I saw all of the new priest assignments in my diocesan newspaper, and my parish is getting an “administrator.” Didn’t it used to be that we had pastors and assistant pastors? Now we have administrators and parochial vicars. Is there a difference?
Granted, most Catholics have grown up in parishes where the terms pastor referred to the priest primarily responsible for the parish, and assistant pastor or associate pastor referred to his assistants. Sometimes the term curate was even used for the assistant pastors, derived from the French curé (meaning “one who exercises care of or cure for the souls”); in France, curé actually designated the pastor, while in England and America, it designated his assistants.
Since the 1917 edition of the Code of Canon Law, and especially since the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the technical terms used and becoming more familiar are pastor, parochial vicar and administrator. (The following citations are the particular canons from the 1983 Code of Canon Law.)
Let’s just examine the meaning of these terms. The bishop appoints the pastor as “the proper shepherd” of the parish. (The word pastor in Latin means “shepherd.”) The pastor, mindful that he is to exercise his authority as an extension of the bishop and in the example of Christ, the Good Shepherd, must care for the souls of the faithful entrusted to him. He must fulfill his duties to teach, to sanctify and to govern the faithful with the cooperation of the priests, deacons, religious and lay members of his parish. These duties include the preaching of the Word of God in its entirety; delivering catechetical instruction in the truths of the faith in accord with the Magisterium of the Church; fostering charitable works and promoting social justice; encouraging prayer within the home and the parish through good devotions; evangelizing those who have left the practice of the faith or those who do not profess the true faith; and most importantly, nourishing the faithful through the sacraments, particularly through frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist and penance. A special emphasis is placed on the pastor’s obligation to provide for the Catholic education of his people, particularly children and young adults, and ensuring that the Most Holy Eucharist is the center of parish life (cf. No. 528). In all, a pastor must be a priest “distinguished for his sound doctrine and integrity of morals, and endowed with a zeal for souls and other virtues” (No. 521.2).
When a parish is “vacant,” meaning that the pastor has retired, been transferred to another assignment, or is incapable of exercising his duties as a pastor, the bishop must appoint as soon as possible a parochial administrator. In general, an administrator has the same duties and scope of authority as a pastor; however, these may be limited by the bishop. The bishop in time may decide to appoint the administrator as the pastor. The Code of Canon Law stipulates, “For the office of pastor to be conferred on someone, it is necessary that his suitability be clearly evident by means of some method determined by the diocesan bishop, even by means of an examination” (No. 521.3). Therefore, in deciding the appointment of a pastor to a vacant parish, the bishop should make a judgment based on his knowledge of the priest’s character and abilities, and on the advice of other priests and laity (No. 524). As such, the bishop may obtain this knowledge and advice during a priest’s time as administrator of a parish. One interesting note here: a bishop may transfer or remove an administrator at any time; however, a pastor does have certain rights protected by canon law which could cause some “intrigue” in the interactions with his bishop.
Finally, parochial vicars are assigned by the bishop to assist the pastor in the care of the faithful. The Code of Canon Law defines the office as follows: “Parochial vicars are priests who render their services in pastoral ministry as co-workers with the pastor in common counsel and endeavor with him and also under his authority” (No. 545.1). Given the size of some parishes, parochial vicars are essential in helping the pastor fulfill his obligations for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the parish.
Just as an aside, I remember being a deacon when the new Code was promulgated. My classmates and I had some fun with the new term “parochial vicar.” One quipped, “We will still be ‘Father You’ll Do.’” Another quipped, “Call it curate, assistant, associate or parochial vicar, it still is spelled s-l-a-v-e.” Oh well.
While pondering these terms pastor, administrator and parochial vicar and their “job descriptions,” all of the faithful should pray for their parish priests each day that they may be good priests who reflect in their lives, Jesus, the true, eternal Priest.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)