QUAERITUR: Should priests be appointed for six year terms?

From a reader:

I am curious about the appointment of pastors (specifically diocesan priests). The bishop in the diocese I grew up in (usually) assigns pastors for life. The bishop of the diocese I now live in assigns them to six year terms which can be renewed for an additional 6 years. What does canon law say about this matter? I can see advantages to both systems.

Thank you for your service to the Church!

In the universal (Latin) law, pastors (parish priests) are appointed “for an indeterminate period of time,” (can. 522) and can only be removed for specific reasons and following a set procedure for doing so (canons 1740-1752). However, canon 522 does permit the Bishops’ Conference to establish a “specified period of time” for a pastor’s term of office. In the United States, the Bishops’ Conference set the norm that pastors can be appointed either indefinitely, or “to a six year term of office. The possibility of renewing this term is left to the discretion of the diocesan bishop.” This norm was approved by the Holy See and promulgated on 24 September 24 1984.

In my opinion the notion of a “term” for a pastor is an unhealthy thing overall.

It seems to me that the main reason for term-limits is to relieve the bishop from having to deal with conflict.

If a pastor is ineffective, or problematic, or simply ill-suited to that particular parish, the juridical procedure for removing him from office is fairly straight-forward.  However, it the procedure allows a pastor to argue his case as to why he should not be moved. The bishop then has to make a decision about how to proceed.  Press and fight or compromise? He is forced to deal with an unhappy pastor.

With the term-limited-pastor scenario, all a bishop has to do is wait out the problematic priest and then inform him that be is being moved. No room for discussion. No appeal.  No loose ends. No conflict.  Easy peasy.  Great for the bishop.

Good for the priest and parish?  Probably not.

Term-limits, from what I understand from priests who are pastors of parishes, undermine the priest’s ability to develop a sense of spiritual fatherhood in regard to his parish. If he’s only going to be there for six years, he spends one or two years settling in, finding the keys, learning the streets, etc.  He spends a couple years actually “pastoring” the place. Then he figures he’ll be moved and starts hesitating about undertaking projects.  He starts getting in head and heart ready to move.

Think of how long it took St. John Vianney to put his “pastoral program” into effect in Ars.  What would have happened had he only been there for six years?

Furthermore, the term-limit gives people the impression that the priest really isn’t running the parish.  The priests come and go, but the parish secretary, book keep, council, liturgist, etc., stay.  Who is running the place?  Not the priest, apparently.

I know priests who say that they think are getting to know the place well when they start baptizing the children of the first children they baptized.

I also have the impression that more priestly vocations come from parishes were there has been stability in the pastorate.  In my own case, Msgr. Schuler was at St. Agnes for 33 years as pastor.  In that time, there were 30 First Masses at St. Agnes.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Pros? Yes. A few.  Cons? More.

Thumbs down.

 

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42 Responses to QUAERITUR: Should priests be appointed for six year terms?

  1. Phil_NL says:

    Moreover, the 6 year term seems to be rather odd.

    If a priest is ill-suited to a particular parish, that will become obvious within 2 or 3 years at most. A bishop with a listening ear will in that time see attendance and registration drop, hear of disgruntled parishioners, and so on. Assuming that the main problem is indeed the priest, a bishop who’d like to move a priest can and should do so much earlier. Even more so because in those 3rd, 4th and 5th years, a lot of damage can be done.

    Additionally, in many places – especially in Europe – there’s a much easier route of moving a priest: reorganize the parishes. (And, frankly, that the bishops dislike fuss is understandable, they have a lot on their plate already) In many dioceses, this is now an almost continuous process. That isn’t particularly healthy either, but it does make a 6 year term even stranger.

    I do wonder why a 2-3 year trial period, followed by an indefinite appointment, isn’t used more often.

  2. jbas says:

    The six year term also gives bishops a means to punish priests, deserved or not, without having to follow any judicial process, and it gives trouble-makers in the parish a time-line for getting rid of a priest they don’t like.

  3. Volanges says:

    I’ve been in this parish 13 years. In that time we’ve had 6 Pastors and the parish has become increasingly dysfunctional. Finally, this summer the Bishop has appointed a Pastor who has categorically stated that he’s here until he dies. You could hear the sighs of relief at his statement.

    This is the first time in the 54 years since our parish was erected that we have a diocesan priest, a man for whom our parish is ‘home’ rather than one for whom this is a temporary stop on the road back to his Congregation’s headquarters.

