Women Preaching at Mass?

Well I was just about to write up a report on this, using my rather weak Italian to translate key passages in the surprising story in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. But now David Gibson has done it for us and you can read it there: “Vatican newspaper essays suggest women should preach at Mass.”

Here’s an excerpt:

The argument for a change is not that it is “modernizing” the church but rather it is returning to the tradition of the first thousand years of Christianity, when, as Bianchi and the other essayists note, women were regularly given permission to preach, and often did so in front of priests bishops and even the pope.

Mary Magdalene, in fact, was known as the “apostle to the apostles” because the Gospels recount how Jesus appeared to her first on Easter morning, and sent her to deliver the news of the resurrection – the foundational Christian belief – to Jesus’ male followers.

Do read the whole story over at RNS – and let us know what you think.


  1. As I understand it, this is already possible. Lay people cannot preach the homily at Mass, but can preach at other times, including at other times during Mass. When I was in parish ministry, I’d invite either a lay person or a Protestant cleric to preach during Lenten Vespers and had a strong preference for inviting women. We also had lay testimonies during the announcements period at times, which would lead to me shortening my homily to about half length.

    1. @Adam Booth, C.S.C.:
      I agree.

      I think most parishes & dioceses have just gotten comfortable with the technical loopholes that allow this to happen. Some dioceses will just call it a reflection at the time of the homily, some have the priest give a 10 second “homily” and then a reflection afterwards, etc. Some will do what Adam suggests. Our previous bishop’s policy (still in force), was “not on a regular & predictable schedule” and “on topics in which they are experts” (which he allowed to be interpreted very broadly).

      I’d submit, that if you can’t work around the loopholes, then you really don’t want to hear the voice of women.

    2. @Adam Booth, C.S.C.:
      another instant of women preaching can be found in the directory for Children’s Masses when the priest presider simply has not the skills required for preaching to children and so a catechist preach. Lucky kids here. Unlike adults who have to submit to poor preachhing when a woman could do a better job.
      Perhaps a bishop or the Pope could preside at a Mass for children and then at the homily step aside and let a woman catechist take over.

  2. This has less to do with the “visibility” of women’s roles in the church than with feeding on the Word of God. My experience has been that trained and gifted women preachers certainly improve the overall quality of preaching for all the people of God.

  3. Women should be able to preach during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. However, I would also like to hear from lay men and seminarians.

    1. @Theresa Maccarone:
      In agreement with Theresa, I’d hope this opens up a discussion about a principle for allowing a broader diversity of viewpoints from the pulpit. We are more than a binary or diad (male-female). The viewpoint of a non-ordained husband and father is male, but would not necessarily be one that a priest would have by sheer virtue of his maleness. Married, not married, professed religious, ordained (male/female), and not – open up the riches of God’s word with the richness of humanity in the pews.

  4. A Traditionalist priest (he describes himself this way) in a London parish told me that, when celebrating the Tridentine Mass, he removes the maniple before the homily and replaces afterwards to signal that the homily is not part of the Mass. This is also why he says “In nomine Patris …” before and after the homily — “the Mass is being suspended before the homily and then resumed afterwards.”

    Since this is the case, a woman preaching outside of Mass doesn’t violate any of the strictures about lay people, female or male, preaching during the Mass. And the old rite rules that exclude women from entering the sanctuary can be dealt with by having the preacher address the assembly from the nave.

    Thus a good place to pursue this development is in celebrations of the old rite of Mass.

    1. @Jonathan Day:
      Well, for the Ordinary Form, that won’t be so simple. Vatican II had something to say about the homily and it being an integral part of the liturgy. And there has been theological development associated with this as well. To consider the topic of homiletics primarily as an issue of who the preacher is (or is not), or as a function, is to risk falling into reverse-engineering.

      Many horses to put before that cart.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        It is a bit puzzling that various liturgical documents refer to the homily as integral to the liturgy, and so is required on Sundays, but merely recommended on weekdays. I wonder what there is about a weekday liturgy that allows it to keep its integrity without a homily.

      2. @Jan Larson:
        Do the documents call the homily “integral”, or do they simply affirm that it is part of the liturgy (over against the “Tridentine” philosophy that it is an interruption of the liturgy)?

