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Cathedral Rectors

June 8, 2012

It has been a busy few weeks for me in the parish and it looks like things will only get busier as Forty Hours Devotions begin this evening in preparation for our Corpus Christi procession.  Then it will be on to closing school Masses and graduations with a few weddings thrown in before I begin packing my belongings to undertake a new assignment.  So, in the meantime, I will answer a few questions that have come my way and make a plug for a fine group of men with whom I spent a few days visiting: the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in Chicago.  I was with them for some tutoring in how to celebrate the Missa cantata in the extraordinary form.  The canons are a vibrant young community involved in many activities.  One of them is offering workshops which train priests and seminarians how to celebrate and serve the extraordinary form.  It is an invaluable service to the Church.  They do it well, without any fussiness, without any pretension, simply out of a love for the liturgy in both forms (both of which they offer with extraordinary splendour and beauty in their parish church.)  You can find more on their web site:

One reader asked me about the duties of a Cathedral rector.  This title is a bit of a misnomer.  Sometimes the priest who is given charge of the Cathedral is called a rector.  It seems to be an honourary title because he is the pastor of the Cathedral parish.  In fact, several distinctions need to be made.  The canons do not expressly deal with this subject as I will try to explain.

Canon law neither defines a cathedral nor deals directly with it.  Cathedrals are the places where the bishop takes possession of his diocese (c. 382), in which the diocesan bishop is to celebrate Mass often (c. 389), where ordinations are to be celebrated (c. 1011), and where the funeral and burial of bishops are to occur (cc. 1178, 1242).  As we can see, cathedrals are mentioned all over the code, but only in passing when dealing with other subjects.

The cathedral church, besides being the seat of the bishop, can also be a parish church.  It doesn’t have to be, but it often is.  If the cathedral is also a parish, then, properly speaking, a pastor is appointed to it.  If the cathedral church is not a parish, then, properly speaking, a rector is appointed to it.  Here the Code helps us out a bit (cc. 556-563).

Rectors according to c. 556, “are here understood to be priests to whom is entrusted the care of some church which is neither a parochial nor a capitular church, nor a church attached to the house of a religious community or a society of apostolic life which holds services in it.”  Now that’s a mouthful.  What does it mean?

Parish churches are clear enough.  I don’t believe there are any capitular churches in North America; they are more common in Europe where canons (people, not laws!) are appointed.  A chapter of canons is a college of priests who have the duty of celebrating the more solemn liturgical functions in a particular church (c. 503).  You see canons in the major basilicas of Rome, for example. They are often vested in mantelleta and biretta for mass or vespers.  Religious orders often have chapels (some the size of basilicas) where the faithful go to Mass.  For example, we could think of a church on the campus of a Catholic university campus, like Notre Dame.  It’s not a parish church, but people go there.  It would have a rector, not a pastor, in charge.  In other words, a rector is the priest in charge of a church which is not a parish, or a religious ‘chapel.’

A rector is limited in what he can do.  Because his church is located within the territory of a parish, he must not interfere in the work or authority of the pastor.  For example, he may not baptise; administer Viaticum, Confirmation in danger of death, or Anointing of the Sick; solemnise Marriage; conduct funerals; bless the baptismal font at Easter; or conduct processions outside the Church without the consent of the pastor.  His church, in other words, is not to be a rival church to the parish.  Perhaps the church is a shrine of some sort where the faithful gather.  The rector looks after it; however, and this is a good reminder, those faithful still belong to a parish.  The shrine and its liturgical functions ought not to substitute for participation in one’s proper parish.

Now, back to canon 556 and its definition of a rector.  Did you notice that little word, “here” (hic in the official text)?  Rectors are “here” understood to mean…  In other words, rector is understood to mean something different “there” in other places in the Code.  Unfortunately, there are no “other” places in the Code.  Some poor editing of the Code?  Perhaps.  Is there another definition of rector that somehow never made it in the Code, like a Cathedral Rector?  Maybe, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for that.  So a rector is in charge of a church which is not a parish.

To answer the question put to me by a new “rector” of a Cathedral, “What are my duties?”, I would answer, that your duties are those of a pastor because that is, in fact, what you are (unless your Cathedral is NOT also a parish.)


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  1. Now, back to canon 556 and its definition of a rector. Did you notice that little word, “here” (hic in the official text)? Rectors are “here” understood to mean… In other words, rector is understood to mean something different “there” in other places in the Code. Unfortunately, there are no “other” places in the Code.

    Seminary rectors are also mentioned in the code, e.g. at c. 239, and rectors of Catholic universities, e.g. at c. 443.

    • Right you are! That’s what I get for trying to blog at 5 am in the morning. Coffee hadn’t kicked in. Thank you for that correction.

  2. Titus permalink

    You mention the basilica of the Sacred Heart at ND, Father. But university chapels like that seem to function much more like parish churches than “ordinary” chapels or shrines one finds out and about places. Are there special rules for places, like universities, where large numbers of people maintain a quasi-domicile near a chapel within the territory, but outside the practical reach, of a parish? Or do places like Sacred Heart get treated as the chapels of religious houses, with the students sort of lumped in with the religious?

