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Breaking Open the Word of God
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Who Can Preach at a Communion Service?
Did God Take Him to Glory?
Abraham's Near-sacrifice of Isaac
More About God and Hurricane Katrina
'Pastoral Ears' Revisited


Q: When a Communion service is celebrated instead of a Mass, who is allowed to preach? Deacons? Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist? Others? Do the regulations vary from country to country? Diocese to diocese?

A: In the Holy See’s 1994 instruction Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, the section entitled “Morning Prayer With Holy Communion” explains: “When the leader is a layperson who has not been delegated to preach, the pastor may prepare a homily to be read during the celebration. In other cases, when a layperson has been delegated to preach by the bishop, he or she may give those present a brief explanation of the biblical text, so that they may understand through faith the meaning of the celebration” (#64).

The same direction is given in that document’s sections “Evening Prayer With Holy Communion” (#99) and “Liturgy of the Word With Holy Communion” (#134).

I consulted Karen Kane, director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s worship office, about this question. She responded: “In the lay presiding course, one of the liturgical formation programs of our Worship Office, we instruct participants taking the course (male and female) that they should not preach unless they have an advanced degree in theology and authorization by the pastor—or they may read a text written by the pastor.

“Many well-meaning laypersons would like to offer their own thoughts about the readings, but often it is without much theological or biblical training. It seems that if we require deacons, who have several years of schooling, to have faculties in order to preach, the least we should do is require some theological training on the part of lay leaders of prayer.”

According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, “Laypersons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory, if necessity requires it in certain circumstances or it seems advantageous in particular cases, according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops and without prejudice to Canon 767, #1” (#766). Canon 767 indicates that priests or deacons are to give the homily during Mass.

On November 14, 2001, the Latin Church members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved complementary legislation for Canon 766. Confirmed 13 days later by the Congregation for Bishops, this norm took effect on January 15, 2002 (

Reasons listed why a diocesan bishop may authorize such preaching include “the absence or shortage of clergy, particular language requirements, or the demonstrated expertise or experience of the lay faithful concerned.”

The legislation continues: “The lay faithful who are to be admitted to preach in a church or oratory must be orthodox in faith, and well-qualified, both by the witness of their lives as Christians and by a preparation for preaching appropriate to the circumstances.”

Ultimately, each bishop who heads a diocese decides how this issue is handled within that area. Because someone who leads a Communion service acts in the name of the whole Church, the Church wants to ensure that those who preach have been well prepared to offer this service.

Did God Take Him to Glory?

Q: Fifty years ago, my wife began hemorrhaging from her pregnancy. Our son, William, was born prematurely as a result of her emergency C-section. When he died the next day, we were devastated.

Because we were very poor and confused, we did not know how to handle this. Our family doctor suggested that we have William cremated in order to save us a lot of grief and expenses.

My question is: Did God take William to glory, even though he never had a chance to receive any of the sacraments of the Church, not even Extreme Unction (as it was called then)? This has troubled me all my life.

A: Fifty years ago, this was one of the most troubling situations that parents and priests ever faced. The death of a child is still a profound loss, but it need not raise fears about the child’s salvation.

The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ though the gift of holy Baptism” (#1261).

I am very sorry that you did not hear this affirmation 50 years ago. Although the text cited above was written much later, many pastors and theologians then were already convinced of what the Catechism now teaches.

For couples experiencing such a loss today, most diocesan family life offices can help them find support groups of parents grieving a miscarriage or the death of a child.

Q: In Genesis 22:1-19, we read the story of God’s command that Abraham should sacrifice his son, Isaac. At the last moment, God sends an angel to command that Abraham not kill Isaac but rather sacrifice a ram caught in a bush nearby. Why did God test Abraham in this extremely unloving way? I cannot believe that a loving God would act this way.

A: Yes, this is a difficult passage to understand. The fact that it troubles us, however, indicates how completely we have accepted its message: God does not require human sacrifice. This is clearly a self-imposed limit on God’s part; accepting such sacrifice would be contrary to God’s nature.

Although we may consider that fact perfectly obvious, historians tell us that some of Abraham’s pagan neighbors practiced child sacrifice. In a world where belief in many gods was the norm, establishing belief in a single God was not easy and involved many efforts to show that this God is not like the pagan gods. This story is one of those efforts. You are right: A loving God does not expect human sacrifice.

More About God and Hurricane Katrina

In our December 2005 issue, I responded in this column to a reader who asked if Hurricane Katrina was an act of God. On March 20, 2006, Catholic News Service posted an article by Peter Finney, the editor of Clarion Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Finney reported on the recent visit to New Orleans of Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M.Cap., preacher of the papal household. Each Saturday evening in Italy, Father Raniero broadcasts a television program about the next day’s readings at Mass. He was in New Orleans to tape segments for the Saturday before Palm Sunday and for Holy Saturday.

One segment included a man and his family cleaning up their house. When Father Raniero asked what his faith meant to him, the man took him inside the house and pointed to the crucifix.

The papal preacher said that it was “dangerous” and “erroneous” to consider Hurricane Katrina as divine punishment, as some people have asserted.

“Because we would say then,” he continued, “that the poor people are the most sinful people, because usually they are the victims, which is, of course, untrue.”

“A disaster like this is not a punishment but a warning for everybody that we should be vigilant and we should not put all our trust in what can be taken away in one day, if not by the flood of water, then by the flood of time. Time passes and will take everything.”

Some of his writings have been published in English. See for more details.

'Pastoral Ears' Revisited

A reader has pointed out that my November 2005 response to someone seeking “pastoral ears” could have also mentioned the Secular Franciscan Order, Dominican Third Order, plus groups such as associates of religious communities and oblates for monasteries.

Thanks to all who responded to the ‘Gifts of the Magi’ requests (December 2005 issue) from Papua New Guinea, South Africa and Nigeria for used books, magazines and religious articles.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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