        Sac. Conc. 52 says it is “part of the liturgy” while implicitly accepting its absence from weekday Masses even without “a serious reason”.

  5. It would appear that Canon Law, Canon 766 permits qualified lay people to preach:

    “Can. 766 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 and without prejudice to can. 767”

    There would appear to be nothing limiting this to lay men.

    Thus, it would appear, not just to be a good idea, but the law.

    Whether or not it is a good idea, however, is another question. That would depend upon the wisdom and devotion of the woman in question called upon to preach.

  6. Chuck Middendorf : I’d submit, that if you can’t work around the loopholes, then you really don’t want to hear the voice of women.

    I agree with the substance of your point, but seeing it laid out this way makes clear to me the need for change. Lex docet, the law teaches, or at least it should. If women’s preaching is only figured as flowing through “loopholes” and not as lifegiving water through the wounded side of Christ, the law is malformational.

    1. @Adam Booth, C.S.C.:
      Very true! Thank you! I should have been more careful with my word choice.

      And to Peter’s retort: Thanks to their baptisms, all Christians are priests and prophets. No undermining whatsoever the role of the ordained priest at Mass. Not any more so than cantors singing the Exultet or the Kyrie, a lector assisting with the Passion Gospel periscopes, or countless other examples. One of the most common reason our bishops have allowed lay preaching is because of priests who don’t speak very well the language of the assembly. Seems an apropos parallelism to the priest/deacon who can’t sing well.

  7. I’m willing, happy, and eager to hear anyone preach who can do it well, and bear effective witness to the gospel. Preaching is not a gender issue, and anyone who makes it such should be banned from the pulpit. Perhaps the multitude of women whose feet will be washed this Holy Thursday will offer a reflection afterwards on their role and experience within the Body of Christ. And we should be prepared for the lashes which will come.

  8. It may be useful to recall the excellent series of posts on Sacrosanctum Concilium

    Slavishly literal translation [through the kindness of Jonathan Day]:

    52. The homily, through which during the course of the liturgical year the mysteries of the faith and the norms of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text, is firmly to be designated as a part of the liturgy itself; indeed, in those Masses celebrated on Sundays and feasts of obligation with the people participating [or ‘with the people present in large numbers’], it is not to be omitted except for a serious reason.

    The Council Fathers choose the term “homily” to refer to liturgical preaching at Mass, understood as a genuine element of the liturgy. (This probably challenges the custom of preachers at the time of the Council making the sign of the Cross at the beginning and conclusion of their preaching at Mass, thus indicating that they were “exiting” from the formal liturgy for the sermon [sometimes prefaced by announcements and concluded by the prone] and “returning” to it when this insertion was ended.) They characterize this liturgical preaching at Mass as “expounded from the sacred text”; the presumption is that the “more lavish” scriptural fare decreed in article 51 would found homiletic biblical preaching, rather than sermons offered individually or in series on topics extraneous to the biblical lections. They further characterize liturgical preaching as both doctrinal (“the mysteries of the faith”) and paraenetic (“the norms of the Christian life”), presuming that the preacher will be able to ground the Church’s teachings in faith and morals in biblical insight. Wisely they note that no one homily is able to communicate the entirety of Christian belief and practice, but that homilizing in this way will have a cumulative effect over the course of the liturgical year. Finally they emphasize the importance of liturgical preaching at Mass especially when large numbers of the faithful are present, such as on Sunday and holy days of…

  9. continued:
    … and holy days of obligation.

    This seems to support Jonathan Day’s observation at 7 above.

    If the homily is to be “expounded from the sacred text” then it seems that it is not the views of the preacher that we are to hear especially one from a specific perspective such as a political or gender base or indeed promotion of a charity or the local football team. Most priests should be capable of managing two minutes on the readings of the Mass. To have another person give the homily seems to undermine the role of the priest offering the Mass. So I would suggest that talks by other people, of either gender, be given outside the Mass, perhaps after the final blessing.

    I would also suggest that to rely on “loopholes”, as Chuck Middendorf suggests in 3 above, is to use the legalism that Pope Francis abhors.

  10. I hope I am permitted to add that in regard to ecumenism, we must also take into account the sensibilities of our separated Protestant brothers and sisters. There are Protestant communities who do not permit women to preach during religious services. We must take that into account in regard to the question of women preaching in our Church.

