When Can a Layperson Be a Pastor of a Parish?

Q: My sister-in-law and I were having an innocent conversation about our parishes, and ended up in a huge fight.  I made some comment like, “the pastor of a parish always has to be a priest,” and she went ballistic, insisting that in her diocese there are parishes with lay pastors, even women pastors.  She named several parishes and specifically told me who their lay pastors were.

I know that in some places, there are more parishes than there are priests, but does that mean you can actually have a pastor who is a layperson?  I’m wondering how that could work since they can’t say Mass … what does canon law say?  If it makes any difference, my brother and sister-in-law live in [a rural diocese with a dire shortage of priests]. –Gene

A: If you live in a region of the world which doesn’t have a shortage of Catholic priests, count your blessings!  Tragically, there are few places around the globe nowadays where the supply of priests is sufficient to meet the needs of the Church.  For that reason, dioceses often have to get creative about serving the spiritual needs of the faithful with an inadequate number of priests—and, as we can see from Gene’s question, confusion and misunderstanding can be the result.

In “Who’s in Charge of the Parish, When There’s No Parish Priest?” we looked at what ordinarily happens when the parish priest retires, dies, or is transferred elsewhere: this is supposed to be a short-term situation that will be resolved as soon as the diocesan bishop can identify another priest to take the former pastor’s place.  But the scenario Gene describes is a more long-term, chronic sort of situation, which can’t be rectified so easily—because the diocesan bishop doesn’t have another priest to fill the role of pastor!  Thus the ordinary procedures, outlined in the abovementioned article, cannot be applied.

Let’s take a look at the office of parish priest (or “pastor,” if you live in the U.S.), and see what the code and subsequent Vatican documents have to say about finding an appropriate workaround when a diocese doesn’t have enough priests to staff all its parishes.  Then the reason for the disagreement between Gene and his sister-in-law will become evident.

Before we can understand the role of a pastor of a parish, we first have to have a grasp of the spiritual role of a diocesan bishop.  That’s because, as canon 515.1 indicates, a parish is a stably erected subsection of a diocese.  And just as a diocesan bishop is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the people entrusted to his care (cf. c. 383, where the bishop is described as a “shepherd,” or pastor in the original Latin text), the pastor of a parish is likewise spiritually responsible for the souls of the faithful who live within the parish territory (see “Parish Registration” for a detailed discussion of the territoriality of one’s proper parish).

It follows as a matter of course that as per canon 521.1, you have to be a priest to be a pastor.  As we saw in “What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?” only a priest can offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—the “source and summit of the Christian life” as Vatican II told us (Lumen Gentium 11)—and without the Mass, we would have no Eucharist, and thus no way to receive Holy Communion!  Similarly, only a priest can absolve us from our sins (c. 965) or confer the anointing of the sick (c. 1003.1, and see “Overdoing the Anointing of the Sick” for more on this sacrament).

Yes, in the life of a typical parish, there are loads of things that non-priests can do: you certainly don’t have to be a priest to care for the physical plant, to balance the financial books, or to teach catechism classes.  But as we saw in “Who is Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” and “Canon Law and Parish Councils,” at the end of the day it’s the parish priest who is actually responsible for the carrying out of these tasks, since they are all ultimately done for the good of the parish—and remember, the whole purpose of a parish’s existence is the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful.

So what’s supposed to happen when there aren’t enough priests in a diocese to staff all the parishes?  Well, if there are two parishes in the diocese which aren’t enormous, and they are located fairly close to each other, it’s entirely possible to make one priest the pastor of both of them.  True, canon 526.1 tells us that the norm is that one priest should be the pastor of one parish; but it immediately adds that when there is a lack of priests, one priest can be the pastor of more than one parish.  Since the job of pastor constitutes an ecclesiastical office (see “When Can a Pastor be Removed From Office?” for more on what this implies), that means one priest is holding two offices simultaneously; but as canon 152 tells us, one person can hold two or more offices if these offices can be fulfilled at the same time by the same person.  Therefore, so long as a priest can run both parishes and still find time to sleep and otherwise maintain his sanity, there is nothing canonically wrong with this.

