The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Roamin’ Catholics: preachers who won’t stay put

The always-interesting Fr. Z looks at a question from a reader about a priest who wanders around when he preaches:

For centuries in the pre-Conciliar form of the Roman Rite the preacher is accompanied to the pulpit by the master of ceremonies who stands nearby. The celebrant and preacher are not to be left alone. I am summoning to my imagination’s inward eye what a roving preacher and shadowing m.c. would look like. Stupid, I’m thinking.

I suppose the roving preacher in the Catholic Church comes from the imposition of the man’s own personal quirk on the people of God. This may be in imitation of Protestants, who almost by the very nature of much Protestant preaching need to impose their own personality on the sermon.

In my opinion and experience, the Catholic preacher who does this is a narcissist. He is drawing attention to himself. He imposes himself, overlays himself, for his own needs, on the rite, the Word of God, and the people. His needs first… every else? Forget it.

Are there exceptions? Of course. But not many.

Perhaps we can learn something about the idea of preaching outside the sanctuary, and strutting about like a peacock, from the Church’s rubrics for the sign of peace. This is another occasion in which priests will jack-in-the-box out of the sanctuary where they belong and, sometimes, go to absurd lengths to see and be seen, to demonstrate how caring, warm and matey they are.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that funerals are one of the rare occasions when the priest is permitted to leave the sanctuary for the sign of peace.

Sometimes there are exceptions, such as processions with the Eucharist. There is also the beginning and end of the funeral. If there is a person of note present, the celebrant can leave the sanctuary to give the sign of peace. These are exceptions to the general rule that the priest belongs in the sanctuary. Period.

The sanctuary is the place of the priest, symbolically and liturgically the head of the Body the Church gathered in the sacred space of the church. The head of the assembly has his place. The Body, assembled in the nave, have their particular place. The priest moves into the sanctuary, as into the holy of holies, the even more sacred space within the sacred space, as if into the bridal chamber. He should stay there for the whole sacred action.

Read on for more.

At my parish in Queens, we have a fairly large church, with an elaborately designed ambo, situated high above the congregation. (Fun piece of trivia: someone who preached from there in the past was Fulton Sheen — but that’s another story…) It’s not unusual for some priests to step down, and out of the sanctuary, and into the congregation, to pace and to preach. Most people find it unobtrusive. Some like it. (“Why don’t YOU do that?,” one cheerful elderly man asked me, not long after I was ordained.) I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste — for the preacher and for the people. I can see how this approach could enhance the liturgy, and give it immediacy and intimacy. But it can also easily turn into a kind of clerical showboating. 

There can be notable and sometimes powerful exceptions, of course.  I remember warmly the funeral of my wife’s grandmother.  The congregation was small, maybe 50 people.  The ambo was a good distance from the pews.  At the appropriate time, the priest stepped out of the sanctuary and read the gospel just in front of the first row, and then preached a wonderful, intimate homily from right there.    

Speaking for myself: I’ll do something like that for baptisms, with a handful of families gathered around the font.  But on any given Sunday, I prefer to stay up in the ambo, where everyone can see me, and it’s easy for them to maintain focus. It also makes it easier for me to refer to my text, and stay on track, and not get distracted or lose my train of thought.

And, from a liturgical point of view, I think, it makes sense.  It helps to keep the focus on the sanctuary, the holy of holies, where the great miracle and mystery of the Eucharist unfolds.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Dearest Deacon,
Once again, there is posted a judgmental, one-sided, narrow-minded view which only helps the priest-police gain more momentum. Why post such divisive missives? Views like this do nothing to build up the Kingdom of God, but only further the great divide so difficult to heal. Please reconsider posting such views which gives another pulpit to the catholic fundamentalists in our midst.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Try this priest on for size…
He doesn’t roam alot, but he does occasionally jump up and down and wave his arms to make a point.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:10 pm

I’m bothered by the comment that for a “person of note” it is OK for the presider to leave the sanctuary for the sign of peace. And just who might we think is a “person of note”? Particularly for one acting in persona Christi?
I imagine it would be the eldery parishioner in the front row, or perhaps the mentally ill person pacing in the back, the man who lives in the local shelter but who appears for the vigil Mass each week carefully dressed. If this is not what the rubrics are suggesting, then I’m mystified!

