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Could Francis establish a Church role for lay preachers?

The end of summer means the end of a mainstay of American Catholic life — the summer Catholic conference season, in which Catholic universities aim to fill their dorms, proclaim the Gospel, and build some brand awareness, by hosting days-long catechetical and evangelical events for Catholic young people and adults.

man wearing blue sweater holding microphone
Credit: Scancode Productions/unsplash

While the Franciscan University of Steubenville is most often associated with summer conferences - and has one of the oldest and most robust conference operations - it is hardly the only Catholic college in the game.

Some Catholic young people say they’ve experienced those kinds of summer conferences as chances to buoy their faith, make friends who share the Catholic faith, consider a vocation, and - as it happens - consider where they might matriculate for university studies.

Of course, each university’s approach to those conferences is different, but many of them feature a roster of lay people who give dynamic evangelical talks aimed at conversion and formation in faith.

That kind of lay preaching is not unique to summer conferences either — it is a mainstay of other large Catholic events, like the annual NCYC youth gathering, various men’s and women’s conferences, and diocesan stadium events meant to bolster faith in local communities.

The quality of lay preachers at such events varies considerably. Some prominent lay preachers are regarded as well-formed, effective missionaries of the Gospel, while others have been sometimes characterized as grifters - theologically unformed, or simply out of their depth. Some are reskinned political columnists, or activists with a tenuous connection to the Church and her magisterium.

But the place of such lay people in the Catholic Church in America - for good and for ill - is well-established.

In other countries, the phenomenon takes on different iterations.

There are popular lay Catholic preachers in Latin America who routinely draw audiences that would rival evangelists like Billy Graham. And in Germany, the “synodal path” gatherings have pushed to see lay people, rather than clerics, preach homilies during Mass. It seems likely that idea will gain steam in the “synod on synodality” consultations in other countries, as well.

And even if they don’t pack arenas, powerful and rhetorically gifted lay preachers can use YouTube or social media to become as influential in the lives of Catholics as the priests or deacons heard from the pulpit on Sundays.

Given Pope Francis’ decision last year to create norms and structures for lay people serving as catechists, it’s worth asking an improbable but interesting question — one perfect, really, for the slow news cycle of summer’s end: Will the pontiff next consider norms to regulate, and normalize, the role of lay preachers in the life of the Church?

In May 2021, Pope Francis published Antiquum ministerium, a motu proprio that urged local churches to recognize, commission, form, and regulate diocesan catechists, who are given a stable designation and a mission to reflect their role in spreading and proclaiming the Gospel. The pope even called for the Holy See to promulgate a commissioning, or “institution” rite for the creation of new catechists.

In places where catechists care for local communities in the absence of a priest, that role looks much different from those where catechists mostly teach CCD classes, but the point Francis makes has universal application:

“This ministry has a definite vocational aspect, as evidenced by the Rite of Institution [to be issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship], and consequently calls for due discernment on the part of the bishop. It is in fact a stable form of service rendered to the local Church in accordance with pastoral needs identified by the local Ordinary, yet one carried out as a work of the laity, as demanded by the very nature of the ministry.”

The whole initiative was a kind of expansion of the Code of Canon Law, which made mention of episcopal oversight for catechists, but without nearly the detail, nor the precise formality, Francis established in his motu proprio.

The situation is not entirely different for lay preaching.

The Code of Canon Law establishes that the homily, as a liturgical act, can only be offered by a cleric, but says apart from that:

“Lay persons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory, if necessity requires it in certain circumstances or it seems advantageous in particular cases, according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops.”

The USCCB’s complementary norm offers little - it explains that lay people who preach in sacred spaces must be “must be orthodox in faith, and well-qualified,” and otherwise leaves things up to the diocesan bishop.

But what if the pontiff established a robust vision for the office of preacher - to be commissioned at the diocesan level - not unlike his robust vision for the formation, commissioning, and regulation of catechists?