    The last Pastor we had spent his three years with us setting things up to allow the parish to function without a priest and he kept telling us that we were unlikely to have a priest when he left. Even against the Bishop’s wishes he put the finances in the hands of the parishioners who could make purchases and write cheques without immediate oversight. Oh, there were to be purchase orders and such and things would come to light once the Finance Council got the bank statements but it was still open to abuse. Luckily, nothing happened except that now the parishioners think they are entitled to dictate to the Pastor how he spends the Parish’s money, rather than the Finance Council ‘advising’ him in a consultative role only.

    In the time I’ve been here we’ve lost our Catholic schools and there has been no ongoing catechesis, just the annual preparation for Confirmation and First Communion (for the first 9 years) and then only for First Communion. The new Pastor is shocked at that. He’d have been more shocked has he sat in on the Baptismal Preparation I discovered when I joined the team: two of the members rarely attended Mass and the parents were told that it didn’t matter if they go to Mass or not, that everyone has to compromise at times and that we just ‘do what we can’ and sometimes ‘hockey has to come before Mass’! I worked hard to get rid of that mind-set or at least to not have it vocalized at the preparation sessions. Finally, one of the members voice the concern that maybe, since she has not been in church for many months, it would be time to reconsider whether or not she’s the right person to be on the team.

    This new Pastor will work hard to put thing right because he has a long-term stake in making this a strong, Catholic home, rather than just being there to dispense sacraments.

  4. Fr Deacon Daniel says:

    Regarding pastors, what is the normal term of a pater familias in a domestic church?

    I think you have your answer.

    Regarding associates and parochial vicars, let them rotate on a 5 year cycle if necessary, until and if they become a pastor. (Some priests should never be pastors – not necessarily due to a personal flaw, but to a unique calling they exercise as part of their priestly ministry.)

  5. Lepidus says:

    The terms also prevent the parish from estabilishing a local identity. When I was growing up there was one parish in town (mine) that had altar boys, no sign of peace, nuns with habits, priests with Roman collars, and an organ. Another parish had their piano, priests running around town in shorts and standing during the Eucharistic Prayer. Since the bishops are unable / unwilling to enforce saying the black and doing the red, at least the people had the opportunity having the Mass said according to their rite by attending Parish #1. Unfortunately, term were implemented the priest was reassigned at Parish #1 and the Archbishop at the time (a nationally known troublemaker) punished that parish by assigning a radical.

  6. acardnal says:

    I like the idea of a term for the pastor but six years is probably too short. Perhaps something on the order of 12 years.

    When left in place for many years, the priest becomes attached to the parishioners and the parishioners to the pastor. They come to that particular church to experience the pastor not to worship God. When the pastor leaves and is reassigned to another parish, many parishioners go with him! I have experienced this phenomenon. I have always understood attachment to be a detriment to spiritual growth.

  7. James Locke says:

    Going to go ahead and disagree with you Father on this one. my Diocese, (Arlington, VA) has a hybrid model where it seems that some parishes get a pastor for life while others, like my own, have priests cycle in and out. This has in no way disrupted the ability of the parish to establish an identity or maintain itself well.

    While I have been sad to see my priest go on, it has not prevented real relationships from forming between the priests and parishioners I think.

  8. jbas says:

    acardnal,
    But is it not precisely the term limits, of whatever length, that encourage the phenomenon you mention? Over the years, priests must learn how to endear ourselves to each new parish as quickly as possible by emphasizing our personalities over our mission. Then, as the term begins to wind down, everyone begins focusing again on the personality of the priest, and pondering what the next priest will be like.

  9. Titus says:

    I grew up in a diocese with six-year terms (which were renewable once) and now live in (an adjacent) one that has indefinite tenures.

    My impression is that the term-limit was seen primarily as an administrative tool. “If you leave Fr. O’Malley at St. Severus for too long, entropy will set in and the place will start hemorrhaging money.” The pastor of my parish for most of my childhood served two terms, oversaw one much-needed restoration, had taken some small steps to beautify the church interior and improve liturgical worship, and was present for the beginning of a building project. He was exiled at the end of his term to a rural backwater parish: someone commented that problems had arisen “because you can’t always do things in the most expensive way,” whatever that means.

    Also, term limits seem to reflect an idea that it’s better to have whatever good (or bad) influences you have in the diocese spread around, instead of concentrated all in one place. So let Fr. Ipsidipsy drift from here to there: hopefully he won’t completely destroy any one parish if he doesn’t stay there too long.