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:15 pm

This is the wrong question. Whether the preacher is standing or moving is irrelevant. Didn’t Jesus usually preach outdoors, anyway? What’s important is the message the preacher is trying to convey, and whether or not the congregation comprehends it — or falls asleep. At least a moving preacher helps to keep those in the pews alert.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Although I value Fr. Z’s input on many subjects and learn much in the the ways of symbolism in the liturgy and rubrics from reading his blog, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that a priest who isn’t stationary during the sermon is unequivocally a narcissist (and I do prefer stationary sermons). Some congregations may prefer a little eccentricity, whereby the priest could be responding to a perceived need to maintain people’s attention. If the sermon is too monotonous or lacks enthusiasm, people tend to nod off or stare into space.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:25 pm

What do you think the purpose of a blog is??

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:25 pm

I pulled up the GIRM to check. “In the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary.”
“Person of note” does not appear in the list.
And the GIRM leaves the spot to preach from up to the homilist.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Why is Jim so bent our of shape? “Fundamentalist Catholics” really? as opposed to what? “Progressive Catholics”? What is a fundamentalist Catholic?
As far as preaching, it is the privilege of the Bishops to preach and to appoint deputy preachers (Priests and Deacons). As to what these should do in the Church and Sanctuary, they should abide by their Bishop’s regulation and by what the Church allows.
Outside the Church building any authorized preacher can preach as best they can within the bounds of Orthodoxy and the Church teachings.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:44 pm

In my parish the weekend assos. preaches from the ambo as does the pastors retired brother Bishop on the week ends. But he imself prefers the area just at the front of the pews. Both have their advantage. He does not need notes he knows well what he wants to tell us. BTW Fr. Z is one in the same that blasted my pastor when he told us there would not be a latin Mass at our parish. Fr. Z get a life. I’ll pray for you.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Janet he has a life!

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I prefer a good liturgical dance myself….

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posted August 27, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Wondered what a “fundamentalist Catholic” is myself?
I think the content of the homily and its delivery are most important. The place is not as important. That being said, I think most Catholics are used to the homily being delivered from the pulpit.
On certain occasions, such as a childrens’ mass, it can be good to have the homilist deliver it closer to the children

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posted August 27, 2010 at 2:44 pm

This is a very interesting topic, possibly because it does have such strong opinions expressed on either side.
Preaching on the move must be a well practiced art – not everyone can pull it off WITHOUT looking as if they’re showboating. I don’t take Fr. Z as the final word on most things and his sarcasm leaves me a little cold, but his point about the priest sticking to the sanctuary is a good model to follow. I have seen everyone from cardinals to deacons and all stops in between try and fail at “ambulatory homiletics” and I think it’s a shame because their message is lost due to the distraction they themselves cause.
On the other hand I have seen some do it and do it wonderfully.
Personally, I stick to the ambo for the simple reason that my memory isn’t good enough to ensure the homliy come out as intended, and I really don’t like it when people keep peeking at their hands as they walk to read their talking points.
God bless

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posted August 27, 2010 at 2:51 pm

