What’s the Difference Between a Pastor, and a Parish Administrator?

Q: I read your piece about the pastor of a parish having to be a priest, not a layperson.  That leads me to ask another question, what’s the difference between a pastor, and a “parish administrator”?

The pastor of our parish died in early 2021, and the bishop replaced him not with a new pastor, but with a parish administrator.  It’s a younger priest who has never been a pastor before.  He has been at our parish for almost two years now.

Why isn’t he called a pastor?  As far as I can tell he does all the work of a typical pastor….  I was wondering if he has a different title because he’s new to the role and is kind of like a “pastor in training,” is that possible? –Margot

A: For reasons which are unclear, the scenario which Margot describes has become increasingly common in the past couple of decades.  In “Who’s in Charge of the Parish, When There’s No Parish Priest?” we examined the procedure which is supposed to be followed when the pastor of a parish retires, or dies, or is transferred to another parish—and has to be replaced with another priest.  Let’s briefly recap how this works, and see how a parish (or parochial) administrator correctly fits into the picture.  By that point we’ll be able to see what’s legally wrong with what is happening at Margot’s parish.

When a priest is appointed by a diocesan bishop to be the pastor of X parish, he is receiving an ecclesiastical office, which canon 145.1 defines as “any function constituted in a stable manner by divine or ecclesiastical ordinance to be exercised for a spiritual purpose.”  As was discussed at length in “When Can a Pastor Be Removed From Office?” the fact that the pastor of a parish holds an ecclesiastical office gives him specific legal rights, among which is stability in office (see c. 522).  So if (let’s say) Father John is named the pastor of Saint Bridget’s Parish by his diocesan bishop effective June 1, the bishop cannot abruptly and unilaterally decide in November that Father John is going to be the pastor of Holy Family instead.  This is only common sense: the pastor of a parish is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful of his parish, and thus he needs to remain in that position long-term, so that he can get to know the people and their needs, and help them advance in the spiritual life over the years.  Randomly and constantly moving parish clergy around would obviously defeat the whole purpose!

That said, we all know from experience that ultimately a parish priest will retire, normally at age 75 (see c. 538.3), or he may be obliged to leave his office earlier due to ill health, or he might even die in office.  Depending on which country you’re in, pastors might be appointed for a set term of office (as is mentioned in c. 522)—and if so, eventually a pastor’s term will be completed, which means it will be time for the bishop to transfer him elsewhere.  It’s also possible, as we saw in the abovementioned “When Can a Pastor Be Removed From Office?” for the diocesan bishop to remove him—following a specific legal procedure—for misconduct, ineptitude, or other grave reasons outlined in canon 1741.  When the office of pastor of X parish is vacant, it needs to be filled with another priest as soon as humanly possible.

Depending on the situation, the bishop may see this vacancy coming, or he might be caught unawares (imagine, for example, that the pastor unexpectedly dies of a heart attack at a fairly early age, without having displayed any signs of ill health).  If the bishop knows that a pastor is approaching retirement age, or is having serious health problems and gradually becoming unable to handle his responsibilities, he should already be looking for a priest to take his place, in accord with canon 524—and so when the pastor finally does step down, ideally his successor is already prepared to fill the void, replacing him as seamlessly as possible.  It can and sometimes does happen that the pastor leaves office on (let’s say) Monday, and the new pastor takes over on Tuesday, leaving no period of vacancy at the parish at all.

But if a pastor dies unexpectedly or otherwise has to leave office without much warning, the diocesan bishop will almost certainly need more time to identify a replacement.  That replacement pastor, in turn, will need some time himself, to leave whatever job he is currently filling and arrange to move to his new parish.  This means that there will be a gap between the date the previous pastor left the parish, and the date that the new pastor arrives.  And this is where a parish administrator fits into the equation.

Canon 539 tells us that the parish administrator “takes the place of the pastor, according to the norms of canon 540.”  And canon 540.1 declares that “A parochial administrator is bound by the same duties and possesses the same rights as a pastor unless the diocesan bishop establishes otherwise.”  It’s easy to misunderstand the implications of this canon, so let’s stop and take a look at what it means—and what it doesn’t mean.

First off, note that canon 540.1 says a parish administrator has “the same duties and the same rights as a pastor.”  Far too many people (including some chancery officials, unfortunately) seem to have concluded that this means a “parish administrator” and a “pastor” are synonymous—but they aren’t.  Think about it: if these two titles were completely identical, what would be the purpose of having two different titles?  Why not just call both of them “pastor” and be done with it?