    But no, you don’t have any sense of community: I don’t feel any compulsion to go back to my parents’ parish when I am visiting, in part because I haven’t a clue who the priest is, and haven’t for years. He doesn’t get a chance to know people, at least growing children, in any meaningful way. I do think I prefer the system here of letting a priest stay ad infinitum. Although, at the same time, if you have a problem, or someone who just isn’t going to do something, you pretty well know that it’s just not going to change, period.

  10. jbas says:

    James Locke,
    It may depend upon whether the laity and clergy of a given diocese are mostly “reform” or a “rupture” types. If the laity and the clergy are mostly of the same type, then perhaps things go smoothly enough with each transition. But it should still be noted that the priest, who has no family but the parish, looses his “family” and has to start over each time.

  11. acardnal says:

    “But it should still be noted that the priest, who has no family but the parish, looses his “family” and has to start over each time.”

    Yes, and that can be a good thing for both the priest and the two parishes involved.

  12. a catechist says:

    I have to politely disagree with Father Z and many commenters here. Although I dislike criticizing priests, not all of them go from strength to strength. I think of several instances in my own experience where pastors suffered a decline that seriously impacted his ability to preach, celebrate Mass, and effectively lead. (I’m not speaking of my current diocese.) Once as a young teen and once as a young adult, there was a real danger I would leave the Church because of the effects of the priest’s troubles. To put it another way, I’d be much more sympathetic to the idea of permanent appointments IF the Church helped her ministers in trouble, so that their depression, crisis of faith, or other serious problem was actually dealt with before taking a toll on the whole parish.

    Relocating is a norm of lay life for many (most?) Americans–move for college, move for jobs, move for an elderly family member. Permanency of place/community, while healthy in many respects, isn’t the normal experience for lots of people in the pew. I don’t think we should widen the gap of experience, so to speak, between the priest and people.

  13. Glen M says:

    It’s interesting to learn the perspectives of priests on this matter. For most people it’s natural to resist change especially when one’s current situation is comfortable. There are few things in life I detest more than moving.

    My diocese has the six year term which may be renewed once. I’ve always regarded this as normal and healthy for all concerned.

    Best case scenario: a holy priest is assigned to an appreciative parish where for many years, generations even, he serves their spiritual needs, builds strong Christians, and is rewarded by their gratitude and thanks.

    Worst case scenario: A wayward priest leads his flock away from the Church. A cult of personality develops where the people are more loyal to him than God. Sadly, there are many examples of this scenario coming to mind.

    As I understand it a diocesan priest takes an oath of obedience to the diocesan bishop and pledges to serve God through the Church. He doesn’t take such an oath to any particular parish.

    The Church lacks unity today on several fronts. In a diocese I believe division is more likely to occur with permanent priest assignments. Example: Fr A at St A’s is traditional and orthodox, Fr B at St B’s is the opposite. Catholics today are not bound to their geographical parish and are able to shop. If Fr A moves into a St B’s type parish and the people know he’s there for a long time they would probably leave it for a St. B’s parish.

    In my humble opinion, Catholic unity can be achieved more easily through a diocesan consistency rather than parish uniqueness. That’s not to say there are not distinctions between dioceses (compare Rochester and Lincoln, USA for example) but such is easier to spot and hopefully correct than at the parish level.

    When six and twelve year terms are the norm suspicion isn’t raised when the bishop transfers a priest for whatever reason. After twelve years I’m sure any priest has exhausted his ‘really good’ homilies so transferring gives him a new audience. Also, I wonder if someone is likely to conceal a particularly bad sin if it’s obvious his/her voice is known to their confessor and they’ve known each other for a long time.

    I also believe the exceptional priest serves God best by spending time in different parishes. The people who are lucky enough to experience such holy priests should want others to benefit as they have. That priest raises the bar for his successor thus by his ministry can improve the entire diocese.

    It might even strengthen the priest’s ministry by being exposed to different communities. Wouldn’t any diocese benefit from a bishop who has served several parishes rather than just one? If a priest was born and raised in a small rural parish then went on to minister to only one small rural parish, would this lack of urban perspective help him as a bishop of several large cities?

  14. The issue of terms vs. life-long assignment goes both ways.
    Stability is wonderful when you have an awesome pastor, but terrible if he’s a nightmare.
    Terms are great when parishioners count the hours until they get a new pastor, but heartbreaking when having to say goodbye to a saintly or friendly pastor. In most cases, the priest loses interest in a soul when they move to the next parish, and have new responsibilities.

