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An invitation from two pastors to a Church historian

When I preached

 Quando  ho predicato  DCM-007
01 July 2023

“Isn’t there that other woman today?” An elderly lady’s question to one of her parish priests is the most apt to open this article, which is part story and part reflection. Indeed, the woman very naturally dismantled rivers of lines and volumes of breath spent attributing the Christian people’s rejection of women’s authoritative roles, first and foremost liturgical ones, to the sigh of “our people don’t want it”. I am not going to comment on that pathetic “our people,” to explain the episode instead. It took place on a feast of the Immaculate Conception many years ago now, in an inner-city parish in the heart of the Veneto Fedele, where I was attending an event. The two priests, who I might add are two really good people, asked me, -also because of the Marian nuance of the liturgy-, to give the homily at a well-attended Mass.  I admit to having resisted a bit, partly out of inveterate laziness, and partly because I preferred to reserve my public speaking for something else. This was not a transgressive action, for, as was customary, the celebrant introduced my words and I then went on with the homily itself, I think without gouts and without glory, as is often the case with anyone who preaches. Two days afterwards, the following Sunday, when I was no longer in that particular church, the parishioner who had found nothing strange that I had delivered the homily, asked where I was and why I had shirked that service of the Word.

I love to recall that event because it is very simple and extraordinarily eloquent in its form, if one may dare to make a pun, quite ordinary. Quite another thing, however, is the experience in Regalbuto (Enna), both geographically, insofar as it is located in an ideal center (a kilometer more or less) of Sicily, but also because of the public and structured form of the experience of preaching to the people on the Seven Words of Christ on the Cross, which in that town for many years has involved by the specific wish of the Archpriest, both men and women. The tradition is ancient; the words spoken by Jesus in the four Gospel narratives have been collected, preached and often set to music, which has given rise to specific compositions. Regalbuto has maintained this custom, and on every Good Friday, the town sees the church, the streets, and the square come alive, giving rise to a powerful rite, which is far more than a choreographed sacred performance. Instead, it is a celebratory experience, although its symbols are not solely the austere ones of the liturgy, but extend to include statues of Christ and the Blessed Mother, with which men and women of the respective Confraternities allow those gathered to relive in an emotionally charged form of the Passion up until the threshold of the Resurrection.

This event also includes the proclamation in the church of the seven words, preceded by a brief introduction and followed by specific preaching, which extends to the moment of Christ’s deposition from the Cross. Everyone present follows the procession through the streets of the city, accompanied by the statue of Mary, until they get to a tomb that welcomes Christ, while mourned by the Mother and everyone else. Then it is back to the churchyard, when at that point, the last sermon is read and reaches from there all the people in the square, and so preludes Easter. There are so many female colleagues who have followed this preaching (this year, 2023, Silvia Zanconato, for example). Therefore, in 2017, for my turn I introduced the path. “One comes here to this church from time immemorial, with the memory of those who have gone before us and with the hope of passing all this on to sons and daughters and to whoever will touch this beautiful land. People have been coming here since time immemorial. I am not suggesting that only in this church community, but in this whole country: those who go to church every day, those who go sometimes, those who only on this occasion-it is their home, they are welcome-the passion of the Son of Man has room for all, it has word and silence for all. It is spacious, womb of the world: today everyone’s celebration and sorrow are gathered in a passion, in a life that is delivered, in seven words and the spaces that connect them”.

I still carry in me the echo of the faces, the footsteps, and the words. The collected inner space, the narrow and swaying space of the streets, the very wide space of the square. My words at the service of the Word, trying to make It bread of meaning for everyone, rising to reach everyone, but modulating themes and sounds to give it body without overpowering it. Certainly the ordinary form of the first recalled experience and the extraordinary one in Regalbuto have much in common, and anyone who preaches-whether a priest, pastor or pastor, layman or laywoman-will recognize the traits. In the margin here, however, there is still something to note, which is “preaching to the laity” in the Catholic Church. This has been discussed over the centuries as it is still today, it is spoken of, shall we say, with some reticence, while oscillating between different phantoms, ranging from “our people,” precisely, to alleged dogmatic devices, muzzling (cf. Deuteronomy 25:4 //1 Corinthians 9:9) the lay and therefore feminine word. In the cases I have mentioned, it is fair to say, the sharing of the gift and task of preaching was desired, well before it was “allowed,” by some priests that is men no doubt. Reform is already underway. 

Theologian, professor of ancient church history, Theological Faculty of Northern Italy, Milan