ASK FATHER: Father is not preaching on Sundays. Does this violate Canon Law?

From a reader…


Our pastor is a wonderful, faith-filled priest who absolutely loves the traditional liturgy. We are lucky to have him. He’s also a magnificent preacher.

However, I’ve noticed he sometimes doesn’t preach at Sunday Mass. Even though he is really good at it, he has admitted that it is exhausting for him and he really doesn’t like it. Of course we only attend one Mass on Sundays, so I can’t say for sure if he doesn’t preach at all the Sunday Masses, or just the one we attend. And it’s not every Sunday. Just every so often.

Some fellow parishioners and I have grown concerned that he may be violating Canon Law by not preaching at Mass on Sundays. As far as we laymen understand, it’s required at Mass on Sundays by the pastor.

Is there something we don’t understand in this situation? And if our pastor is doing something incorrect, how do we approach him about it?

Here’s what the 1983 Code says in Can. 767

§2. A homily must be given [habenda est] at all Masses on Sundays and holy days of obligation which are celebrated with a congregation, and it cannot be omitted except for a grave cause. [nec omitti potest nisi gravi de causa]

§3. It is strongly recommended that if there is a sufficient congregation, a homily is to be given even at Masses celebrated during the week, especially during the time of Advent and Lent or on the occasion of some feast day or a sorrowful event.

§4. It is for the pastor or rector of a church to take care that these prescripts are observed conscientiously.

My initial reaction is to muse, with St. Augustine, about Father’s preaching.  Your feedback is different from the complaint Augustine received from some preaching in his day. To wit:

“You have had to acknowledge and complain that often, because you talked too long and with too little enthusiasm, it has befallen you to become commonplace and wearisome even to yourself, not to mention him whom you were trying to instruct by your discourse, and the others who were present as listeners.”

You say that Father is a good preacher, so that’s out.  Nevertheless, we who step into the pulpit can all take that to heart.

Preaching comes easier to some than to others.  Augustine addresses this in Book IV of De doctrina christiana.   For some it just flows and for others it’s like pulling your own teeth.  I have known priest who suffer from real “stage fright”.  They man up.

The Council of Trent in Session 24 demands something that goes back long before Trent, that is, preaching saltem diebus dominicis et solemnibus festis… at least on Sunday and solemn feasts.   At least, not “only” and not, “if you want”.

Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium 52 says: “at those Masses which are celebrated with the assistance of the people on Sundays and feasts of obligation, [a homily] should not be omitted except for a serious reason.”

Look familiar?  Can. 767 §2 was taken from SC 52.

So, Father may not, except for a grace reason, omit preaching on Sunday.  The Canon says, “all Masses” on Sundays.  Not some.

What could be a grave reason?

Bombs are falling.  There is an invading swarm of locusts.  The church is on fire.  An altar boy is on fire.   FATHER is on fire.

Father feeling ill could be a reason.  If Father is frail and preaching is so exhausting that he can then barely get through Mass, that could be a grave reason.  Even then, he could probably manage to say something.

Nothing in can. 767 determines how long, how loud, or how involved the sermon must be.  Short sermons can be good things.  Looooong sermons can be good things.  Too long sermons are too long.   How do we determine how long is too long?  Father’s of the Church could go on for a couple hours at a time.  The congregation didn’t have iPhones and therefore they had attention spans longer than rabid squirrels.

Not liking to preach is not a grave reason, unless that dislike is so overwhelming that it renders Father unconscious.  I suggest then that he needs help.

No, Father needs to preach on Sundays.  It his duty and privilege unless there is some grave cause.  He should fulfill his task, diebus saltem dominicis. 

How do you approach him?

You might jot down what you find in Trent, Session 24 – look it up in English, the 1983 Code, Sacrosanctum Concilium 52, and…

… let him take to heart the approach of St. John Chrysostom:

“Preaching improves me. When I begin to speak, weariness disappears; when I begin to teach, fatigue too disappears. Thus neither sickness itself nor indeed any other obstacle is able to separate me from your love….For just as you are hungry to listen to me, so too I am hungry to preach to you. My congregation is my only glory, and every one of you means more to me than anyone of the city outside….Oftentimes in my dreams I see myself in the pulpit speaking to you.”

