QUAERITUR: Priest walking around the church during his sermon

From a reader:

May a priest give his sermon off the altar and peripatetically — wander into the aisle of the nave to deliver it?

I am not aware that there is any legislation which specifically forbids a bishop, priest or deacon to remain in the sanctuary to preach.  In fact, sometimes it is necessary to exit the sanctuary in order to reach the pulpit.  In the ancient basilicas the ambo was outside the sanctuary.  Before microphones and sound systems, pulpits and ambos were often situated in the nave in help people the better to hear.  I have preached in churches where I had to leave the sanctuary to get to the pulpit.

With those common sense points understood in he background, the GIRM says:

136. Sacerdos, stans ad sedem vel in ipso ambone, vel, pro opportunitate, in alio loco idoneo, profert homiliam; qua finita, spatium silentii servari potest. … The priest, standing at the chair or at the ambo, or, when appropriate, in another suitable place, gives the homily; when the homily is completed, a period of silence as the occasion allows may be observed.

Sacerdos, stans… The priest, standing.  Not Erraticus circumvaganssuas profert nugas.

That said, it is clearly not part of the Catholic experience from the earliest centuries that a preacher should walk around.

For centuries in the pre-Conciliar form of the Roman Rite the preacher is accompanied to the pulpit by the master of ceremonies who stands nearby.  The celebrant and preacher are not to be left alone. I am summoning to my imagination’s inward eye what a roving preacher and shadowing m.c. would look like.  Stupid, I’m thinking.

I am thinking the roving preacher in the Catholic Church comes from the imposition of the man’s own personal quirk on the people of God.  This may be in imitation of Protestants, who almost by the very nature of much Protestant preaching need to impose their own personality on the sermon.

In  my opinion and experience, the Catholic preacher who does this is a narcissist.  He is drawing attention to himself.  He imposes himself, overlays himself, for his own needs, on the rite, the Word of God, and the people.

Are there exceptions?  Of course.  But not many.

Perhaps we can learn something about the idea of preaching outside the sanctuary, and strutting about like a peacock, from the Church’s rubrics for the sign of peace.  This is another occasion in which priests will jack-in-the-box out of the sanctuary where they belong and, sometimes, go to absurd lengths to see and be seen, to demonstrate how caring, warm and matey they are.


The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that funerals are one of the rare occasions when the priest is permitted to leave the sanctuary for the sign of peace.

Sometimes there are exceptions, such as processions with the Eucharist.  There is also the beginning and end of the funeral.  If there is a person of note present, the celebrant can leave the sanctuary to give the sign of peace. These are exceptions to the general rule that the priest belongs in the sanctuary.

The sanctuary is the place of the priest, symbolically and liturgically the head of the Body the Church gathered in the sacred space of the church.  The head of the assembly has his place.  The Body, assembled in the nave, have their particular place.  The priest moves into the sanctuary, as into the holy of holies, the even more sacred space within the sacred space, as if into the bridal chamber.  He should stay there for the whole sacred action.

In the older form of Mass, the priest would remove his maniple before preaching.  This was a symbolic gesture to show that he was, as it were, stepping out of Mass for the sake of the sermon.  He began and ended with the sign of the Cross.  Returning to the altar, he replaced the maniple.   After the Council great effort has been made to connect preaching to the liturgical action itself.   The sermon is generally preached from the place the Gospel is proclaimed.  The sermon is supposed to be part of the liturgical action, connected to the proclamation of the Word of God.

Darting about with a microphone is at striking variance with the post-Conciliar vision of the homily.

So, there are some liturgical directives that suggest something about this.  There are some theological and liturgical points that suggest something about this.  There is common sense, which clinches the deal.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JohnE says:

    I remember during a homily a grandfatherly deacon singing to a pretty 20-something lady on the aisle. I was embarrassed for both of them. We used to get the Phil Donohue style homily every now and then with the priest or deacon solicitating “audience participation”. Thankfully we haven’t been subjected to that for some time.

  2. Fr. Erik Richtsteig says:

    A friend of mine refers to this phenomenon as ‘Shambulation”. [Good one!]