Yes, a parish administrator has the same duties as a pastor: to cite a couple of examples, he is responsible for preparing parishioners for the sacrament of matrimony, and determines whether children are suitably prepared to receive their First Holy Communion (see c. 530, and “When Can the Parish Priest Postpone a Wedding?” among many others).  Likewise, the parochial administrator is obliged to see to it that the Mass pro popolo is said for the people of the parish every Sunday and holy day (c. 534.1, and see “Canon Law and the Mass Pro Popolo”).  If someone were to visit the parish without knowing that it had a parochial administrator instead of a pastor, it would be difficult to spot any visible differences in what the priest was actually doing.

Canon 540.1 correctly notes that the parochial administrator has the same rights as a pastor as well.  He has the right to a salary, of course; as well as the right to live in the parish rectory.  He should have the same set of keys as a pastor, enabling him to access the same parish buildings, etc. etc.

But here’s what a pastor has, and a parish administrator doesn’t: an ecclesiastical office, which (as we saw earlier) gives him stability, as per canon 522.  It’s only logical that an administrator, who is caring for a parish until a new pastor is appointed, holds a position that by definition is temporary!  This is why, by the way, canon 540.2 tells us that the parish administrator “is not permitted to do anything which prejudices the rights of the pastor or can harm parochial goods.”  The parish administrator is basically expected to keep the operation of the parish more or less in a “holding pattern,” without making any major changes or initiating any new projects (like revamping the entire catechetical program, or signing contracts initiating large-scale building renovations).  Yes, if the administrator discovers a genuine abuse—mishandling of the Blessed Sacrament, for example, or theft of parish funds by the secretary—he naturally should step in to stop it immediately!  But in general, the administrator is expected to keep the parish pretty much on auto-pilot until he can hand it over to the new pastor.

Once the new pastor arrives, the parish administrator is naturally expected to leave, usually returning to whatever role he had in the diocese before.  Sometimes the bishop can give the administrator a more or less set time-frame for his temporary stay in the parish; sometimes it has to be more open-ended, because the bishop is still trying to figure out who’s going to be the next pastor.  But in either case, the parish administrator can conceivably get a call from the bishop, saying, “Father X is the new pastor, and he’ll be arriving next Friday.  So be ready to leave that weekend.”  In contrast, a pastor of a parish can never receive such abrupt notice out of the clear blue sky—because he holds an ecclesiastical office which had been given to him either for an indefinite period, or (as discussed above) for a set number of years.  An imaginary example should make clear how this is supposed to work:

Let’s pretend that 73-year-old Father Mark is the pastor of St. Mary’s.  One day he suffers a stroke, and is hospitalized.  Initially, nobody—including his bishop—knows just how badly the stroke has affected Father Mark’s health.  The parochial vicar of St. Mary’s, Father George, is holding down the fort for the short term, as per canon 541.1; but young Father George was just ordained a few months ago, and lacks the experience to handle all the responsibilities of this large parish for more than a short time.  When it becomes clear that Father Mark’s hospital stay is going to be longer than that, the bishop names a parish administrator for St. Mary’s.

The administrator is Father Paul, who works full-time in the chancery as the head of the diocese’s Religious Education Office.  This is a full-time job in itself; but he and the bishop discuss the situation and agree that Father Paul can temporarily spend less time in the chancery, and several days each week at St. Mary’s.

Meanwhile, the bishop visits Father Mark in the hospital, where medics have discovered that the stroke has incapacitated him more seriously than originally thought.  Father Mark will have to spend long months in physical therapy, to regain the use of his arm and also of his speech—so he definitely won’t be able to return to running St. Mary’s any time soon!  The bishop and Father Mark both realize that since the priest is almost old enough to be required legally to submit his resignation anyway (at age 75, as per canon 538.3), he might as well resign his office now.

The bishop now has an additional, unexpected job to do: he has to identify a suitable priest to take over as pastor of St. Mary’s.  Fortunately, the bishop already had his eye on Father Henry, the parochial vicar at St. Joseph’s: this priest was ordained eight years ago and is proving to be a stellar asset to his current parish.  The bishop had been thinking that next year, when the pastor of another, very small parish will be retiring, he would name Father Henry to be the new pastor there.

But this unexpected vacancy at St. Mary’s needs to be filled as soon as possible, so the bishop decides to name Father Henry as its new pastor instead.  When Father Henry finds out, he does not object to the bishop’s decision, but he says, “You want me to take over at St. Mary’s on June 1; but I’m teaching our confirmation students up until they receive that sacrament on June 23 … and after that I’m scheduled to make my annual retreat [see “Clergy and Summer Vacation” for more on this clerical right/obligation].  And a week after I get back, I’m set to take St. Joseph’s youth group on a pilgrimage, returning on July 27.  Would it be possible to defer until August 1?  In the meantime, I could start packing and also meet everyone at St. Mary’s to start getting a feel for things.”

