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]


[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.)


Many Parishes, One Parish Priest (The Parish in Canon Law, part 4)

What has been commonly referred to (in the United States, at least) as ‘clustering’ parishes is usually an application of c. 526 §1, which allows the diocesan bishop, in the case of a shortage of available clergy, to make the same priest the parochus of more than one parish at the same time. The text of the canon itself is quite clear that this is a provision for what is still seen by the legislator as an exceptional case:

A pastor is to have the parochial care of only one parish; nevertheless, because of a lack of priests or other circumstances, the care of several neighboring parishes can be entrusted to the same pastor.

This was not envisioned by either the Code Commission or the legislator as becoming the norm, but as an accommodation that would be available should circumstances require it. It is no secret, however, that circumstances have required it on a vast scale in the years since the promulgation of the Code, to the point that it is difficult to consider this arrangement as even nominally exceptional anymore. It should be noted that the canon specified neighboring parishes, for obvious practical reasons.

It is worth considering what is happening juridically in such an arrangement. The provision of c. 526 §1 has provided an exception to the general rule of c. 152: “Two or more incompatible offices, that is, offices which together cannot be fulfilled at the same time by the same person, are not to be conferred upon one person.” The parochial care of two (or more) distinct parishes simultaneously could be considered incompatible to the extent that it is difficult or impossible for one man to adequately fulfill the pastoral obligations toward each parish. Yet, as Antonio S. Sánchez-Gil points out, while it is easy and logical to think of “the pastoral care of various parishes in practice as a single task that the parish priest must perform, in a strictly juridical analysis it seems preferable to consider said task as a plurality of offices.” [1]

The same author continues:

In fact, pastoral care is the spiritual end for which the office of parish priest is established (cf. c. 145), and it is not identified stricto sensu with him. Consequently, when the Code speaks of entrusting the care of several parishes to the same priest, it seems that it must be understood that this is done through the canonical provision to the office of parish priest in each case (cf. cc. 146, 986 §1). Moreover, it is easier this way to distinguish, right from the act of provision, the possible particularities that, according to the pastoral needs of the case, could affect the parishes in question and to consider repercussions in the corresponding office: such offices can be entrusted at the same time or at chronologically separate moments; it can be established that there be a single act of taking of possession or several (cf. c. 527); a parish priest can be appointed for an indefinite time in one parish or for a determinate time in the rest (cf. c. 522); his office can lapse in one parish and remain preserved in others (cf. c. 538); etc. On the other hand, the consideration of a plurality of offices emphasizes more the autonomy of the entrusted parishes: in effect, each parish conserves unaltered the configuration that it had before the appointment of a common parish priest, and it will be opportune to maintain, therefore, in the majority of cases, a juridical representation separate from each one of them (cf. c. 532). [2]

There is a lot of detail to consider in that quoted text, but in summary, c. 526 §1 makes it possible for one priest to cover several assignments simultaneously, without — and this is what makes this in many ways the simplest option available — making any juridical modification to the canonical configuration of any of the parishes thus provided with a parish priest. The map of the diocese remains unchanged; it is only the pastoral assignment chart which is altered.


[1] Antonio S. Sánchez-Gil, in ExComm, Vol. II/2, p. 1312 (emphasis in original).

[2] Ibid.

The Nature of Parishes (The Parish in Canon Law, part 1)

The parish is “the place where all the faithful can be gathered together for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. The parish initiates the Christian people into the ordinary expression of the liturgical life: it gathers them together in this celebration; it teaches Christ’s saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love.”[1] It is the fundamental face of the Church for most members of the christifideles, the locus for almost every significant ecclesiastical experience throughout a Catholic’s life, from baptism to their funeral rites, and even continuing after death as the community joins their ongoing public prayer for the final repose of the souls of the departed.

From the perspective of canon law, it is the diocese — not the parish — that is the most fundamental element in the organization of the Catholic Church. Drawing from the ecclesiological documents of the Second Vatican Council, the 1983 Code of Canon Law defines the diocese as

a portion of the people of God which is entrusted to a bishop for him to shepherd with the cooperation of the presbyterium, so that, adhering to its pastor and gathered by him in the Holy Spirit through the gospel and the Eucharist, it constitutes a particular church in which the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative (c. 369)