  3. The priest has his place, and the faithful have their place, but these days, order is cast aside and everybody is in everybody else’s territory. In an age when the laity are constantly wandering in and out of the sanctuary (thanks in no small part to the removal of the altar rail), it comes as no surprise to see the priest wandering around the nave. I feel embarrassed for priests who do this: they look like they’re doing a night club act.

  4. Dax says:

    That said, it is clearly not part of the Catholic experience….

    Not to worry, This guy’s “Mass” has never been part of the Catholic experience. A true disgrace and Cardinal George put him away last year for public disobedience only to bring him back a few months later. He prances about, screaming in phony inner-city Blackspeak. He drives a Cadillac Escalade and the tags read DA BLOOD. He is Chicago’s first White African American Gang Member priest. Very frustrating.

  5. ContraMundum says:

    The only “audience participation” I’ve ever seen was by a foreign visiting priest at a parish I stopped in at while driving across country. This happened shortly after Saddam Hussein’s two sons had been killed and the photos of their battered corpses released to the public. The priest asked if we didn’t think that was a questionable decision. BIG MISTAKE! The parish was MUCH more hawkish than the priest had guessed, and the comments were what you might expect, and the recessional hymn was changed to some patriotic song instead of a hymn. That, in my opinion, was way out of hand, and I have never liked “patriotic songs” replacing hymns at Mass.

  6. My understanding is that, normally, the preacher (bishop, deacon or priest) can properly preach from the pulpit or from the chair. If I recall correctly, one must be a bishop to preach sitting–excepting for health issues of course.

    That said, I think an exception was allowed for preaching to children? It seems to help with the younger ones–so I have preached in the aisle for children approaching first communion, but not after. And I don’t do it all the time.

    Also, when the Gospel is proclaimed on Palm Sunday, before the procession, a homily may be given at that time–and that is not in the sanctuary.

    Father, what would you say about a preacher who moved to other points in the sanctuary, when explaining some of the architecture and the sacred action? I have, for example, gone to the altar during a homily when explaining something about the Mass–including offering Mass ad orientem. I agree with your approach toward exceptions–they can happen, but should truly be exceptional.

  7. Fr. Fox: preacher who moved to other points in the sanctuary, when explaining some of the architecture and the sacred action

    Hmmm… I think that turns Mass into a didactic experience.

    To riff on a Star Trek trope, he’s a priest, not a docent.

    There is room for explanations of things like that in a sermon, but why a priest would need to walk around to do that, I cannot tell.

  8. Texas trad says:

    Recently, at a family event in Louisiana, I was forced to attend a Mass in which the priest ran from side to side and up the center aisle, thundering remarks supposedly passing for a sermon, telling jokes, and waving his arms all around. He could have easily been mistaken for Jimmy Swaggart!! My relatives tell me that he has been like this for 7 years without a single exception on Sunday.

  9. acardnal says:

    “I have, for example, gone to the altar during a homily when explaining something about the Mass–including offering Mass ad orientem. I agree with your approach toward exceptions–they can happen, but should truly be exceptional.”

    Or. . . .explain the items outside of Mass. Perhaps before Mass. Or during CCD class. Or adult education night. Just some examples.

  10. jbas says:

    The rubrics and tradition seem to offer sufficiently clear guidance here. Since I read my sermons from a text I prepare during the week, it would be difficult for me to walk to and fro. But I do seem to shift from one leg to the other, if that counts. I like to walk around when speaking to groups, especially if there are questions. But the sermon at Mass seems to me to lend itself to a more formal positioning of the preacher.

  11. anilwang says:

    For the record, the Anglican Use does seem to preserve the “preaching from the nave” tradition (which quite jarring the first time I saw it), and it is done in an entirely non-narcissistic way:


  12. AnAmericanMother says:

    No preaching.
    That’s a Gospel Procession with chanted Gospel — usually used on High Holy Days, but some parishes do it all the time. With incense as well.
    After completing the Gospel and intoning, “The Gospel of the Lord” and receiving the answer, “Praise be to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ”, the procession returns to the sanctuary and the priest enters the pulpit.

  13. pseudomodo says:

    Whenever I have seen priests do this I always imagine them as ‘Abandoning the Gospel’!

