ROME, JULY 10, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In my diocese, the bishop has appointed a number of laypersons (usually religious sisters) to run parishes. The reason given for such appointments is that we are experiencing a shortage of priests. What happens in these situations is that this layperson is put in charge of one or more parishes and given the title "pastoral administrator." One or more priests are assigned to serve in these communities and each receives the title "sacramental minister." These pastoral administrators wear albs, speak frequently during the Mass, participate in the homily, and have the final say when it comes to parish decisions (examples include whether or not to use incense at Mass, when Masses will be offered, whether or not the community will offer a Latin Mass, etc.). I have a few questions concerning pastoral administrators and what they are and are not permitted to do by Church law. First, is the very title of pastoral administrator legal to begin with? Second, are pastoral administrators legally permitted by the Church? Our local bishop cites Canon 517.2 to justify appointing laypersons to be in charge of the pastoral care of parishes, but Canon 517.2 says "If, because of a shortage of priests, the diocesan Bishop has judged that a deacon, or some other person who is not a priest, or a community of persons, should be entrusted with a share in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish, he is to appoint some priest who, with the powers and faculties of a parish priest, will direct the pastoral care." Many local pastoral administrators have taken part in the homily in a number of area churches. What happens is, the priest will speak for a couple of minutes, then a layperson (who might or might not be the P.A.) will speak for another 6 to 8 minutes. The local bishop justifies such an act in a letter as follows: "Some presiders in the Diocese, however, in accord with another provision of the diocesan norms, have found it helpful to use 'dialogue' in the homily, for example, by sharing the homily with another minister of the Church ...” In such an instance, the ordained preacher begins the homily and then invites an authorized preacher or preachers to develop part of the exposition . ... Moreover, such a practice conforms to the interdicasterial Instruction on Certain Questions regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests, issued by the Holy See in 1997 (art. 3, § 3)." — J.N., New York State
A: This is a very complex question mixing themes that are directly related to canon law and others that fall into liturgical law. Of course, liturgical law is no less law than canon law. But liturgical law is not always written with the legal precision of canon law and is sometimes more descriptive than prescriptive.
With respect to the canonical aspects I will have to be guided by authoritative commentators, since this is not my specialization. Many of these commentators point out that the interdicasterial instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio provides an authentic interpretation of Canon 517.2 and determine the limits of that canon.
With this in mind I will try to address the questions at hand.
First: Is the title "pastoral administrator" legal? Ecclesiae de Mysterio, No. 1.3, says: "It is unlawful for the non-ordained faithful to assume titles such as 'pastor,' 'chaplain,' 'coordinator,' 'moderator' or other such similar titles which can confuse their role and that of the Pastor, who is always a Bishop or Priest." The footnote that accompanies this passage (No. 58) reads: "Such examples should include all those linguistic expressions; which in languages of the various countries, are similar or equal and indicate a directive role of leadership or such vicarious activity."
I would say that since the title administrator indicates a leadership role in common English usage and is likewise used in canon law to refer to a priest or a bishop in a directive role (for example, diocesan or apostolic administrator), it certainly could lead to confusion and would be unlawful in the light of Ecclesiae de Mysterio.
Although the official documents do not propose an appropriate title, one notable canonist suggests that "parish life collaborator" might serve the purpose, since this better expresses that the person or group of persons has a share or participation in the pastoral service but does not direct it.
Second: The figure described in Canon 517.2 of a person or persons who are allowed a share in the pastoral care is legal when all the conditions needed are met. According to the canonists these conditions are:
— The arrangement is established by the bishop, upon whom falls the prudent judgment of its necessity.
— The arrangement is exceptional and requires a true shortage of priests to fill all positions in the diocese. If the situation ceases, then so does the possibility of implementing this canon. Ecclesiae de Mysterio, No. 75, suggests that before employing Canon 517.2 "other possibilities should be availed of, such as using the service of retired priests still capable of such service, or entrusting several parishes to one priest or to a coetus sacerdotum [a group or team of priests]."
— The arrangement requires the appointment of a priest director with the powers and faculties of a pastor. The priest director is not the pastor of the parish (this would fall under Canon 526.1) but is the community leader. The parish as such is technically vacant. The priest director's having the powers and faculties of the pastor means that he would have the final say on administrative and pastoral decisions.
— The arrangement involves entrusting a share of the pastoral care to deacons or laypersons. They participate in the pastoral care but do not exercise the full care of souls. For such an office can be validly conferred only on a priest. In making this designation the bishop should give preference to deacons before naming others.
There are few official indications as to the practical functions of those who have been entrusted with this task. It would certainly mean providing at least the minimal pastoral care, excluding all that is specific to an ordained priest, so that the parish would not have to be closed. If a layperson is entrusted with these functions, then he or she might also require additional delegation of faculties as deemed necessary.
Among the duties that such laypeople might carry out, in collaboration with the priest director, are those of ordinary administration, organizing and directing catechetical programs, preparation for the reception of the sacraments, and assistance to the sick and needy.
Depending on the degree of penury of priests they may also be entrusted with some liturgical functions, for example, guiding a Celebration of the Word with Communion in the absence of a priest and bringing Communion to the sick. If priests are very scarce, then the laypeople can be delegated to perform baptisms, witness marriages and direct funerals. On such occasions because of the absence of a priest they may also be called upon to preach the Word of God.
Ecclesiae de Mysterio, Nos. 2-4, say: "Canon 766 of the Codex Iuris Canonici establishes the conditions under which competent authority may admit the non-ordained faithful to preach in ecclesia vel oratorio. The use of the expression admitti possunt makes clear that in no instance is this a right such as that which is specific and proper to the Bishop or a faculty such as enjoyed by priests and deacons ….
"§ 4. In some areas, circumstances can arise in which a shortage of sacred ministers and permanent, objectively verifiable, situations of need or advantage exist that would recommend the admission of the non-ordained faithful to preaching.
"Preaching in churches or oratories by the non-ordained faithful can be permitted only as a supply for sacred ministers or for those particular reasons foreseen by the universal law of the Church or by Conferences of Bishops. It cannot, however, be regarded as an ordinary occurrence nor as an authentic promotion of the laity."
Third: Can these people deliver the homily during Mass and is a priest beginning a homily with someone else continuing it a case of "dialogue"?
Ecclesiae de Mysterio, No. 3.3, says: "As an expositional aide and providing it does not delegate the duty of preaching to others, the celebrant minister may make prudent use of 'dialogue' in the homily, in accord with the liturgical norms."
The relevant footnote refers to No. 48 of the Directory for Masses with Children. To wit: "The homily explaining the word of God should be given great prominence in all Masses with children. Sometimes the homily intended for children should become a dialogue with them, unless it is preferred that they should listen in silence."
In the light of the above, I cannot see how the practice described by our reader can be classed as "dialogue." This term refers to using a question-and-answer format in the homily as a pedagogical tool. No one would expect the priest to start the homily and allow one of the children to continue on where he left off.
Rather than a dialogue, the practice under examination is for all practical purposes "delegating the duty of preaching to others" and is thus contrary to the above norms of the instruction.
Therefore I would conclude that the interpretation of Ecclesiae de Mysterio, No. 3.3, is incorrect and hence the practice described by our reader contravenes current liturgical norms.