    The problem can be compared to marriage. Those that divorce because of unresolved problems are doomed to repeat the same mistakes in the next relationship. There is a good argument for dealing with all problems without moving a priest around.

    We’ve always had limits in this diocese – in the past it was 7 years, with the changes occurring around July. Lately there doesn’t appear to be a predictable schedule anymore. Some terms have been stretching past the 10-year mark, and at the same time we’ve had some mysterious changes after very short times and at odd times.

    Our assistant pastors have a really rough time creating connections with parishioners as they get moved about every 3 years. It is very very hard on their tender hearts. There has been some inexplicably fast shuffling as short as 6 weeks! One parish with an assistant having perhaps the most difficult personality in the diocese has remained in place for years. [I think there are a couple of parishioners who are still on speaking terms LOL]

    The Melkite parish’s pastor is a life-long assignment, I think. That priest is saintly, the parish has many MEN, including deacons and some in the long path to the priesthood, and the parishioners on the whole are the kindest I have ever met. [Maybe its because they serve homemade food at everything for any reason. LOL.]

    For both clergy and laity, there is a comfort of sorts with predictability whether the assignments are life-long or term.
    There are more opportunities for perfection in situations where priests and parishioners do not move around, if problems are dealt with healthily and directly. Like in a large family or a small town, you learn to cooperate, to get along, to ‘read’ others.
    No one becomes a saint without connecting with people [yes I know about hermits, but if you are a hermit because you can't get along with anybody, you will fail at sanctity]. Pastors who are not given the opportunity to connect with and love their parishioners, aren’t likely to convert them, anymore than a doctor who doesn’t love his patients can cure.
    In some cases, new pastors are assigned when a parish gets in very bad financial shape and a better ‘administrator’ is brought in. It seems that finances will cause a change faster than horrible difficult personalities or loose Catholic teachings/practices.

    I really don’t know the answer to term vs lifelong. It seems ‘lifelong’ was the way of the Church before all the changes and the sixties…Maybe there is something to learn from that.

    As with most problems in our Church, much of the responsibility for dealing with problem priests and leading everyone to conversion, belongs to our bishops. It takes a big heart, a fatherly attitude and a direct fair manner to know how to counsel and help priests. Whether its by moving priests around or ignoring them as they wilt in place for years, old-fashioned spiritual direction of priests themselves may be the ultimate answer.

  15. acardnal says:

    One of the many good reasons a priest is celibate is that he has no natural family. He is free to move at any time wherever the pastoral need as determined by the bishop requires. A priest is much like a military man in this regard. Moving from one assignment to another every few years helps the priest gain experience and not become attached to people, places or things – which can become occasions for sin. And it assists the commander, or bishop in this case, of accomplishing his mission.

  16. LisaP. says:

    acardnal makes a good point, I think one of the biggest dangers in Protestant churches is the tendency to personality cults and to internal fighting over whether or not to keep a certain pastor who has slighted Suzy or is best buds with Joe.

    But I think the described hazards of frequent moves outweigh this, particularly the perception by the congregation that priests come and go, but the office administrator is there to stay.

    I think there’s another bad side effect, one I’ve indulged in myself. When a pastor seems in great error, folks no longer bother to try to address it. They just wait it out, either by holding their noses and hanging around or by moving to another parish for the duration and then moving back when the pastor is gone. When a pastor has serious problems with a congregation, it needs to be well addressed (sometimes with correction to the pastor, sometimes with backing of the pastor when the congregation is in error), not just tolerated until the shift changes.

  17. Imrahil says:

    For what it is worth, I think the Sacrament of Holy Orders was meant to provide us with persons throw whom Christ the High Priest acts, in the first place; and it is also in this sense that the office of parish pastor was established. There undoubtedly are problems along the lines of “establishment of a personality cult” etc., but I think these have to be tolerated (and, needless to say, fought where particularly they do occur) for this higher good which. It is a good thing for the parish to be attached to its priest and vice versa.

    Occasion for sin? Yes; love itself is often an occasion for sin, yet I’m still among the romanticist who do believe that Loving One’s Neighbor, in the normal course of things, does have to do with the feelings colloquially known as love, friendship, affection and attachment. To enter an occasion of sin is itself a sin only under the circumstance that there is no justifying reason of appropriate importance for it.