    Proclaiming the Gospel and then walking away from it is what I see. I know, another opinion is that they are taking the Gospel to the people, but this is not how I see it.

    They should remain at the ambo in persona Christi.

    My opinion

  14. GIRM
    Liturgy of the Word
    After the Gospel proclamation, the priest celebrant preaches the Homily (66). He may do this standing at the chair, at the ambo, or at some other suitable place (136).

    I shudder to think what some would see as a “suitable place”

  15. JPManning says:

    ‘If there is a person of note present, the celebrant can leave the sanctuary to give the sign of peace. ‘

    Does anyone else find this concession a bit jarring? Who is a person of note? The rich guy who paid for the new church roof? The famous sister who wrote a groundbreaking theology book?
    It offends my Catholic sensibilities, perhaps I need to re-calibrate.

  16. ContraMundum says:


    Yes, that is a bit jarring, but I think a typical real-world example would be the principle mourner at a funeral.

  17. ContraMundum says:


    In churches where the Tabernacle is hidden away in a spare closet, perhaps that would also be a suitable place from which the homily might be delivered.

  18. yatzer says:

    Most churches are not ideal in their acoustics. When the preacher walks around, it often alters the sound from the microphone. Sometimes it helps to see the preachers lips to give a hint as to the actual word. Non-ideal acoustics, alteration of sound from the microphone as the preacher moves around, and not being able to see the guy can make understanding what he is saying very difficult. Pleeeease stay in the ambo or whatever it is called that is appropriate.

  19. Luvadoxi says:


  20. Centristian says:

    It seems clear enough that the proper place for a priest to preach from is the pulpit and a bishop his cathedra (if he is in his cathedral). A Byzantine priest or bishop will preach from the ambo, which is typically central, in front of the royal doors of the icon screen (and which, in the case of a Russian Orthodox church, is merely a semicircular step devoid of any lectern at all).

    The dignity of the liturgy seems to demand that the priest’s actions correspond to that dignity even when he is offering his homily or sermon. Perambulating up and down the nave or back and forth in front of the sanctuary while holding a microphone or while equipped with a headpiece would seem to me a departure from the dignity that is rightly expected of the preacher at the liturgy. A priest or bishop’s sermon or homily is given in the context of a liturgical style of worship, after all, and not in the congregational Protestant style of worship that relies almost exclusively upon preaching. The expectations with respect to the preacher’s decorum for each are not interchangeable.

    I would not begrudge a preacher the occasional departure from the pulpit or the ambo into the nave or his perambulation to any other point of the building should he need to unusually stress some point in a more pointed way, somehow. In the grand scheme of things, it just isn’t something to get one’s knickers in a twist over. But when it is done habitually or for no evident reason other than to add drama or for a priest to make himself feel more relevant, hip, or edgy, then it becomes tiresome, even embarrassing.

    I notice that it is also the case that clergy who insist upon parading up and down the nave or zig-zagging back and forth in the sanctuary often seem to be compensating with theatrics for sermons that lack substance. Such preachers are often very entertaining, but seldom very compelling. On the other hand, there are priests who give excellent homilies whose delivery from the pulpit is sometimes so bashful that you really have to strain catch their messages. Those are the priests I wish would come down from the pulpit and stand right in front of me, instead of the ones who do.

  21. acardnal says:

    ContraMundum says:
    11 June 2012 at 5:57 pm


    In churches where the Tabernacle is hidden away in a spare closet, perhaps that would also be a suitable place from which the homily might be delivered.

    ROTFLOL! I gotta remember that line.

  22. Mary Jane says:

    I think it was the first OF Mass I had ever been to…an OF funeral Mass for the great-uncle of a good friend of mine…anyway, during the sign of peace the priest left the altar (and the sanctuary) and walked up and down down the center aisle. He shook many folk’s hands as he went by. I was appalled.

    During his homily he did remain at the pulpit – he said that the deceased loved music, and did anyone want to get up and talk or (even better, he said) sing a song. My friend and his father stood up and chanted the Gregorian Dies Irae. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and heard.

    Anyway, just a little story. Sorry if it was slightly off-topic!

  23. Kenneth Hall says:

    @Dax, I thought I recognized Fr. Snuffy in that picture.


