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Gospel Reflection by a Layperson?

No "reflection" of any kind may be given by a layperson during Mass except for those brief, prepared commentaries that may introduce some parts of the celebration according to liturgical norms.
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source: Catholic.net
Q: After the Gospel reading, sometimes our priest sits in the congregation and a lay minister gets up to give a reflection. When I questioned this practice with our bishop's office, I was told (not by the bishop) that as long as the priest gives a homily, whose duration could be one minute, the lay ministers can give the "reflection." Is this true? -- K.H., Minnesota

A: The recent instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" has dealt with this point quite clearly and in several places.

No. 64 states: "The homily, which is given in the course of the celebration of Holy Mass and is a part of the Liturgy itself, 'should ordinarily be given by the Priest celebrant himself. He may entrust it to a concelebrating Priest or occasionally, according to circumstances, to a Deacon, but never to a layperson.'"

No. 65 continues: "It should be borne in mind that any previous norm that may have admitted non-ordained faithful to give the homily during the eucharistic celebration is to be considered abrogated by the norm of canon 767 §§1. This practice is reprobated, so that it cannot be permitted to attain the force of custom."

No. 66 adds: "The prohibition of the admission of laypersons to preach within the Mass applies also to seminarians, students of theological disciplines, and those who have assumed the function of those known as 'pastoral assistants'; nor is there to be any exception for any other kind of layperson, or group, or community, or association."

This theme is taken up once more in No. 74: "If the need arises for the gathered faithful to be given instruction or testimony by a layperson in a Church concerning the Christian life, it is altogether preferable that this be done outside Mass. Nevertheless, for serious reasons it is permissible that this type of instruction or testimony be given after the Priest has proclaimed the Prayer after Communion. This should not become a regular practice, however. Furthermore, these instructions and testimony should not be of such a nature that they could be confused with the homily, nor is it permissible to dispense with the homily on their account."

And finally in No. 161: "As was already noted above, the homily on account of its importance and its nature is reserved to the Priest or Deacon during Mass. As regards other forms of preaching, if necessity demands it in particular circumstances, or if usefulness suggests it in special cases, lay members of Christ's faithful may be allowed to preach in a church or in an oratory outside Mass in accordance with the norm of law. This may be done only on account of a scarcity of sacred ministers in certain places, in order to meet the need, and it may not be transformed from an exceptional measure into an ordinary practice, nor may it be understood as an authentic form of the advancement of the laity. All must remember besides that the faculty for giving such permission belongs to the local Ordinary and this as regards individual instances; this permission is not the competence of anyone else, even if they are Priests or Deacons."

Therefore it is quite clear that the answer you received from the chancery office (which may have been before the publication of this new instruction) is now quite incorrect. Before this clarification was published it was considered possible that a bishop could authorize a layperson to read a prepared text after the homily on some special occasions. This was always seen as an exception and never a habitual practice.

The reason given in the document for this disposition is that the homily is part of the liturgy itself. As such it is a sacred action and only a sacred minister may carry it out.

Because of this sacred character the Church teaches that the homily is endowed with a special presence of Christ that Pope Paul VI did not hesitate to call a "real presence" on a par with the real presence of Christ in the assembly, in the readings, and in the person of the minister although not on the same level as Christ's substantial presence in the Eucharist.

This special presence, which gives a spiritual efficacy to the homily surpassing the minister's oratorical skills, is possible only if preached by a sacred minister acting as Christ's representative.

No "reflection" of any kind may be given by a layperson during Mass except for those brief, prepared commentaries that may introduce some parts of the celebration according to liturgical norms.

On exceptional occasions, such as when a lay missionary makes an appeal, a testimony may be given after the prayer after Communion. But the homily may not be omitted for this purpose, although the priest may give a briefer than usual homily if the time between Masses is rather short.

The priest may sit to listen to a lay testimony after Communion. But he should keep his place at the presidential chair and not sit among the congregation.

* * *

Follow-up: Substituting "Lamb of God"

Changing the words of the "Lamb of God" is just the tip of the iceberg of the wider problem of unauthorized ad-libbing during Mass. And this problem includes liturgical gestures.

A Wisconsin reader mentions one case of changes to gestures in a Mass. He writes: "After the consecration, all 13 or 14 members of the congregation gathered around the altar and the priest gives them the host. We hold Jesus in our hands, we don't consume it, and the priest announces, while elevating his host, 'This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world ...' After all the proper prayers have been said, we then consume the host. No one raises his own host during the prayer. Is this allowable?"

Our correspondent was justifiably perturbed by this "change" which lacks any theological justification and infringes so many norms it's hard to know where to begin.

Not least among the norms violated is that the faithful receive Communion before the priest has completed the sacrifice by consuming the Precious Blood before distributing Communion. This places the faithful in a position that belongs only to priest concelebrants.

Perhaps the priest desired to bring this small group into closer participation of the Eucharist by this ritual innovation. But the fundamental problem remains the same as when one elaborates one's own texts: The meaning the Church expresses through her rites is vacated by the action of an individual and the celebration loses something of its inherent Catholicity.

It can also foment erroneous doctrine by blurring the distinction between ministerial and common priesthood. Moreover, it can weaken the experience of wonder before the Eucharistic mystery and it perhaps overemphasizes the meal aspect of the Eucharist at the expense of the fundamental concept of sacrifice.

All the same, some readers sincerely desire to know what means there are to adapt the liturgy to special circumstances.

First it is crucial to grasp the essence of liturgy as participation in the Church's universal worship. What gives importance to our particular circumstances is the chance to offer them together with Christ's eternal sacrifice in the liturgy. The liturgy gives our circumstances meaning -- not vice versa.

This is essential in understanding and joyfully embracing the necessary limits imposed by liturgical participation.

Once this is grasped, then the true possibilities of adaptation opened up by the liturgy may be fully capitalized on. This requires gaining a thorough knowledge of the liturgical norms and of the possibility of incorporating other liturgical rites which are often underused.

Thus, for example, although the rites and prayers are faithfully respected, adaptation to particular circumstances can be made by choosing an appropriate Mass formula from the Masses for particular circumstances offered in the missal.

This could include the Mass for the growth of charity, for reconciliation, or for peace and justice. This can also involve the choice of a particular Eucharistic Prayer from among those approved for special needs.

On some occasions the liturgy allows the readings to be changed so that appropriate scriptural texts may be chosen. It is also possible for the priest, or a commentator, to make some brief comments alluding to the special circumstances. Special prayers of the faithful may also be prepared.

On some occasions, selections from the Book of Blessings may be incorporated into the Mass to enhance a particular moment, such as the blessing of pilgrims on their departure or return, or the blessing of students and teachers at the beginning of the school year.

Thus the liturgy itself offers many possibilities to adapt to particular circumstances while remaining in full harmony with the mind and heart of the Church.

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