This is hardly an unreasonable request!  The bishop agrees that Father Henry should finish his already scheduled events at St. Joseph’s, and can become pastor of St. Mary’s officially on August 1.  But this means that Father Paul, who’s doing double-duty both as head of Religious Education and as parish administrator of St. Mary’s, will have to continue straddling both those roles for an additional two months.  He thought his stint as parish administrator would end much sooner … but the bishop’s original plan didn’t work out quite as he’d hoped.

This is one example of how the role of a parish administrator is supposed to work.  There’s no question that this can get messy, and the resolution is often less than ideal!  In our fictitious (but realistic) scenario above, the young/inexperienced Father George is going to be overwhelmed for a few months, without a full-time pastor at St. Mary’s.  Father Paul is trying to do two full-time jobs, and this exhausting situation ends up lasting much longer than he originally anticipated.  Father Henry now frantically has to wrap up all his duties at St. Joseph’s, start learning all about St. Mary’s and his new role as pastor there, and pack—all within just a few weeks.  The elderly Father Mark has to patiently endure a long recovery process, disappointed at the way his stint as pastor of St. Mary’s had to end.  And the bishop unexpectedly has to figure out how best to juggle his available clergy, on top of his million-and-one regular responsibilities.  Yet nothing was actually handled badly here; it’s just how diocesan life works.

But as Margot’s experience shows, there are bishops out there who are deliberately misusing the position of parish administrator.  In some dioceses, it has actually become routine for the bishop to appoint a priest to head a parish—but to give him the title of parish administrator, rather than appointing him to the office of pastor.  If the bishop sees that the priest does a good job of running the parish, he will eventually name him the pastor.  Thus the bishop is twisting the role of parish administrator into a sort of “trial period” to see whether the priest can handle the office of pastor to the bishop’s satisfaction.

It should be clear from even a cursory reading of the canons that this is not how it works.  If the bishop wants Father X in the role of pastor of Y parish, then Father should be appointed the pastor of Y parish from the start!  Sure, over time it’s possible that Father may show that he isn’t particularly capable of juggling all the responsibilities of the pastor of Y parish; but if he’s truly doing a terrible job of running his parish, canon law provides the bishop with the means to remove him—which was discussed at length in “When Can a Pastor be Removed From Office?

So why wouldn’t a bishop just follow the law and appoint the priest as pastor right away, instead of naming him parish administrator first?  It appears fairly clear that these bishops would rather be able to remove a parish administrator from a parish at a moment’s notice, than be obliged to follow the much more complicated procedure necessary to remove a pastor from his office.  Thus (to be perfectly blunt) some bishops simply decide to ignore canon law and do what is more convenient for themselves.  They seem to think that instead of a Code of Canon Law, the Catholic Church has merely a Code of Canon Suggestions, which they are free to disregard as they see fit.

In so doing, they are doing a terrible disservice not only to their clergy—who are expected to do all the work of a pastor of a parish without knowing whether they’ll even be around to see their long-term efforts bear any fruit, as they may be suddenly removed from their parish with no recourse.  These bishops are also doing a disservice to the faithful, who may begin to form solid, constructive spiritual bonds with their new priest … only to see him abruptly removed without warning.  In short, by misusing the function of a parish administrator, diocesan bishops are demonstrating exactly why the Church has mandated that pastors of parishes hold office for a long period of time—and cannot be removed by their bishops without following a lengthy process that protects the pastor’s (and thus the parishioners’) rights.

So now what is happening in Margot’s parish should be evident.  There is most likely no justification whatever for leaving their parish administrator in place for two whole years, and thus the diocesan bishop is almost certainly in violation of canon law in this case.  The law has no provision for a “trial period,” as Margot valiantly suggests; if the bishop wants to put a priest in charge of a parish for the long term, he must appoint him as the pastor.

What can be done to rectify this problem, both in Margot’s specific case and in general?  It would seem (?) that bishops are counting on both priests and people not to know what the canonical procedure really is—or if they do, bishops assume/hope that they won’t complain.  If that’s the case, then either priests or people could politely, respectfully inform their bishop that they are indeed aware of the proper process, and are wondering why the bishop isn’t following it.  Often that can be enough to prompt a bishop to quickly remedy the situation; but an incredible number of bishops around the world seem to equate their own whims with law (á la King Louis XIV), and simply ignore any objections.  This then forces priests/people to make what can be a tough decision: either to endure the illegality, or to petition Rome directly—something that may very well prompt a bishop who is (shall we say) lacking in humility to find a way to retaliate later.

The Church’s laws are not arbitrary, invented out of nowhere.  Historically, there’s always been a lot of sound reasoning that goes into the formulation of canon law.  The rationale behind each canon is usually theological in nature, often tempered with a big dose of procedural common sense.  Let’s pray for our diocesan bishops, that they will obey canon law with the same readiness that their priests and people do.

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