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​On three conditions

· ​Why not let both laywomen and laymen speak? ·

In the Church in post-conciliar times, ever since Pope John, with his prophetic discernment, identified the entrance of women into public life as being among the “signs of the times”, we have heard voices raised on several occasions, asking for a greater appreciation of women in the Church, for their greater participation in the various institutions that rule and organize her and for recognition of all the faculties that they rightfully possess as baptized people. There is a crucial path to take in order to give value to women in the Church, a possibility that concerns the faithful, both men and women more generally, a possibility already experienced and practised in the Church’s history and which, in fact, despite the current discipline, is present in many local Churches: both men and women taking the floor during the liturgical assembly. However, this risks happening in an uncivilized or, worse, a simulated way, so that it ends up using other names – such as “resonances” or “propositions” – for those forms of speaking which should simply be called “sermons”. The subject is a sensitive one but I consider it urgent to face it here, however briefly: for the lay faithful in general, of course, but above all for women this would in fact constitute a fundamental change in the form of their participation in ecclesial life.

First of all it should be recognized that in recent decades there is an awareness that all who have been baptized are consecrated for the mission and that the proclamation of the Gospel is a responsibility that invests them all. It is not by chance that lay preachers are present and numerous in the mission. Today, moreover, this ministry of the word, which was once reserved to the clergy alone, is present instead in all members of the Church. The current liturgical tests testify that the baptized are called by God “to proclaim Christ’s Gospel joyfully throughout the world” (Rite of Baptism, Prayer and Invocation over the water and “share in his royal, priestly and prophetic work” (Liturgy of the Blessing of the Oils, Blessing of the Chrism). This maturation has in part occurred in the people of God who today are also able to accept preaching by lay people.

From history we know that lay people were authorized to preach even in a liturgical context and that in the Middle Ages even a few women received such authorization from the pope or from a bishop. Before the prohibition of lay people from preaching, sanctioned by Gregory ix (1228), among the different forms of preaching was also that which provided for a mandatum praedicandi, granted to the simple faithful. From the 10th to the 12th centuries above all, and especially during the Gregorian reform, the officium praedicandi is attested to have been fruitfully exercised, especially within those evangelical lay movements which developed at the beginning of the second Christian millennium. The Poor Men of Lyons, later called Waldensians, the Humiliati and other groups asked the Pope of Rome for his approval of their way of life and their exercise of preaching and received these faculties. The evangelical life of such preachers gave them great authority, so that their word appeared performative: only think of Robert of Arbrissel (1045-1116), who preached to the clergy, to nobles and to the people, with the approval of Urban ii; or of Norbert of Xanten (1080-1134), who received the officium praedicandi from Gelasius ii. Yet it should be remembered that preaching was possible for certain women too, among whom Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) stands out, who was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Benedict xvi. She was an abbess who preached in various cathedrals at the request of bishops and to whom Pope Eugene iii also listened.

These are just a few examples but they express an age-old practice in the Roman Church, interrupted because of the fear of heresies, disseminated precisely by Gospel preachers. Of course, to be able to carry out the ministry of preaching the authorization of the Church was deemed necessary, that is, the conferral of the licentia praedicandi, because the ignorance of some preachers or the “charismatic style” of others often led to heresy and confusion rather than to the edification of the Church. It is significant that Innocent iii, for example, accepted the request for preaching from Francis and his first companions (1210), requiring of them the tonsure in exchange. In any case Francis preached publicly, without receiving ordination (either to the diaconate or to the priesthood), always with Roman approval, despite the opposition of certain local bishops; moreover even after Gregory ix’s prohibition the possibility of access to preaching by lay people was always preserved. It was recommended that their sermons be of a moral and exhortational character and not doctrinal or theological, but they were in fact authorized and women preachers were never lacking, from Mary of Oignies, the Beguine of Lièges (1177-1213), to Caterina Paluzzi (1573-1645), charged to preach in female monasteries by Cardinal Paolo Sfrondati.

And today? In the post-conciliar period, the German Bishops’ Conference asked Paul vi in 1973 for the mandatum praedicandi for certain lay people involved in pastoral ministry (including a fair number of women) and the Holy See granted them permission ad experimentum for eight years. Likewise, the Directory for Masses with Children (1973) permits the homily to be given by trained lay people, including women. These are openings that must be treasured. It would in any case be important that, without changing any of the traditional doctrine, lay people, both men and women, should be given the possibility to speak during the liturgical assembly on a few precise conditions.

First of all, the absolute necessity of a mandatum praedicandi (even a temporary one) conferred by the bishop to a member of the faithful, a man or a woman, who has been trained and has the charism of preaching.

In the second place, since the Eucharistic Liturgy is an act of worship connected in itself with one celebrant presiding, it is up to the priest who is presiding at the Eucharist to appoint ritually whoever, having received the faculty to preach from the bishop, goes to the lectern, giving him or her his blessing.

Lastly, the faithful person who is called to preach, be it a man or a woman, does so by charism and by institution, that is, in the awareness of having a gift useful to others and of the need for a mandate that places him or her within the tradition. Without a charism and without cheirothesia (a form of the laying on of hands which is a blessing, not a sacrament), the ministry of the word in the liturgy, which always needs the gift of the charism and of episcopal authority, would not be brought to the fore.

On these conditions, the concession of the faculty to preach would permit the female religious community not always and not only to listen to the homily of the chaplain assigned to them. And the Christian community could listen to preaching by women (hence with different emphases) and by men who are not solely ordained men.

Let us not forget that Jesus preached in the synagogues of Nazareth and of other towns without being either a priest or an ordained rabbi, but did so through his prophetic charism and because he was charged to do so by the leaders of the different synagogues. And let us not forget either that, when a bishop wished to prevent the layman Origen from preaching, the other bishops retorted “Whenever persons to instruct the brethren are found, they are exhorted by the holy bishops to preach to the people” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Church istoryHistory vi, 19, 18).

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