Bishops Interfering in Parish Ministry, Part II

Q:  The bishop of [a diocese in the US] is giving an annual retreat which nearly every priest in the diocese must attend, leaving parishes without priests, daily Mass, and access to the sacraments for four days.  He stated that this is necessary because “Their priestly ministry blesses us in many ways. They have many responsibilities but first and foremost they must be men of prayer. Without the foundation of a prayer life and a relationship with the Lord, their ministry would become empty.”

But what could be more important in their ministry than for Catholics to have access to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the sacraments?  Is this legally allowed in Canon Law?  Thank you. –John

A: In “Bishops Interfering in Parish Ministry, Part I” we looked at a situation in which a bishop wants to mandate (and limit) the number of Masses in all parishes of his diocese, because his priests are too overworked.  This scenario is different, but comparable: the bishop wants all his priests to attend a retreat, because he is concerned about their prayer life.  But in the process, as John explains, the faithful will be left for four days straight without a priest.  Is this permissible?  What’s going on here?

There’s no denying that as this bishop says, priests need “the foundation of a prayer life and a relationship with the Lord” to sustain them on a daily basis!  This is why, as we saw in “Clergy and Summer Vacation,” the clergy are obliged to go on spiritual retreats regularly, as determined by their diocesan bishop (c. 276.2 n. 4).  In much of the world this translates to an annual retreat, although in some places it might be required less often than that.

There is nothing new about this requirement, which has existed for generations.  What is at issue here is that this year, the bishop didn’t merely oblige his priests to make a retreat; he required them to make this particular retreat, all together at once.

Ordinarily, Catholic clergy have numerous options throughout the calendar year for making a retreat, and there’s a practical, logistical reason for this.  In a parish to which multiple priests have been assigned, one of them might (for example) go on retreat after Christmas, while another goes during the summer—and in this way, there is always a priest at the parish who can minister to the faithful.  In a parish with only one priest, his decision about when to go on retreat typically hinges on the availability of another priest to minister at the parish while he’s away.  From time immemorial, priests around the world have routinely arranged with each other that one will go on retreat at the time when another—perhaps a retired priest, or maybe even an outside priest who’s visiting family or friends in the area on his vacation—agrees to “hold down the fort,” and say Masses/hear confessions/anoint the dying/etc. while the parish priest is away.

This is only common sense: as was discussed in “Part I,” our parish clergy know well that they are responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the people of the parish, who have been entrusted to their care.  If they have to leave the parish for a while, they naturally find another priest(s) to pinch-hit for them.  This pinch-hitting isn’t confined to a parish priest’s retreat-days; parish clergy do exactly the same thing when they go on vacation (as is their right: see c. 533.2 and the abovementioned “Clergy and Summer Vacation” for more on this).  Yes, the scheduling can sometimes get tricky; but the overall concept is not complicated.

But note that while priests are commonly able to choose from a number of different retreat-options in order to fulfill their obligation, it’s quite another matter for a bishop to insist, if he feels it appropriate, that all priests attend this one particular retreat, at the same time.  Can he do that?  Let’s take a closer look at the wording of canon 276.2 n. 4 regarding retreats, referenced above: it notes that priests are “bound to make time for spiritual retreats according to the prescripts of particular law.”

The term particular law refers here to a law made by a bishop (who is a legislator within his diocese, c. 391) binding only those within the diocese, over whom he has authority.  This term contrasts with universal law—which is promulgated by the Pope as Supreme Legislator—governing the faithful (or often a specific category of faithful, such as “clergy” or “seminary professors” or suchlike) of the Universal Church.

As canon 276.2 n. 4 indicates, a diocesan bishop can indeed create a new law within his diocese, regulating the manner, frequency, etc. of spiritual retreats for the diocesan clergy.  So if this bishop wants to decree that this year, or every year, all the priests of his diocese must attend this retreat on these dates … the law permits him to do that.  (See “How Can You Obey a Law, If You Don’t Even Know It Exists?” for more on what decrees are all about.)