During our weekly school masses, our pastor preaches with the portable mic and jumps around the church. Two years ago the kindergarten class was what we call a pretty “challenging” group. (About February the kindergarten teacher announced, rather frazzled, that purgatory was empty. As in tumbleweeds rolling down the streets. As in, some more people better die quick because she was sure she was going to have to offer up something that same day after lunch!) There is one little girl, Catherine. I have a special fondness for her because her parents know how to spell her name ;-), and also she has this smile that just lights up the room. But she is also a ringleader of whatever craziness is going on… So, anyway, by last year as first graders they mostly calmed down — a couple of kids moved away, they all got a year older (from 5 to 6 is a 20% increase in age, after all!)
In our church, the 1st graders sit in the front pews on the left, and one Wednesday last fall Catherine was right in the front pew on the center aisle. On this particular Wednesday, the pastor was particularly animated, and he was bouncing around right there next to Catherine, with his shiny vestments flapping about. He was oblivious to her, — she’s a little girl, and she was low and almost behind him. But she was mesmerized — every time he got almost close enough she would leeeeean out of the pew and try to grab at the just-out-of-reach shiny stuff. Since she was so small you had to be at the right angle to see her, and there were no adults within reach who saw it while it was happening. Those of us who could see were trying mightily not to laugh out loud!

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posted August 27, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Fr. Z’s delivery may leave some cold, but he does make a good point. There are really two issues: leaving the sanctuary to preach and moving around while preaching. I think that preachers really need to ask themselves what they are accomplishing and what they are losing when they do either of these things.
They lose the connection with the sanctuary. This is significant. They also draw attention to themselves as speakers. It doesn’t matter it their intentions are narcissistic or not, they still draw attention to their own person. Intended or not, both of these things foster the cult of the priest, draw attention to the man, elevate the man.
If there is not something gained that outweighs that risk, they shouldn’t be doing it. And they should note, as DcnDon does, that there is a huge difference between doing it well and doing it poorly. If you do it poorly, you pretty much guarantee that the good won’t be gained and the risk will become a certainty.
My opinion, like everyone’s, is informed by my personal experience. Most of the rovers I’ve known (not just seen, but known) have had a notable narcissistic streak to them and have been able targets for Fr. Z’s criticism. But I’ve known a few who really make it work and have gained something by it, and I’d hate it if they had to stop.

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Gerard Nadal

posted August 27, 2010 at 3:11 pm

This is the end-result of rubrics being tossed out the window forty years ago. Fr Z. has a point about a great many who make the liturgy into something akin to dinner theater in the round. The focus is on form instead of substance with a great many of these fellows.
Wanting to seem warm and caring means what? That the Gospels, which call us to holiness are not? When the focus is on Father Friendly’s style and not on the truth of the scriptures, then we have a problem, a very big problem. Wen I hear people say, “I don’t want to sound preachy”, my response is, Don’t. Just tell the truth objectively. The Holy Spirit will convict hearts.”

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posted August 27, 2010 at 4:07 pm

This is kind of off topic, but I want to register an official eye-roll at all of those pundits who seem to think that every church architectural feature that isn’t exactly like whatever church they grew up in is some horrific post-Vatican II liturgical abuse.
I spent 2 years as a member of Sacred Heart Church in Pittsburgh. (Shadyside.) It is a humongous pile of norman-gothic architecture, built in the 1930’s. Its claim to fame among brides is that it has the longest aisle of any church in Pittsburgh. (In my day there was a funeral parlor across the street from the church, and the altar in the chapel over there was actually closer to the back couple of pews in the church than the altar in the church.) So, yes, it is a very big church. The large ornate tabernacle was (and probably still is) in exactly the spot it was built during the 30’s — a side chapel in the south transept of the classic cruciform church. Where it was not walled off, but it was blocked by the massive pulpit that took up half of the first dozen pews in the church. And the main altar was the original 1930s installation — after VII they just walked around to the other side to say mass. The choir is and has always been in choir stalls flanking the front of the Sanctuary, and after 1971 they allowed women to sing in the choir.
So at Sacred Heart the preacher has been walking down the steps from the elevated back 2/3rds of the sanctuary, walking down between the choir stalls at the front of the sanctuary, leaving the sanctuary, walking across the front aisle, down the side aisle, and up the steps, to read the gospel and to preach ever since the church was built 75 years ago.
In my day at Sacred Heart we had a priest who preached roaming the aisle. With a corded mike that had a plug in under one of the front pews. He read the gospel from the pulpit, then walked down the steps, up the side aisle, across the front, and down the center aisle. My husband refers to it as “Phil Donohue style” and dislikes it even more than I. He was a lousy preacher, and the roaming was a significant reason why. But you don’t have to make up some stupid rule about priests staying in the sanctuary to explain any of this — all that does is make the rule-maker look like some stupid hick from the sticks who has never seen classical big church architecture.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 6:27 pm

