Lay sermons permitted, Vatican tells Swiss

Proposals by Swiss bishops to allow lay theologians to give sermons and Protestants to receive Communion have met with the approval of the Curia in Rome, Bishop Amédée Grab, president of the Swiss bishops' conference, said this week.

The Swiss church is having to cope with a shortage of priests and in an effort to deal with the crisis its bishops' conference has come up with controversial plans to make greater use of the laity serving as pastoral assistants. The Swiss bishops' conference has now declared that the assistants (who hold university degrees in theology) are to be allowed to preach during Mass and baptise whenever a priest was not available. The bishops, who announced to journalists following their return from their ad limina visit to Rome that they have secured Curial backing for their plans, have also secured the necessary permission for the Protestant partner in a mixed marriage to receive the Eucharist in a Catholic Church. The general secretary of the Swiss bishops' conference, Agnell Rickenmann, said that the two declarations were partly a response to the shortage of priests in Switzerland, but also reflected the Swiss Church's "independence". He said: "In Switzerland we have a 30-year tradition of theologically trained lay people active in the Church."

Accusations that the declarations were against canon law and contradicted last year's Vatican edict that only priests could give sermons, were quick to follow. Pro Ecclesia, a conservative Catholic group, said it looked very much as if, shortly before setting out for Rome, the Swiss bishops were determined to "present the Vatican with a fait accompli". It was also reported that Austrian and German bishops had berated the Swiss bishops at the annual liturgical conference (for bishops in German-speaking countries, including South Tyrol and Luxembourg) in Augsburg at the end of January for "pressing ahead of the world Church" on such matters.

But the Swiss bishops were not hauled over the coals during their five-day ad limina visit to Rome. On the contrary, Bishop Grab said on his return, this had been his fourth ad limina visit and he had "never returned so happy". The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had told the Swiss bishops that in emergency cases lay theologians could hold a "brief sermon-like discourse" or a meditation based on the Mass for the day but that this should not be allowed to become the "general norm".