Q: My family and I were on vacation last summer and attended Sunday Mass at another parish. At one point, the lector came up to the ambo and proceeded to “break open God’s word,” giving a lengthy teaching about the weekend’s readings. Isn’t this the role of the priest or deacon? Is lay “preaching” like this permitted?
A: Liturgy should help us experience the risen Lord and draw us closer together as a Christian community. For me, that means the liturgy is like a healthy human body in which all of its individual parts function together harmoniously and according to their created purpose.
As soon as one part stops functioning and doing what it was created to do, there can be negative consequences for the entire body. The same can be said for liturgy. When some aspect of the church’s liturgy is no longer performed according to its intended purpose, there can be negative consequences for the entire celebration.
In reference to your question, I think that there was indeed a “part” that was not functioning according to its intended purpose, thus the “disturbance in the force” that you and your family experienced.
Every individual that exercises a ministry within the Mass should carry out that role faithfully according to the proper rubrics and spirit of the church’s liturgical law, and especially according to the authority of the bishop, who is the chief liturgist in his diocese. At the end of the day, all ministers within the Mass, whether priest, deacon, choir director or lector, can never be self-serving but rather must be at the service of Christ and the people of God.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal emphasizes this point: “The celebration of the Eucharist is the action of Christ and of the Church, namely, of the holy people united and ordered under the Bishop.” (91)
When we are at the service of someone or something, we have to be obedient in our actions and in how we serve. If we are ultimately serving Jesus and God’s people at Mass in and through specific ministries, we have to be faithful and obedient to how those ministries ought to be exercised.
The lector’s job description
What is the lector’s role within the celebration of the Eucharist? Let’s return to the GIRM, which gives us a good “job description” for the lector. To begin with, during the entrance procession the reader, in the absence of a deacon, carries the Book of the Gospels, and upon reaching the altar makes a profound bow with the others. He or she approaches the altar and places the Book of the Gospels on it. Then the lector takes his or her own place in the sanctuary with the other ministers. (194-95)
During Mass, the lector reads the assigned readings from the ambo. In the absence of a psalmist, the lector may also proclaim the responsorial psalm. In the absence of a deacon, the lector also reads the intercessions. (196-97) Finally, the lector can also read the entrance and Communion antiphons if they are not sung by a cantor or choir or recited by the congregation. (198) Giving a short sermon or teaching within the context of the Mass does not seem to be part of the job description of a lector!
Within the celebration of the Eucharist, the role of preaching lies solely within the domain of either the priest or the deacon. Church teaching is quite clear about this. The instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, states that preaching is delegated solely to the celebrant, a concelebrating priest or a deacon and that the laity are in no way to assume this responsibility. (64-65)
Because this individual lector was exercising a “homiletic” role within the context of the Mass, I would say that he went beyond his job description and had therefore overstepped his role in this instance.
May God’s blessings be with you today and always!
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