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  1. Pingback: ASK FATHER: Father is not preaching on Sundays. Does this violate Canon Law? | Fr. Z’s Blog – The Old Roman

  2. TonyO says:

    I have only done publicly speaking a few dozen times, and I too find it exhausting, but part of the exhaustion (only part) is in the preparation time: figuring out exactly what I want to say and how to say it.

    However, a priest has a fall-back that I haven’t had: a priest can pick up the sermons of the Fathers of the Church (and the Doctors, etc) and give those a re-hearing. I wonder if you were to give Fr. a copy of the sermons of St. John Chrysostom, (good ol’ Golden Tongue), that might relieve him of some of his difficulty?

    (I remember that one of my pastors used to read from the homilies of the Holy Father for daily mass homily, which lightened the burden of his figuring out what he would say. He would just read a 5-minute chunk of it. That might have worked better if the well-meaning pastor (a) had understood what he was reading, and could figure out where to start and where to stop to make comprehensible chunks, and (b) if he had bothered to note that the homilies related to a completely different cycle of readings, but hey, he made an effort.)

  3. ARPugsley says:

    Once many years ago I went to Mass and the priest, following the Gospel, simply said “I am sorry. My mother passed away last night, and I found myself unable to prepare a homily.” He only asked for our prayers. Oddly enough, this witness–that the priest is human and as in need of prayers as I am–was as powerful a sermon as I have ever heard. Et lacrimatus est Iesus.

  4. iamlucky13 says:

    A little psychological angle to consider…

    I find the many of the tasks I am most averse to starting are those I feel least competent at. Receiving positive feedback about skills I have been uncertain about has significantly helped me get over my hesitation to tackle certain tasks.

    Contrariwise, receiving negative feedback makes it a lot harder for me to tackle related tasks. It makes these tasks more exhausting and I begin to dislike them…just like your pastor has admitted about sermons. You mentioned that he is traditional and a good preacher. As such, it is pretty much guaranteed he has said many things that anger certain people, so I can likewise pretty much guarantee he hears lots of negative feedback.

    Make sure he knows you find him to be a good preacher. Help him have confidence in his preaching with positive feedback.

    I also struggle a little bit with perfectionism as a source of reluctance to begin a task I don’t feel I can accomplish satisfactorily. It is also good to set realistic expectations. Make sure father knows that you’d be happy to hear a short, simple sermon rather than no sermon, and that you find his sermons often exceeding expectations, so he doesn’t wear himself out trying to achieve the same level every time. It would be great if that were possible, but he is only human.

  5. David says:

    Quaeritur clarificationis: the questioner doesn’t actually say NO ONE preaches at the Sunday Mass(es) in question, but only that THE PASTOR sometimes doesn’t preach at those Masses. Also, Canon 767 Section 4 doesn’t say that THE PASTOR HAS TO DO ALL THE REQUIRED PREACHING; it merely says that it is the Pastor’s or Rector’s duty to take care that the rest of Canon 767 is followed conscientiously. Might it be that occasionally the Pastor fulfills his duty by having the Parochial Vicar, or a visiting priest, preach at the Masses in question?

  6. kurtmasur says:

    Although I think most priests are either able to prepare a homily before hand or say something ad libitum, I have seen some priests read from a “pre-packaged” homily taken from other sources. Perhaps this could be a convenient solution for Father?

    In either case, I don’t judge if a priest does this, because I’m thinking I myself would probably be doing the same if I were a priest. In fact, back in my childhood/adolescence days when I had wanted to become a priest, I remember that I had found the mere thought of saying homilies frightening and discouraging, as I am not the public speaking type, and the very few public speeches I have given have been total disasters.

    BTW, I remember reading about a certain priest which carried the title of “sacerdos simplex”, which meant that he could only say the mass but without a homily. In fact, I think he had explicit instructions from his bishop that he was not allowed to say homilies. What a lucky priest, I remember thinking, lol.

