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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey


Rev. Frank MorriseyCanon law uses the word ‘pastor’ to denote various levels of pastoral care

When referring to the pastoral roles of bishops and parish priests, we could note first of all that the code uses the term “pastor” in a very general sense. The word applies to any person to whom the pastoral care of others has been entrusted. It follows then that the first pastor is the pope. Logically, bishops and parish priests also share in this office. So, when reading a canon, it is important to note which level of pastoral care is being described.

Most of the pastoral canons of the current code are structured around the threefold office of Christ — priest, prophet, and king. These dimensions of Christ’s presence in the church are usually translated in legal term as the functions of teaching, sanctifying, and governing (or serving).

As canon 528.1 tells us, when speaking of the parish priest, the teaching or prophetic office of the church consists above all in proclaiming the Word of God in its entirety to those entrusted to a bishop’s or parish priest’s pastoral care. This implies teaching the faithful in the truths of the faith, especially through well-prepared homilies and catechetical instruction.

It also implies imparting the spirit of the Gospel, including its relevance to social justice. Pastors at all levels are to have special care for the Catholic education of children and young people. Another dimension of this mission is to bring the gospel message to those who have given up religious practice, or who do not profess the Catholic faith.

The priestly office of Christ is described in canon 528.2. The principal focus of this mission is to make the eucharist the centre of the assembly of the faithful. We are a eucharistic and evangelical community, not one that is withdrawn from the world. It follows that the faithful are to be nourished by the devout celebration of the sacraments, and more particularly by the eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation. They are to be encouraged to take an active part in the liturgy.

Another dimension of the church’s sanctifying office is the promotion of personal prayer, as well as prayer in the families.

The canonical norms relating to the office of governing are more detailed. Some of them are found in canon 529, which is one of the lengthier canons in the code. The first duty of a pastor is to come to know the faithful entrusted to his care. Philosophy tells us that you cannot love what you do not know! This implies visitation of families, although this can, at times, be quite difficult in urban settings today.

A good pastor would share in the cares, anxieties and concerns of the faithful, comforting them in the Lord. There is also an element of correction to be applied when necessary. However, as Pope Francis has recalled on so many occasions, this must be done in a merciful manner.

Today, there is also a special dimension to be added to the service role of pastors: care for the poor, the suffering, the lonely, those exiled from their homeland, and those burdened with special difficulties. Given the turmoil in today’s world, and the increasing number of refugees worldwide, this human tragedy has now become a particular focus of the church’s pastoral care.

The way in which it is offered will vary according to circumstances, but following upon Pope Francis’ Apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, this takes on great urgency today.

Another dimension of the office of serving is to develop in the minds of the faithful a particular concern for the entire church, and not just for one’s particular parish or diocese. This is where the term “catholic” (universal) applies.

In addition to these general governance duties, the code, in various canons, adds other ones which are particular to the diocesan bishop. One of these is the obligation of visiting each of the parishes of the diocese. Among others, the purposes of the visitation are to foster the common discipline of the church, see to the observance of ecclesiastical laws, eliminating abuses were such to occur, particularly in the area of the administration of temporal goods (see also canon 392).

A further special responsibility of the diocesan bishop is to show concern for his priests, defending their rights and ensuring that they fulfil the obligations proper to their state. To do so, he is to ensure that the clergy have available means to develop their spiritual and intellectual life and also that other needs are duly provided for.

Looking at all of these responsibilities, it soon becomes obvious that it would be almost impossible for a bishop or a parish priest to carry out these duties all alone. For this reason, they call on other members of the faithful to ensure that the faith is taught, sanctification is offered, and appropriate pastoral services are available.

This is one of special challenges today: for all Catholics to work together to bring to fulfilment in our world the threefold mission of Christ — to teach, sanctify and serve.

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 33rd article in a series.