By Katherine Long | Editor
Two new policies have been established for priests in the diocese, limiting assignments as pastors to six years and requiring priests 80 and older to retire from the office of pastor or administrator.
Bishop Robert J. Cunningham accepted the policies after consultation with the College of Consultors and the Presbyteral Council, and upon the recommendation of the Priests’ Personnel Committee, he said in a February letter to priests.
According to the letter, the policy on pastors’ term limits is effective July 1; the policy on pastors’ retirements was effective immediately. “In order to include some parishes in the changes which will take place this spring, this policy will begin immediately. It is necessary, however, to make other changes gradually due to the number of priests currently serving as pastors beyond the age of eighty,” he wrote.
Developing the policies
The policies were developed “for the sake of giving the bishop the flexibility to plan for the future, to make changes and arrangements that will serve as effectively as possible the people of the diocese, and to be prudent in terms of personnel policy,” said Msgr. Richard Kopp, Vicar for Clergy.
The diocesan Priests’ Personnel Committee was asked by the Presbyteral Council to develop a policy regarding term limits for pastors because of this need for flexibility, Msgr. Kopp explained.
The Committee returned for the Presbyteral Council’s consideration a “two-tier” policy, he said, one tier that dealt with term limits and the other that dealt with priests who had exceeded the age of 80 and remained in place administering parishes.
Pastors are assigned to parishes for six-year terms. Previously, those assignments could be renewed for a second six-year term.
“The recommendation of the Presbyteral Council was that once an individual had completed a six-year term as pastor it wouldn’t be automatically assumed that he would be eligible for a second term as pastor,” Msgr. Kopp said.
The new policy, according to the letter, states that, “Following participation in the priest evaluation process, a future assignment will be considered. The Bishop will appoint a priest to either continue in his current location as administrator or to a new assignment based on the needs of the Diocese.”
There isn’t a great deal of difference between the role of pastor and that of administrator, Msgr. Kopp said, as both “have the same responsibilities and the same rights in terms of what they can do within a parish.” However the pastor has canonical rights that an administrator does not have, he noted, specifically, a pastor can’t be moved from a six-year appointment, whereas the bishop may move an administrator at any time.
Universal canon law asks every pastor to submit his resignation to his bishop at 75. The bishop can then decide to accept or defer the resignation.
A bishop has that latitude, Msgr. Kopp explained, because the spirit of the law concerns the care of souls, and often a bishop needs time “to make the necessary accommodations to make sure any given parish is going to be covered.”
But when a priest has submitted that resignation, and 10 or 12 years later it hasn’t been accepted, it may be viewed as outside the spirit of the law, he noted. “By this time, accommodations should have been made. I think the new policy enacted in that regard is trying to follow the spirit of the law a little more closely and provide for the care of the people as well as consideration for the priest,” Msgr. Kopp said.
According to the letter, “Those whose terms go beyond the age of seventy-five may be appointed as administrators subject to evaluation on an annual basis. Their ministry as administrator will conclude at age eighty.”
Those priests are encouraged to continue their pastoral service to the people of the diocese, Msgr. Kopp said, making themselves available to assist other pastors. “There are a lot of places where these men can serve and serve very effectively,” he said.
There are currently 13 pastors in the diocese who are 80 or older.
“The new policy must be enacted gradually as the diocese is unable to absorb thirteen openings,” Msgr. Kopp stated in a follow-up email. “Bishop Cunningham along with the College of Consultors will look at each of these openings strategically as part of the overall pastoral plan for the diocese. In order to provide quality pastoral leadership and sacramental ministry some parishes may need to merge. In many places, there will need to be a re-working of Sunday Mass schedules.”
The diocese has roughly 127 parishes to staff and about 113 priests who are “active and assignable,” though that number includes priests 80 and older, as well as five recently-ordained priests who cannot yet be named pastors, according to Msgr. Kopp.
“It’s really important for the people to know that we’re trying to address the pastoral concerns of the diocese, to serve the people as effectively as we possibly can with the limited number of priests that we have and the number of parishes that we have,” he said.
The College of Consultors and the Presbyteral Council are two bodies of counsel to the bishop. The College of Consultors is composed of the Regional Vicars, the Vicar General, the Vicar for Parishes, and the Vicar for Clergy. The Presbyteral Council is composed of priests who are elected by the presbyterate to serve on that body. The Priests’ Personnel Committee reports to the Presbyteral Council; priests have the opportunity to vote on the priests who serve on the committee.