    Jonathan Sommerville

  11. Ordination bestows the authority to preach, the Spirit gives the charism.
    The two don’t always coincide.

  12. A couple of thoughts, one on the topic and one on the discussion.

    1. A religious sister I knew during my Notre Dame days once said to me that she deeply resented that a permanent deacon with a couple of years of part-time training could preach while she, with a Ph.D. in theology could not.

    2. Of all the priests I served Mass for in the 1960s, going from the Latin Mass all the way to the last transitional English-language Mass, only one ever pulled off the maniple to preach. Nor did we ever kiss the cruets or anything else like they do in those British traditionalist videos.

  13. Each year if one attends weekly Mass and some Holy Days of Obligation…Catholics would hear messages from a male perspective and view of the world 57+ times… Multiply that by their age…would the Catholic people of God be different if, let’s say 1/3rd of those times, they heard the Scripture broken open by a woman.

    I know the rules and what a disconnected maniple looks like. If Catholics had 1/3 of their homilies preached by women, would it be a different Church. The decision and answer is best left to celibate males.

    May I suggest that if women can preach only on topics for which the are experts (bishop’s directive from comment #3) that the same might also be true for men who can preach.

  14. There are any number of homilists who have a habit of leaning too much on the first person singular (sometimes masked in plural) in their homilies. There’s an enormous amount of privilege in that habit.

    Homilists with that habit would do well to get themselves out of the way in the homily. One way to do that may be to invite the congregation to practice Ignatian contemplation of the Scriptural passages (more readily done with narratives that tend to populate the first readings and Gospels). This opens up the homily if it’s done well.

    I had a memorable reaction to doing this with the Parable of the Merciful Father-Elder Son-Prodigal Son: all of a sudden, I imagined sisters and wondered what their reaction to all of this might have been. No, Scripture doesn’t talk about sisters – but it doesn’t exclude the possibility, either. (I’ve actually developed this habit more in Rosary meditations than at Mass, but it’s informed how I hear Scripture proclaimed and preached.) Sometimes, stepping back to take a larger view can offer more opportunities – so long as a homilist resists the temptation to paint that all in for the congregation.

  15. Just a couple of quick thoughts:
    1. Surely the Vatican opening up this discussion is related to International Women’s Day, March 8, and the fact that some wonderful, strong, prominent Catholic women from around the globe will be in Rome that day, both to celebrate and to think about the future. — I think the Vatican is sending a “captatio benevolentiae.”
    2. Surely whatever applies to women being able to preach the homily would also have to apply to all lay men at the same time? Theologically, it would be non-sensical to admit women but exclude lay-men. So: why are we discussing this as a “women’s” issue, rather than as a layperson issue?! The answer, I think, lies in my point no. 1, and only there.

  16. Tangential but potentially related, has anyone notices the subject questions for the spiritual exercises during the Curia’s annual Lenten retreat:


    “What are you looking for?” (John 1.38)

    “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4.40)

    “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?” (Matthew 5.13)

    “But who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9.20)

    “Then, turning to the woman, he told Simon, ‘Do you see this woman?'” (Luke 7.44)

    “How many loaves do you have?” (Mark 6.38, Matthew 15.34);

    “Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?'” (John 8.10)

    “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” (John 20.15);

    “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (John 21.16); and

    “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be?'” (Luke 1.34).

  17. Many parts of the GIRM represent a questionable effort to please various liturgical factions. I have refrained from giving a homily at daily Mass on the rare occasions on which I was not feeling very well. Preaching by those with the gift of preaching is not an option. I hope and pray that the proscription against women preaching will one day be regarded as absurd as our having once approved of slavery.

  18. “The argument for a change is not that it is “modernizing” the church but rather it is returning to the tradition of the first thousand years of Christianity, when, as Bianchi…”

    I don’t understand why it’s important to return to a certain period of the Christianity, such as the Church’s first 1,000 years. There are many good reasons as to why the Church moved away from certain practices.

    Example: I’m not certain that we’d be served well by returning to Christianity’s ancient practice of rigid and lengthy periods of penance. The same applies to old rigid fasting practices.

    Should congregations who experience Mass versus populum restore the truly ancient (which many Christians continue to embrace) practice of priest and laity worshiping together facing east?

