Who’s in Charge of the Parish When There’s No Parish Priest?

Q:  We recently lost our priest and the priest from another church was named the administrator.

Now there is internal fighting on who reports to whom and who’s in charge.

I think that the DRE [Director of Religious Education] is in charge of all the various faith committees. The Office Manager is in charge of all office business, maintenance, cleaning and secretarial staff.  I feel that the DRE and the Office Manager are supposed to work together,  but neither is each other’s boss.

I feel that both the DRE and the Office Manager report to the Administrator… I keep hearing that canon law says the DRE is in charge of the parish and everyone reports to her.

What is canon law on this? –Denise

A:  The “canon law on this” is very straightforward, so it’s not clear why there is so much apparent confusion at Denise’s parish.  Let’s first take a look at what the law says about who’s in charge of what, when a parish priest is at the head of a parish (as is the norm).  Then we can look at how things change—or don’t—when a parish loses its priest and is waiting for the bishop to appoint a new one.

First of all, every diocese is carved up into parishes, which as a rule are territorial (c. 518; see “Parish Registration” and “Can Our Pastor Kick Us Out of the Parish?” for more on this).  Heading up the parish is, as we all know, the pastor (or “parish priest,” depending on which country you live in), who is chosen by the diocesan bishop and entrusted with the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful who live in the parish (c. 519).  The position of parish priest is ordinarily an ecclesiastical office, which is defined in canon 145.1 as a position which is established by either divine (meaning God created it) or ecclesiastical (meaning the bishop or some other church official created it) disposition.  This may sound like legal semantics, but the fact that the pastor actually holds an ecclesiastical office gives him certain legal rights, which are entirely appropriate when you consider that he also holds a vast amount of responsibility.

Other priests can also be assigned to minister at a parish; their technical title is parochial vicar, although they are often known commonly as assistant pastors (c. 547).  The parochial vicar’s exact duties can vary, depending on the particular parish and also on the wishes of the diocesan bishop; but one thing you can safely assume is that the parochial vicar is always the pastor’s subordinate, in terms of both rank and responsibilities (cf. c. 548).  As his title indicates, his fundamental job is to assist the pastor of the parish.  And as a general rule, the position of parochial vicar constitutes an ecclesiastical office, just like the job of pastor.

Depending on the size and demographics of the parish, it’s quite normal to employ other (non-clerical) persons in a variety of roles, from secretary/receptionist to organist to youth minister. If there is also a school attached to the parish, of course there will be plenty of teachers and some administrators working there too.  These sorts of jobs can vary radically from parish to parish, from diocese to diocese, and from country to country.  But with very rare exceptions, it’s a safe bet that these persons do not hold ecclesiastical offices.  As canon 146 states, an ecclesiastical office can only be obtained validly by canonical provision, meaning that (as per canon 147) the office is created by the competent ecclesiastical authority, which also confers that office on a person (c. 148).  In the case of a parish, the “competent ecclesiastical authority” is the diocesan bishop—not the pastor.  So if, let’s say, the bishop wants to formally establish the ecclesiastical office of “Principal of Saint Albert’s Catholic School,” which is connected to Saint Albert’s Catholic Church, he technically has the authority to do that… although in practice he usually doesn’t.

This means that ordinarily, a person who works for the parish in some capacity other than the pastor or parochial vicar simply holds a job, subject to the usual civil employment laws of the region where the parish is located. His boss is the pastor of the parish.  In a very large parish with lots of lay-workers, the pastor might very well create an “org-chart” showing who supervises whom, and who reports directly to whom, and it could be that one layperson is directly subordinate to another; but the bottom line is that the pastor of the parish is ultimately the one in charge of everyone, and it is he who normally has ultimate hiring and firing authority for the workers of the parish.  Around the world, there are probably a thousand different variations on this theme, of course; but the general rule is that the pastor is in charge.

But what happens when the pastor dies, or retires, or gets seriously ill and has to resign? This obviously happens all the time.  Sometimes the bishop can see it coming: when a parish priest reaches the age of 75, he is asked to offer his resignation to the bishop, as per canon 548.3, and the bishop may or may not choose to accept it.  In contrast, of course, if the seemingly healthy pastor of a parish suddenly dies in his sleep, this will naturally catch the bishop unawares.  Regardless, once the office of pastor is vacant, unless the bishop is ready to name a new pastor immediately, he must appoint an administrator as soon as possible (c. 539).

