the effectiveness of our spreading the word.

Two experiences came to mind, both related particularly to women preaching. The first occurred in 1995 at the motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence, where because of the illness of their priest the sisters conducted Communion services. Two of the three women who preached were extraordinary; both had earned Ph.D. degrees.

Then in 1996 I heard Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., at evening prayer at the opening of the Cardinal Suenens Symposium at John Carroll University. It was May 31 and she preached on the Gospel of the day, the Visitation story. I doubt that any man could have done it as well, and it occurred to me then that only a pregnant woman could have been seen as perhaps more empathetic. The following day in the presentations of charisms, Sister Hilkert presented “The Charism of the Exegete: Unleashing the Power of the Word,” as well as a talk entitled, “Anointed and Sent: Preaching the Prophetic Word.” She was to me the most charismatic of the speakers (preachers) of the symposium.

It is high time we consider anointing persons to preach and sending them out, because the people are indeed searching for effective preaching. And if commissioning is necessary, let’s begin anointing more preachers.

Pat Lovejoy | 10/16/2006 - 2:01pm
There is an answer to the distress in the preaching ministry. Why not use technology to deliver sermons from good speakers? Identify good speakers and have their sermons recorded. A parish could deliver the sermon by using large screen monitors and DVDs.

There is a precedent for this. In my youth we all gathered in front of the tv to listen to Bishop Sheen. He was a dynamic speaker. Why can’t we bring that energy to our churches?

I have actually been to a small parish here in Florida where they have screens that display the words and music for the liturgy. So, the technology can be used, it’s just a matter of identifying the speakers. I would volunteer the speakers at my parish, St. Thomas More. All the priests are good speakers. But Fr. Harris is the best. I think people actually come to his masses to hear him speak.

I don’t see enough young people in church. But I wonder if they would at least listen if there were some good sermons broadcast to their computers and cell phones. Maybe we could publicize good speakers and sermons. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were standing room only for catholic speakers?

We could also hear and see speakers from around the world. What a wonderful way to find out what our fellow Catholics are hearing.

Nicholas Clifford | 9/15/2006 - 7:58am
Camille d'Arienzo's refreshing article on lay preaching raises once again the question of why lay preaching is almost always discouraged, and in some cases (delivering the homily) clearly forbidden by canon law. Yet this summer, while attending Mass in Europe, I heard a woman give the homily, while the priest, having just read the Gospel, sat approvingly behind the altar. Two points. First, though I have no idea how usual the custom is in that parish, none in the congregation seemed particularly surprised, and certainly not offended. Second, though I don't consider myself particularly fluent in the language she used, I grasped enough to find her preaching both interesting and inspiring.

For fear of those who, as d'Arienzo says, "assume a watchdog role," I will identify neither the parish nor the country. But the experience certainly set me thinking again why we (or rather "they," since "we" have no voice in writing canon law) impose this particular limitation. Certainly it is not to advance the mission of the Church. Most of us are fortunate enough to know that ordination and good preaching can go together. Still, ordination, per se, confers neither the gift of wisdom nor that of a silver tongue, and most of us are unfortunate enough to have sat through countless homilies where the preacher assumes he has done his duty if he repeats, in many more words, what we have just heard Paul, or Mark, or John tell us in language far more succinct and far more powerful.

I'm grateful to learn from d'Arienzo of the possibility (at least) of dialogic homilies, though I have yet to hear one. Unless you count the sort of homily that takes place sometimes at a children's Mass, where children standing near the altar are asked certain questions about what the readings might mean. But the idea that adults might be extended a similar courtesy (or curiosity) never seems to cross anyone's mind.

So I remain baffled about the restrictions of canon law, and the only reasons I can think of for such restrictions are not particularly flattering to those who impose such laws. Perhaps it's time for a refresher course in what Paul might have meant when he taught us about the unity and diversity of gifts that we all share (I Cor. 12:4-11).

Not that there aren't moments, at least, of unintended humor in our present system. I have heard a homilist, for instance, who, in dealing with readings from Acts, refer to Peter, Paul, Ananias, and their fellows, as "Catholics" -- presumably to distinguish them from the Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians prowling about the streets of Jerusalem in c. 40 A.D.

I'm not making this up.

Carolyn Dubuque | 9/14/2006 - 11:08am
“The harvest is plenty, the laborers are few.” Not. The laborers are standing by the side of the road, waving their hands in the air for work while the princes of the church ride by, their minds pre-occupied by whether or not parishioners are holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer and other such heinous liturgical abuses. When will the Church recognize the gifts God has given to His people and allow them to do His work, regardless of whether or not that person is a man or woman, lay or ordained? Like Camille D’Arienzo, I too am still waiting for that day. But when I am asked to pray for vocations, I instead pray that inspired, faith-filled men and women will someday be welcomed by the Church into the vineyard to use the gifts God has given them. Thank you for your article.

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