    There is one argument for short terms: it is that the natural pastor is… the bishop. Priests are ordained to say Mass but only sent to administer to the flock; a bishop is ordained to administer to the flock (that’s why the episcopate is an Order of its own in the first place). But the wise tradition of the Church has seen for it that a priest, also, administers the flock (by being sent), i. e. takes his part in consecrating the Mystical Body which he also does with the Real Body; with the effect that the bishop can supervise him and remind him that he is a subordinate (and the bishop himself has the Pope above him, etc.).

    As the military has been mentioned – and sorry for the repetition of things said before – if the company chief is removed every two years, the first sergeant (who is not removed) will naturally come to think himself the one that really runs his company. That can, of course, be tolerated in the military; it must not happen when we are dealing with a priest pastor and a layman “first sergeant” (in whatever position he will appear).

  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    “One of the many good reasons a priest is celibate is that he has no natural family. He is free to move at any time wherever the pastoral need as determined by the bishop requires.”

    The same argument could be applied to any single, unmarried, non-vowed religious person (substituting God for Bishop). In fact, that is the only advantage I can see to being single without a community, be it family or a religious Order (I know a lot of single people who never married who wish they had). In a perfect world, where every priest were holy and orthodox, being appointed for life makes the most sense. While they do not have a natural family, the parish is their spiritual family, of which they are the head. Having the priest for six years is like having a foster father.

    The Chicken

  19. Whether a pastor allows inappropriate friendships or remains out-of-touch with souls, these are symptoms of the same problem: not knowing how to properly connect with the souls they are supposed to save.

    St John Bosco as a child was deeply affected by the clericalism of his day. As he tried to converse on the street with a priest once, the priest responded to John with the typical insolence and indifference that infected the clergy of that time. At that point St John resolved that if he ever became a priest he would work at connecting with people. He immediately recognized that to save souls, one had to be involved with souls, not hold them at arms length, or just talk ‘at’ them.

    Whether priests move around or stay, I frequently see them fall into exclusionary friendships of a small safe clique. I have been on a Pro-life bus to D.C. where both the priests plopped into their respective seats and never once addressed anyone, lead any prayers, or moved around and chatted. When they got off the bus, they raced to the speech platform, leaving a trail of desperate parishioners with small children and strollers far behind. I have witnessed a church picnic where the priests sit in one place with their little clique of friends [mostly from their previous parishes] and never walk around to greet and learn about the souls under their watch. I have seen the camaraderie of priests with the church secretaries and the guy that controls the building thermostats, while they get angry with the rest of the parish.
    Fortunately I have been privileged to have been deeply affected by a wonderful priest who seemed to want to know everyone. In the meet and greet line after Mass, he would fearlessly ask when you’d been to confession last or some question to gain insight on who you were. He was orthodox and a fiery preacher – he had his friends and family but it wasn’t obvious and exclusionary.
    Well, guess which kind of priest affected me the best? guess which one helped me see myself as the sinner I was? the angry / frightened exclusionary? or the devoted and friendly?
    You betcha I switched parishes when he left – attending his Masses gave me spiritual strength that I didn’t achieve through the other priests. Laziness and indifference overcame me when attending the less-loving ministrations, while daily rosaries and constant prayer, frequent confession grew in me with the more involved priests.
    You wanna know what God thinks of you? Look at how you treat others. Look at the love you demonstrate. There is no better gauge.
    To say that priests shouldn’t be attached to their parishioners, or see the laity as the enemy, is the same fallacy they teach in medical school today of remaining aloof so you can do your work.
    Those that properly connect and love are the ones that heal and save.

    So in answer to the question to this thread, which system allows priests to best connect with parishioners?

  20. Suburbanbanshee says:

    An order priest is much more like the military model above (unless he’s in an order with a stability vow, in which case he’s got his post to stay in forever, although his duties may change).

    A diocesan pastor is supposed to be a shepherd of souls with a permanent job taking care of specific souls. He’s the parish’s father until he dies, just as the diocesan bishop is supposed to usually be the diocese’s father until he dies. The pastor can really work on raising souls like a parent does, if he’s there for umpteen-many years instead of three or seven.

    Seven is the term around here for pastors, often renewed for fourteen, sometimes renewed for twenty-one; three is the associate pastor term. The most successful pastor I’ve known was one of the twenty-one year guys. So was the late pastor at my home parish, who was not anybody’s idea of a star or gladhander, but actually was a rock who out-stubborned a lot of bad changes that did bad stuff to surrounding parishes.

