From the old to the new

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Robert P. Lockwood

In his first pastoral letter, “The Church Alive!” (June 2008), Bishop David Zubik wrote: “As the body of Christ, we, all the baptized of the church, have an important role. Let no one ever question their importance. Let no one ever feel disregarded in the church. Let all the members of the church as the body of Christ embrace what it means to embody Christ.”

To carry out this understanding of who we are as the body of Christ in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Bishop Zubik asked that the diocese begin to explore a new system of organization of the parishes — from a system of “deaneries” that is used now, to what are called “regional vicariates.”

Currently, the parishes of the diocese are organized into 16 territorial deaneries. One of the full-time pastors in each of these deaneries serves as the part-time dean.

As dean, in addition to his full-time responsibilities as pastor of his own parish, he reviews roughly once a year with each pastor or parish administrator in his deanery the state of his parish. He checks to see that parish sacramental records are in order, that the parish is reasonably financially sound, and that canonical and diocesan regulations are being followed.

Most Catholics in the diocese are probably unaware that their parish is part of a territorial deanery. That’s because it doesn’t have a lot of impact on the day-to-day life of parishioners. A dean’s authority is very limited in church law. So much of the day-to-day business that a pastor has to do that involves church law requires that he work directly with the bishop or other diocesan authorities. The dean can’t assist him in that work.

Deaneries can work very well, particularly in smaller dioceses where pastors have easy access to diocesan authorities. The problem with deaneries — particularly in a larger diocese such as Pittsburgh with 212 parishes — is that what a dean can do is limited. As a full-time pastor himself, he has natural limits of time. His first responsibility is as pastor in his own parish. But it is more than that.

If there is a problem in a parish or in the individual deanery as a whole, the dean can report it to the bishop or the diocesan general secretary. But there is not much that he can do to address the problem locally or to get people together from the deanery as a whole.

The bottom line is that a dean has no ordinary authority to help parishes work together, to lift burdens from pastors in doing their own jobs, to represent the bishop in a local area or represent that area to the bishop except in an informal way. And that is why Bishop Zubik wanted to look at regional vicariates to replace the current deanery system.

“What happens in parishes, in all parishes, is critically important,” he wrote in the April 3 Pittsburgh Catholic. “Regional vicars will have the authority from me to pull people together and get things done on a local level. Regional vicariates mean parishes working together — sharing resources, sharing people, sharing ideas, sharing the faith — simply put, being ‘The Church Alive!’”

As noted last week, regional vicariates are sections of a diocese made of parishes and Catholic institutions in that territory. They are usually much bigger in size than deaneries. The Pittsburgh Diocese is currently looking at creating three, four or five regional vicariates to replace the 16 deaneries. And each regional vicariate will be headed up by a full-time regional vicar.

A regional vicar is a priest appointed by the bishop to a full-time position. He assists the bishop in carrying out his responsibilities and represents the bishop on a daily basis to the priests, religious and laity in his vicariate. The basic requirements for a regional vicar is that he be a priest age 30 or older, that he have expertise in theology and canon law and that he has pastoral experience in a parish.

A vicar’s “job description” lists more than 60 responsibilities, everything from canonical duties such as checking parish sacramental records in his vicariate, to conducting regular parish visits.

Rather than go through that whole list, we can summarize the key overall duties of a vicar as:

• Coordinate pastoral care among parishes — helping parishes work together to make certain there are no “haves” or “have nots” when it comes to pastoral ministry;

• Determine with the pastors and parishes the needs of the vicariate;

• Serve as the administrative — and liturgical — representative of the bishop;

• Help resolve local problems locally;

• Visit parishes in the vicariate on a regular basis and help in local decision-making.

The vicar will bring the vision of the bishop to the people of his vicariate and encourage planning among parishes to meet future needs. He will encourage the diocesan-wide program of Envisioning Ministry, where neighboring parishes work together to determine how they might best serve all the faithful in their area in the years ahead.

A vicar won’t infringe on the proper authority of the pastor in a parish. A vicar is there to help the pastor, to help parishes solve problems, make it much easier — and faster — for decisions to be made at the parish level, dramatically increase the ability of a parish or a group of parishes to let the bishop know what is going on in their area, give the bishop a direct means to communicate regularly with each individual parish and help coordinate common pastoral activities among the parishes.

Next week: The benefits of vicars and vicariates.