by Russell Pollitt SJ

An intriguing series of articles was published in the semi-official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, recently. They urged the Church to allow women to preach from the pulpit at Mass – a role that has been reserved almost exclusively for priests for 800 years.

It’s interesting that the Vatican’s own newspaper has dedicated so much time to this question. Could this be a sign of things to come? Pope Francis has repeatedly called for women to have a greater role in the Church – although he has reiterated the ban against women being ordained priests.

The argument for the change is not to “modernise” the Church but to return to the tradition of the Church as it was in the first thousand years of Christianity. Women, during that time, often preached – in front of priests, bishops and even the pope. Mary Magdalene was frequently referred to as “the apostle to the apostles” because the Gospels tell us that Jesus first appeared to her on Easter morning and she preached the message of his resurrection to his male followers.

It was only in the 13th century, as part of consolidating church power in the papacy and clergy, that Pope Gregory IX effectively barred lay people – men and women – from preaching. In 1973 the Vatican gave the German bishops permission to allow lay people to preach for an experimental eight-year period. Most of the preachers were women.

John Paul II ushered in a period of stricter bans. In 1993 he revised Canon Law: he said that the homily is reserved for the priest or deacon alone. In 1997 the Vatican issued another document telling bishops lay people could not preach. It was obviously a widespread practice or a document would not have been written to forbid it. Ironically, it was also during this period that the Church was encouraging more participation in the liturgy. Lay people were being encouraged to take on ministries like Lector and assistant minister of the Eucharist. Girls were also allowed to be altar servers – a practice which is now common.

The standard of preaching in the Church is, for the most part, mediocre. Many people lament that they are not fed during the Sunday homily. I have heard some well-crafted homilies. But, sadly, most homilies I hear are not prepared, ill prepared or plagiarised from the internet, delivered poorly, boring, long, irrelevant to real life, uninspiring or a moralising treatise. Young people will often say they left the Church because they are fed-up with the poor preaching. Preachers don’t seem to be concerned about this or, we are told, it’s the Sacrament that’s important not the preaching. The Liturgy Documents tell us the two are intimately connected.

Pope Francis addressed this very issue at length two years ago in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Few preachers seem to have paid any attention to what he said.

Women would bring a new perspective and new life experience to homilies. The other (more than) half of Catholic humanity are well positioned to feed our starving people because for years they have had to listen to homilies. Maybe they can teach us what we have been missing or forgotten. Women must preach not least because it might help to raise the bar.