By Isabella Piro
The Church offers space for everyone to find their place, while respecting the vocation of each individual. This idea forms the core of the Instruction on the parish, which the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy released on Monday.
The document does not promulgate any new legislation, but proposes methods to better apply existing rules and canonical norms. The aim is to encourage the co-responsibility of the baptized and to promote pastoral care based on closeness and cooperation between parishes.
What emerges most forcefully from the Instruction is the urgency of missionary renewal, a pastoral conversion of the parish, so that the faithful may rediscover the dynamism and creativity which allows the parish to be always "going forth", aided by the contribution of all the baptized faithful.
The Instruction consists of 11 chapters and can be divided into two parts: the first (chapters 1-6) offers a broad reflection on pastoral conversion, missionary outreach, and the value of the parish in the contemporary context. The second part (chapters 7-11) dwells on the subdivisions of parish communities, various pastoral roles that make them up, and the ways in which the governing norms are applied.
The parish: "A house among houses"
The Instruction describes the parish as “a house among houses” – a permanent sign of the Risen One in the midst of His people, according to the first part of the document.
The missionary nature of the parish is fundamental for evangelization. Globalization and the digital world have altered its specific link with the territory it encompasses. Therefore, the parish as such is no longer just a geographical space, but an existential space. It is precisely in this context that the parish’s "flexibility" emerges, allowing it to respond to the demands of the times and to adapt its service to the faithful throughout history.
The Instruction, therefore, stresses the importance of a missionary renewal of parish structures. Such renewal should steer clear of self-referentiality and rigidness. Rather, it should focus instead on spiritual dynamism and pastoral conversion based on the proclamation of the Word of God, the sacramental life, and the witness of charity. The "culture of encounter" should provide the necessary context for promoting dialogue, solidarity, and openness to all. In this way, parish communities will be able to develop a true "art of accompaniment". In particular, the Instruction recommends the witness of faith in charity and the importance of caring for the poor which the parish evangelizes.
Every baptized person must be an active protagonist in evangelization. Therefore, a change of mentality and interior renewal is essential in order to carry out a missionary reform of pastoral care.
Naturally, these processes of change must be flexible and gradual, since every project must be situated in the real life of a community, without being imposed from above and without "clericalizing" the service of pastoral care.
The second part of the Instruction opens with the analysis of the subdivisions within the diocesan territory.
First, the document explains, parishes should follow the key factor of proximity, while taking into account the similarities of the population and the characteristics of the territory. The document then dwells on the specific procedures relating to the incorporation, merging or division of parishes, and on those relating to the Vicariates Forane (also known as a Deanery), which bring together several parish units, and the pastoral units that group several Vicariates Forane.
Parish priest: "pastor" of the community
The Instruction then delves into the theme of assigning the pastoral care of parish communities, both in ordinary and extraordinary ways.
First of all, the role of the parish priest as "pastor" of the community is underlined. He is at the service of the parish, and not the other way around. His role “involves the full care of souls.” The parish priest must therefore have received the Order of the Presbyter, excluding any other possibility.
He is the administrator responsible for parish property and is the juridical representative of the parish. He ought to be appointed for an indefinite period of time, since the good of souls demands stability and implies knowledge of the community. However, the Instruction recalls that a Bishop may appoint a parish priest for a determined period, provided it is not less than five years and that the Episcopal Conference has established this by decree.
When he has reached the age of 75, the parish priest has the “moral duty” to present his resignation, though he does not cease from office until the Bishop has accepted it and communicated his acceptance in writing. In any case, acceptance will always be for a “just and proportionate cause”, so as to avoid a “functionalistic” conception of the ministry.
Deacons: ordained ministers, not 'half-priests and half-laymen'
A portion of the eighth chapter is dedicated to deacons. They are collaborators of the Bishop and the priests in a singular mission of evangelization. Deacons are ordained ministers and participate to a degree of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, especially in the area of evangelization and charity, including the administration of goods, the proclamation of the Gospel, and service at the Eucharistic table.
They are not to be considered as "half-priests and half-laymen", according to the Instruction which quotes Pope Francis, nor is their vocation to be considered from the perspective of clericalism or functionalism.
Witness of consecrated persons and generous commitment of laity
The Instruction published by the Congregation for the Clergy also reflects on consecrated men and women, as well as the laity, within parish communities.
Consecrated men and women contribute in the first place from their “‘being’, that is, from the witness of a radical following of Christ.” Lay faithful participate in the evangelizing action of the Church. They are called upon to make a “generous commitment” through the general witness of their daily lives, lived in conformity with the Gospel, while placing themselves at the service of the parish community.
Lay faithful can also be instituted as Lectors and Acolytes (i.e. for service at the altar) on a stable basis, by means of the relevant rite. But they must be in full communion with the Catholic Church, have received adequate formation, and lead exemplary personal lives.
In addition, in exceptional circumstances, they may receive other assignments from the Bishop, "at his prudent judgement". These include celebrating the Liturgy of the Word and funeral rites, administering Baptism, assisting at marriages – with the Holy See's permission – and preaching in a Church or oratory in case of need.
Under no circumstances, however, may lay people give the homily during the celebration of the Eucharist.
Bodies of ecclesial co-responsibility
The Instruction also reflects on parish bodies of ecclesial co-responsibility, including the Parish Finance Council, which is constituted as a consultative body, is presided over by the pastor, and is formed of at least three members.
The document says the administration of a parish’s goods is “an important area of evangelisation and evangelical witness, both in the Church and in civil society.” All goods belong to the parish and not to the parish priest, the Congregation for the Clergy reaffirms. The task of the Parish Finance Council will therefore be to foster a "culture of co-responsibility, of administrative transparency, and of service to the needs of the Church.”
The Parish Pastoral Council is also consultative in nature, and is “highly recommended”. “Far from being simply a bureaucratic organ, the Pastoral Council highlights and realizes the centrality of the People of God as the subject and active protagonist of the evangelizing mission, in virtue of the fact that every member of the faithful has received the gifts of the Spirit through Baptism and Confirmation.”
Its main function is to offer practical proposals for the parish’s pastoral and charitable initiatives, in harmony with the objectives of the diocese. Proposals require the favorable acceptance of the pastor in order to become operative.
No ‘tax on the Sacraments’: an offering is a free act
The final chapter dwells on offerings for the celebration of the Sacraments.
They must be "a free act" on the part of the one offering, and should not be requested as if it were a tax or a fee. Priests are urged to offer a virtuous example in their use of money, through a sober lifestyle and transparent administration of parish goods. In this way, the faithful will be encouraged to contribute willingly to the needs of the Parish, which are also their own.
It should be remembered that the new Instruction follows the interdicasterial Instruction of 1997, dedicated to the theme "Ecclesia de mysterio: On certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of the priest", and the Instruction of 2002, published by the Congregation for the Clergy on "The Priest, Pastor, and Guide of the Parish Community”. (Translated from the original Italian)