Bishops Interfering in Parish Ministry, Part I

Q: I am a priest in the Diocese of X….  Our bishop has told us pastors that we must all submit our schedule of Masses to his office for approval.  He has mandated a maximum number of Masses we pastors can schedule on Saturdays, on Sundays, and on weekdays.

Ostensibly this is for our good.  The bishop claims he doesn’t want us priests to be overworked … [because] there is a tremendous shortage of priests in our diocese.  Yet I know far better than my bishop what my parish needs.  I have been the pastor here for nearly a decade, during which time the bishop has visited us a grand total of five times, only for Confirmation, for just a couple of hours.

…If I know that my parishioners will fill three Sunday Masses at different times because that’s what works best for them, how can the bishop insist that I am only permitted to schedule two Sunday Masses because he cares about my health?  We also have a solid crowd at Saturday morning Mass, and another crowd at the Saturday evening vigil, but the bishop has informed me that I can’t have two Masses on Saturday because it’s too much for me.  Good heavens, I can always find a retired priest to help out if I need help….  I realize that I owe obedience to the bishop, but he is hindering effective ministry to the people of our diocese with these intrusive rules.  I will gladly tell him what I am doing if he asks, but why should I have to ask permission to do my job?  –Father F.

A:  Whether readers realize it or not, we are seeing here yet another of the countless detrimental effects of the diabolical lockdowns back in 2020.  If anyone thinks that the worldwide cancellation of Masses and denial of the sacraments to the faithful “because of the virus” was a once-off event which didn’t set a dangerous precedent for the future, think again!  As was seen in “Can We be Required to Wear Masks at Mass?” posted in mid-2020, there are bishops out there who want attending Mass to “feel quite different” now than it did before the lockdowns.  What a bizarre agenda they seem to have!  Along similar lines, there are also bishops who, instead of expressing remorse for violating the rights of the faithful by denying their spiritual needs, are now voluntarily taking those violations to a whole new level.  What they are doing isn’t blatantly obvious, however, because (as we can see from both this question, and the question that will be addressed in Part II) they are now couching their actions in terms of care and concern for overworked parish priests.

It’s pretty hard for anyone to deny that in most nations of the world our parish clergy are grossly overworked, with one priest often filling three, four, or even more full-time ministerial roles in his diocese.  At the same time, however, bishops don’t have carte blanche to violate Catholic theology or canon law in order to (arguably) alleviate this problem!  Let’s look first at the spiritual responsibilities of a diocesan bishop; and then we can move on to the basic job description of a parish priest, outlining his responsibilities and also his rights.  Finally, we will compare all this info to the situation described by Father F.—and see whether there is any theological/canonical justification for this bishop’s policies in his diocese.

To begin with, note that there are no canons in the code which say flat-out that “bishops can/can’t limit the number of Masses celebrated in parishes of their dioceses”—nor should there be.  No reasonable legal code contains laws addressing every conceivable situation!  As we saw in “Can Divorced Catholics Date, While Waiting for Their Annulment?” and “Canon Law and Arriving Late for Mass,” the answers to many specific canon-law questions can be deduced logically and clearly from Catholic theology and/or the more general laws we already have.  This also applies to the answer to Father F.’s question.  We need to extrapolate—but this case, arriving at a solid conclusion is a straightforward process.

The section of the code pertaining to diocesan bishops begins with a general canon 381.1, which discusses the various types of power possessed by the bishop, “required for the exercise of his pastoral function.”  The phrase “pastoral function” is then defined in broad terms in many of the following canons, which lay out for us its various elements.  Canon 387 is particularly relevant here: it tells us that the diocesan bishop, mindful that he is bound to give an example of holiness, charity, humility and simplicity of life, is to seek in every way to promote the holiness of Christ’s faithful.  The canon adds that since the bishop is “the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, he is to strive constantly that Christ’s faithful entrusted to his care may grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments.”


The Good Shepherd, Catacombs of Priscilla (Rome), ca. 200 A.D.

There’s nothing particularly earth-shattering here. After all, the term pastor is actually a Latin word meaning “shepherd,” and the analogy is an apt one.  A shepherd is not just a leader of sheep, although he is that; he also has abilities and knowledge which the sheep don’t have, so the sheep are in many ways helpless without him, and thus dependent upon him.  When it comes to the celebration of the sacraments as mentioned in canon 387, the shepherd/sheep metaphor perfectly parallels the relationship between the bishop and the faithful entrusted to his care: the bishop has the ability to celebrate all the sacraments, while the faithful are utterly incapable of celebrating any of them on their own (except for baptism, see “Laypeople Can Always Baptize—But When Should They?” and “What Happens When the Clergy Refuse to Baptize, Because of the Virus?” for more on this).  Consequently, the bishop is obliged to “strive constantly” to ensure that the faithful whose spiritual wellbeing has been entrusted to him are able to “grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments.”  Until the 2020 lockdowns, this concept was a theological no-brainer: every Catholic on earth, clergy and lay, knew that of course a diocesan bishop would always do everything humanly in his power to get the sacraments to his people.

