Could Francis establish a Church role for lay preachers?

lay preacher

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.

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.

Many Catholic young people say they experience those kinds of summer conferences as real 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 well-known lay preachers are known as well-formed, effective missionaries of the Gospel, while others have sometimes been accused of being 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, to 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?

“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.”

Code of Canon Law

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 places where catechists 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.” Continue reading

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