Philippa Martyr: Alternatives to lay preaching

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Why the call for lay preaching at Mass?

Some persistent voices – among them Dr Maeve Heaney – have worked hard to get a proposal for lay preaching incorporated into the Plenary Council’s motions.

Dr Heaney is also the founder of the Xavier School of Preaching, which trains lay people (and clergy) to preach.

I asked around Facebook to see who had experienced lay preaching at Mass, and what they thought of it. Around fifteen people responded, most of whom had lame to bad experiences. Most people found it gimmicky: something from the embarrassing days of try-hard school Masses or bored radical parish priests.

Why do people like Dr Heaney think we need lay preaching at Mass? Exactly what problem are they trying to solve?

If the problem is that a parish priest gives lousy homilies, there are already solutions to this. The first step is to tell him (in a nice way). Then he can do some upskilling, either online or in person. Or he could print out one of the many online homiletics resources and read it.

Maybe he could attend Dr Heaney’s school. Or maybe you could help him if you’ve got some skill in this area. Read a draft or sit with him while he works on his delivery.

Lay people can preach, but at Mass, it’s the job of the priest.

Is the problem that the parish priest hates preaching? Not a problem for weekday Masses – he doesn’t have to preach then. But he does need to preach on Sundays and holy days of obligation.

I’d suggest a kindly reminder that preaching is part of his job description. Then he can try the steps outlined above, which require minimal effort and won’t interrupt his golf game too much.

Is Father from a part of the world that doesn’t speak English as a first language? Then why not help him to improve his English? Perhaps it’s time to overcome the racism of some Boomer Catholics who have been trying to use overseas clergy as an excuse for lay-led parishes, women’s ordination, and other abuses for years now.

I’ve read about one parish where the priest – who is still learning English – puts the text of the homily up on the projector screen as he gives it. And why not? This helps the hard of hearing as well.

I know several local parish priests who write their homilies and read them out, and it’s really improved their English. Or Father can find an online sermon, print it, and read it out.

Maybe you could make him aware of these resources and help him to choose something appropriate. If he needs to practice first, I’m certain someone from your inclusive and welcoming community can help him out.

So really, what is the problem that lay preaching at Mass will solve? And – more interesting still – what are the problems that it will cause?

If you have a call to lay preaching, join the millions who already do it on YouTube. If you believe that your talents merit a captive audience at Mass, that would be making it all about you, instead of about the Gospel.

I’ll end with the funniest story I was told about lay preaching at Mass, heavily disguised to protect the innocent.

In the parish of St Covid’s, there was a bored parish priest with a weak bishop. When Fr Jim wanted to try lay preaching, parish stalwarts John and Alice explained that canon law prohibited this. “I don’t care about canon law,” replied Fr Jim with his customary roguish twinkle.

John and Alice registered an effective protest by leaving the church every time a lay person preached. Once the sermon was over, they came back inside. Fr Jim didn’t like this. “John, it’s not good for our parish community for you to leave the church like that during Mass,” he said.

Alice (noting Fr Jim’s casual sexism) replied, “It’s very bad for the community to foist such lousy content on us, from a lay person talking about whatever they felt like and thought might be relevant.”

John and Alice still go to St Covid’s – but they have a different parish priest, and no more lay preaching. Their bishop was replaced by someone rather more robust who (unlike Fr Jim) cares about canon law.

Fr Jim found this climate change a bit too bracing, so he moved to another diocese. He continues to do whatever he wants in his parish, enabled by a clique of adoring elderly fans.

I think there’s something in this story for all of us, don’t you?

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