Let’s move on now to parish priests.  Since the spiritual needs of an entire diocese are far more than one man can handle, diocesan bishops ordain priests and appoint some of them as pastors of parishes within the diocese.  Canon 519 explains this in theological terms: a parish priest is the proper shepherd of the parish entrusted to him, exercising the pastoral care of the community committed to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop in whose ministry of Christ he has been called to share.  Once again we see the shepherd/sheep metaphor, this time describing the relationship between parish priests and the faithful of the parish—and once again it’s an excellent analogy, because when it comes to providing spiritual nourishment, parishioners are totally dependent on the parish clergy for this, since the lay faithful are completely unable to provide it to themselves.

This is why, as was discussed back at the beginning of the 2020 global lockdowns in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” the Church has canonized and otherwise honored many priests down through the centuries, specifically because they heroically risked their lives (and sometimes lost them) in order to bring Mass and the sacraments to the Catholic faithful.  Historically, the Church’s message to her clergy has been consistent and clear: if you have to minister to the people in the face of hostile governments, or in the midst of war, plague, natural disasters, etc…. do whatever you humanly can.  No priest is expected to throw his life away needlessly, of course, so if you know with 100% certainty that (let’s say) the moment you step outside your door to go to minister to your parishioners, the waiting fascist/communist police will arrest you and throw you in prison, it would be pointless and foolish to do so.  But if you can find a way to evade anti-Catholic authorities, minimize risk of contagion, boat across a flooded river, etc., and reach people who need the sacraments and perhaps other spiritual assistance which only a priest can provide, it would be irresponsible not to do it!

There is no legal formula for calculating whether taking risks to reach the faithful is prudent or not.  Rather, what is needed in a given situation is Catholic faith, including a belief in the efficacy of the sacraments and the pivotal importance of Holy Mass, and an understanding of the preciousness of one immortal soul.  That’s why the canons explaining the spiritual responsibilities of parish priests and diocesan bishops are highly theological in nature—because if you’re Catholic, you should naturally understand the necessity of sacramental ministry to the faithful of the parish/diocese.  And this, in turn is why (as noted already) the mind-bending church closures during the 2020 global lockdowns challenged our faith and set a highly dangerous precedent.

Bearing all that in mind, let’s look at Father F.’s question.  As the pastor, he clearly knows how many Masses his parishioners need, and when best to schedule them—no surprise there!  But his bishop is telling all the pastors of his diocese that they cannot have more than X number of Masses on this or that day of the week.  Does he have authority to do this?

As we saw in “When Can a Pastor Be Removed From Office?” and “Who’s in Charge of the Parish, When There’s No Parish Priest?” the pastor of a parish holds an ecclesiastical office (cf. c. 145.1).  This means that in his role as the head of the parish, he does not operate simply as the delegate of his diocesan bishop.  Rather, the parish priest holds ordinary power, proper to him by virtue of the office which he holds (cf. c. 131.1).  This may sound like technical mumbo-jumbo, but it is immensely important info when it comes to a diocesan bishop trying to micro-manage a parish.  It is the pastor, not the bishop, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a parish; and that in turn means it is the pastor who has authority to make decisions regarding those operations (always, of course, in accord with Catholic theology and universal law).

This is only common sense: as Father F.’s comments exemplify, it is the pastor of the parish who knows first-hand what the parish and the parishioners need.  Whether he’s paying to repair a furnace or scheduling times for confessions, the parish priest is right there on the ground, and he understands better than anyone else what is needed, what is doable, and what is most effective.  In contrast, the knowledge of the diocesan bishop about that parish is far more broad and general, which is entirely understandable!  It’s risky to compare a diocese to a business; but in terms of efficient operations, the Church’s standard system of dioceses-divided-into-parishes-run-by-pastors happens also to constitute a sound business model.

So if a parish priest knows that his parishioners need (for example) three, four, or even more Masses scheduled at different times of day on Sunday, then the parish priest should do his best to schedule those Masses—because he knows the faithful are required to attend Mass on Sundays as per canon 1247, and ensuring that they are reasonably able to fulfill that obligation is his responsibility.  As noted before, the faithful completely rely on their parish clergy to celebrate Mass for them, since they obviously can’t do it for themselves.

