One Foot Out the Door, the Other in the Mouth

I was rather taken aback by the explanations put forth by recently retired Saint Paul & Minneapolis Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, as conveyed in this article in last week’s Boston Pilot, as to why he was putting an end to the practice in his diocese of lay preachers delivering homilies during Mass.

In the interest of full disclosure from the outset, I have no intention of agitating for permission for laity to preach during the Mass, and if I ever sink to suggesting that anyone somehow possess a “right” to such a role, please shoot me before I say something even sillier. I am well aware of the catastrophic consequences of similar practices in Europe 500 years ago or so, and do not want to see the Church go down that path again (though that situation was facilitated by the poor theological training of ordained clergy, a problem that has long since been rectified).

Aside from such practical concerns, I think there are also very good liturgical reasons for preferring to have the ordained perform the role of interpreting and applying the liturgical readings within the context of the Mass – and then there is the small matter of Redemptionis Sacramentum identifying the preaching by non-ordained following the Gospel reading as a liturgical abuse . But I am astounded at what apparently came out of the mouth of Archbishop Flynn, as he was preparing for his retirement.

My astonishment begins with the archbishop’s decision to set his retirement date (May 2nd) as the date when parishes were supposed to get on board with the ban. It seems a tad ironic that this date is the feast day of one of the Church’s most courageous archbishops, Athanasius of Alexandria, but I digress… He was archbishop of the diocese for 13 years, and the lay preaching was going on for 25 years… could he not have dealt with the anticipated fallout on his own watch? I can only assume that his immediate successor, Coadjutor Archbishop John C. Nienstedt, was completely on board with the timing…

Questions of timing aside, his reasoning, at least as presented in this article, is what I find most disturbing:

The education, formation and ordination of priests and deacons make them uniquely suited to preach during Mass, he said.

“There has to be that kind of training and theological background that even a person with a master’s degree in theology would not have,” he said. “The church does not want people just standing up there and giving opinions or even things they’ve read in books.”

Rather, he said, the homily addresses “what is the clear teaching about this mystery of our faith?”

To allow a nonordained person to preach would also interrupt the action of the Mass, he said. The Scriptures make it clear that it was the role of the presbyters to preach, he added.

“To preach the Gospel is an extremely important part of the mission of any priest — I cannot overemphasize its importance,” Archbishop Flynn said. “I would feel deprived, because this is my vocation to preach the Gospel.

Without getting into a lengthy criticism of each of these statements, let me just say that I think none of them worthy of a prince of the Church. They range from ad hominem accusations of the general theological incompetence of anyone lacking Holy Orders, to a pathetic plea to feeling personally “deprived” of an opportunity to preach when a lay person usurps that role. I concur completely that the archbishop has a vocation to preach the Gospel, one that is shared by his priests, but am I really supposed to care about His Excellency’s feelings? How does he survive concelebrated Masses? Should we institute round-robin homilies in such cases to avoid having any priestly feelings hurt?

But what of the ludicrousness of suggesting that only Holy Orders can equip a disciple of Christ to engage in “clear teaching about this mystery of our faith,”‘ or in any witness more substantial than “giving opinions”? The Church calls all the faithful to encounter and, through public witness, to help others encounter the eternal truths of the Catholic faith. The Church, from top to bottom, has been called to what the Holy Father called the New Evangelization – and if that doesn’t mean preaching the Gospel, then I don’t know what it means. I appreciate the distinction between witnessing to the world and guiding the Church, but I have to wonder if the archbishop was willing to allow these same ill-informed, book-reading, opinionated usurpers to function as catechists in his diocese?

Messages like this one from Archbishop Flynn are confusing, embarrassing, discouraging, and debilitating. The liturgical celebration of the Mass should demonstrate the integrity of the Liturgy of the Word with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, as the encounter of Christ with His gathered people. The ordained should be the ones breaking open the Word during the homily at Mass because of the priestly role they play within the community, not because of their putative superior theological training. Priests certainly should obtain, and benefit from, such training in order to competently discharge their office, but it is absurd to think either that the training qualifies them for the liturgical role, or, conversely, that their ordination effectuates in them the wisdom to articulate the mysteries of the faith in clear teaching. There are good preachers, and there certainly are not-so-good preachers – but that’s OK.

It seems to me that what’s really needed from the Church at this time, at least in the secularized West, is a new spirit of partnership between the clergy and the laity. Not like the tired, secularizing program launched over the past 40-some years that wants to make the Church over in the model of a modern consumerist democracy, but one that is strongly centered on the Eucharistic character of the Church, but is also committed to nurturing and using the gifts of the laity for the re-evangelization of the West – beginning with the rescue of marriage and the family from the trash bin of our cultural history.

This strikes me as a fundamental imperative of the Church in our cultural context, a task that cannot be accomplished with the laity on the sidelines, and a message that cannot be effectively conveyed by “giving opinions.” We need better leadership from our bishops than the insults recently offered by Archbishop Flynn. We need priests like him to rally the troops, not to leave dedicated people thinking they have no part to play in the struggle, comparable to their abilities.