The Christian faithful, gathered around the Eucharistic table with their bishop—a successor of the Apostles and the vicar of Christ for his flock—as celebrant: this is the very epitome of the local church.[2] It is the ideal, and yet for practical considerations, since it is not physically possible for a bishop to be everywhere in the diocese personally meeting the spiritual and pastoral needs of all his flock, it is required by canon law for each diocese to be divided into parts, typically called parishes, wherein ordained priests assist the diocesan bishop in caring for the People of God entrusted to him.[3] To turn this around the other day, the parish is not itself “an autonomous entity of pastoral government,” but is rather “a territorially or personally circumscribed institution, the community of which has been entrusted primarily to the pastoral care of the bishop of the diocese, and which the bishop entrusts to the care of the proper parish priest who, under his [i.e. the bishop’s] direction and governance, directly supplies the cura animarum.”[4] It is not possible for a parish to exist independent of a diocese: it “is always part of a broader ecclesiastical organizational structure” and has “the character of a public organizational structure of the particular church.”[5]

Yet we must not fall into the trap of thinking the parish is merely a jurisdictional imposition, a human construct for the efficient management and delivery of services.

The parish institution is meant to provide the church’s great services: prayer in common and the reading of God’s Word, celebrations, especially that of the Eucharist, catechesis for children and the adult catechumenate, the ongoing formation of the faithful, communications designed to make the Christian message known, services of charity and solidarity and the local work of movements. In brief, the image of the sanctuary which is its visible sign, it is a building to be erected together, a body to bring to life and develop together, a community where God’s gifts are received and where the baptized generously make their response of faith, hope and love to the call of the Gospel.[6]

Another concern voiced by our previous Pontiff was that the parish priest must not become too much a manager and administrator, but that prayer must remain the center of priestly life in parishes.

Indeed prayer for the needs of the church and the individual faithful is so important that serious thought should be given to reorganizing priestly and parish life to ensure that priests have time to devote to this essential task individually and in common. Liturgical and personal prayer, not the tasks of management, must define the rhythms of a priest’s life, even in the busiest of parishes.[7]

And yet, with the numbers of ordained priests in active ministry in most dioceses drastically reduced from those which were seen even a single generation ago, how is this beautiful goal possibly to be met? Diocesan bishops everywhere are struggling to answer this question, but it is often obscured by what is seen as the even more pressing question: how are the sacraments to be administered to the faithful under their care? While canon law always strives to be firmly rooted in solid theological ground, it cannot always seamlessly translate the reflections and insights of popes, councils, and theologians into legal frameworks, or can do so only after what seems a considerable lag of years. But nevertheless it is sincere theological reflection which must always precede juridical determinations.

In the efforts to answer these questions, and to discern and implement concrete responses to the changed (and changing) circumstances of a particular diocesan church, diocesan bishops and those who advise them must take great pains that the mission of the Church is carried out, the rights of the faithful are safeguarded and fostered, and that the theological understanding of the diocese and parish — and the ministries proper to each — are clearly seen and fostered. In achieving all these worthy ends, the shepherds of each local church should be guided not by innovation, however well-intended, but by the living laws of the Universal Church.

In our next installment, we will look at how parishes have traditionally formed the map of the diocese, and how this typical model is no longer as ubiquitous as it probably should be.


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 2179.

[2] See Lumen Gentium, 26.

[3] Canon 374, §1: Every diocese or other particular church is to be divided into distinct parts or parishes. Can. 515, 1: A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop.

Given the occasional confusion engendered by the translation in the United States of parochus as ‘pastor’ rather than ‘parish priest’ (as is the use in most other English-speaking countries), I will typically follow the convention advocated by Msgr. John Renken of leaving the word parochus in Latin.

[4] Juan Ignacio Arrieta, in Exegetical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Ángel Marzoa, Jorge Miras, Rafael Rodríguez-Ocaña (eds,) and Ernest Caparros (gen. ed. of English translation), Montréal, Wilson & Lafleur and Chicago, Midwest Theological Forum, 2004 (hereafter ExComm), Vol. II/1, pp. 744-745. Arrieta continues: “The division of the diocese into parishes is not, therefore, a phenomenon of decentralization, but rather of vicarious deconcentration of the pastoral duties of the bishop in favor of the parish priest, who exercises them in his own name, though under the guidance of the bishop who, in the strict sense, is the proper pastor of the parish community.”

[5] Antonio S. Sánchez-Gil, “Parishes, Parish Priests and Assistant Priests,” in ExComm, Vol. II/2, 1257.

[6] John Paul II, “The Vocation of the Parish,” 25 January 1997 talk given to the third group of French bishops on their ad limina visit, as quoted in John P. Beal, James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green (eds.), New Commentary of the Code of Canon Law, commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America, New York and Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 2000 (hereafter CLSAComm2), p. 673.

[7] John Paul II, “Priests, Their Life and Ministry,” 21 May 1998 talk to the bishops of Michigan and Ohio on their ad limina visit, as quoted in CLSAComm2, p. 673.