Minnesota Parishes Tussle with Impending Ban on Lay Preaching

Article excerpt

An archbishop's recent order to end lay preaching in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese has brought a deep sense of loss to Catholics who believe in the practice and the theology behind it. In some parishes, lay leaders are seeking ways to register their disagreement with the new ban or to keep lay voices alive despite it. And some people are voting with their feet and finding other places to worship.

Archbishop Harry Flynn sent the letter in January to all archdiocesan pastors instructing them to end lectionary-based liturgical lay preaching by May 2, his retirement date, calling such preaching a "liturgical abuse." While Canon 766 of the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law states that lay preaching may be permitted when deemed useful or necessary according to norms developed by episcopal conferences, Flynn's directive appears to be guided by the restrictions in the 2004 Vatican instructional document Redemptionis Sacramentum, which narrows the criteria for allowing lay preaching only to accommodate a scarcity of priests or the needs of a specific community.

Some 29 parishes here are affected by the ban. Some offered formal ministry training and formation for lay preachers, while others offered informal support and resources.

The targeting of lay voices deeply disturbs Patricia Hughes Baumer who, with her husband, runs Partners in Preaching, an Eden Prairie, Minn., organization that has trained 500 lay preachers here and in five other dioceses since 1997.

"[Lay preaching] isn't an abuse now and it wasn't even by constructionist standards," said Baumer, who believes the ban ignores "the direction of canon law" away from prohibition and toward authorization of lay preaching since Vatican II.

Some have speculated that Flynn was cleaning house for his successor. Baumer said, "It was widely anticipated that Archbishop [John] Nienstedt would not be open to the continuation of [lay preaching] and that Archbishop Flynn made the request so that parishes could attempt to respond with grace, that it was not going to be an immediate termination, [which] would be experienced as far more harsh. Clearly, if you believe something is an abuse, you don't give people four months to terminate it."

Bishops can and do interpret instructional documents and episcopal norms differently, said Passionist Sr. Elissa Rinere, a canon lawyer. "The fact that it can change easily is the nature of the system." It is important to understand how that system works, she said. For example, instructional documents such as Redemptionis Sacramentum may well inform a bishop's decision-making but should not supersede canon law itself.

In a 2006 article for Preach magazine, Rinere called the language on lay preaching in the instruction "chilling." She explained that the instruction not only lacks the legislative standing to trump existing canon law or episcopal norms, but contains discrepancies in wording compared with the canon's text. Rinere wrote: "The instruction cites the canon as saying 'Laypeople may preach outside Mass in churches or oratories (161).' Canon 766 does not contain the words 'outside Mass.'"

Catholics who support lay preaching have expressed dismay, even grief, at the ban.

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"I just feel as if somebody stole my church," said Miriam Meyers, a retired professor of linguistics and a longtime member of St. Stephen Parish in Minneapolis, which has involved lay preachers for almost two decades. "I think the loss [of lay preaching] is profound and really rather devastating."

Mary Wilmes, also of St. Stephen, resents the effective silencing of the voices of women and gay, lesbian, bisexual and-transgender people. As the unofficial archivist at St. Stephen, she has collected 336 sermons, which she emails to parishioners who request them. …