Canon 517.1 provides another option: “when circumstances require it,” the pastoral care of multiple parishes can be entrusted to several priests in solidum.  So let’s say that a diocese has four priests and seven parishes to care for.  In accord with canon 517.1, all four priests are given all the faculties of a pastor (which means, for example, that they all have the authority to prepare parishioners for marriage, cf. c. 1067 and see “When Can the Parish Priest Postpone a Wedding?” for more on this), but the bishop must name one of the four priests as the moderator of this group.  The four men would arrange to divide the needs of the seven parishes among themselves; but when it comes to making major decisions and interacting with the diocesan bishop, the moderator would be considered “first among equals.”  Parishioners at these seven parishes would invariably see different priests on different days of the week, and/or for different needs—but at least they would be ministered to by a priest.

But in very rural dioceses, where parishes might be 50-100 miles apart, things can quickly get more complicated—and if there are, say, three or four parishes in the diocese for every diocesan priest, the bishop has got a real problem on his hands!  It should go without saying that the bishop is urging the faithful to pray for vocations, and otherwise doing everything in his power to encourage young men to consider the priesthood; and it is likewise pretty obvious that he should actively be searching for religious institutes which might be willing to send some priests to minister in his diocese.  As was discussed in “Notre Dame, Obama, and the Bishop’s Authority,” it’s very common for dioceses to make arrangements with clerical religious (like Franciscans or Dominicans) to staff one or more parishes in the diocese.  These sorts of solutions to the problem—which by definition will take time to bear fruit, as they can’t be effected overnight—should be a diocese’s primary focus.  Nobody should be throwing up his hands and concluding that a clergy shortage is an unavoidable, permanent problem, because with God’s help it doesn’t have to be.

Meanwhile, of course, something has to be done right away to care for the people of all these parishes; and canon 517.2 provides for that:

If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop has decided that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest who, provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.

So, in accord with this canon, when there are so few priests that even the arrangement described in canon 517.1 is not workable, a diocesan bishop can put a non-priest in charge of a parish.  Note that nowhere in this canon does it say that this non-priest is given the office of pastor—because that’s impossible.  As canon 150 tells us, any ecclesiastical office which entails the full care of souls, and for whose fulfillment the exercise of the priestly order is required, cannot be conferred validly on one who is not a priest.  Here is part of the answer to Gene’s question: he was absolutely correct that “the pastor of a parish has to be a priest,” but we can see that his sister-in-law was partially right too, because the diocesan bishop can put someone other than a priest at the helm of a parish.  Whom can the bishop place in this role?

For starters, he can select a permanent deacon.  A deacon is not a priest, but is nonetheless a member of the clergy (c. 266.1), and has the sacramental power to celebrate some of the sacraments, though of course not all (see the abovementioned “What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?” for the details).  If no deacon is available, the bishop might name a religious sister or brother, or even an entire convent or monastery, to handle pastoral care at a parish.  And if this isn’t an option, canon 517.2 provides that the diocesan bishop can place another Catholic layperson at the helm.  But note that while someone other than a priest can be put “in charge,” the bishop must at the same time name a priest—who is probably already the pastor of another parish in the diocese—to direct the pastoral care.  That priest is not given the office of pastor of this parish (he may hold multiple offices already!), but he nonetheless has the “powers and faculties of a pastor.”  This means, to cite just a couple of examples, that he can validly celebrate weddings at the parish (see canon 1108, and “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” for more on this), and can determine whether parish children are in fact prepared to receive their First Penance and First Holy Communion (c. 777 n. 2; see “Refusing First Holy Communion to Children Who Are Ill-Prepared” for an in-depth discussion of this issue)—even though this priest technically isn’t the pastor of the parish.  Note that the parish doesn’t have anybody officially holding the office of pastor in this sort of arrangement.

