Should a priest deliver the homily at Mass or can anyone?

The Second Vatican Council in The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy saw the need to renew the Mass, especially in the area of what is known today as “The Liturgy of the Word.”   The Council Fathers taught, “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s Word” (#51).

Part of this “opening up” of the Word of God is linked with the homily.  In his homily, the priest has the opportunity to explain the mysteries of the faith and their relevance for today’s life.  He should exhort the people to live the fullness of the gospel message, presenting Christian moral principles and their application.  A good homily should involve the explanation of the Sacred Scriptures, the catechesis of Christian doctrine, and the exhortation to live the faith.  Consequently, the priest must not shy away from his duty to challenge his people to embrace the word of God and to live an authentic Christian life.  (Confer #52.)  The homily, therefore, is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word at Mass.  (Note that the term sermon refers to a talk on a religious subject, whereas homily refers specifically to the explanation and application of Sacred Scripture.)

This duty of the priest to give a homily has been emphasized repeatedly.   Keep in mind that the privilege of preaching the homily is reserved to the priest, because through the Sacrament of Holy Orders he receives a special charism to preach.  Vatican II’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests stated, “The People of God is formed into one in the first place by the Word of the living God, which is quite rightly sought from the mouth of priests.  For since nobody can be saved who has not first believed, it is the first task of priests as co-workers of the bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all men” (#4).

Preaching is integral not only to the office of the priest but also to his offering of the Mass.  For good reason then The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy asserted, “The homily, therefore, is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself.  In fact, at those Masses which are celebrated on Sundays and holy days of obligation, with the people assisting, it should not be omitted except for a serious reason” (#52).

According to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (1970) which provides the norms for the offering of Mass, a homily is to be given on Sundays and holy days of obligation at Masses celebrated with people.  A homily is also recommended for daily Masses or other Masses with a congregation, especially during Advent, Lent, and Easter season.  (Confer #42.)

However, in the aftermath of the liturgical renewal, the Holy See saw the need to clarify certain norms and frankly to correct some abuses, particularly that of someone other than a priest delivering a homily during Mass.  The Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued its Third Instruction on the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1970) and clearly asserted, “The homily is the task of the priest.”  Ten years later, the same congregation, now named The Sacred Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship, repeated the regulation: “The Homily is to be given by the priest or deacon” (#3).

These principles have been incorporated into the Code of Canon Law, again asserting the duty of the priest (or deacon) to preach the homily during Mass but also restricting the privilege to him alone (Canon 767).  Note that lay persons may preach if necessary in certain circumstances or under special conditions outside the context of Mass (Canon 766); however, during the celebration of Mass, the privilege and duty of preaching remains with the priest alone.

Most recently, in 1997, eight Vatican offices issued an instruction entitled Some Questions Regarding Collaboration of Nonordained Faithful in Priests’ Sacred Ministry.  Here again, the point is clearly made: “The homily, therefore, during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, must be reserved to the sacred minster, priest or deacon, to the exclusion of the nonordained faithful, even if these should have responsibilities as ‘pastoral assistants’ or catechists in whatever type of community or group.  This exclusion is not based on the preaching ability of sacred ministers nor their theological preparation, but on that function which is reserved to them in virtue of having received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.”  (Confer Article 3.)

In cases where a special appeal is made at Mass, such as if the Little Sisters of the Poor visit the parish to appeal for donations, a talk may be given after the homily or better yet, after Holy Communion.  Again, in no way should a priest relinquish his duty to preach the Gospel, and in no way should the talk be confused with the homily.