  21. mamajen says:

    My diocese does not do terms (that I know of), but my city has experienced a lot of upheaval over the past 10 years due to scandal, parish closings, petty politics, etc. I guess if the parish already knew that they would have their priest for a set period of time, it would be easier to bear, but when you’re not prepared it is very trying. In our diocese we have some priests who are very traditional and some who are the opposite. They are not interchangeable.

    I have seen what acardnal mentioned, as well–people following their favorite priest around to various parishes. This creates even more friction as they try to impose their ideals on a parish that they are new to, and the parishes (and ministries) they abandon struggle somewhat. I’m not sure whether term limits would help or hurt. I think 6 years is probably plenty of time to grow attached to a pastor. I do think it’s a bad thing for people to grow so attached to a particular pastor that they cannot travel and visit other parishes without being critical.

    If you have a great pastor, you want him to stay forever. If you’re stuck with a mediocre (or worse) pastor, term limits seem like a nice idea.

  22. frjim4321 says:

    Unlimited tenure here.

    However it’s probably not good for the pastor personally or the parish for a guy to stay in place 35 years.

    Speaking speculatively, with retirement at 75 I would probably think of applying for another pastorate around 63.

    Obviously it all depends on the configuration and needs of the diocese as assessed by the ordinary, and of course continued health, faculties and suitability for ministry.

  23. catholicmidwest says:

    6 years, 10 years, whatever seems to work best in a local area, yes. I have seen too many pastors set themselves up as the darlings of the local Catholic social set and then devolve into thinking that they own the place, lock stock and barrel. When this happens, they often become resistant to preaching the entire gospel, and favoritism and other things kick in. It’s been a problem here in several parishes that I personally have attended.

    There’s also the occasional problem of financial malfeasance, which frequent reassignment and the more honest audits that usually accompany it, mitigate. I’ve also personally experienced this problem in a parish too, unfortunately. It’s not all that uncommon.

  24. catholicmidwest says:

    BTW, I don’t really think that the 6-year thing is really practiced anyway, at least around here. Some priests move around a lot and some never move, depending on what the bishop thinks needs doing and this is probably what really needs to happen. The last 2 bishops have moved some priests around a lot, and this has probably helped the diocese, to their credit.

    I don’t think priests should be appointed for life because they then think they personally own the place, like a rich landlord or something, and can do whatever they want. Some of them do. On the other hand, a strict 6 year term? Why 6 years? The bishop needs to have the ability to move a priest when he needs moving and if that’s not on a timetable, oh well. It’s called good management.

  25. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Use of a set term does offer the bishop an easy out to deal with hard cases, as is the custom of contemporary society in too many areas. Since bishops move about so much, it seems less incongruous to those same bishops that pastors should move about similarly.

    At the same time, I know of at least five parishes now doing well that would likely be in really bad shape if they were still pastored by the same fellows who were there a dozen years ago. Would matters have come to a head at those parishes absent set terms? Maybe in one or two of those cases, but I’d be surprised if any bishop would have taken all of them on – let alone the likely other cases of which I’m not aware.

    Maybe the set term is a tool that can be used to good effect for a time and then laid aside as the biological solution takes care of the “spirit of VII” crowd and the influx of a new generation of holy priests improves the prospects of the Church as a whole.

  26. M. K. says:

    My home parish in had the same pastor for seventeen years – it was also a one-priest parish where the pastor put a stamp on just about everything. This was especially good for people like me who were growing up during that time because it ensured that we got a consistent (and solidly orthodox) religious formation from first communion through to confirmation and beyond; he also did a good job keeping in touch with kids from the parish once they left for college, which helped keep some in the faith who otherwise might have drifted away. Though there are pros and cons, on balance I think long-term tenure for pastors is better because it helps the pastor form deeper relationships with the parishioners which can bear great spiritual fruit.

    Another issue that’s relevant to all of this is how changing pastors can affect the liturgical life of the parish – sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. A couple of parishes in my home area gained Sunday or weekday TLMs after Summorum Pontificum but then lost them when the pastors who started them were transferred. In one of those parishes, the pastor who started the TLM also did a lot to improve the quality of the NO Masses (more traditional music, no altar girls or unneeded lay Eucharistic ministers, better vestments and by-the-book celebration, etc). Those gains were largely lost under the new pastor, who was doctrinally conservative but had a blasé, firmly low-church attitude toward the sacred liturgy.

