Every year during summer vacation, farewells and welcomes take place in many parishes. Sometimes the changes of parish priests stir up a lot of emotion.
Imagine a situation like this: A young priest, immediately after ordination, goes to a parish in a small town and remains there as a vicar (associate pastor) for the next 15 or even 20 years. Then he becomes a parish priest in a large city and ministers there until his death.
Is it possible? Theoretically yes. There are no church-wide laws that prohibit this. But typically, such situations do not happen here in Poland, or in many other parts of the world. The experience of the Church suggests other arrangements.
Every parish is alive
According to the Code of Canon Law, it is the bishop who decides whether and where to appoint a vicar.
Whenever it seems necessary or useful for the proper fulfillment of the ministry in a parish, the diocesan bishop assigns one or more parish vicars to the parish priest, who, as associates of the parish priest and participants in his care, together with the parish priest and under his authority, carry out the work of pastoral ministry. – canon 545 of the Code of Canon Law
The bishop recognizes the pastoral needs of the community entrusted to him. They are not defined in detail once and for all. Each parish is alive, changing, often very strongly. For example, in just 10 years in one of the Polish dioceses, several parishes changed their character from almost rural to municipal law. Some of the previous residents moved out, but many new houses were built, in which mainly newcomers from the nearby large city lived.
Therefore, we needed clergymen who, in the changing conditions, would lead the faithful to salvation as effectively as possible. Those who will be able to respond to new challenges, reach people with a different mentality, education, and expectations.
Priests are like flowers, bishop says
When making personnel changes in parishes, the bishop and his associates take into account the priest’s abilities and predispositions and try to send him to a place where he can best use and develop them.
Priests are like flowers. You have to replant them sometimes to make them bloom. But you have to do it with care.
“The changes are also dictated by the need to gain experience, get to know different environments, groups, communities, and the need for constant formation of the priest. This mainly applies to young priests,” explained one curial official.
Another added that accepting changes on the part of clergy was an expression of obedience to the bishop, which they promised at the time of ordination, and an expression of trust in God. “It is also a chance for a new beginning, breaking away from patterns, habits, and routines, which are not always good in religious or priestly life,” he explained.
Archbishop Józef Michalik, commenting on the matter of the transfer of priests from parish to parish, said: “Priests are like flowers. You have to replant them sometimes to make them bloom. But you have to do it with care.”
Every year, the majority of changes concern recently ordained priests, but from time to time pastors are transferred from one parish to another. The Code of Canon Law says, “If the good of souls or the necessity or advantage of the Church demands that a pastor be transferred from a parish which he is governing usefully to another parish or another office, the bishop is to propose the transfer to him in writing and persuade him to consent to it out of love of God and souls” (Can 1748).
However, Canon Law emphasizes that a pastor should be appointed by the bishop for an indefinite period of time, because he should “possess stability” (Can. 522).
Or maybe term of office?
From time to time, the Catholic Church revisits the discussion on the term of office of parish priests. For example, the Polish Bishops’ Conference took up this issue 10 years ago. On the one hand, it was pointed out that it could save priests from routine, burnout, facilitate bishops in solving possible problems and personal conflicts, discipline clergy, etc.
On the other hand, it was pointed out that a parish priest could be reduced to the role of an official or an officer, or even a mercenary, who focuses on surviving with as little effort as possible until the end of his term of office, instead of being a caring shepherd of the faithful entrusted to him.
Ultimately, the Polish bishops turned down the proposal of stricter terms of office for parish priests, but the idea was not completely forgotten. In 2017, it appeared among the proposals submitted as part of the 5th Synod of the Tarnów Diocese.
While discussing the term of office for parish priests, one of the Polish archbishops was asked whether it should also apply to bishops. The bishops responded positively to this suggestion, saying that for the last ten years before his retirement, he would have been eager to extend pastoral care to a minor diocese.
No fixed socket
It is true that the suggestion of a term for bishops does not go beyond private conversations and journalistic inquiries, but this proposal would not change the place of ministry of the bishops. Of course, many bishops invariably serve the same diocesan community from appointment until retirement. But there is a large group of those who, by the Pope’s decision, move from the first place where they are sent.
Most often it concerns auxiliary bishops, whom the successor of St. Peter entrusts to one of the local Churches, appointing them diocesan bishops. It also happens that the bishop of one diocese becomes, at the will of the pope, the bishop or archbishop of another (Rarely, but sometimes auxiliary bishops pass from one diocese to another).
However, changes in the place of service of Catholic clergy are determined not only, or even primarily, by practical reasons. Someone said that the priest is a nomad, an eternal pilgrim, a missionary who, like Jesus, has no home. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head,” said Our Lord (Matt. 8:20).
In many seminaries, seminariansmove rooms many times during their formation, e.g. every six months. These seemingly unnecessary changes are intended to remind them that both the vicar and the pastor, as well as the bishop, are constantly being sent. That is why they should be ready at all times to go wherever the Church, in which the Holy Spirit is at work, needs them. This has been the case since the very beginning of the Church.