    Again, I’m uncertain as to why a practice that traces to Christianity’s “first 1,000 years” is considered any more special than that which is in effect today.

    Jonathan Sommerville

    1. @Jonathan Sommerville:
      This is perhaps a misreading. The argument is not repristinization, as if everything earlier is better. It is simply removing an objection, namely, that there is no precedent for this so it shouldn’t be considered.

      We use history on our terms, and we do it all the time. Sometimes we draw on better earlier practices. Sometimes we affirm later developments. Sometimes we add our own developments – things never done before – because we think it right for our time. The liturgical reform is packed with all of these things – and so is all of church history.


  19. I am very leery about whether the practice of women preaching at Mass should be offered to our brothers and sisters who worship via the Extraordinary Form. The Church recognizes that they have every right to worship in unison with the 1962 liturgical books.

    Obviously, women preaching at Mass, and, for that matter, reading lessons at Mass, were out of the question. Altar girls are out of the question in regard to the 1962 liturgical books. That said, if the practice of women preaching at Mass in the EF, or even OF is instituted, then a person could tune out the preaching.

    Finally, I find it questionable as to whether our brothers and sisters in the Ordinariate would accept said practice.

    There are many questions to study in regard to the question at hand.

    Jonathan Sommerville

  20. Father Anthony Ruff, #27:

    Father, thank you for your comments in regard to my comments. I definitely will consider that which you offered. I appreciate your remarks.

    Jonathan Sommerville

  21. If I’m allowed, I’d like to return to the following that I had offered a few minutes ago. I stated…”That said, if the practice of women preaching at Mass in the EF, or even OF is instituted, then a person could tune out the preaching.”

    I know that somebody may find my comment offensive. I wish to be honest in that I have encountered preaching, from priests and deacons, at Mass, that I found boring. To be honest, during those times, I tuned them out. I focused on the Crucifix, sacred images…I simply tuned out.

    I imagine the odds are strong that if allowed to preach at Mass, at least a few boring women preachers will make it through the process. Of course, what is boring to one person may not be so to the next person.

    But should a person encounter a woman preacher who bores he or she, then said person could, for the benefit of his or her spirituality and state of mind, simply tune out the preacher.

    Jonathan Sommerville

  22. It is not uncommon in Orthodoxy for two practices with regard to the homily. I have attended some Divine Liturgies where the homily is given after the Credo. In others, the homily is given after the liturgy is finished.

    A laywoman (or layman) should be permitted to preach after the dismissal. I understand that some liturgists might not like that Mass would continue after the dismissal, but I think it would be fair for the ministers to sit and listen to a lay-homily at this point. If Mass is concluded, then lay preaching immediately after the dismissal would be no different than a layperson preaching at another time later than the immediate conclusion of the celebration of Mass.

  23. I wonder how many people would remain following Mass to listen, even if just for a few minutes, to additional preaching? At the parishes in my area, the custom among a good portion of the congregation is to receive Holy Communion then depart Mass. They receive Holy Communion and head immediately to their cars.

    Pastors in my area have pleaded in vain with their congregations to discard that custom. Therefore, at least in my neck of the woods, anybody who preached following Mass would encounter a church that was depopulated considerably.

    Jonathan Sommerville

  24. I would like to revise my previous comment. Perhaps it might be better to allot for lay preaching at Vespers or a weekend seminar. The decision to allow for lay preaching at any liturgy or time would require great care. My late advisor, of fond memory, was also vicar at my church. Her homilies were among the best I have ever heard in any community. I realize that the presence of women clergy in some way resolves the question of lay preaching in Roman Catholicism.

    My advisor was a New Testament scholar; occasional lecturers after Evensong were fellow students in my program. Should a pastor tell a layperson who has no scholarly training that she or he should not lecture? As with other lay ministries, it is often difficult to tell a well meaning person that she or he is not qualified.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:
      I could imagine a diocesan certification program for lay preachers. This could require academic training in scripture, theology, history, and such along with a practicum and mutual discernment process where the candidate and diocese decide whether he or she is called to this ministry. Perhaps they could even require an MA in Theology or MDIV as a prerequisite. There could be a probationary period or periodic review to maintain the certification.

      Set up correctly, one could avoid the situation you describe where some well-meaning but unprepared person twists the pastor’s arm to get access to the pulpit.

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