  27. Lirioroja says:

    As pointed out by all the commenters, there are pros and cons to having term limits for pastors. In my part of the world there are term limits, 6 years that can be renewed once. After that it’s a mandatory move. The pastor of my parish will come to the end of his second 6 year term next year.

    It’s a constant topic of conversation amongst us as to what will happen after next year. Our pastor is a very good priest and a very well-known one. For better or for worse there is a cult of personality around him. Most of the parishioners do not live in the territory of our parish (including myself). In fact, many of them have followed him around to the various parishes he’s served over the course of his priesthood. When he came to our parish it was a progressive and dying place. He turned things around and now it’s an orthodox and vibrant parish. A not insignificant amount of diocesan seminarians in the past decade came from our parish. When he leaves, I know many parishioners will follow him to his new assignment. And those who remain are worried about who the bishop will put in his place.

    One the one hand not having term limits would be great in that we’d keep our beloved pastor and our parish can keep growing – producing vocations, properly catechizing the faithful, and being a light in the neighborhood. On the other hand it’s no secret that part of the reason for the parish’s growth is the pastor’s huge popularity and the resources that he has brought and have followed him there. This was not a grassroots renewal. In fact, many of the previous parishioners left because they didn’t like our pastor’s orthodoxy. When he is no longer pastor, either due to reassignment, retirement, or death, what will happen to the parish?

    For myself, I must decide if I will remain at the parish if he is no longer the pastor. I commute quite a ways to get there for Mass on Sundays. I’m not convinced that following him to his new assignment is the best idea, as much as I love him. Where will I go? The few times I visited my territorial parish I was beyond unimpressed. I know that parish will not be a suitable spiritual home for me. The other choices before me will also be a commute for me and they have their pros and cons as well. Part of it will depend on who the bishop appoints as the new pastor. Until then we’re all playing a wait-and-see game.

    I do lean on the side of term limits because they limit the effects of personality cults on a particular parish. It’s important for Catholics to understand that the Church is more than the priest who serves them or the building they worship in. But as someone who hates change and hates moving, I can see the appeal of life-long appointments.

  28. jflare says:

    I could write volumes on this subject, based in no small part on my own experience both as a (former) military officer AND as a layman.
    If the Church truly MUST exercise a limit of a priest’s term at a parish, it would be best for a pastor to have an extended period of time AS PASTOR of a parish, say up to 10 to 15 years. An associate might well be able to move considerably more frequently.
    I think 10 years might be the best precisely because..especially if a parish needs a great deal of work to “get back in shape”, it likely will take at LEAST that long for the faith to begin to be revitalized.

    Someone commented that military personnel routinely expect to move around quite a lot. That’s true, both for good and for ill. If you wind up in a unit that needs a major overhaul, you know you’ll be gone in a few years and simply need to do what you can to survive. It also means that any intentions you might have at solving the unit’s problems will be immensely compromised by a particular limit of time.

    I would comment too that “short” tours for pastors might have unintended consequences for the parish: If a pastor has come within two years or so of the end of his typical “term”, various members of the parish may be reluctant to be involved in any major project; they’ll want to know what they can expect in two years when another pastor likely will assume the reins.
    As another person has hinted, if a family–or person–has FINALLY found a parish that works because of the pastor’s “by the book” approach, that same family may actually be dissauded from committing to the parish precisely because the next pastor may be..less interested in orthodoxy.

  29. Tim Ferguson says:

    Those who argue for the “term of office” approach seem to believe that the alternative is a priest staying stuck in a rut, or a parish being saddled with a bad priest ad infinitum. That’s simply not the case – the law, as Fr. Z points out, has a mechanism already there for the removal and transfer of a priest. The difference between the two situations is that, when a priest is appointed for an indefinite period of time, as the law clearly prefers, the decision about whether or not he should stay or go is in the hands of the bishop (who has oversight over the parish and the people) and the priest himself. If the priest thinks it’s time for him to move on, he can resign his pastorate – It’s not intended to be a life sentence. If the bishop thinks it’s time for the priest to move on he can first encourage the priest to resign, or, if the priest resists, begin the process of removal or transfer.

    It might get uncomfortable for the bishop if the priest or the parish resists, and no one likes conflict, but Christians sometimes need to “man up” and face conflict with fortitude (perhaps, instead of starting a social justic committee, the parish could start a social fortitude committee!).

