|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.
* * *
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,"
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
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 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
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