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15 Februar 2005, 08:14
Swiss Controversy on homilies by lay people
The "ad limina"-visit of the Swiss bishops took place from February 1 to 5. Main topics: faith situation in Switzerland, the shortage of priests and the issue of lay people in the service of the church.
Mid-January the Swiss Bishops' Conference published two controversial documents: In a first document the Swiss bishops address "the people responsible for the liturgical life in Switzerland", and they want to answer some open questions being raised by the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum". The second document, which has been compiled by the theological commission of the bishops' conference since August 2000, treats the issue of assigned lay people in the service of the church.
In these documents, the Swiss bishops allow for lay people giving homilies or meditations during Holy Mass, and they condemn the intercelebration of Catholic priests and Protestant ministers.
According to the bishops' conference, the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" has provoked various reactions, ranging from a warm welcome to a reluctant acceptance or even to rejection. The Swiss bishops point out that "the liturgical rules, which are brought to mind by the instruction are relevant, and they are a pillar for both the theology and the spirituality of the liturgy." "Being the celebration of the church, the liturgy primarily is a gift that cannot be arbitrarily disposed by each single responsible person. Just therefore the instruction can and should trigger a self-critical reflection of the own liturgical practice in Switzerland and if necessary be the impetus for appropriate improvements."
Concerning ecumenical differences, the Swiss bishops state: "Unfortunately there are still obstacles on the path to the full unity of all Christians. Such barriers, however, may not be overcome by simplifications, playing down the seriousness of the open questions, as this is the case with intercelebrations of Catholic priests and Reformed ministers. In order to be able to celebrate the Eucharist of the Lord together sometime in the future, Catholics and Protestants must gather regularly and continue to pray with each other."
In the first part of their document on "Laity in the Service of the Church", the Swiss bishops expound the theological arguments for the assignment of lay people in the church, and they appreciate their importance. The second part gives guidelines for pastoral assistants and their service in the proclamation of the gospel. Furthermore it lays down their responsibilities in the liturgy and as directors of parishes.
'Pro Ecclesia' and priests are surprised
The Swiss Catholic lay organisation 'Pro Ecclesia' was surprised by the content and the timing of these documents, especially as the date of publication was just about two weeks before the "ad limina"-visit of the Swiss bishops. "The documents of the Swiss bishops' conference are surprising and worrying us, because they do not comply with the instructions of the magisterium". "Such a procedure appears to be a deliberate step to confront Rome with completed facts. Even more it contradicts the vow of obedience of the bishops to the Holy Father." The lay organisation was convinced that neither the Pope nor the concerned church authorities would grant Switzerland concessions, as these would put the unity of church at risk.
A Swiss priest wrote in a kath.net article: "Our bishops are real world
champions in blandishing crisis". He criticised that the bishops open a
lengthy dialogue on liturgical abuses rather than calling their
subordinates to obedience. The Swiss bishops state that "in some dioceses
of Switzerland certain customs have developed that are not foreseen in the
currently valid liturgical guidelines of the church universal." The priest
remarks: "Our bishops state this in a way, as it would not affect their
authority and responsibility as overseers of the local church." He
concludes:"For me, as a priest, all this liturgical disobedience is really
Suffragan bishop Paul Vollmar of Zurich told in a radio interview, that during a meeting on liturgical aspects, his German and Austrian colleagues have rebuked the idea to allow homilies by lay people: "Suddenly all of them approached me and said: You Swiss are really the pestilence in Europe."
Bishop Amédée Grab: Homilies by lay people are not allowed
The "ad limina"-visit of the Swiss bishops took place from February 1 to
5. Main topics were the faith situation in Switzerland, the shortage of
priests and the issue of lay people in the service of the church.
Unfortunately the bishops could not visit Pope John Paul II, as he was in
hospital, but they want to do that, as soon as possible.
On the press conference after the "ad limina"-visit, the Swiss bishops stated that all talks in Rome took place in an atmosphere of courtesy and constructiveness. Especially the on-going year for priestly vocations was highly appreciated. The reaction to the two documents of the Swiss bishops was sophisticated. The according dicastries welcomed that this subject is being considered. On the other hand they requested solutions that (re-)establish unity of doctrine.
Mgr. Grab of Chur stressed during the press conference, that "no priest shall be hindered to preach, and that no lay people are allowed to give a homily."
Mgr. Koch of Basel seconded Mgr. Grab saying that it is very important to create awareness and educate the Swiss believers in order that the emergency case of "liturgy in Switzerland" does not evolve to be the normal case.
The alleged harsh words of German and Austrian bishops concerning the Swiss church could neither be confirmed nor denied by these two bishops. They stated, however, that especially in Switzerland it is very important to foster the insight that there exists an universal church, and that the Swiss Catholics are not autonomous but integrated in this universal church under the authority of the Holy Father.
An excerpt from the document on "Laity in the Service of the Church":
The wording "ordinarily" in the "General Instruction of the Roman Missal"
implies that the homily may be given by another priest or by a deacon.
This has been custom in our bigger parishes for a long time already.
Therefore it seemed to be sort of self-evident that also pastoral
assistants, men and women, were starting to preach during celebration of
the Eucharist, as soon as several services could no longer be
administered by ordained people. This does, however, not comply with
In the sense of this law, which we neither want to abolish nor to declare to be irrelevant, we state the following concerning the practical liturgical experience in the German-speaking dioceses of Switzerland: The appropriate proclamation of the gospel, fulfilling the actual needs of the believers, requires a longer and careful time of preparation; first in the theological studies, and then for each single sermon. In order to fulfil this requirement ,and to somewhat relieve the priests, which are growing older and getting fewer, we agree that pastoral assistants with an appropriate education and preparation, being assigned for pastoral care by a bishop (missio canonica) may give a sermon or meditation in lieu of the homily, provided that the celebrating priest agrees with this. It shall be expressed in an appropriate way, by a blessing of the celebrating priest or by his introductory word, that the preaching person interprets the word of god as a substitute for the celebrant. A priest celebrating as a temporary help, which is able and willing to prepare and give the homily by himself, may not be denied this right, otherwise we consider this to be an abuse.
It is our special concern that the sermons on Sundays really proclaim the word of God, and that the faith of the church is expounded comprehensively into all spheres of daily life. Topic tables for sermons may be recommended in the view of a systematic catechesis of the fold, e.g. during lent; but they must always be related to the Sunday readings. Organisational arrangements must be made in due time, contacting the external celebrant, if necessary.
We urgently ask all people concerned, not to make extensive use of our permissions, and not to deduce thereof a general authorisation to preach for pastoral assistants - a right to which they are not entitled to. By virtue of their consecration, priests and deacons are the primary proclamators of the gospel in the parishes. And they shall fulfil this task regularly."
Compiled and translated by Reto Beeler.