There is a simple solution to the “grandstanding” issue. Do as the Carthusians do – preach only by reading a text prepared ahead of time. That alone would seriously improve the quality of Roman Catholic preaching — regardless of where the homilist stands while he does it.

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Deacon Norb

posted August 27, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Michelle’s last posting raises an even more interesting question. What about writing out your homily out in advance and delivering it from your script?
I really REALLY do not like to write out my homilies, BUT I have disciplined myself to do it for two reasons: (1) Early in my ministry, my first pastor insisted that every preacher in his parish have copies of his homily available for those in the congregation who were hard of hearing. I’d prepare three or so copies and they usually would all be taken and only by those who were genuinely handicapped; and (2) I have found that on controversial topics, having a “hard-copy” is often an important insurance factor. There are those in the congregation who really do not like you anyway and want to report you to the chancery as saying something or another they found offensive.
From a very practical perspective,however, whenever you do move away from the pulpit then having a pre-written script in your hands becomes very distracting to all, including yourself.
On Sunday Mass homilies, in deference to my pastor, I always write them out in advance. I never write my homilies out for Baptisms, Funerals, Weddings, Communion Services and other ceremonies where I am the presider.
AND when I am in the pews, I always thank the good Lord for his gifts to the preacher who says important things from his heart and does not need a written script to keep him interesting!

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Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher

posted August 27, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Interesting conversation. Maybe homilists could preach from a boat in the water, or standing on the top of a hill, or to people sitting in trees, or by writing on the ground with a stick…if they really want to act “in persona Christi”.
I prefer to have my homilists stay put at the ambo, because I’m hearing impaired and it makes it easier to see their face as they speak. The pacing back and forth doesn’t help me to focus on the content of the message. The exception would be at a funeral, where the homily is directed mostly to the bereaved family, but even then, the entire assembly is not to be left out.
And, what exactly IS a “Fundamentalist Catholic”?

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Fr. Jim

posted August 28, 2010 at 9:57 am

Personally speaking, I’ve run the spectrum over the years and much of it has to do with the layout of the church. My current parish finds me preaching from the chair as, aside from the altar, that’s the only place where there is an unobstructed view. (It’s a cruciform shaped building with the ambo to one side of a rather spacious sanctuary – and it is a bit lower than the level of the altar and chair.)
In a “basilica” style church I’ve opted usually to preach from the ambo to insure that people are able to see me – as well as hear me – but there are times, particularly at funerals that are rather small – that I will go to the center aisle. Also, at school liturgies or celebrations of First Communions I will usually place myself more in the area where the children are seated. Routinely, I see the bishops doing likewise for celebrations of Confirmation.
While I’m sure there can be some ego-driven showboating, I also believe that as homilists were are called to be more than “talking heads.” The best homily in the world will fall flat if not presented in a way that the listeners can understand and be engaged in. I’m not an advocate for rock concert liturgies or power point presentations or even using props for homilies for the sake of “engagement,” but I do believe something must be said for the way the homily is delivered and not just the words, however eloquent. For better or for worse, the medium is the message to some degree.
I personally do not do well reading from a text. My personal style is more of a storytelling approach where I attempt to engage in a conversation with my parishioners (not in the sense of a dialogue homily), with the goal that they will find some relevance. There is a place for high theology, but at the typical parish level it needs to be in words that are understandable to the majority of those present, using examples that are true to life.
Should it be stand up comedy? No, although humor is not altogether inappropriate if it serves the message rather than dominate it. Should it be theatre? No, but there should be some passion in the delivery to insure people that you really believe the words you are proclaiming. (I’d venture to say the same should be true with those proclaiming the scripture readings.)
Bottom line: I believe it’s rather petty to debate where one should stand. Rather, it’s more important that one is proclaiming the Gospel with clarity, in conformity with the Church’s teaching, and with Christian charity. Now, I’ll step down from my soapbox.