  7. Rob83 says:

    There was a young priest going back many years who was in the habit of giving a homily that ran between one sentence and one paragraph in length. Granted, it was a 10PM last call Mass on Sunday night for students, but the brevity was generally more effective than the pastor’s more long-winded efforts.

  8. DavidJ says:

    I would also go the positive reinforcement route:

    “Father, I’m sorry we didn’t get to hear a homily today. I find your homilies really edifying” or the like.

  9. sjoseph371 says:

    Silly question – does it matter if the Priest is the one who preaches? The rules mentioned did not say the PRIEST had to preach at every Mass, just that a homily must be given. The reason I ask is that sometimes I’ve seen the Deacons preach at Masses.
    The funniest exchange I saw between the Priest and Deacon was right before the entrance procession and the Deacon asked the priest, “So, Father, what are you preaching on today?” and the priest replied, “Me? I thought YOU were preaching today!” Father did wind up having a wonderful homily that Sunday, though.

  10. Imrahil says:

    A couple of observations.

    1. Yes, the priest is violating canon-law, as our reverend host explained. That is unless someone else, another priest, a deacon, does the preaching, as some commenters have observed. (I didn’t on my own even think of this possibility, because why would they ask the question, then.)

    2. The canon in question is a command by an authority and definitely not ultra vires or unconscionable; as such, disobedience would generally be sinful. If the concern of the parishioners really (!) is about their pastor’s soul and they find some helpful way of administering the work-of-mercy of admonishing him, then by all means go for it. “We understand, and if it were us who had to decide we’d be quite fine with you skipping the sermon on the one or the other occasion when you’re too exhausted; but, and we hate to start like that with one who, like you, is our superior, but order is still order and we really don’t want you to sin”, and the like.

    3. If the spirit is more of a “he’s not giving us what we deserve” – even though this would on this occasion be, technically, true – the way to go is keeping one’s mouth shut. This wouldn’t be helpful; and the fact that what is being served in a non-helpful manner is the right thing would rather make the matter worse.

    4. Praeter legem, it seems to be a legal custom to assume a dispensation for a couple of holy days of obligation, to wit the “second holidays” of St. Stephen, Easter Monday and Pentecost Monday (which are of obligation in Germany).

    5. The law seems to assume the sermon on weekday Masses to be the normal, though not obligatory, thing. In practice the sermon is the exception; and in my view, should be. (I also think it should be an exception that sometimes happens.) In particular, a practice as described by the dear TonyO… come on. It’s not an obligation, on a weekday. So, don’t treat it as an unwanted obligation, but either as something you want to do, or don’t do it at al.

    6. The priest in question is, the questioner says, a good preacher. A good preacher will write his own sermons and perform them by heart. It is quite legitimate, per se, to pull off some pre-formed sermon or read the Matins reading, but a good preacher won’t want to do that, and did, he’d rewrite it, making it his own, not being a trained actor who can make Hamlet’s soliloquy into his own without rewriting it (as all those of us who attended drama course at school know, the yet greater skill); or maybe he even does that. He’s got a lot of work in either case.

    It’s not a sin to pull off an orthodox, rather uninspired sermon picked up somewhere, but a good preacher won’t do that, just as you couldn’t bring me to pull off “hurray hurray hurray hurrow / the uncle has his birthday now” and the like for a birthday celebration.

    So that option is only theoretically on the table.

  11. Imrahil says:

    and perform them by heart

    I meant “with putting his heart into it”. I am not saying that good preachers don’t use notes (which they made before); excuse the language slip.

  12. Charivari Rob says:

    The approach I would suggest is to ask.
    Ask why he doesn’t preach sometimes. Ask if there’s anything wrong or anything that can be done to help. If the original reader doesn’t feel like they have the appropriate relationship with him to ask, then broach it with someone who does and can speak with him on the qt – perhaps one of his brother priests.

    Also, I’d suggest that “Father, we’ve noticed ___, is anything wrong?” would be a better approach than “Father, we’ve noticed ___, we’re concerned you might be violating canon law.”

  13. Kate says:

    In this day and age, I think we should not rule out the possibility of the bishop commanding the priest, “You are forbidden to preach on x, y, and z in the future.” So, the priest just doesn’t preach.

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