Viewpoint: Women Could Be Authorized to Give the Homily at Mass

by M. Francis Mannion

If you’re thinking of publishing something adventurous about the Church, don’t send it to “L’Osservatore Romano,” the official paper of the Vatican. They won’t give you the time of day.

All the more surprising, then, that the Vatican paper should publish an article recently in which it was proposed that women could be allowed to give the homily at Mass. This article could not be published without the approval of “higher-ups.”

Enzo Bianchi, author of the article, recognizes that authorizing women to preach “would constitute a fundamental change in [women’s] participation in church life.” It would respond to Pope Francis’ oft-repeated commitment to giving women a greater role in the life of the Church. Bianchi recognizes the topic of women preaching “is a delicate one,” but, he says, “I believe it is urgent that we address it.”

Such a move would not, however, be a complete departure from the tradition of the Church.  David Gibson, who commented on the “L’Osservatore Romano” article for Religion News Service, points out that that for the first 800 years, women preached during the liturgy. It was only in the 13th century, as part of a general reform of the Church, which consolidated power in the hands of the clergy, that Pope Gregory IX barred lay people from preaching.

The argument for women preachers is not based on a desire to “modernize” the Church, but rather a reinvigoration of the tradition of the first millennium, in which women preached before priests, bishops, and even popes.

Lay preaching was allowed on occasion in the following centuries. In the early 1970s, the matter of women (and men) preaching was raised again. Interestingly, in 1973, the Vatican gave the German bishops permission to experiment with lay preaching for a period of eight years. I don’t know what became of the experiment, though I would surmise that lay preaching continues to be practiced in some Western European countries.

In another column in “L’Osservatore Romano,” Sr. Catherine Aubin, a professor at a pontifical university in Rome, points out that Jesus encouraged women to preach  the message of salvation. Mary Magdalen is known as the “apostle to the apostles” and was the first person to witness to Christ’s resurrection. Dominican Sr. Madeleine Fredell wrote that preaching “is my vocation as a preacher.” (It is ironic that while Dominican women have “O.P, “Order of Preachers” after their names, they cannot actually preach liturgically.)

It is also ironic that in periodicals like “America” women often provide sample homilies to inspire clergy in the preparation of their homilies (I suspect that in many cases clergy end up using these homilies verbatim.)

There are no doctrinal or theological obstacles to letting lay men and women preach during Mass. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states that the homily “is reserved to a priest or deacon” because it is a fundamental part of the Mass. But this is a human rather than a divine law, and there is nothing to stop it being softened or even abolished.

“Conservatives” will argue that women’s preaching would continue the “feminization” of the Church—one of the most insulting arguments against women’s greater ministerial presence in the liturgy of the Church.

The bottom line: opening up preaching to lay men and women after rigorous training and official episcopal commissioning as “Lay Preachers” could, I think, greatly improve the unsatisfactory state of preaching in the Catholic Church.

In the meantime, I support the observance the law as it is. Lay preaching now would flout canonical norms.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

4 comments

  1. In all these discussions, I am always amazed to think that the four women doctors of the church — Teresa, Therese, Catherine and Hildegarde — would not be allowed to preach at Mass. In Rochester, which once had a longstanding and proud tradition of qualified women preaching, the current Trad bishop nixed the practice. And we are all the poorer for it.

  2. I’m a Dominican and so have had the “What constitutes preaching?” conversation more times than I can count, to say nothing of the “Who gets to preach?” and “Why won’t they let me preach? conversations. Of course Sr. Madeleine is a preacher, but so are the legions of cloistered nuns attached to the Order–who were founded before the friars who “actually” preach. There are all sorts of different ways to imagine liturgical homiletics, but my major worry about this conversation as it arises today is not about the danger of unduly “feminizing” the liturgy by the presence of women preachers, but about unnecessarily prioritizing the liturgical homily. Make no mistake, homilies are critically important, but they are necessarily preaching to the choir–literally, people already showing up for the community’s Eucharist. If we spent half the time making the preaching that goes on: in the streets, in the bars, in the classrooms, at the kitchen tables, in the clinics, and everywhere else we find ourselves as arguing over who can preach at Mass–well, we’d have a whole lot more people to preach to at Mass–whoever we got to do the preaching.

    1. @Fr. Dominic McManus, OP:
      My experience evidences that the pews are full of those waiting for their post-baptismal mystagogy…after a pretty lame grade-school catechumenate. For those in the pews the image of “standing by a river dying of thirst” comes to mind. My personal experience is that being well-fed (thirst quenched;) at the Eucharist led to an increasingly vibrant domestic church which spills into the world from its members. Certainly a “both/and”. I am daily grateful for the church that cared enough to challenge me beyond the “good start” that was the formation of my youth.

  3. What exactly will the rigorous training for lay women and men be?

    Why the word rigorous? Do priests and deacons undergo rigorous training in homiletics?

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