The commission of lay “diocesan preachers” with an actual ecclesiastical office - authorized to preach in churches, and in other Catholic contexts - would infuse some ecclesiality into the cottage industry of lay Catholic preachers, and encourage conferences and other events to make use of preachers with some ecclesiastical vetting and a baseline of formation.

The “office of preacher” might also encourage a revitalization in the longstanding Catholic tradition of preaching the Word of God outside of Mass — of preached Holy Hours, devotional gatherings, parish missions, and evangelical initiatives. There are lay people deeply gifted in proclaiming the kerygma. And good preaching - even outside the Mass - often figures prominently in the conversion stories of saints, or even cultures.

Good preaching also figures prominently in the strategies of evangelical megachurches, which see their number of “once Catholic” members grow, while participation in the life of the Church declines. Encouraging a robust renewal of preaching outside of Mass might well help to buoy the faith of disaffected Catholics or those looking elsewhere.

And a resurgence of good, non-liturgical preaching might be good for the renewal of the Eucharistic liturgy, too.

Pastors can attest to the pressure of making the “Sunday experience” at the parish all things to all men.

In the yen to be welcoming, offer good, thorough, Biblical preaching, and otherwise create welcoming environments, attention to the notion of Mass as an exercise of the community’s corporate worship - or as the sacrifice of Calvary itself - can get lost. But a resurgence of other kinds of preaching events might, in the view of some pastors, take some of the pressure off, and allow the Mass to be the Mass.

A robust “office of preacher” might also rein in some problematic excesses already experienced in the Church.

Its regulation could do something to regulate a broad disparity of remuneration, where some popular lay Catholic preachers are incentivized by the market to charge exorbitant speaking fees, even as others charge more modest fees — making a living, but not an extravagant one.

It could also temper the often problematic culture of “Catholic celebrity” - where evangelists gifted as preachers travel a speaker’s circuit to make a living, and along the way, become sometimes entrapped in a lifestyle that is of benefit neither to themselves, nor to the Church.

A regular role for lay preachers in a diocese or parish setting might, in short, cut out some of the “businessman” aspect that comes along with contemporary American lay preaching - an aspect that might well undermine the freedom of prophetic voices, while incentivizing unscrupulous behavior.

The selection, training, and commissioning of a few “diocesan lay preachers” - and encouragement to pastors to make use of them - could give Catholics with the requisite gifts a set of “home pulpits” in which they could proclaim the Gospel, even preach with some depth and frequency, help to form a community more deeply than a fly-by-night stadium event, and remain close to the home fires, and to family.

And in places where Catholics are clamoring for lay preaching in the Mass - for a lay-offered homily - the recognition that lay people can be gifted as preachers might do something to quell the clamor for the kind of preaching they can not do. The presence of other kinds of preaching might even sharpen understanding about why the homily is unique - and connected to the grace of orders.

It is not the purview of an exclusive ideology or faction in the Church to recognize that some lay people are gifted as preachers — and that preaching is an important aspect of the Church’s missionary life. And most Catholics recognize that both men and women can be gifted as preachers, even while the Church has no authority to ordain women as priests.

And to be sure, the flavor of lay preaching - and those selected for the role - would vary considerably by diocese, according to the disposition of the local diocesan bishop. But that is already partly true for the conferences, retreats, or events at which lay preachers now exercise their ministry. Lay preaching would not likely be the same in the Archdioceses of, say, Chicago and San Francisco — but it might well be of benefit to both.

So might Pope Francis take up the cause, in a new motu proprio, with a newly regulated ecclesiastical role for lay preachers?

It’s hard to say. The pope has opened new doors for laity in the life of the Church - in governance, and, by expanding the ministries of lector and acolyte, in her sanctifying office, too. He may well decide to formalize the teaching and preaching role for laity as well.

If he does not, might some diocesan bishops consider the prospect of commissioning “diocesan lay preachers” under their own authority?

It’s possible.

In either case, it is clear that lay people are called by baptism to the work of preaching, teaching, and proclaiming Jesus Christ.

Is there is an ecclesiastical role for that call in the life of the Church today? That remains to be seen.