What’s the Difference Between a Cathedral Rector and a Parish Priest?

Q: Greetings, who is in charge of a Cathedral Parish? The Bishop or the Priest?

Our priest (he is listed as the “Rector”) states it is his parish, but I feel obligated to obey what our Bishop states to be done when he is there celebrating. –Gary

A: It’s not at all clear what precisely is the problem that is occurring in the cathedral of Gary’s diocese, and so it’s impossible to provide a precise response.  Still, his question inadvertently highlights a more general issue, involving the authority, rights and obligations of a priest who is assigned to oversee the diocesan cathedral church.  Let’s take a look at the basic rules pertaining to clergy ministering in such a capacity, rules which evolved over many centuries; and then perhaps Gary will himself be able to draw logical conclusions enabling him to figure out the answer to his more specific, unstated question.

Historically, a cathedral has always been the church of the diocesan bishop.  The term itself derives from the Latin word cathedra, which refers to the bishop’s throne—and that throne is located in the cathedral church.  There is traditionally a direct and personal sort of tie between the diocesan bishop and his cathedral (a good overview of this historical and theological reality can be read here).  Ignorant lay-Catholics sometimes decry a bishop referring to the cathedral as “my cathedral,” and complain that the bishop makes it sound like the church building belongs to him; but in actual fact it is completely accurate (in the theological sense, if not in the realm of civil property law!) for a diocesan bishop to describe the cathedral of the diocese as his own.  As the Council Fathers put it in Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,

The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent.  Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church… (SC 41)

When a new diocesan bishop is appointed by the Pope, canon law requires him to take canonical possession of the diocese, before he can exercise the office of bishop entrusted to him (c. 382.1).  The code strongly recommends that this ceremony, which involves formally presenting his letter of appointment by the Pope to the officials of the diocese (c. 382.3), be performed in the cathedral church, in the presence of the clergy and the people (c. 382.4).  In this way, the new bishop is seen in a literal, physical sense to be taking charge of his diocese.

That said, the average diocesan bishop usually doesn’t have enough time to take care of “his cathedral” all by himself.  For this reason, many centuries ago there developed the practice of establishing in a typical diocesan cathedral a chapter of canons (c. 503).  The term “canons” as used in this particular sense refers to a group of priests, whose job it is to celebrate liturgical functions in the cathedral.  If you’ve never seen or heard of any canons ministering in the cathedral of your own diocese, that’s probably because nowadays, these chapters are only found in relatively few places—generally in old cathedrals in Europe, where they have existed for centuries.  Newer dioceses in particular don’t tend to have chapters of canons in their cathedrals; instead, their cathedrals are ordinarily administered by a cleric known as a rector.

A rector, according to canon 556, is a priest who is entrusted with the care of some church that is neither (a) a parish nor (b) a church with a chapter of canons.  What does this mean?

Every diocese is territorially divided into parishes, which canon 515.1 tells us are communities of the faithful whose pastoral care is entrusted to a parish priest as their proper pastor, under the authority of the diocesan bishop.  Thus a parish, by definition, is canonically erected for the spiritual care of the faithful living within its boundaries.

But as was discussed in “Is Every Church a Parish?” not every Catholic church is a parish church.  It can and often does happen that other churches or chapels are located within the territorial boundaries of a parish: examples would include a church/chapel on the premises of a Catholic hospital, a monastery, or a Catholic university (see “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” for more on this) or perhaps a shrine (discussed in “Can the Bishop Shut Down a Shrine?”) that was erected within the borders of a particular parish.  Depending on the purpose of this non-parish church or chapel, it could very well be open to the public, and the faithful might be able to fulfill their Sunday obligation by attending Mass there; but technically, its role in the spiritual life of the Church in general, and the diocese in particular, does not center around ministry to the faithful of the diocese where it is located.

Historically, it developed that the diocesan cathedral was frequently not a parish either.  That’s why in those cathedrals where there is no chapter of canons, the diocesan bishop puts a priest in charge of his cathedral—but this priest has traditionally held the title not of parish priest or pastor, but of rector.

And if the diocesan cathedral is not a parish, it is only logical that it is not the cathedral rector’s responsibility to celebrate baptisms or the sacrament of Extreme Unction, to assist at weddings or celebrate funerals, to operate catechetical programs, etc.—because these are the purview of the pastor of the parish in which the cathedral happens to be located.  In fact, a cathedral rector has no authorization to do any of these things, without first obtaining the consent of the parish priest (c. 558).

The status of a cathedral rector might already seem complicated enough; but unfortunately, in many dioceses nowadays the situation is even more confusing.  That’s because it often happens that a cathedral church has actually been constituted by the diocesan bishop as a parish, and the bishop has canonically appointed a priest to be the pastor of the parish … but that parish priest nonetheless retains the title of “rector.”  In other words, since the people of the diocese are accustomed to calling the priest who runs the cathedral its “rector,” they continue to do so even though in reality, he is the pastor of the cathedral parishHere’s an example.  Note that there is nothing necessarily wrong with this; it’s just a question of popularly using the title of “rector” when the priest in question is actually the pastor of a parish.

In practice, this means that if you want to be completely certain of the canonical status of both your diocesan cathedral and the priest who has been placed in charge of running it, you can’t merely check to see whether that priest is referred to as “rector” or “pastor.” Instead, it’s necessary to determine whether the cathedral is actually functioning as a parish or not.  The official written document, signed by the diocesan bishop, appointing a particular priest to serve as pastor of a cathedral parish should spell this out clearly.

What does all this have to do with Gary’s question?  We’ve just seen that depending on whether he’s actually a pastor of a parish, or a rector of a non-parish, the authority of the priest who’s in charge of the cathedral can vary significantly—and it can have an impact on who makes decisions about what.  True, all the priests of the diocese are ultimately under the authority of the diocesan bishop; but at issue here is the bishop’s right to make decisions about what goes on in “his cathedral,” versus calling the shots (perhaps involving inappropriate micro-management?) in a parish of the diocese which has officially been entrusted to the care of a parish priest.

Gary makes a passing reference to the bishop stating “what is to be done when he is there celebrating,” which would seem to indicate that the disagreement in question concerns liturgical matters.  Speaking very broadly, if there’s a disagreement between the diocesan bishop and a priest of his diocese about some issue pertaining to the celebration of Mass or other liturgical events, one would expect the priest to defer to the bishop’s wishes when he comes to say Mass—assuming, of course, that the disagreement involves a legitimate difference of opinion, and there is no question of actual illegality or liturgical abuse.  (It’s worth noting at this point that it is the bishop’s specific duty to ensure that such abuses do not occur in his diocese, as per canon 392.2.)  This would hold true regardless of whether the bishop was celebrating Mass at his cathedral, or at a parish of his diocese—again, speaking in general.  But since we don’t know what exactly is behind the bishop-priest disagreement to which Gary refers, it’s not possible to reach any specific conclusions.

What we can safely conclude is that if, as Gary tells us, “our priest … states it is his parish,” then the cathedral must be a parish church, and the “rector” must in actuality be the pastor of the cathedral parish.  Let’s hope that the clash between bishop and priest which Gary mentions is not a grave one, and that they can work together for the glory of God and the good of the souls entrusted to their care.

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