    • Notre Dame might not have been the best example for me to use as I don’t know the specifics. It probably is, strictly speaking, a chapel (c. 1223), which means a place set aside for worship for a specific group of the faithful (the unversity students). It doesn’t prevent other people from attending services there, unless the competent superior forbids it. Or, it might be a church, properly speaking, which means that it has been dedicated and all the faithful have the right to worship there. In either case, certain functions may not be performed there without permission or delegation of the local pastor (cc. 1219, 530). While they de facto become people’s parish churches, strictly speaking they are not. They are churches or chapels located wthin the territory of a parish.

  3. Peregrinus permalink

    The parish church which I attend was elevated to the status of a minor basilica some years ago, since when the pastor of the parish has also been referred to as the rector of the basilica. Do minor basilicas generally have rectors? And, since minor basilicas are very often parish churches, is this another example of a rector who falls outside the “here” mentioned in canon 556?

    • Once again, like a Cathedral rector in most cases, the rector of the basilica you describe is really a pastor. We tend to think of ‘rector’ as some sort of honour. Canonically it’s not. It’s just the person in charge of a church which isn’t a parish church.

      • Peregrinus permalink

        Yes, but in this instance the basilica *is* a parish church, and yet the priest in charge – who is pastor of the parish – is still called the rector.

      • As I said, I don’t believe the ‘rector’ title, in this case of the basilica/parish is canonically incorrect and is more a type of pious custom that has arisen. We tend to think the title of rector is more special than that of pastor. Although, having said that, I don’t have the legislation on basilicas at hand. I would be willing to bet that the rules concering basilicas speak of appointing a rector but under the assumption that parish churches are not normally given the honour of basilica (in which case it makes perfect sense. A church must have someone in charge: a parish church has a pastor, a non-parish church has a rector, according to the canons. But perhaps there is some development going on here as well.) As we can see, what appears in the first instance as a rather simple question, leads to all sorts of other questions and ideas. That is why discussion is important in a blog like this. And as I believe I have said before, no one, most certainly not this canonist, is an expert in the whole code.

  4. Titus permalink

    Thank-you for the clarification, Father. I’ll have to bear that in mind: marriages and baptisms in the basilica are unlikely for me, but outside the realm of possibility.

  5. Charles Collins permalink

    Okay, you say that a rector cannot “administer Viaticum, Confirmation in danger of death, or Anointing of the Sick;”

    Even though 883.3 says “any priest” can confirm in danger of death, and canon 1003 says all priests may carry blessed oil in case of necessity? Do these canons exclude rectors, and only rectors, on the basis of 558? Or is this another case where the writers of the Code forgot to cross-reference?

    • No, the canons are properly cross-referenced and it`s not that a rector is forbidden from administering confirmation. I added the proviso, without consent of the pastor (notice that c. 558 doesn`t even allow for `presumed consent`.) If you look at c. 530.2, it belongs properly to the pastor to administer Confirmation in danger of death, “in accordance with c. 883.3,” which states that: `the following have, by law, the faculty to administer confirmation: in respect of those in danger of death, the parish priest or indeed any priest.` Notice that the pastor is singled out as the proper priest to administer the sacrament. The salvation of souls allows any priest to confrim. Of course, confirmation is not necessary for salvation. In the case of anointing, c. 1003.2 allows for presumed consent of the pastor for a reasonable cause.

      To the original question, the office of rector does not involve the care of souls but only the care of a church and its liturgical functions. A Cathedral rector who is, in fact, a pastor, is more properly called `pastor`. Perhaps this custom of calling him the rector has arisen because we popularly think of the cathedral as the bishop`s parish, as if he is the pastor of that territory in addition to being the pastor of the diocese. It would be interesting to do some research on the canonical notion of a cathedral. salvo meliore iudicio.
      Fr. MacD

  6. Travis Rankin permalink

    There is a case right now at the Rota involving the administration of temporal goods of a cathedral (which is also a parish church) in which it is disputed whether the rector of the cathedral can administer its goods. Although it is clear that his function at the cathedral clearly involves the care of souls, his decree of appointment was to the office of rector. When the dispute arose between the bishop and the priest regarding the ownership of parish property, the priest submitted a libellus on behalf of the parish to settle the dispute. The court at first instance rejected the libellus on the ground that the priest lacked legal standing to act in the name of the parish. It shall be interesting to see the decision of the Rota.

    • thank you for this information! it is interesting indeed. I would be very interested to know how the judges in first instance decided that the ‘rector’ didn’t have canonical standing. Who acts in the name of the Cathedral if there is no officially appointed pastor? And if the Cathedral is a parish, then the bishop, I would assume from their reasoning, is either the pastor or was remiss in not appointing a pastor. Perhaps you could contact me privately if you know more precise details.

  7. Miguel permalink

    I always thought the Bishop was the Pastor of a Cathedral and therefore the day-to-day Pastor was given the title of Rector. I guess because I thought that, I believed the Pope was the Pastor of all Basilicas and therefore the day-to-day Pastor of a Basilica was alos given the title Rector.

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