So does that mean that a diocesan bishop can require all the priests of the diocese to attend a retreat for four days, leaving the faithful without Mass or most of the sacraments during that time?  Absolutely not—because of canon 533.3.  Here’s what this canon tells us:

It is for the diocesan bishop to establish norms which see to it that during the absence of the pastor, a priest endowed with the necessary faculties provides for the care of the parish (emphasis added). 

In other words, if a pastor is going to be absent from his parish—whether for vacation, spiritual retreat, surgery, a family emergency, or any other imaginable reason—the bishop is supposed to have in place some sort of procedural rules/norms to make sure that some other priest is available for the spiritual care of the people of the parish.  Those rules/norms might perhaps say things like, “at urban parishes which are close together, the pastor of parish X may temporarily take care of parish Y as well,” and/or “if the parish has a parochial vicar, he is to take charge while the pastor is away” and/or “if a pastor must be absent from his parish, he should arrange in advance for a priest working in the chancery to take care of the parish until his return,” etc. etc.  Obviously the rules may vary, but the overarching principle is always the same: it’s a given that a parish cannot be left without a priest to minister to the faithful.

Thus if a bishop wants all the priests of his diocese to attend a spiritual retreat at the same time, he is required by canon 533.3 to figure out a way(s) that “a priest endowed with the necessary faculties provides for the care” of every single parish in the diocese that is staffed by diocesan priests, until its parish clergy can return.  Note the phrase “endowed with the necessary faculties”: as was discussed in “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part I” and “Part II,” the sacraments of Penance and of Matrimony require not just a priest, but one who also has the necessary faculties to celebrate the sacrament (see also “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?” and “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?” among others, for more on this).

Now let’s look at what happened in the case which John cites.  The bishop has declared that the people of the whole diocese—not just one parish, but all the parishes, and all at once—will be without Mass for four days.  There is no stated reason why this is unavoidable.  It’s worth noting for the record that this diocese has existed since 1829, and while it is not known what has taken place over the last 194 years with regard to clergy retreats, it’s an absolutely safe bet that what is happening this year is not what has always happened there in the past.

The bishop did not indicate that any effort has been made to locate priests to “provide for the care of the parish” as specified in canon 533.3.  Instead, the bishop has told the faithful that

Deacons will be available to conduct funeral services for those who may wish to celebrate funerals of loved ones during these days rather than waiting for the end of this annual retreat. Deacons and other parishioners will conduct Communion Services in many of our parishes during these retreat days.  

This brief paragraph instantly raises two significant canonical issues.  Firstly, take a look at canon 530 nn. 3 and 5: both “the administration of Viaticum and of the anointing of the sick” and “the performance of funeral rites” are declared to be among the duties “especially entrusted to a pastor.”  That’s not to say that another priest (but not a deacon) can’t carry out these ministries in case of necessity; yet as we’ve just seen, there is no reason to think that attending this specific spiritual retreat actually constitutes a necessity!

Secondly, as Catholics should know full well, attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and attending a Communion Service, are not the same.  Check out what canon 897 tells us about the Mass, using highly theological terminology that is largely lifted right out of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium 11 :

The most August sacrament is the Most Holy Eucharist in which Christ the Lord himself is contained, offered, and received and by which the Church continually lives and grows.  The eucharistic sacrifice, the memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated through the ages is the summit and source of all worship and Christian life, which signifies and effects the unity of the People of God and brings about the building up of the body of Christ.  Indeed, the other sacraments and all the ecclesiastical works of the apostolate are closely connected with the Most Holy Eucharist and ordered to it.

In a genuine case of necessity, when there is no priest available for unavoidable reasons, a Communion Service would certainly be better than nothing at all.  But once again, in this case there is no evidence whatsoever that the absence of every diocesan priest from his parish at exactly the same time is unavoidable.

