ASK FATHER: Can a nun preach a homily?

From a reader…


Last night the priest saying Mass, said that a nun who was the head of a Theology department at a university could dictate who had faculties to say a homily at the university church. So the such a nun could give the homily. Is this correct? I did a little search of the interweb and it seems, as I thought, only ordained men may give a homily.

The Church has been clear on this topic. Despite the efforts of numerous liturgists and religious women and lay parish administrators, the homily – pay attention! – is reserved to those in Holy Orders.

Can. 767 states – clearly – that the homily is reserved to priests (sacerdos includes priests and bishops) and deacons. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes a preference for the priest who is offering the Holy Mass to be the homilist, but allows for another priest or, in certain circumstances, a deacon to preach.

There is no wiggle room.

There are no ifs, howevers, or buts.

Those who are not bishops, priests, or deacons who continue to preach homilies at Mass are simply being disobedient and commit scandal, publicly, and on a large scale.

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  1. Nicolas Bellord says:

    I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
    Boswell: Life

    I know very un-pc!

  2. Nuns can preach homilies. Just not in church, and not during Mass. [Well… they can gives talks.]

  3. DonL says:

    Memories of a small cluster of churches run by a nun in upper New York state where Mass would be said by a “visiting” priest on a rotating basis. She would give a homily on occasion while father sat and listened–it would include the corrupted teachings of such earth-shakers as Pierre Tielhard de Chardin.
    I must say, she ran a well organized group of churches–soul-saving notwithstanding.

  4. Peter in Canberra says:

    the context of the query is completely different but I understood that a priest who is not proficient in the language of the people he is preaching too may have a layperson read a sermon in the vernacular of those people?

  5. Emsley says:

    What about at a “communion service”? This happened regularly at a parish I attended. It made me uncomfortable to the point that I would always check to make sure Father wasn’t on retreat or something before I went to daily mass.

  6. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Excerpts from INAESTIMABILE DONUM; Pope John Paul II, 1980:

    “. . . But these encouraging and positive aspects cannot suppress concern at the varied and frequent abuses being reported from different parts of the Catholic world: the confusion of roles, especially regarding the priestly ministry and the role of the laity (indiscriminate shared recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer, homilies given by lay people, lay people distributing Communion while the priests refrain from doing so); an increasing loss of the sense of the sacred. . . ”

    a) The Mass
    3. The purpose of the homily is to explain to the faithful the Word of God proclaimed in the readings, and to apply its message to the present. Accordingly the homily is to be given by the priest or the deacon.(15)”

    The Priest and the Ministry of the Word ;Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

    I believe women to be the most powerful preachers in their role as mother – when they’re instilling and nurturing belief in God and love of God in their children – by their words and actions.

    The Gospel would seem to convey a similar notion :

    Luke 1:38
    “Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”

    John 2:5
    “His mother said to the servers, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ ”

    John 19:25
    “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. “

  7. Elizabeth D says:

    There is a chapter of my book on the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa on the topic of women homilists which covers discussions of the subject among Dominican Sisters, and what the Church says on the matter. Non-ordained homilists at Mass are unambiguously and always forbidden in Church law and that has been repeatedly underscored. Often this topic of women homilists is closely related to the misguided desire for women to be ordained as deacons or priests.

  8. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    This is a classic Zombie Question. No matter how many times Rome answers it, it just keeps coming back.

  9. Cincinnati Priest says:

    Emsley: Regarding Communion services (more properly, “Liturgy of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion”) the U. S. Bishops Conference is clear that these are to be done only in the absence of the priest under very carefully prescribed circumstances (such as no other nearby Mass being possible) and *never* because you want to give sister of deacon a chance to “do something”.

    Here’s the USCCB document:

    and the ‘money quote’
    “A Liturgy of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion should never be scheduled for the purpose of ‘providing a role’ for deacons or lay ministers. ”

    Celebrations of such services is even more tightly prescribed to very limited circumstances.

    Sadly, many parishes have “Communion services” for just such reasons, even if they have another Mass celebrated later that day or there is a Mass going on at the same time nearby.

    To his credit, our ordinary, Archbishop Schnurr, has directed all his priests in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to cease and desist from this practice. (Unfortunately, some are still openly defying him, but that’s another story).

