One or More Parishes, Multiple Parish Priests (The Parish in Canon Law, part 5)

The notion of a small group of priests being put jointly in charge of the pastoral care of one or more parishes is another provision that was new of the 1983 Code, although not without long precedent. It should be noted that this canon is not describing a parish with a pastor and one or more associates/parochial vicars. What is described in c. 517, §1 is a group of priests who are all, as a group, each given all the rights and responsibilities of a parochus, while none of them is specifically the parochus (although one must be the moderator, who coordinates the joint pastoral activity and is responsible for reporting to the Diocesan bishop on behalf of all the others). While it is a new addition to the current legislation, it is also one that has seen very little application in practice. With a seemingly-ever-dwindling supply of active priests being stretched farther and farther, an option that involves multiple priests living and working together in the same place has — perhaps understandably — not appeared to be a solution to many of the pastoral planning problems facing bishops in recent years.[1]

There is one significant example of a bishop making extensive use of this provision, albeit not without controversy. An interesting case study[2] has been published of the Diocese of Brugge (Belgium), and the way in which this specific canon was used to effectively reconfigure the entire parochial structure of the diocese. Using the term ‘federation’ for the resultant grouped parishes, Brugge joined 349 of its 363 parishes into 79 federations, with 14 parishes remaining distinct for various reasons, served by 732 priests.[3]

Canonically, this arrangement appears to have left the juridic personality of each parish unchanged; the federations seem ultimately to be superimposed organizational framework, a new paradigm in how clergy are distributed, but ultimately effecting no permanent alteration of the parishes themselves. Indeed, this seems to have been very much the intention: since the secular government in Belgium pays the salaries of parish priests, salaries which “are linked to the concrete territorial parish [so if] the territorial parish is suppressed, the salaried positions disappear as well.”[4] Thus in the Belgian situation, any permanent mergers of parishes would result in the loss of vital income for the Church.

While the financial ramifications that likely drove the Brugge pastoral planners do not apply in the North American context, a consideration that hangs over this case would be relevant: both paragraphs of c. 517 make provision for exceptional circumstances, and so the use of this particular canon to structure a diocesan-wide pastoral restructuring seems to be problematic. Also, the particular arrangement of several priests sharing pastoral charge of a grouping of parishes is perhaps more different from the status quo than it seems to be at first glance, and could involve a major shift in the experience of the presbyterate of a diocese, a shift which, while possibly beneficial, would nonetheless on a human level be very difficult to advocate and achieve.[5]

Notes

[1] Roch Pagé pronounces dismally that this particular provision “had arrived too late even in 1983” (“The Future of Parishes and the Present Canonical Legislation,” in The Jurist, 67 [2007], p. 184). (As an aside, while it falls far outside both the scope of this series — and the competence of this author — I have long wondered whether an option that brought more communal living to the lives of parochial priests, particular in our rural diocese, would not be of great benefit in terms of morale and spirituality for the priests themselves.)

[2] Kurt Martens, “The Parish Between Tradition and Renewal: Theoretical Consideration and a Case Study of C. 517, §1,” in The Jurist, 69 (2009), pp. 340-372.

[3] Ibid, p. 368.

[4] See ibid., 370-371.

[5] Martens notes that in their deliberations, the deans of the Brugge diocese noted this potential for “friction” since “pastors are accustomed to working alone” (p. 365). (On a personal note, I have long quietly thought that a shift from the solitary life of almost all of our rural priests to a more central/communal living arrangement would be hugely beneficial for the clergy in the long run, but this is far outside the scope of both this report and my competence.)

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