  24. Charles E Flynn says:

    Suggested somewhat relevant reading: Walk Like a Roman, by Mary Beard.

  25. Joseph-Mary says:

    My former parish was a icky round church with the altar in the middle and father would literally make the rounds. Was he the center of attention? You bet! I recall this quote: “I know Mass is good when I’M having fun and I’M having fun!”

  26. Andrew says:

    Pater Z:

    Erraticus circumvagans… suas profert nugas

    RTN (risum tenere nequeo)

  27. AnAmericanMother says:

    That is an AWESOME bit of ecclesiastical ju-jitsu.
    How was it received? (assuming anybody at St. Happyclappy’s knew what it was).

  28. BillyHW says:

    I’ve been seeing more of this in Ontario, too. It’s quite silly.

  29. EXCHIEF says:

    Priests (and Deacons) proclaim the word of God from the pulpit. Popularity seeking performers (Pfleiger) put on a wandering show from the aisle. The focus of the former is God. The focus of the later is themselves

  30. Legisperitus says:


  31. Acardnal:

    Well, I haven’t found that I can get hundreds of people to show up for talks away from Mass. I wish I could.

    The reality I think most pastors face is that the one great opportunity one has to teach the Faith is during Mass. We have two generations who are very badly catechized. We have folks who don’t know what it means to call the Mass a sacrifice. Who don’t know a lot of things.

    A homily is an excellent opportunity to teach them. And sometimes teaching is greatly helped by showing.

  32. Mary Jane says:

    AnAmericanMother, it definitely was awesome! It was very well received from what I could tell (I looked around to see people’s reactions). Most of the people in the pews seemed surprised but at the same time impressed and pleased. A few didn’t seem to know what was being sung, but that’s to be expected. The priest looked surprised at first, but eventually I actually heard him humming along as they sang (I could hear him humming over his microphone). After they finished and sat down, I think the priest asked if anyone else had anything to say (or sing)…no one moved. Haha. :) So the priest finished his homily and then continued Mass.

  33. boko fittleworth says:

    I was once taught that when a priest preached from the pulpit, chair, or altar, he preached in union with, and subordinated to, the Church. The assumption being that when he left those positions, he was speaking for himself. Then, when I was a novice with the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), my novice master told us not to let some inanimate object (the pulpit) dictate our preaching position. He encouraged us to roam. He was replaced as novice master at the same time I was removed as a Dominican novice. The Dominicans still pay for his room and board and healthcare and entertainment expenses. I work for a living.

  34. Centristian says:

    Father Fox:

    Then show, by all means. I mean, there are exceptions. What you’re doing, I’ll bet, bears no resemblance to the nonsensical theatrics that the above photo illustrates or that some people complain about. My own observations (athough I know you weren’t responding to me) reflect my understanding about how things should be under normal circumstances. But one could make a case that the very times in which we find ourselves do not constitute normal circumstances. You’ve judged that a different approach is called for with respect to your own congregation. Sound enough. And the fact that Catholics who have a certain scorched earth approach to critiquing their clergy and their parish liturgies might have an aneurism the moment your left wingtip protrudes from the pulpit shouldn’t discourage you, either.

  35. MPSchneiderLC says:

    I think that Fr Fox’s comment is good in moderation. I have seen good and bad versions.

    Good: 1. a priest at a mass that had a younger crowd than most, stepped behind the altar and did the actions of the Eucharistic prayer (without the elements) and pointed out how we should actively participate (in a proper sense).
    2. Marriage homily, where the priest went up to the couple and to speak about the sacrament.

    Bad: a priest who wanders outside the sanctuary for no apparent reason.

  36. MPSchneiderLC says:

    I have seen a number of priests preach from the center of the sanctuary (i.e. standing in front of the altar) and I guess that qualifies as another appropriate place. I am assuming they stay about as stationary as a 45 year old can be expected to be for 10 minutes.

  37. MrTipsNZ says:

    As Chesterton wrote of Luther, whom he deemed the originator of the “pulpit cult of personality”, he would answer Papist objections with “tell them Dr Luther would have it so!”

    And still that thunderclap roars down the ages….