On paper, this may all sound clear enough, and it makes complete canonical sense; but in practice, misunderstandings can arise among well-meaning Catholics almost immediately.  For starters, what does it mean for a non-priest to be “in charge” of a parish?  Even in a typical parish setting, with a priest installed in the office of pastor and running the show, laypeople working/volunteering at the parish often wrongly conclude that they have more authority than they really do (as we saw in “Who’s Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” and “Parish Registration and Confirmation Sponsors,” among others).  At the same time, an exhausted, overworked priest, who is wearing more hats than he should ever have to, will naturally be inclined to entrust lay parishioners with as much work as possible—which can inadvertently lead him to pass along to others responsibilities which really are his alone.  In short, the parameters of the term “in charge” have to be clearly explained and well understood by everyone involved in parish operations.

For that reason, in 2020 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy issued an Instruction, “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church” (abbreviated as Pastoral Conversion).  Before we look at its contents, it’s important to understand what a document categorized as an Instruction is intended to do.  As canon 34.1 explains,

Instructions clarify the prescripts of laws and elaborate on and determine the methods to be observed in fulfilling them.  They are given for the use of those whose duty it is to see that laws are executed and oblige them in the execution of the laws.

Instructions are not laws in themselves, although they can and generally do cite laws which are already in existence; and they don’t change or repeal any laws (c. 34.2).  As will be seen shortly in this particular Instruction, this type of document collects laws and other information on a particular topic in one place, and provides clarification and direction on how to follow it all correctly.  Ordinarily some confusion must have arisen, to prompt church officials to write an Instruction in the first place—as was the case here.

Pastoral Conversion stresses that when it comes to naming non-priests to head up a parish,

It should be remembered that we are dealing here with an extraordinary form of entrusting pastoral care, due to the impossibility of appointing a Parish Priest …, which is not to be confused with the ordinary active cooperation of the lay faithful in assuming their responsibilities.
In view of this extraordinary remedy, the People of God should be adequately prepared in this regard, cognizant that it is a temporary and not a permanent measure (88-89, emphases added).

The Instruction also reiterates that only an ordained priest can hold the office of pastor, and cites canon 517.2 as discussed above (Pastoral Conversion, 91).  And since this has been a particular point of confusion, the Instruction understandably asserts that a diocesan bishop who puts a non-priest in charge of a parish due to a dearth of available priests should explain the situation to the faithful:

[I]n the decree by which he appoints the Moderator Priest, it is strongly recommended that the Bishop would set out, at least briefly, the reasons why it has become necessary to apply this extraordinary form to the assignment of pastoral care to one or more Parish communities, together with the kinds of ministry that the priest in charge will exercise.

…[I]t is necessary to use terminology that corresponds in a correct way to the functions that they can fulfill in conformity with their state of life. In this way, the essential difference that exists between the common priesthood [of all the faithful] and the ministerial priesthood [of ordained priests] is clearly maintained, and the identity of the appointment received by each person should be evident.

In that vein, it is the responsibility, first of all, of the diocesan Bishop and, as far as it pertains to him, the Parish Priest, to see that the appointments of deacons, religious and laity that have roles of responsibility in the Parish, are not designated as “pastor,” “co-pastor,” “chaplain,” “moderator,” “coordinator,” “Parish manager,” or other similar terms reserved by law to priests, inasmuch as they have a direct correlation to the ministerial profile of priests. (Pastoral Conversion, 93, 95, and 96, emphases added)

The Instruction also notes that laypersons who are tasked with parish responsibilities must be in full communion with the Catholic Church, and receive appropriate formation in the tasks they are to perform (97, and see “Who is Qualified to Become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion?” for more on this issue).

If we take another look at Gene’s question, we can better understand why an argument developed between him and his sister-in-law—because to some degree, each of them was right and each was wrong!  This kind of in-between situation, where a priest has ministerial control of a parish while a deacon or layperson is in charge of other parish affairs (and nobody has the title of “pastor”) is, as the Instruction Pastoral Conversion reiterates multiple times, an “extraordinary situation” which is neither permanent nor the norm.  As discussed above, the diocese should be doing everything humanly possible to encourage new vocations, and otherwise to recruit priests to minister in its parishes.  Sure, it may take six months or six years, but God will send us priests if we keep asking for them.  Let’s continue to pray for priestly vocations worldwide, in such abundance that someday every parish around the globe will have its own pastor, an ordained priest.

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