Lay preaching on Good Friday

Fr. Edward McNamara

Q: Could a layperson, with the diocesan bishop’s permission, licitly preach after the Gospel at the Good Friday liturgy, since it is not a Mass? 

A: Laypeople may preach on certain occasions. The 2004 instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum,” in No. 161, states:

“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. [The Code of Canon Law, Canon 766] 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.”

Some canonists argue that “Redemptionis Sacramentum,” along with a 1997 instruction regarding the collaboration of the laity with the priestly ministry, is more restrictive regarding lay preaching than the Code of Canon Law.

This indeed appears to be the case and was perhaps intentional. Certainly the documents in question were all duly approved by Pope John Paul II, who also promulgated the Code.

The prohibition of laypeople delivering the homily is much more stringent, and the Holy See has even gone so far as to state that that the diocesan bishop does not have the authority to permit a layperson to give the homily.

The reasons why the bishop cannot give this dispensation were adduced in the above-mentioned 1997 document: “[T]his is not merely a disciplinary law but one which touches upon the closely connected functions of teaching and sanctifying” (Article 3, No. 1).

It could be argued that even though the Good Friday celebration is not a Mass, the brief homily foreseen in the rubrics is for all intents and purposes of the same category as the homily during a Eucharistic celebration insofar as it “touches upon the closely connected functions of teaching and sanctifying” in the same way as during the Mass. In this case it is strictly reserved to an ordained minister.

Even if we were not before a homily in the same sense as during a Mass, a layperson would not be allowed to preach, since a priest is always present at the Good Friday celebration. And “Redemptionis Sacramentum” clearly states that lay preaching in a church or oratory is allowed “only on account of scarcity of sacred ministers.”

Thus the requisite conditions for permitting lay preaching are never met during the Good Friday celebration.

A priest is almost surely present because the possibility of celebrating the Good Friday service of the Passion with holy Communion is tied intimately with the celebration of the Maundy Thursday Mass the preceding evening. The norms for the Easter celebrations (No. 54) stipulate that the rite of transfer to the altar of repose “may not be carried out if the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion will not be celebrated in that same church on the following day.”

As far as I know, the Holy See has not approved any official rite for celebrating a version of the Easter triduum in the absence of a priest.

Even though it does not have to be the same priest who presides at both celebrations, the union of the two celebrations assures that a priest will be available to preside on Good Friday.