We saw in “How Many Masses Can a Priest Say on Sundays?” that canon 905.1 provides a basic norm: ordinarily, a priest is not to celebrate Mass more than once per day, except where the law permits him to celebrate more than once.  Yet even under ordinary circumstances, the law permits a priest to celebrate Mass more than once per day on certain occasions.  The “law” referred to here isn’t located in the Code of Canon Law itself; it is found in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), the Church’s primary collection of liturgical norms pertaining specifically to the Mass.

The GIRM was last updated by the Vatican in 2011, and a current text can be found here, on the Vatican’s website.  The occasions on which a priest can by law say more than one Mass per day are found in paragraph 204.  As can be seen, they include (but are not limited to) two Masses on Holy Thursday, three on All Souls’ Day, and three on Christmas Day.  Since the universal law allows all priests to say multiple Masses on the dates indicated, this incidentally means that no bishop or religious superior can forbid this.  As was discussed at length in “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” a lower authority cannot overrule a higher authority—and if a lower authority tries nevertheless to do so, we are required to obey the higher authority.  This is, by the way, a fundamental legal principle that is not limited to the Catholic Church.

But note that the limits found in canon 905 are per priest, not per parish!  There is no canon limiting the number of Sunday Masses (or Saturday Masses, or other daily Masses) that can be celebrated in a given parish church.  If Father F. can find “a retired priest to help out,” as he says he can, then there is no reason, either theological or canonical, why he can’t schedule as many Masses as two priests can celebrate.

We’re not finished with canon 905, however, because there’s another paragraph: canon 905.2 asserts that “if there is a shortage of priests,” the local ordinary (a term which includes the diocesan bishop and a couple of other clergy of the diocese [cf. c. 134.2], as discussed in “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?”) can allow priests to celebrate two Masses per day “for a just cause.”  The canon states further that “if pastoral need requires it,” priests can be allowed to celebrate Mass three times on Sundays or holydays of obligation.  There is an awful lot going on in this paragraph, so let’s take it apart.

For starters, there must be a “just cause” for canon 905.2 to be applied.  We took a look at the term “just cause” in “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” but in short, a cause is just when it is reasonable.  For example: if a priest is living in a monastery, without any responsibility for the pastoral care of the faithful, and he routinely celebrates Mass alone or almost alone, there is probably no reason why he would need to celebrate two Masses on an ordinary day—so it would be hard to imagine a “just cause” for doing so.  In contrast, a priest involved in parish ministry may frequently need to say more than one Mass a day, for the good of the faithful entrusted to his care (note that the canon also refers to “pastoral need”).  To cite only one of many possible scenarios, a parish might have a scheduled weekday morning Mass and then a funeral Mass that afternoon … and there may be only one priest available to celebrate them both.  Or perhaps there are two daily Masses scheduled at a parish, and the priest who normally celebrates the second one is sometimes unable to get to the church on time, leaving only one priest available at the parish to say them both.  This type of situation unquestionably constitutes a “just cause” and “pastoral need” warranting the bishop to allow priests to say two Masses on the same weekday.  These sorts of scenarios happen all the time—and that’s why in many, many dioceses all around the world, bishops have given a sort of blanket-permission to the parish clergy to say two Masses whenever genuine need arises.

Next, canon 905.2 references “a scarcity of priests.”  To illustrate this point, we can reuse the examples just provided.  If, say, the pastor of the parish decides he’ll celebrate the funeral, and there’s a parochial vicar (c. 547, and see “Who’s in Charge of the Parish, When There’s No Parish Priest?” for more on what a parochial vicar is and does) or some other priest there who is able to say the regular morning Mass, then there is no need for the pastor to take both Masses—so canon 905.2 would not apply.  Similarly, if there are two regularly scheduled weekday Masses, and two priests assigned to the parish, each ought to be able to say one of them.  But we all know that in most of the world today there is a dire shortage of Catholic clergy, and so it often happens that there is only priest available when more than one Mass has to be celebrated on an ordinary weekday.

Finally, canon 905.2 speaks of Sundays and holydays of obligation.  Clearly, a priest who is assigned to parish ministry must celebrate Sunday Mass for the faithful of the parish, and it usually happens that one Mass is not enough!  Even if there are several priests at a single parish, the size of the parish may require them each to say as many as three Masses each on Sundays/holydays, so as to enable everyone to attend.  This is not rocket-science, and we Catholics all understand how it’s supposed to work.