The bishop mentioned that while the priests are away, deacons will be available “in many of our parishes,” although apparently not all of them.  As we saw in “What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?” a deacon is indeed a cleric (c. 266.1), but he cannot offer Mass (including obviously a funeral Mass), or hear confessions, or administer the anointing of the sick.  These sacraments can only be celebrated by a priest—and that’s incidentally why, as was discussed in “When Can a Layperson Be a Pastor of a Parish?” the pastor of a parish must be a priest.

The undeniable fact is, as was discussed at great length in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” the faithful have the right to Mass and the sacraments (cc. 213 and 843.1, among others), and it is the responsibility of the clergy to provide these to them.  Sure, in mission territory, where priests are few and far between, it is often physically impossible for the faithful to have access to a priest every day.  The same goes for regions where the Church endures political persecution, and so the clergy might often have to lay low and celebrate Mass and the sacraments for the faithful only when it’s possible to dodge hostile government authorities.

But this is a far cry from the situation which John relates, in which an bishop in a free country has unilaterally, voluntarily declared that all diocesan priests will be unavailable for ministry during certain dates!  There doesn’t appear to be any justification here whatsoever for depriving the faithful of their rights to the spiritual goods of the Church.

Imagine, if you can bear it, a lapsed Catholic living in this diocese, who is suddenly injured or stricken with a grave illness and is on the verge of death.  He anxiously wants a priest to come and hear his confession (praise God!) and give him the last rites.  Now imagine that by chance this takes place during the dates when every priest of the diocese is away on this mandatory spiritual retreat; there is no priest to grant him absolution or anoint him before he dies (and no, a deacon cannot do either of these things).  Finally, try to imagine how anyone could possibly justify before God this entirely avoidable absence of all priests from their parishes—it’s a terrifying thought.

There’s yet another way to view this situation.  Let’s imagine that there is one hospital in a sizeable city, attending to all the health needs of the people in the area.  The hospital’s administrator decides that all the doctors must attend a four-day meeting to discuss the latest medical advances, “to ensure that they are properly trained in the most up-to-date procedures.”  Thus for four days, the hospital will have no doctors available—but the administrator assures the public that there will be nurses and other medical assistants taking care of the routine needs of all the patients.

Does this sound reasonable to you?  Why not?

Objections will invariably be made along the lines of “Seriously ill patients need a doctor in attendance, and a nurse just doesn’t have the same amount of training that a doctor has!” or perhaps “What if there’s a horrific car-crash, and victims needing life-saving surgery are brought to the Emergency Room … and there’s nobody there capable of saving them?”  Underlying these protestations, of course, is the assumption that lives are worth saving—and doctors are often the only ones who can save them.  You couldn’t help but question the motives and priorities of any hospital administrator who hindered the access of the sick/injured to the doctors capable of helping them, when he didn’t need to.

The parallel with John’s situation, of course, is obvious—except that as Catholics, we believe that our spiritual health is infinitely more important than physical health, and that saving souls always takes precedence over saving bodies.  Canon 1752, which is the very last canon in the Code of Canon Law, pointedly (if rather awkwardly) articulates this foundational principle: the salvation of souls must always be the Church’s supreme law.

So when faced with such a directive from his bishop, what is a parish priest to do?  By now it should be painfully evident that our priests are increasingly being put in intolerable positions, where they are forced to choose between (a) doing what the bishop wants, and (b) doing what their ministry (and the Church) requires.  Needless to say, (a) and (b) should never be in conflict, and you can’t help but wonder why they are.

As we saw in “Part I,” the illegal church-closures and Mass-cancellations during the now infamous 2020 global lockdowns set a dangerous precedent—because for the first time in the Church’s 2000-year history, many ecclesiastical authorities willingly denied Mass and the sacraments to the faithful who needed/wanted them.  (See “Did the Spanish Flu of 1918 Create a Precedent for Closing Churches and Cancelling Masses Today?” for more on this.)  Let’s pray for our bishops, that their faith may be strong enough that they will always make every human effort to minister to the people entrusted to their spiritual care.  And at the same time, let’s pray just as much for our parish priests—that they may heroically do the same no matter what the cost.


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