I read with great interest the new assignments for many of our priests in our dioceses (effective July 1), along with the titles: dean, parochial administrator, pastor, rector, parochial vicar and pastor emeritus. It’s all “Father” to me. Would you please explain these different titles and responsibilities?
— MaryBeth in Pittsfield
While in much of American society we have all but abandoned a distinction between spoken and written forms of address (just as we have abandoned most forms of address, such as Mister or Madam), the Catholic Church continues to make use of them. We see something of this in the way we address a bishop. When writing to a bishop, it is customary to address the letter to His Excellency, Bishop N., but when speaking to a bishop it is common to address him as Your Excellency, Most Reverend Father, or even simply Bishop.
When it comes to a priest, his formal title is Reverend, but in common speech it is customary to address him simply as Father. Both of these titles describe what a priest is, but other titles more specifically address what he does.
The title of pastor, which is Latin for “shepherd,” is given to a priest to whom a parish has been entrusted. It belongs to the pastor to, teach, sanctify, and govern the parishioners entrusted to his care as he seeks to lead them to heaven. He does this under the authority of the bishop and, sometimes, with the assistance of other priests. The office of teaching includes work in Catholic schools, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, answering questions about the faith, etc. The office of sanctifying includes the administration of the sacraments, as well as praying for the parishioners and helping them to pray. The office of governing includes the temporal affairs of the parish (insurance, payroll, physical plant, keeping the parish archive and the sacramental records, etc.).
The title of parochial administrator is given a priest who is in care of a parish for a short time, usually until a pastor is appointed. The parochial administrator has the same duties as a pastor, but, unlike a pastor, an administrator does not have to offer a weekly Mass with the intention “for the people” (though it is good for him to do so).
A priest whose task it is to assist a pastor is called parochial vicar, who becomes, in a certain sense, the voice of the pastor. “As co-workers with the pastor and sharers in his solicitude, they are to offer service in the pastoral ministry by common counsel and effort with the pastor and under his authority” (canon 545 § 1).
To assist in the governance of the diocese, it is common for a bishop to group a number of parishes together into a vicarate, also called a deanery. The bishop can appoint a priest as the vicar forane or the dean to foster and help coordinate the pastoral ministry within a deanery, to be a support to his brother priests, and to help ensure proper administration is carried out. It belongs to the dean to help prepare the body of a priest for Christian burial.
The title of rector is given to a priest to whom the care of a particular sacred building is entrusted, such as a shrine or a cathedral.
The title of pastor emeritus is given to a priest who has retired and who still resides within the boundary of the last parish of which he served as the pastor.
More than serving to establish a ranking among priests, these different titles help to describe the sacred tasks entrusted to individual priests so that the work of the church is more fruitfully carried out.
Father Daren Zehnle is pastor at St. Augustine Parish in Ashland and St. Peter Parish in Petersburg and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.