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 response 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.
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.
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.