  38. SJF says:

    We have this issue in our parish with one priest – the new pastor. Even at the Latin Novus Ordo, he vaults down from the ornate altar and walks up and down the nave of the church during his homily. There is a beautiful, ornate pulpit, but of course he won’t use it. He wants to come “down to the people” to “build community.” The one very important practical point is this: Only a few people can see him as he does the Phil Donahue impression. And if one can’t see him, well, it’s pretty hard to concentrate on listening to what he says. My children have great difficulty. One older gentleman I talked to complained to me that he tried sliding around in the pew to get be able to view the pastor, but then looked up and saw the empty pulpit plain as day, and said, the heck with it, and just sat there and read the bulletin. I also think it is a great insult to the craftsman who built the pulpit – the pastor just ignores it. In addition, he greatly confuses my children. Not only does he have his back to Jesus in the Tabernacle, but then he leaves Him alone on the altar. And of course, the reason the pastor does this is to draw attention to himself, not to Him. Despicable.

  39. RuralVirologist says:

    Job 1:7 (KJV) – And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

    I also agree with the reference to narcissism.

    That said, is it not possible that the words in the GIRM were not strictly prescriptive, but simply descriptive, describing the most common way a sermon is given?

  40. Mr Tips:

    That reminds me…I am pretty sure that I, in moments of frustration and hurry, having been asked once too many times by an employee for a reason for something I’d decided, said testily, “because I would have it so!”

    I didn’t remember who said it before me.

  41. irishgirl says:

    At one parish where I used to go to the OF Mass, there was a priest who ‘always’ roamed back and forth in front of the sanctuary during his homilies. I think he used the microphone that stood in front of the chair. He detached it from the stand and held it in his hand as he preached.
    He was the only priest I knew who did that.
    I don’t like it because it’s distracting and narcissistic…’hey, look at ME’.

  42. pseudomodo says:

    There is a simple solution to this…

    Whenever the wayward priest starts wandering around through the pews, get up out of your pew and follow him around.

  43. AnAmericanMother says:

    One of the priests at a parish near my parents’ house does this wandering emcee routine. Keeps trying to get ‘audience participation’ too. It’s very annoying and distracting.
    Oddly enough, he’s the same priest I’ve mentioned before, who can’t play the guitar but keeps trying. Which is torture for my poor husband who not only is an excellent guitarist (both classical and rock) but has perfect pitch. One of these days he’s probably going to charge right over the back of the pews, grab the guitar . . . . and tune it.

  44. Rev. Paul L. Vasquez says:

    Is the “ad sedem” an innovation or if traditional for how long?

    The only masses I ever leave the sanctuary are official school masses at the parish, in which to better engage the children. Should I cease this practice, Fr. Z?

  45. Rev. Paul L. Vasquez says:

    Is the 1973 Directory for Masses with Chldren still in force? It seems to suggest at least in translation that a dialogue style homily is licit. DMC 1973, n. 48.

  46. Hidden One says:

    I have seen and heard homilies preached by the priest in front of the altar – either the whole thing or just the first part. I am not sure whether this is an appropriate place.

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  48. For what it’s worth, I attended the local extraordinary form Mass this morning and was mildly surprised to see a pastor from a different parish offering the Mass in place of the usual celebrant, whose picture one might find alongside the definition of the sort of priest one would expect to find offering an extraordinary form Mass. One thing the new celebrant did that I never would have expected to see at an extraordinary form Mass was to leave the sanctuary and walk up and down the center aisle. He preached a very orthodox, real fire and brimstone homily warning us about the devil’s tricks, and exhorting us to go to confession, but I was still half expecting the congregation to force him back to the ambo somehow. In any case, I have long wondered who covers for the regular priest when he must be away, and now I guess I know, and I am happy that someone was willing to offer his services and learn how to do it.

  49. daveams says:

    I know a priest who does this. The way it was explained to me, he noticed that when he preached while stationary at the pulpit, he saw a lot of people balancing checkbooks, texting on their cell phones, playing with their game boys (or whatever they call them these days), etc. When he started moving around in the aisles, people put their toys away and at least appeared to pay more attention.

    Maybe there’s a better way to get people to pay attention, but what he said kind of makes sense to me, given what he has to deal with.

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