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.

Possible New Models for Parishes (The Parish in Canon Law, part 3)

Our earlier comments are not intended to imply that diocesan bishops have simply sat still on pastoral planning and parish staffing while the world changed around them: far from it. As populations have dwindled or shifted, and numbers of available clergy have declined nearly everywhere, bishops across the United States (and elsewhere in the world, too) have moved to make real and sometimes drastic changes to the internal structures of their dioceses, and to how they provide pastoral care for the souls committed to their care. There are a number of very different options that have been pursued in different places; in the next few installments of our series we will attempt to sketch the outlines of these different canonical configurations along with their strengths and weaknesses where applicable. We will look at 1) a single priest serving as parochus of more than one parish; 2) a group of priests in solidum sharing the duties of parochus for one or several parishes; 3) the vicariate forane as a possible “super parish” solution; 4) the quasi-parish; and 5) oratories. Not all of these concepts are equally applicable (or even applicable at all, as we shall see), but all have been “in the mix” in the ongoing exploration and experimentation in the area of pastoral planning, and so a clear understanding of each is required for adequate engagement with the scope of our overall topic.