  30. johnmann says:

    If term renewal is the norm, priests and parish will act accordingly so you can have stability. There’s the additional pro that a term approach can cause a priest to step up instead of lay back like tenured professors.

  31. I went from a diocese with life terms to one with six-year terms. I think terms not only create the impression among the laity that the priest is not really in charge, but it also encourages priests to think of their vocation as just another job.

    I can’t help making a connection between fatherless families and priests on terms. More and more children are born out of wedlock, and the lives of these kids are just houses of cards. Their real fathers are in the wind, they often live in poverty, and they grow up with a succession of males in the house who have no stake in their well-being. They have no stability and no security, are at risk for abuse, and many of them grow up to lead the same kind of domestic life in between jail terms. The analogy is not exact, but stability and security are also compromised in a parish without a father. It leads to spiritual poverty, and spiritual poverty leads to an increase in sin. And it can’t be good for the priests, either, to lack stability and be treated like stepdads. Priest are fathers, and fatherhood is for life.

  32. Catholictothecore says:

    Unlimited tenure for our pastors but 3 years for the associate/assistant priest. This arrangement works quite well – you have the pastor as a mainstay who runs the show and thus ensures continuity of the way things are done in the parish. The assistant is usually a newly ordained priest or someone with less than 10 years experience. They learn the ropes and then move on to their next assignment. That’s how it is in the current parish I’m in but the one where I go for daily Mass has a completely different setup – retired or near retirement priests.

  33. priests wife says:

    as most things, this should be answered on a case by case basis. My husband has been with our mission for ten years- he hopes to get a priest from the old country to replace him so he can move on. In the old country, Byzantine and Orthodox priests are usually there on a very long-term basis

    about 6 year terms- this is much too short (unless the fit is extremely bad which will be clear before a year is out)- our bishop advises “don’t even move a candle for the first year.” This doesn’t leave the pastor much time to pastor his flock

  34. catholicmidwest says:

    There’s also the interesting case of the “specialist priest.” I imagine that any diocese of any size probably has one. Ours was an old priest who could clean up the financial messes in a parish in an crazy short period of time. He was a sweet, soft-tempered holy old guy, prudent and thrifty, and he could get the books cleaned up and a new roof on the Church in a flash. On the other hand, his homilies were atrocious. :D But he was so nice. He moved a lot too, every couple of years. Fr. Fixit to the rescue.

  35. @Miss Anita: very accurate description with which I cannot disagree.

  36. Leonius says:

    Having a parish priest leave after 6 years is damaging to the parish family in the same it would be damaging to have a father leave his wife and children and be replaced by a step father after 6 years of marriage.

    No good comes of either one unless the father happens to be irredeemably evil, and even then it would be a case of damage limitation rather than the ideal that should be the norm.

  37. Cathy says:

    To be honest, I like the proposal of having a pastor with an unlimited term. I didn’t choose my parents, God chose them for me. The mere fact that a pastor has term limits seems to run counter to the thought that he has an actual responsibility for the salvation of his children, and, likewise, they have a responsibility towards him. He may even decide he liked his former children and his former parish better. Being a part of a family is humbling. Seeing a parent fall, then rise again with a renewed vigor to be a better spouse/parent is humbling. Same thing in regards to children. Maybe I’m just too ordinary, but too often, if you believe your pastor is failing, or if your pastor does not particularly love his flock, it is too easy to simply look forward to the end of his term as opposed to praying for him and making sacrifices for his salvation.

  38. dcs says:

    Our parish priest just mentioned something like this on Sunday. Our parish was founded in 2000 and at the time there were just a few older men in the parish who knew how to serve the Mass (TLM). One boy volunteered to learn how to serve, and brought his brothers in too, as well as some boys from another family. Fast forward 12 years, and the youngest of those boys just left to join the Marines. Fr. mentioned that this was the first time he had been at a parish long enough to see the baton passed to the next generation of altar boys.

  39. How about this, if a parish doesn’t say the black, do the red, no lifetime pastor?

  40. Jack Hughes says:

    As far as I’m concerned once a Priest has been assigned to a Parish (after his curatcy) there are only 4 reasons why he should be moved (a) he does something monumentually stupid e.g. have an affair with a Parishinor (b) is Laicized for whatever reason (c) is kicked upstairs to the Episcopate or (d) is found dead on monday morning having had a heart attack in his sleep

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  42. Roger Conley says:

    I think that one of the signs that the post-Vatican II crisis of faith in the leadership of the Church is finally over will be when we hear no more about terms for pastors.