Last week the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, announced the appointment of a lay “parish-life coordinator” in the parish of St. Anthony of Padua.
Eleanor Sauers has been placed in charge of the day-to-day administration of the parish, following the untimely death of the parish’s former pastor, Father John Baran.
The appointment has led some to ask: What is a parish-life coordinator? What does such a layperson do?
In Bridgeport, the arrangement, announced in a letter from Bishop Frank Caggiano, will see Sauers “work with the parish community to develop and foster its pastoral vision and mission.”
It is the first appointment of its kind in Bridgeport, though similar appointments have been common in other American dioceses for some years.
When such an appointment is made, it can strike some parishioners as a novelty. In fact, the possibility of lay “parish-life coordinators” exists in the Code of Canon Law and has been an option available to bishops since in 1983.
Canon 517 of the Code of Canon Law gives the diocesan bishop options for dealing with circumstances in which it is not possible to assign to a parish a priest who is able to serve as its resident and full-time pastor.
The first option offered by the canon is for a parish, or several parishes, to be given into the care of a team of priests, with one of them serving as the “moderator,” of leader of the team, responsible for coordinating the pastoral care of the people.
The second option the canon presents is for a deacon “or some other person who is not a priest” to be given “a share” in the “exercise of the pastoral care of the parish.” This is only to be done, according to canon law, because of a shortage of priests; it is a remedy for exceptional circumstances and not something the Church allows to be done for its own sake.
In addition to the sacramental life which is the heart of their existence, modern Western parishes are busy places, often requiring leadership and coordination on the ground.
There are clear advantages to placing a layperson in charge of the day-to-day coordination of the parish’s activity, rather than a team of priests who could be spread across a number of other parishes and have many other demands on their attention.
Overseeing finances, religious-education programs, the maintenance of buildings and other facilities, even a school in some places, is a complex set of responsibilities — one that, in the judgment of some bishops, cannot be overseen effectively by even a well-intentioned and well-organized team of non-resident priests.
In the case of the parish of St. Anthony of Padua, this would seem to be the role Bishop Caggiano has in mind, noting in his letter to parishioners that Sauers will “oversee the day-to-day operations of the parish.”
She will also be “working with a team of priests who will provide the sacramental ministries at St. Anthony,” while having decision-making authority in the parish itself.
Arrangements like these often leave some Catholics with the impression that the priests are working “for” or “under” a layperson (which would be a novelty in a parish setting, but not unusual in other ecclesiastical settings). However, there is a distinction in canon law, and in the teaching of the Church, between collaboration and a hierarchical relationship.
Finding the right balance in ecclesial collaboration is important. Bishops are enjoined to promote an authentic expression of the gifts of all members of the Church and to avoid any blurring of roles and responsibilities that might obscure the unique dignity of the different members of the Mystical Body of Christ.
St. John Paul II issued in 1997 an authoritative instruction on lay and clerical collaboration, Ecclesiae de Mysterio.
The Pope instructed that arrangements like the one at St. Anthony of Padua should only be made in “exceptional cases” and because of a shortage of priests. The possibility of such arrangements is not, St. John Paul said, to be used for “convenience or ambiguous ‘advancement of the laity.’”
The faithful have the right, expressed in Canon 213, to receive the administration of the sacraments, the preaching of the word of God and other means of obtaining sanctity from the pastors of the Church — that is, from the priests and bishops. When lay parish-life coordinators are appointed, they are not given charge of the spiritual care of the community: The “care of souls” is explicitly reserved to the clergy.
For that reason, while Canon 517 creates the possibility for a layperson to be given “a share” in the running of a parish, it also requires that there be a priest designated responsible for the pastoral care of the people. Whenever a deacon or layperson is appointed to such a role, “the bishop is to appoint some priest who, with the powers and faculties of a pastor [parish priest], will direct the pastoral care” of the people, canon law explains.
This condition, Ecclesiae de Mysterio affirms, must be followed with “strict adherence” in order to safeguard both the care of the faithful of the parish and the distinction of the roles between a lay collaborator and a priest.
“Directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the parish; these competencies, according to the canon, are the competencies of a priest alone,” the instruction explains.
In Ecclesiae de Mysterio, St. John Paul taught that the impetus of Vatican Council II “opens vast horizons, some of which have yet to be explored, for the lay faithful.”
As the Church responds to the changing landscape of society in different parts of the world, new ways for the laity to work together with the clergy will continue to emerge.
St. John Paul II taught that as those new modes of collaboration are developed, it is important for bishops to promote the role of laypeople in the Church, while ensuring among Catholics “the correct understanding of true ecclesial communion.”
Ed Condon is the Washington editor for Catholic News Agency.