  10. Cincinnati Priest says:


    Celebrations of such services is even more tightly prescribed to very limited circumstances.

    should read

    Celebrations of such services _on a Sunday in lieu of Mass_ are even more tightly prescribed to very limited circumstances.

  11. Gerard Plourde says:

    Notwithstanding the fact that women have been recognized as Doctors of the Church (St. Catherine of Siena, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Hildegard of Bingen) and that there are women theologians whose work fully supports the magisterium, the fact is that the Homily’s purpose is intimately tied to the fabric of the Mass and is therefore an action that must be reserved to the Priest or the Permanent Deacon. In it the homilist is required to reflect on and “break open” the day’s Scripture readings, enabling the faithful to gain deepened understanding of what God asks of us as His children. It is meant to open our minds and hearts to the worthy reception of Our Lord – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – in Holy Communion and Whose abiding grace enables us to live out our discipleship in our daily lives. (The Dismissal option added at the direction of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us of this duty – “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”)

    One of the deficiencies that crept into the celebration of the Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council was the all-too-frequent practice of a sermon either totally ignoring the words of the Epistle and Gospel that had been proclaimed or giving it extremely cursory treatment. This practice was an understandable reaction given the distorted exclusive primacy accorded Scripture by the liturgies of the Calvinists and the Protestant groups influenced by them (e.g. “Low Church” Anglicans). Nevertheless, it needed to be corrected.

  12. rtjl says:

    I recently dissociated myself from a parish where the “liturgists” decided that they (non-ordainded) would start giving the homily. This wasn’t the reason I left. I already had ample reason for leaving.

    My experience in this parish left me with a low opinion of “liturgists”. In additions to the old saw about the differenct between a liturgist and a terrorist, I now have my own definition of a liturgist. A liturgist is someone who is prepared to enforce with an iron fist any liturgical rule that is one of their personal favourites, even if it is of their own devising, and who is prepared to set aside any liturgical rule they disagree with no matter how authoritative. At the parish I left, for instance, people were prohibited from receive communion kneeling or on the tongue but select lay people were permitted to give homilies.

    I mean no disrepect to the importance of good liturgy or to liturgists who respect church law and attempt to work out how the liturgy can best be celebrated within the prescribed limits. My disrepsect is limited just those “liturgists” who think they are authorized to ignore church regulations and directives at will and to create their own rites, practices and laws.

    BTW. My reasons for leaving this parish also included the following. The head of sacramental prep was a divorced and “remaried” woman who was “married” to a divorced and “remarried” man – no anullments – and the fact that a regular and recurring celebrant and homilest was a visiting homosexual priests who was openly living with his lover. Good grief.

  13. mburn16 says:

    File this under the “flaws of having holy mass as your only organized worship” category. [?] Yes, the Homily must be reserved for the Priest or Deacon. And yes, I’ve seen lay homilies. [No, you haven’t, because homilies are reserved to bishops, priests and deacons.] And yes, it makes for a certain level of discomfort. That said, there is an enormous capability among the non-ordained to spread the Gospel (using words, whenever possible). As Catholics, we don’t make effective use of this capability.

    Just as guitar music may be inappropriate for holy mass, but an otherwise entirely acceptable method of praising God…lay preaching may be inappropriate for holy mass, but an otherwise entirely valid method of spreading (or, when the preaching would take place among the faithful – as would probably usually be the case, reinforcing) the faith.

  14. Matt Robare says:

    I recall reading somewhere that the abbesses of Las Huelgas in Spain received dispensation to preach homilies. They are also said to have been allowed to hear confession and grant absolution. It seems, however, that though the privileges granted to the abbess were great, these were just legends.

  15. gracie says:

    Question – is a homily required at Mass? I ask this because at two Masses held at two different parishes, a woman got up and spoke during “homily time”. After each Mass, I sought out the pastor and said to him I thought that only a priest or deacon could give a homily. In each case, the pastor said to me, “But it’s not a homily, dear, it’s a reflection.” The phrase that popped into my head was “change the name; change the game”. Perhaps that’s being unfair to the pastors, however, because if a homily can be eliminated, are there any rules about what can take its place? If not, then what they’re doing would seem to be legit.

