But in January a new sheriff entered town and he is restoring law and order of authentic 2014 Catholicism.
The new bishop is enforcing only bishops, priests and deacons preaching at Mass. Lay preachers began in the 1970's and the tome warp frozen in the Rochester tundra is only now thawing!
For the better part of 40 years in churches across the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, clergy ceded the floor to laypeople for the delivery of the homily — the sermon that follows the reading of the Gospel at Mass.
The practice, which dated to the mid-1970s and was simultaneously derided by the faithful for running afoul of church law and praised for its inclusiveness, has come to an end.
In an extensive interview, Bishop Salvatore Matano said he has been confronting the issue on a case-by-case basis since his installation in January and is now drafting guidelines to clarify that homilies are reserved for ordained priests and deacons, as prescribed by canon law.
"It is not a policy shift as regards to the universal law of the church," Matano said. "I am trying to help the faithful understand what is the universal law of the church and how important it is that in the celebration of Mass, we do what the church asks of us."
The reversal is perhaps the starkest example yet of the contrasting stewardship of Matano with his predecessor, Bishop Matthew Clark, under whom the diocese earned a reputation as among the most liberal in the country.
Although laypeople were giving the homily before Clark's time as bishop, it was during his tenure from 1979 to 2012 that such preaching blossomed into a regular occurrence in multiple churches.
Matano called the ubiquity of the practice "a bit perplexing" and attributed it to a misinterpretation of canon law.
"In the life of the church today, there are many interpretations that people might give to a particular ruling with no malintent present, but that do need clarification," Matano said.
Many in the church have welcomed the shift as a long-awaited return to doctrine. Indeed, Matano said he began addressing the matter in response to complaints from parishioners.
But it also has been received with disappointment, particularly among women, who made up the majority of lay homilists and viewed the practice as a way to play a more active role in their faith.
"It really enriched me, and I have to say I'm struggling with it," said Diane Porcelli of Gates, who did not preach but is active at St. Mary's Church in downtown Rochester. "It's challenging my faith and I'm struggling with the exclusion."
It is estimated that 20 women, most of them pastoral administrators or associates in the diocese with divinity and theology degrees, comprised the bulk of lay homilists.
No one, including Matano, could pinpoint precisely how many churches permitted the practice, but Matano said he has corresponded with "a significant number" from which he fielded parishioner complaints.
On the matter of homilies, canon law is straightforward. "Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is pre-eminent," the law states.
Citing the law, lay homilists were careful to describe their preaching at Mass as a "reflection" on scripture rather than a homily. For all intents and purposes, however, their preaching served as a homily.
It was why Diane Harris, a writer for cleansingfiredor.com, a website that has been critical of what many Catholics view as lapses in orthodoxy in the Diocese of Rochester, avoided churches at which it was practiced.
"It made me very uncomfortable because I knew it was against church law," Harris said of lay homilists. "It felt like I could be talking to this person anywhere else, and it was taking time away from what I really wanted to hear: Preaching from a priest or deacon."
The change comes as Pope Francis is calling for both broader opportunities "for a more incisive female presence in the church" and for priests to spice up their homilies.
Last year, Francis lamented that clergy and laypeople suffer through homilies: "The laity from having to listen to them, and the clergy from having to preach them!"
Supporters of lay homilies described them as often being more attuned to modern families than those delivered by priests, who take a vow of celibacy and are prohibited from marrying.
"It was a way to have a woman's voice and a woman's experience reflect on the readings for the day," said Gloria Ulterino, an author and religious scholar who gave reflections in various churches for 30 years. "Everybody knows that not every priest has a gift for preaching."
Matano acknowledged that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests and numerous ministries across the diocese. He said he encourages women and laypeople to preach at prayer groups and other parish functions outside the homily.
Cathy Kamp, the pastoral associate at St. Joseph's Church in Penfield, announced in a church bulletin in March that she would no longer preach during the homily but wrote that she was grateful for the experience and looked forward to preaching in other capacities.
"Humbly, I seek your prayers as I reflect on what this change means for me and other lay ministers in the Catholic church," she wrote.
Like other lay homilists, Nancy DeRycke, the pastoral associate at Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Anne Church in Brighton, said she remains committed to the church but questions whether it can and should be more flexible.
"It's a 40-year-old custom that's been part of the tradition of our local church, and people are saddened, people are frustrated and people are asking, 'Why can't you do this?' " DeRycke said. "They're not satisfied with saying, 'Because it's the law.' "