October 6, 2006

Be Our Guest / Msgr. Frederick Easton

Wondering what those Church titles, offices mean? Here’s an explanation

In almost every issue of The Criterion, a reader will see a reference to titles or offices such as pastor, associate pastor, priest moderator, administrator, vicar forane (more commonly known as dean), vicar general, vicar judicial, moderator of the curia and chancellor.

Perhaps it might help to have some quick definitions or explanations of these various offices of the Catholic Church:


After the office of pope and bishop, the office of pastor is the most necessary office or function in the universal Church. The Code of Canon Law establishes that a pastor is the priest to whom the pastoral care of a parish is entrusted.

A parish is a specific community of the Christian faithful stably established in a diocese or archdiocese. The priest functions as pastor under the authority of the diocesan bishop. The Code also states that the pastor “carries out the functions of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, also with the cooperation of other presbyters or deacons and with the assistance of lay members of the Christian faithful, according to the norm of law” (Canon #519).

He is advised by two important consultative bodies—the parish finance council (which is required by Canon #537) and the parish pastoral council (which Canon #536 gives the diocesan bishop the option to make mandatory, and these councils have been made mandatory in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis).

According to the Code of Canon Law (Canon #522), pastors can be appointed for terms of office if the conference of bishops permits it. Since 1984, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has decreed that individual bishops may appoint pastors to a six-year term of office. The possibility of renewing this term is also left to the discretion of the diocesan bishop.

Associate Pastor

The associate pastor is the term commonly used for the priest known as the parochial vicar in the Code of Canon Law (Canon #545ff).

Whenever it is necessary or appropriate in order to carry out suitably the pastoral care of a parish, the diocesan bishop can assign one or more parochial vicars to work with the pastor to share in his pastoral ministry in a parish.

A parochial vicar can be assigned either to assist in exercising the entire pastoral ministry for the whole parish, a determined part of the parish or a certain group of the Christian faithful of the parish, or even to assist in fulfilling a specific ministry in different parishes together. Associate pastors do not have a term of office and can be moved at the discretion of the bishop.


An administrator is a priest whom the bishop appoints when a pastor dies or retires, and there is no new priest available at the time for appoint-ment as pastor. The bishop also appoints an administrator whenever the pastor is incapacitated.

In either case, this position is temporary. It is the intent of Church law that administrators maintain the status of the parish and provide pastoral ministry for the people of the parish until a priest is appointed pastor.

Parish Life Coordinator

The Code of Canon Law (Canon #517, §2) provides that a bishop can decide, because of a lack of priests, to allow a deacon, a person who is not a priest, or a community of persons to participate in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish.

These persons are given various titles in dioceses across the United States, but they are known as parish life coordinators in our archdiocese.

However, these people are not pastors.

Rather, the bishop is required to also appoint some priest who is given the powers and faculties of a pastor, and he is to direct the pastoral care.

This priest is called the priest moderator in the archdiocese. This priest often is already pastor of another parish.

There is no term of office for this priest. However, unlike the administrator, his office is not intended to be temporary.

Pastoral Associate

A number of our parishes have a paid staff person who is not a priest, but who assists the pastor in the pastoral ministry of the parish.

The pastoral associate is not a position found in the Code of Canon Law, but has been found a helpful designation in many dioceses. Unless otherwise specified, a pastoral associate would be expected to assist simply as the pastor directed.

In some larger parishes, the actual title might be specified to a certain portion of parish ministry, e.g. pastoral minister for liturgy and music.

Vicar Forane (Dean)

This office is very old in the Church.

Almost 500 years ago, the Church created the role of the vicar forane or dean.

St. Charles Borromeo was perhaps one of the first bishops to use the deans. The dean’s role has usually been mostly supervisory, and continues so under the present law, where the dean is to promote and coordinate common pastoral activity in the deanery.

In the archdiocese, the dean regularly convenes meetings of the clergy of his deanery, where they collaborate on initiatives pertaining to the deanery.

Sometimes, the archbishop has asked the dean to visit the parishes of the deanery and inspect the sacramental record books. In some dioceses, deans have arranged for lectures and theological conferences for the clergy of his deanery. He is called to be of spiritual support for the priests of his deanery and be concerned for those priests who are in any difficulty.

In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, deans have often been given general delegation for issuing matrimonial dispensations for marriages taking place in their deanery. The intent is that dispensations would ordinarily be granted at the Chancery, but the deans would be available in case it was not reasonably possible to contact the Chancery in a given case.

Vicar General

The office of vicar general is the most important in the Church after that of the (arch) bishop himself.

Every bishop is required by Church law (Canon #475) to appoint a priest as vicar general. This priest has, within his diocese, all of the powers for service which are not reserved to the bishop.

Some examples of powers reserved by law to the diocesan bishops are the following—the appointment of pastors, associate pastors (parochial vicars), parish life coordinators, priest moderators, vicar general, vicar judicial and adjunct (assistant) vicar judicial, tribunal judges, chancellor, notaries, parochial administrators; the starting or suppressing or altering of parishes (having first heard the council of priests); the approval of the statutes of the council of priests; the convoking of the council of priests and presiding over its meetings.

There is no term of office for a vicar general, but he serves at the pleasure of the bishop.

When the bishop dies or resigns, he is no longer a vicar general but with one exception—in dioceses where there is an auxiliary bishop, Church law states that he is also to be appointed as a vicar general.

When the diocesan bishop dies or resigns, the auxiliary bishop maintains his office of vicar general until the new bishop takes office.

Vicar Judicial

The diocesan bishop is required by canon law to appoint a judicial vicar who has by law ordinary power to judge those cases which are required to be settled by judicial means (Canon #1420).

By far, the most frequent judicial case to be decided is the question of the invalidity of marriages.

However, there are judicial trials in which the matter to be decided concerns ecclesiastical crimes and consequent punishment. Church law requires that the judicial vicar have an academic degree in canon law at least at the level of the licentiate.

Therefore, the judicial vicar as a canonist is often called upon by the diocesan bishop and others in diocesan offices to give advice or an opinion on any canonical topic.

Moderator of the Curia

This is a new title in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (Canon #473), but its functions were carried out in the past in most every diocese.

Therefore, now where the bishop thinks this office would be helpful, he can appoint someone who must be a priest to be the moderator of the curia.

This priest acts under the authority of the bishop to coordinate those things which pertain to the handling of administrative affairs, and he takes care that the other members of the curia (diocesan offices) properly fulfill the work which is entrusted to them. Normally, the diocesan bishop appoints the vicar general as moderator of the curia.


By the Code of Canon Law, the particular task of the chancellor is to take care that decisions and decrees of the bishop, the vicar general and any other official of the curia are kept together, arranged and safeguarded in the archive of the curia (Canon #482).

The bishop or the particular law of the diocese may entrust other functions to the chancellor as the needs of the diocese dictate. These may include supervision over other ministries and activities of the diocese.

The chancellor need not be a priest or deacon. However, when the chancellor is a priest, he often is given general delegation by the diocesan bishop to issue matri-monial dispensations.

However, the chancellor is also a notary of the diocese. As a notary, the chancellor can prepare official documents recording decisions made by the bishop or vicar general and by his/her signature and the diocesan seal, these documents are worthy in law of public trust.

(Msgr. Frederick Easton is vicar judicial for the archdiocesan Metropolitan Tribunal.) †


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