  16. Joe in Canada says:

    gracie; a homily is not required, but people can’t just add things to the Mass. The Mass does not call for a reflection after the Gospel, and does not allow for one to be imposed.

    Another point similar to one in the original post: “a nun who was the head of a Theology department at a university could dictate who had faculties to say a homily at the university church.” A person (male or female) who is in charge of ‘campus ministry’ might be able to say which priests were allowed to say Mass at the university church (if that was the arrangement with the local ordinary), but he or she could not stop an approved priest from preaching a homily.

  17. John of Chicago says:

    Gracie–I heard a similar, but not identical, explanation from a pastor awhile back. He said that the rules state that the homily must always be about that day’s Scripture readings and/or prayers, and be appropriate in both content and manner for those gathered at that Mass. The priest also said that, to be a homily, it must be given by a priest/deacon/bishop but that after a sentence or two of introduction based on the Scripture, the priest could invite a non-ordained person to continue the homily in the same way that the priest could have chosen to quote at length from a non-ordained writer–as long as the material was good, sound and appropriate. The priest/homilist thus takes responsibility for all that is said.

  18. Geoffrey says:

    In the 1990s my family attended a rather ‘progressive’ parish. The nuns (in pant suits) who worked at the parish would occasionally give a ‘reflection’ in place of the priest’s homily. I think the ‘preaching nun’ would wear an alb… But at least they didn’t call it a homily. Thankfully, I have not seen this repeated.

  19. msc says:

    At a parish I used to attend (it was close and we didn’t have a car and bus service was horrible on Sundays etc.) a pair of lay women regularly delivered … let’s call them ‘sermons’ from the Latin “conversation”. They weren’t even nuns. But the church was run by a very liberal order.

    What about when the homily is omitted in favour of something like a financial report on the parish (why can’t it just be a handout for people to read on their own) or on the works of some charitable group? I always feel ripped off when that happens and we don’t get a real homily.

  20. Cicero_NOLA says:

    I was particularly distressed on Trinity Sunday that a religious sister spoke (from the ambo) about the charitable work she had been doing in South America for the last 40 years. The collection that weekend was going to support her work. It certainly explained why our priest gave a longer than usual greeting/introduction from the presider’s chair.

    I’m sad to see in these comments that I’m not the only one to be distracted from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass by such deviations from the clear instruction of the Church.

  21. Hidden One says:

    mburn16, it sounds like you would be (will be) a strong supporter of the most ancient practice of public celebrations of the Divine Office, especially Sunday Vespers, in suitable churches.

  22. John of Chicago says:

    Regarding whether a homily is required at Mass: this is, likely, pertinent.

    GIRM Chapter II–“On Sundays and Holydays of Obligation there is to be a Homily at every Mass that is celebrated with the people attending, and it may not be omitted without a grave reason. On other days it is recommended, especially on the weekdays of Advent, Lent, and Easter Time, as well as on other festive days and occasions when the people come to church in greater numbers.[65]

  23. Imrahil says:

    Pace the GIRM, one of the chief appeals of specifically weekday Masses is that they are so refreshingly sermon-free. After all, the people aren’t obliged to even be there at all. So, I’d say: let them worship and perhaps do a little contemplation for themselves.

    This, by coincidence, seems to be the EF tradition too, which around here is largely followed in the OF as well.

    Dear Hidden One,

    while Sunday Vespers is in principle a great thing… the problem with the Divine Office is that it, too, is fixed by the Church… maybe not with rubrics, but still with a given text one cannot deviate from – whereas what mburn16 seems to have been referring to is forms of organized worship that can freely be organized without being bound to a shape, while still being public.

    And, I’ll be frank: If I have the choice between Sunday Vespers (which we usually don’t have) and “May Service” (i. e., a free-style popular Marian devotion in public office, with lots of traditional Marian songs – often a great pleasure to sing along… – in the month of May) (and that we do have, and it is mostly when Sunday vespers would be), then I think I’d mostly choose the latter.

  24. janeway529 says:

    No, nuns cannot “preach a homily.” She can, however, offer a “reflection,” but most people in the pews wouldn’t know the difference. I think this would fall under the same grey area as seminarians giving a “reflection” at Sunday Mass.

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