The Vatican has strengthened the role of priests in local church governance, saying only they should lead parishes, not deacons, consecrated religious or laypeople.

– Congregation for the Clergy: “Directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the parish” all “competencies of a priest alone”

The advice from Rome was contained in an instruction released today from the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy – entitled “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church” – approved by Pope Francis and dated June 29, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul.

In the instruction, the Congregation reiterated that the “full care of souls” resides only in the parish priest or pastor, whose office “may not be entrusted to a group composed of clerics and lay people” except in cases of a shortage of priests and then only as “an extraordinary and temporary pastoral solution”.

In those cases of a lack of priests, “the diocesan Bishop may entrust the pastoral care of a Parish to a deacon, to a consecrated religious or layperson, or even to a group of persons” such as a religious institute or association, the Congregation said, adding, however, that “it would be preferable to appoint one or more deacons over consecrated men and women or laypersons for directing this kind of pastoral care”.

Even in the absence of a pastor, a priest “Moderator of Pastoral Care” must still oversee the pastoral care activities of those deacons, religious and/or laypeople, the Vatican body continued in its instruction.

Moreover, the Congregation insisted that non-priests must only be assigned the pastoral care of a parish in real situations of shortage of priests, “and not for reasons of convenience or ambiguous ‘advancement of the laity'”.

Likewise, non-priests charged with the care of souls in the parish should in no way be understood to be “directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the Parish”: responsibilities all which “are the competencies of a priest alone”, the Congregation insisted.

– Concern to maintain “essential difference between the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood”

The Congregation for the Clergy’s reluctance, in its instruction today, to allow deacons, religious or laypeople to run parishes was also reflected in a concern for the language to be used when non-priests share in pastoral care.

When deacons, religious and laypeople are appointed to different pastoral ministries “it is necessary to use terminology that corresponds in a correct way to the functions that they can fulfil in conformity with their state of life”, the Congregation said, adding that “in this way, the essential difference that exists between the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood is clearly maintained, and the identity of the appointment received by each person should be evident”.

So it is then, according to the Vatican body, that deacons, religious and laity in parish roles of responsibility are in no way to be designated with terms such as “pastor”, “co-pastor”, “chaplain”, “moderator”, “coordinator”, “parish manager” and the like – which the Congregation said are all titles “reserved by law to priests” – just as likewise phrases such as to “entrust the pastoral care of a parish” or “preside over the parish community” are not to be used in any way with respect to laypeople.

Laypeople can, however, be instituted as lectors, acolytes or Extraordinary Ministers of Communion, the Vatican body said, and can fulfil such duties as presiding over Liturgies of the Word, baptisms, funerals, marriages – in the case of a shortage of priests and deacons – and can even preach if circumstances call for it, as long as their sermon is not the main homily during Mass.

Laypeople, the Congregation added, can also participate in local Church life by sitting on parish finance or pastoral councils, so long as those councils are not understood as “teams” or similar notions “that are not suitable to express concretely the ecclesial and canonical relationship between the Parish Priest and the rest of the faithful”, and keeping in mind always that the parish council “possesses a consultative vote only, in the sense that its proposals must be accepted favourably by the Parish Priest to become operative”.

– Guidance on merging and suppressing parishes, a warning “not to ‘commericalise’ the sacramental life”

Along with guidance on how to organise parish pastoral care, the instruction of the Congregation for the Clergy released today also offers guidance to bishops on merging and suppressing parishes, for which moves factors such “the scarcity of diocesan clergy, the general financial situation of a Diocese, or other conditions within the community that are presumably reversible and of brief duration” such as numerical consistency, lack of financial self-sufficiency or the urban planning of the territory are “not sufficient” motive.

The instruction also contains a warning to priests “not to ‘commercialise’ the sacramental life” and “not to give the impression that the celebration of the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, along with other ministerial activities, are subject to tariffs”.

The goal of the instruction today, the Congregation said, was to issue to parish communities “a call to go out of themselves, offering instruments for reform, even structural, in a spirit of communion and collaboration, of encounter and closeness, of mercy and solicitude for the proclamation of the Gospel”.

But the document is likely to cause headaches in dioceses already planning parish restructurings, such as in Germany, where multiple bishops are undertaking parish mergers in which they hope to open up more space to the leadership of laypeople.

More on Novena on pushes for laypeople to have greater responsibility in the Church:

German dioceses press ahead with massive cuts to number of parishes despite Vatican objections

Theologian proposes solution to priests shortage: recognise “wealth of vocations” of all the baptised

Pioneering German layman takes on role of parish ‘pastor’: “This is only the beginning of new paths for the Church”

“A bit depressed”, German bishop rethinks parish mergers after “massive Roman intervention”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.