Friday, May 23, 2008

The Pastor and His Assistant

Who is this priest next door? He is young, idealistic, talented, full of energy. He is erratic, though, in his decisions, not so conscious with his time, immature in his ways. Yet, the kids and the teens hang around him, the old adore him, the members of the Parish Pastoral Council drink and laugh with him, the ecclesial communities and new movements love his homilies and short talks. Who is he? He is the parochial vicar, an appointee from the Diocese to help the parish priest in all his ministerial works. He is not necessarily a threat to the person and influence of the parish priest, but with him in the parish is there enough room for both of them? How would his authority stand beside the popularity and adulation of this young upstart? How should he deal with him?

In the eyes of the administration of the diocese, a certain parish is just too big for one parish priest to meet the pastoral demands. He himself has asked time and again for a help, for an assistant who could help him in all activities in the community. And one day his dream comes true. Here comes the parochial vicar assigned to him by the Curia, a priest to his heart desire. But the question in his heart hounds him: can I handle him?

In response to the vague apprehensions of the parish priest on how to deal with his assistant, the present Code of Canon Law has identified and specified the roles and functions of the parish priest and the parochial vicars in the parish. Yet, much has also been left to the discretion of the particular laws and eventually to the working agreement between the pastor and his parochial vicar. Oftentimes, the intertwining of these roles result in misunderstanding and conflicts. Thus, it will be of help to identify the possible flashpoints in their working relationship in order to find a workable solution to it, namely, a) the extent and limits of the authority of the pastor vis-à-vis the parochial vicar; closely related to this, b) their individual rights and obligations; and the most common source of conflict, c) financial arrangement in the parish.

First of all, it has to be established that the parish priest is the proper pastor of the parish. It is to him that the care of the souls of the community is entrusted to be exercised under the authority of the diocesan bishop. He has the ordinary proper power to teach, sanctify and govern those entrusted to his care. The cooperation of other priests and deacons in the care of the souls are desired and most welcome. In fact even the lay faithful, by virtue of their baptism are also invited to partake in this task (cf. Cans. 757, 758, 759, 776 & 778). In a nutshell, the parish priest is the sole head of the parish.

He likewise acts in the person of the parish in all juridical matters and he is to ensure that the parish goods are administered like a good steward who takes good care of the property of his master while the master is away (cf. Cans. 1281-1288).

The parish priest should enjoy a certain measure of stability in the parish thus ideally his to be appointed for an indefinite time. However, the conference of bishops may decide otherwise and set a specific tenure of office of the parish priest in any given parish.

He is entitled to a vacation time of one month annually either continuous or cumulative. Not included from this is the time for retreat which is usually done outside the parish.

On the other hand, the obligations of the pastor could be classified under the following headings:
· Proclamation of the Word of God and Catechesis;
· Administration of the Sacraments and the Liturgy;
· Maintain personal contact with his parishioners;
· Promote the lay apostolate;
· Residence in the parish;
· Offering of the mass ‘Pro Populo’;
· Maintenance and proper care of the parochial books;
· Care of the parish seal and parish archives;
· Informing the diocesan bishop in case of absence from the for more than one week.

On the other hand, he assistant parish priest is also endowed with obligations and rights. Aside from the rights and obligations assigned to all clerics by universal law(cf. Cans. 273-289), the obligations and rights of the assistant parish priest are clearly expressed in canon 548. Paragraph 1 states the sources from which spring the obligations and rights of the assistant parish priest, namely: a) the Code of Canon Law, b) the particular law of the diocese, c) the letter of appointment, and d) the directives or mandate of the parish priest. We can add here that, by analogy, whatever the code establishes in terms of right and duties with regard to the parish priest may also be applied to the assistant parish priest except to those that belong in the strict sense to the office of the parish priest as the juridical person representing the parish. Nonetheless, it is considered more prudent, for the proper exercise of rights and duties and to avoid possible conflicts, to express in the letter of appointment and in the diocesan statutes the correlation between the functions of the parish priest and the assistant parish priest.

The ministry of the assistant parish priest encompasses all aspects of the parish life unless specific work as been given to him either stated in the letter of appointment or upon direction by the parish priest (Can. 545, ¶2). He is not, however, duty bound to celebrate the mass pro populo which is a personal obligation that belongs to the parish priest nor is he obliged to inform the diocesan bishop in case of absence from the parish for a period of more than one week. However, unlike the parish priest, the parochial vicar does not enjoy a more stable stay in the parish since he may be removed by the competent authority from his assignment for a just cause.

However, despite effort to clarify and delineate the respective functions of the stakeholders in the parish ministry, instances of disagreements and conflicts between the parish priest and the assistant do still occur. This could be minimized if not totally avoided if clerics call to mind the exhortations of Vatican II (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 8) which is echoed in Canon 275 par. 1 which states: ‘Since all clerics are working for the same purpose, namely, the building up of the body of Christ, they are to be united with one another in the bond of brotherhood and prayer. They are to seek to cooperate with one another, in accordance with the provisions of particular law.’

The cooperation and joint pastoral action of the parish priest and the assistant is regulated by the obligation incumbent upon the assistant to report to the parish priest regularly on all pastoral initiatives both planned and already undertaken in the parish. In this way they can truly work together, by common counsel and effort for the good of the flock entrusted to their care. In many parishes the laudable practice has been established whereby the parish priest and the assistant meet together on a regular basis to discuss the pastoral concerns of the parish.

Although the assistant may not act independently, he should be encouraged to keep up to his zest for pastoral initiatives. As it is, the pastor should be solicitous of the inputs and contribution of his assistant in the parish ministry and make him a participant in the pastoral activities in the parish.

The most common cause of conflict between pastors and the parochial vicar is the question of finances be it a question of handling of parish funds, or, the equitable remuneration of the cleric Much of these problems, I believe can be traced back to the antiquated mentality of considering the parish as a benefice.

As regards the first issue, much of the possible conflicts can be avoided if the parish has a finance council as mandated by can. 537. Although the parish priest is the administrator of the goods of the parish, the finance council could give invaluable insight and advise on financial matters. It does not detract from his authority. Rather, it will be a great relief for the pastor if he would be helped in the economic administration of the parish. This will remove the cloud of doubt regarding the use of the parish funds and is in fact a big step towards transparency in the financial affairs in the parish.

As to the question on remuneration, canon 281 ¶1 is quite emphatic in expressing that since clerics dedicate themselves to the ecclesiastical ministry, they deserve the remuneration that befits their condition. I think the basic question that confronts us is how much is the remuneration that befits the condition of the cleric. One of the basic and primary considerations to take here is that such remuneration should be viewed in the light of the special vocation of the priesthood- a sacred ministry which cannot be reduced to something of a purely economic nature. Besides, the canon establishes the general parameter on this regard namely: the nature of his office and the circumstances of time and place.

This problem can be lessened if the diocese will establish a standardized remuneration scheme for clerics as already practiced in some dioceses. It would even be better if the diocese makes provisions for the social welfare of the clergy such as illness, medical needs and old age. These are the main reason why most clerics, especially the diocesan clergy can at times be overly concerned with money matters.