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Pastoral Moves and Stability of Office

May 7, 2012

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.

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  1. There is a pastor in a neighbouring diocese who has 4 parishes to administer and each is more than a few miles apart.He relies on great communication among the parish councils to arrange funerals,weddings,etc so that there is ‘no clash’…and the parishioners in each parish prepare the altar etc so that he is ‘ready to go’ on the date and time of the celebration…but it is tiring for him ( hospitals and senior homes to visit-sick calls-family matters) and the list goes on

    • Tiring indeed. I have often thought that, in some ways, we are shooting ourselves in the foot by not closing parishes and churches outright. Not only is it tiring for the priest, but he becomes, in a certain sense, just a sacramental provider and ceases to be a pastor in the true sense of the word. But I realise that the issues are difficult in these cases.

  2. In the diocese my wife & I moved from (last summer) the Ordinary has appointed only Administrators in the vast majority of vacant parishes; sadly this seems to have contributed to an air of distrust between him and his clergy. So much so, that even regular churchgoers like us got to hear of it. The diocese we moved to, by contrast, has a happier atmosphere due in part I think to the fact that the PPs (aka Pastors) are being given long term appointments and then let get on with the job.

  3. elie mc manus permalink

    You helped me see the two sides of the coin so to speak. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. It does take parishioners time to feel comfortable interacting with a priest. I can go to any mass and appreciate a visiting priest and his message but I do not know if I would feel comfortabe confinding in him. I remember when I was in 7th and 8th grade and we had a priest who would come out and play basketball with the boys. The boys felt that he was a person with whom they could talk to. When he left the priest who took his place did not play basketball. I am glad I understand why a priest may be moved now.

    • Indeed! Any priest who does not play basketball ought,forthwith, to be moved.May I suggest a year or two with the Argonauts?

  4. Chad permalink

    It is a complicated issue, to be sure. I love my pastor here, as does everyone else in the parish. I hope that he will not be plucked up for another assignment (or worse, an ecclesiastical appointment) any time soon. As you said, he’s just been in long enough to start up his “program” and only time will tell what good he can actually do now that he is trusted and stably in place.

    Another issue that is happening now (at least in my home diocese) is that many parishes are closing down their rectories or converting them to office space. This is coming about because of a strange phenomenon of some diocesan priests owning their own houses. When a parish has had 10+ years of an unoccupied rectory, they decide that they don’t want to waste the space, and use it for offices. This results in the phenomenon of the “absent pastor” who isn’t even living within his juridical boundaries, and somewhat limits the possible choices of new pastors.

    I’m not sure you answered the question posed at the beginning, however, namely what rights a pastor has against transfer. If an appointment is indeed indefinite (i.e. the decree was not made specifically for a 6-year term), must the pastor still move under obedience if asked?

    • The answer, which I think I tried to make, was that, ultimately, the bishop has great discretion in moving a pastor. The good of the church ond/or of souls trumps the pastor’s stability. Of course, there is a procedure to be followed in the transfer of a pastor who doesn’t wish to be moved; however, the short answer is that he should obey.

      The unusual phenomenon of a pastor living in his own home and not in the rectory simply underlines my point that priests, humanly speaking, need stability, a place to call home. Owning their own homes is not the answer in my opinion. Of course, a secular priest may own property as many own cottages that they use for their day off etc. The pastor is obliged, by canon 533, to live in the parochial house, unless, for a just reason, the Ordinary allows him to reside elsewhere.

  5. Titus permalink

    Yes, our parish shares its pastor with another parish: I thought at first that the individual parishes had been suppressed and merged, but they’re actually still distinct, just with a single pastor. Fortunately we “borrow” some priests from chaplaincy duties nearby to ease the strain on the pastor.

    As for the moving mania, we had that in the diocese in which I grew up. Six year terms, renewable once. You grew up with one priest, but just as you were old enough to get to know him personally, he was whisked away and you never saw again. Very strange, very difficult for children, I think.

  6. Matthew permalink

    Here in northwest Alabama, we do well to have at least one parish per county. My church, and the nearest, is a half-hour drive along the highway. Sadly, we have even fewer priests, but the monasteries are kind in shuffling their own clergy around to suit the needs of the diocese. I would suggest that any priest desiring stability of orders need only request a transfer to the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama!

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