In the situations mentioned in canon 905.2, the local ordinary is expected to “allow” priests to say multiple Masses as just noted.  Back in pre-virus days, when everyone understood that Catholic clergy are, as a matter of course, supposed to make an effort to minister to the faithful entrusted to their care, this went without saying!  Thus it is simply unthinkable that a diocesan bishop would know that the needs of parishes in his diocese require the clergy to celebrate multiple Masses some or all of the time, and yet fail to authorize it as described in canon 905.2.

Father F. tells us that his bishop claims to be concerned about overworking his parish priests—which is a valid concern in itself.  If a bishop is genuinely concerned that one of his pastors is ministering to the point of physical exhaustion, then it makes total sense for him to express fatherly concern and do what he can to alleviate that.  He might ask the priest if all these Masses, confessions, etc. are truly necessary, in order to determine for himself whether or not the priest is harming his health by working harder than is really needed.  If the parish priest explains that there is no legitimate way to cut back on his ministry, then maybe the bishop should think about ways to provide the parish with another priest-assistant: if he can’t appoint a parochial vicar, then maybe he can suggest a retired priest who may be able to help out by saying Mass sometimes, hearing confessions and suchlike.  Or perhaps there’s a diocesan priest who is currently unassigned because he’s working on a graduate degree in theology, who could come and assist the pastor occasionally.  This would be a great way to help out an overworked priest, and simultaneously ensure that the faithful get the spiritual sustenance that they need.

But what a bishop can’t do, because he has no authority to do so, is to bar a parish priest from saying Masses/celebrating sacraments which his parishioners genuinely need, if there’s a priest available to celebrate it in accord with canon 905.  There are two reasons for this: (1) the bishop is interfering in the day-to-day operations of the parish, which are the purview of the pastor, as discussed above; and (2) the bishop is violating the rights of the faithful to Mass and the sacraments.  Once again, the illegality of this was discussed at great length during the 2020 lockdowns, in “Refusing a Funeral Mass, Because of the Virus” and “The Virus and the Bishops: Twisting Canon 223 to Further an Agenda,” as well as the abovementioned “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” among other places.

As should be evident by this point, bishops like Father F.’s are putting parish clergy in an untenable position.  On the one hand, a parish priest is subordinate to his bishop and is expected to obey him (cf. c. 515.1, “under the authority of the diocesan bishop”); on the other, as we’ve seen, a pastor is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful of his parish.  Until recently, these two aspects of priestly life were always expected to function in sync—and you have to wonder long and hard about why that is no longer the case. Individual situations will vary widely, but parish priests know that in the end, they will have to answer not merely to their bishops, but to God Himself for their efforts (or lack thereof) to bring Him through His sacraments to the people who depended on them to do so.  Without presuming to speak for Almighty God, it’s pretty hard to imagine that claiming that “I abandoned my people because the bishop told me to, and I didn’t want to get in trouble with the bishop” constitutes much of a defense.


“Christ the Good Shepherd,” Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, ca. 1660

And speaking of Almighty God, we Catholics are all presumably familiar with Our Lord’s description of Himself as the Good Shepherd  in John 10:11-15, and His criticism of the “hired hand” who abandons the sheep when things get rough.  But odds are high that relatively few of us are familiar with the words of the Prophet Ezechiel on the same subject.  Written over 2500 years ago, much of Chapter 34 of the Book of Ezechiel’s prophecies consists of a warning to those whom God has entrusted with the task of shepherding the sheep—but who fail in their responsibility in His eyes:

Thus says the Lord God: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!  Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?
You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.  So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts.  My sheep were scattered and wandered over all the mountains and high hills; My sheep were scattered over the whole earth, with no one to look after them or to search for them.  Therefore, shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:
As I live, says the Lord God, because My sheep have been given over to pillage, and because My sheep have become food for every wild beast, for lack of a shepherd; because My shepherds did not look after My sheep, but pastured themselves and did not pasture My sheep;
because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:
Thus says the Lord God: I swear I am coming against these shepherds.  I will claim My sheep from them and put a stop to their shepherding My sheep so that they may no longer pasture themselves.  I will save My sheep, that they may no longer be food for their mouths.
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after and tend My sheep.
As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend My sheep.  I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark….
I Myself will pasture My sheep; I Myself will give them rest, says the Lord God. (Ez. 34:2-12, 15)

We see here yet another reason why it isn’t necessary for the Code of Canon Law to spell out explicitly the right way(s) for diocesan bishops and parish clergy to care for the people of the diocese/parish.  God Himself has already provided us with the guidance we need.

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