As this same canon 539 indicates, the administrator is supposed to be an ordained priest, and he takes the place of the pastor until a new pastor is officially named by the bishop. During this interim period, the administrator has the same responsibilities and the same rights as any pastor would (c. 540.1).  This makes total sense, because the administrator is essentially functioning as the temporary pastor of a parish.  He’s obliged to take care of all the spiritual elements of parish life—ensuring that of course Masses are said and sacraments are celebrated—as well as all of the “housekeeping” sorts of things that keep the parish running, like paying utility bills and ensuring that the lawns are mowed.  The administrator should generally keep the functioning of the parish in a holding-pattern, without making any radical alterations (unless there’s a genuine emergency, in which case he’ll want to talk to the diocesan bishop about it anyway), so that when the new pastor arrives, he will find things running pretty much as they always have (cf. c. 540.2).

Armed with this information, it’s now quite easy to tackle Denise’s question. In the absence of a pastor, the relations between the various employees of the parish remain essentially the same, except that everyone is ultimately responsible to the administrator instead of the pastor.  It’s actually very simple!  If the previous pastor had arranged that some workers are immediately subordinate to others, then that’s the way things are expected to remain.  So if the Director of Religious Education at Denise’s parish was always “in charge of all the various faith committees” (whatever that means), then the DRE is still in that role unless the administrator specifically says otherwise.  The position of a secretary or Office Manager likewise should remain basically the same.

Why Denise “keep(s) hearing that canon law says the DRE is in charge of the parish and everyone reports to her” is a mystery. Neither the title nor the job of “Director of Religious Education” even exists in the Code of Canon Law!   But for whatever reason, in much of North America the position of DRE has become standard in many parishes, and far too many Catholics there now wrongly attribute to this role an exalted status which is altogether unwarranted.  While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that theologically, the real director of religious education at a parish is always, always the parish priest and nobody else.  It is he who is entrusted by the diocesan bishop with the spiritual wellbeing of the people of the parish, and that includes ensuring that they are properly trained in the faith, not only by giving a homily on Sundays and holydays, but by proper catechetical formation (c. 528.1 and cc. 776-777).  In centuries past, when life was simpler, it was the parish priest who would teach the children their catechism himself, often gathering them all in the church on a Sunday afternoon and teaching them the basic truths of the Catholic faith.

But as most of us are keenly aware, in large parishes nowadays where the parish priest has no parochial vicar(s) to assist him, often the poor priest is completely overwhelmed by all the work which his responsibilities entail—and so he naturally gets help when he can. Sometimes this involves asking a retired priest to help by hearing confessions and celebrating some of the Masses; sometimes it means hiring laypersons to assist in other, non-sacramental tasks.  This is how the job of “Director of Religious Education” developed: the parish priest who can’t manage to do everything himself will find a (qualified, we hope!) non-cleric to oversee catechesis in the parish, in accord with the abovementioned canon 776.

Note that as with all the other workers in the parish, the DRE’s boss is the pastor, who can of course always overrule the DRE if he disagrees with any aspect of the way the catechetical program is being run. (See “Who is Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” for more on this subject.)  In other words, a DRE is no more autonomous than the janitor or the gardener or any other parish employee.  Remember that absent an unusual situation, a DRE holds no ecclesiastical office, has no particular rights under canon law, and is ordinarily employed solely in accord with civil law.  And so the notion that “the DRE is in charge of the parish and everyone reports to her” is actually quite laughable.

The fact is, when there is no pastor, the administrator is in charge of the parish, and everyone reports to him.  Period.

It could very well happen that the administrator chooses to leave the operation of the parish catechetical program up to the DRE during his tenure. After all, in many cases a priest who is assigned to be a parish administrator is already the pastor of a parish nearby—and he is thus obliged to try to do two full-time jobs at once.  Particularly if an administrator knows that his role is only going to last a few weeks, he may decide simply to leave the parish operation on “auto-pilot” and let the employees do their usual thing without interference.  But this is a far cry from putting any of them in charge of the parish!  Only the pastor or administrator is “in charge of the parish,” and only an ordained priest can have the role of pastor (c. 521.1), or of parish administrator (c. 539 again).  Theologically, that’s exactly the way it should be.

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