On the Removal and Transfer of a Parish Priest

Author: Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous, Sydney


On the Removal and Transfer of a Parish Priest

Address by Auxiliary Bishop Porteous of Sydney

SYDNEY, Australia, 5 JUNE 2005 (ZENIT)

Here is the address delivered May 27 by Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous, of Sydney, during the theologians videoconference on "Canon Law at the Service of Priests," organized by the Congregation for Clergy.

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The Removal and Transfer of a Parish Priest
By Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous

Theological and pastoral considerations

At first glance, the theme of the removal and transfer of a parish priest does not seem to pertain to the service of the parish priest. How can removing him from his pastoral office serve him?

However, the relevant canons (1740-1752) must be understood and applied against the wider theological and pastoral reality of the proper relationship between the diocesan bishop and the parish priest. I will now develop some important aspects of this relationship, drawing on the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the 2003 postsynodal apostolic exhortation of John Paul II, "Pastores Gregis."

Following the teaching of Vatican II, a diocese is rightly described in terms of relationships. The relationships that concern us here are those between the diocesan bishop, parish priests and the people entrusted to their pastoral care.

A diocese is "a community of the faithful entrusted to the pastoral care of the diocesan bishop, with the help of priests" ("Christus Dominus," 11; see also "Pastores Gregis," 47, and Canon 369). The relationship between the diocesan bishop and his priests is at the service of the faithful. Bishops and priests together share in the pastoral care of the Christ's faithful and must collaborate for the good of souls.

"With good reason the conciliar Decree 'Christus Dominus,' in describing the particular Church, defines it as a community of faithful entrusted to the pastoral care of a Bishop 'cum cooperatione presbyterii.' Indeed, between the Bishop and his presbyters there exists a 'communio sacramentalis' by virtue of the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood, which is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ, and consequently, albeit in a different degree, in virtue of the one ordained ministry and the one apostolic mission" ("Pastores Gregis," 47).

Similarly, the parish is described as a community of the faithful entrusted to the pastoral care of a parish priest, under the authority of the bishop ("Christus Dominus," 28; Canon 515). The fathers of Vatican II emphasized that the parish priest was not a delegate of the diocesan bishop but the proper pastor of the parish community ("Christus Dominus," 28; Canon 519).

Traditionally, stability is an important element of the office of the parish priest (Canon 522). The canon uses the word "necessary" here; it is not just important, but necessary, for the parish priest to have stability in his office so that he can exercise his pastoral ministry.

The relationship, then, is not primarily juridical but a pastoral one that reflects the "communio sacramentalis." Bishops and priests are "cooperators," and Canon 384 speaks of the bishop's "special concern" for his priests, and he is to listen to them as "helpers" and "counselors."

Pope John Paul II "fleshed out" this relationship in these terms: "The Bishop will always strive to relate to his priests as a father and brother who loves them, listens to them, welcomes them, corrects them, supports them, seeks their cooperation and, as much as possible, is concerned for their human, spiritual, ministerial and financial well-being" ("Pastores Gregis," 47).

In "Pastores Gregis," Pope John Paul II spoke of two special moments in the relationship between the bishop and the priest. "The first is when the Bishop entrusts him with a pastoral mission. ... For the Bishop himself, conferring a pastoral mission is a significant moment of paternal responsibility towards one of his priests."

The second special moment "is when a priest, because of advanced age, resigns the actual pastoral leadership of a community or other positions of direct responsibility." Here, the Pope stresses the importance of the bishop affirming that the priest still has an important but different role to play in the pastoral care of the faithful.

Pope John Paul II then went on to speak of a more difficult situation for both priest and bishop, one that leads directly to a consideration of the canons on removal and transfer of the parish priest: "The Bishop will also show his fraternal closeness to priests in a similar situation because of grave illness or some other form of persistent disability, helping them to keep alive the conviction that ''they continue to be active members for the building up of the Church, especially by virtue of their union with the suffering Christ and with so many other brothers and sisters in the Church who are sharing in the Lord's Passion.'''

There may be occasions when the bishop, taking account of the needs of the priest, but also taking into account the needs of the flock entrusted to him, must consider a canonical process to remove the parish priest from his office. I will deal with the canons in more detail in the second session allotted to me.

The canons on removal and transfer

My purpose is not to analyze the canons but to look at them from the perspective of the priest whom the bishop proposes to move or transfer. The canons in various ways reflect the concern of the Church for the welfare of the priest.

The bishop must proceed in the spirit of the proper relationship outlined above, as father and brother. If possible, he should assure the priest that the process will be in his best interests and in the interests of the parishioners he has been serving.

The reasons for removal or transfer must be objectively serious, and the bishop will use pastoral advisers to discern the seriousness of the reasons. The canons point out that there may be no fault on the part of the priest.

The collaboration of other members of the presbyterate is necessary. The process may be the result of some crisis in the life of the particular priest or the initiation of the process may cause a period of crisis in the priest. It is important that at this moment he experiences in a real and practical way that he belongs to a presbyterate.

To this end the bishop will choose priests imbued with that same pastoral spirit who can accompany and encourage the priest through this period of crisis, which more than likely will continue after the process has reached its conclusion.

Hopefully, the priest will have access to competent canonical advice so that he is aware of his rights. The bishop may need to encourage him to seek such advice, perhaps from a canonist skilled in these matters from outside the diocese. In a fraternal gesture of support the bishop could assure him that financial costs in reasonably pursuing help and advice from outside the diocese will be met by the bishop.

Justice, and the process demand that the parish priest is involved in the process; he must be heard. To this end some independent person or body of persons well disposed to the overall good of the Church may need to be engaged who can monitor the process and advise both parties as to whether a just process is unfolding.

If at all possible, another pastoral assignment should be offered. This may, of necessity, be only of a very limited nature, however, it could be of great importance in the emotional and spiritual well-being of the priest; it will help him to perceive that he is still actively exercising his priesthood for the good of the Church. It would also help to maintain his esteem within the presbyterate that he is continuing to work with them and the bishop for the good of the diocese and wider Church.

While the reasons for removal must be objective, the delicate balance between the need to preserve the priest's privacy (Canon 220) and clear communication of the reasons for removal must be preserved.

This is made acutely delicate in some societies and nations, such as Australia, by the interest of the mass media in the affairs of the Church; the interest unfortunately tends towards highlighting anything negative, especially that which can be presented as scandalous.

The bishop will make provision for proper care of the priest, spiritually, emotionally and physically. He may need professional help. To this end the bishop or more effectively the bishops' conference may find it very helpful to work towards the establishment of a facility that can provide the necessary professional care for priests who find themselves in such need. Encompass, a project of the Australian bishops, is an example of an institute that caters for this need. ZE05060529

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