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Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

posted August 28, 2010 at 10:58 am

While it was celebrated for a long time, I am always aware that the pre-conciliar liturgy was a product of Trent and should be viewed within the context of that moment in history.
Liturgy is organic and alive; reverence and transcendence matter but it should never be static.
That is not to say that the wandering is good – I have seen it work both ways but mostly badly, almost always badly. However, to constantly tie everything back to the prior Rite seems ill advised to me.

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posted August 29, 2010 at 7:41 pm

I am a pastor in a regular parish with two large universities and a very diverse and transient community. On Sunday we are very blessed to have large numbers of people at liturgy and, while the liturgical police will not be happy with this, I preach just at the entrance to the sanctuary. In three years there has been no complaint and I try to follow a ten minute, two or three point rule. What is important is that the Word of God is broken open and we are fed with its word and wisdom. I am offended that anyone who chooses to be faithful to the instruction on the homily in the GIRM and Lectionary is dismissed as narcissistic. In an age when we must compete with the many distractions and sound-bites that our parishioners juggle, a homilist with a brain will struggle to find effective ways to communicate with his parishioners. So, be careful when pronouncing a definite preference for where the homily is delivered. Some of us have worked very hard to be faithful to what is expected of us.

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posted August 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Roamin’ Catholics: preachers who won’t stay put.
I thought this was kind of interesting. It reminded me of an encounter I had a number of years ago. I was in the sacristy vesting for mass when the celebrant approached me and said, “Would it be a sin to make the mass all about myself?” I was kind of taken aback and replied, “I think so.” No more was said and we went out and celebrated the mass in our usual way. It wasn’t until some weeks later that I came to understand just what he meant.
The occasion was confirmation, and the bishop was present. I will only say that it was embarrassing, so much so that the bishop made mention of it in his homily. Later I mentioned the situation to a friend of mine in the chancery. I said that I thought the priest in question might be narcissistic. He replied, “Ya think?”
Good liturgy is good theater. Good liturgy has sound theatrical elements to it. Architecture, set design, lighting, sound systems, costumes, lines, movement, position, gesture all play a part in presenting the holy sacrifice of the mass. There are lead and supporting roles. There is a script. Make no mistake; the mass is not a play. Yet it is a real drama, played out in time and eternity where heaven and earth connect for a moment to bless the whole world with the real presence of God. We as believers are privileged to take part in this prayer to God. Each of us has a part to play that directs attention to the lead character. From the parishioner in the pew to the priest at the altar we are all part of this real life drama. As such we have a responsibility to focus our attention and direct the attention of others to the lead character, Jesus Christ. Any attempt on our part to upstage Him brings discord to the drama and shame to our person.
Wandering homilists, seductive liturgical dancers, overbearing ushers, opinionated extraordinary Eucharistic ministers, fidgeting acolytes, illicit lectors are at the extreme periphery of what many find upsetting in the Church today. Yet we are the body of Christ, wounded, bleeding and broken by sin. It is our natural inclination to make everything in life about ourselves. We are all narcissistic to some degree. Our fallen natures are constantly pulling us in that direction. It should come as no surprise to us when we see someone fall to the temptation. It could just as easily have been us.
What is right and what is wrong in liturgy? The Church gives us plenty of direction. The rubrics in the Sacramentary and the General Instruction to the Roman Missal are quite succinct. Even so much has been written and many differing opinions exist. There is however a way for us to muddle our way through all of this. We need to ask ourselves what our intention is. Is it pure? Are we there to worship our Creator and Redeemer in spirit and in truth or are we more interested in drawing attention to ourselves.

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