Pastoral Moves and Stability of Office
It’s that time of year again, at least in my diocese, when pastoral assignments are about to be announced. Thankfully, the rumour mill has been relatively quiet in my circle of communication. Recently, a priest (from another diocese!, in case my bishop is reading) contacted me asking what rights a pastor has when it comes to being transferred. It got me thinking that a lot of education needs to take place among clergy in this regard. With new situations that the Church faces these days — merging/closing parishes, priest shortages, an aging presbyterum, etc. — the law on the transfer of pastors needs to better known.
Canon 522 states, “A pastor must possess stability and therefore is to be appointed for an indefinite period of time. The diocesan bishop can appoint him only for a specific period if the conference of bishops has permitted this by a decree.” Many conferences of bishops do permit pastors to be appointed to set periods: in both Canada and the United States, pastors may be appointed for renewable six year terms. It is important to understand that a pastor may be appointed for a set time, but that is not the norm. Certainly, unless the decree apointing the pastor specifically mentions the fixed-term appointment, then the appointment is indefiinite. (We need to understand also that there were significant changes to the law on the appointment of pastors in the 1983 Code from the 1917 Code, which I am not going to get into here.) The point is, however, that the Code envisions that a pastor is not to be changed at will or often — certainly, when term appointments are allowed, such as six years, an idefinite appointment would seem to require that a bishop have the intention of leaving a pastor in office for longer than six years. There is a certain wisdom to the stability of a pastor. Canon 524 suggests that a pastor is given an appointment to a particular parish, not simply because he is a priest and can celebrate the sacraments for the people but because he, with his particular qualities, is suited to the needs of the people of that specific parish: “A diocesan bishop is to entrust a vacant parish to the one whom he considers suited to fulfill its parochial care, after weighing all the circumstances and without any favoritism. To make a judgment about suitability, he is to hear the vicar forane and conduct appropriate investigations, having heard certain presbyters and lay members of the Christian faithful, if it is warranted.”
In the last decade, if not longer, there seems to be a mentality that has settled into the mindset of clergy and laity alike, that pastors are supposed to be moved every six years or so. We hear it said, “Oh, Fr. X is due for a move, he’s been there for seven years now. Wonder who we’re going to get.” Even priests seems to get antsy after six years in a parish. Time for a change, they say. My own opinion is that shuffling pastors around too often creates upset. It takes several years for a priest to get to know his parishioners well, to discern their spiritual needs. It takes several years to get pastoral plans up and running well. It takes years, especially these days, for the faithful to trust their priests. It seems to me that as soon as that good working relationship and trust begin to take hold, the pastor is often uprooted and sent to start the process all over again. The faithful are left to say, “Well, what changes is the new pastor going to make.” In family life we don’t see it as a virtue to pick up and move the family home every several years. Stability of home life is cherished. For priests themselves, there is the human fact that moving around so much is unsettling. Have you ever wondered why priests, who, while not bound by a promise of poverty, nonetheless cart so many personal possessions, including furniture, from one parish to another? It’s because they are trying to create a home, with familiar surroundings. (I don’t deny, either, that some of that is simply a wordliness that has crept into clerical circles.)
That being said, the reality of today’s Church has changed, even from 1983. Even though the Code says that pastors have stability of office, the Code also recognises that the good of the Church trumps any singular situation. Canon 1748 says, “If the good of souls or the necessity or advantage of the Church demands that a pastor be transferred from a parish which he is governing usefully to another parish or another office, the bishop is to propose the transfer to him in writing and persuade him to consent to it out of love of God and souls.” (emphasis mine) Ultimately, a priest is called to serve the Church and its benefit. A bishop has great discretion, which we assume he won’t abuse, to move a pastor who is doing a good job, let alone, one who is not. Financial concerns of the diocese, fallout from abuse scandal, priest shortages, among so many other things, all play a role in clergy assignments.
Times have changed. We used to think we might not have to drive across town to attend Mass because there was a parish a few streets over. Unfortunately that is not reality now. Sometimes a priest must look after more than one church, you know, when parishes merge but both church buildings remain in use. Even more, sometimes a priest must be pastor of more than one parish! Maybe you thought that wasn’t possible, but it is! Canon 526 states, “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.” (emphasis mine)
I certainly don’t envy bishops their job when it comes to pastoral appointments. I’m certainly glad that my bishop has taken the position that if a priest is happy in his assignment and it is going well, then we don’t need to move him. That makes sense. But we also need to be aware that the circumstances in which the Church finds herself demand flexibility and generosity on the part of priests and laity alike.