Skip to main content

How to Cover the Catholic Church

The Structure of the Local Church

Excerpted from How to Cover the Catholic Church by Jerry Filteau with Benedicta Cipolla. A resource of the Office of Public Affairs, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Copyright © 2008, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright holder. Used with permission.

  • Dioceses and Archdioceses

    In their internal operation, dioceses and archdioceses are virtually alike. But an archbishop, head of an archdiocese, has additional responsibilities because he is also head of an ecclesiastical province. The province comprises the archdiocese and the dioceses under it. In a province, the archdiocese is referred to as the metropolitan see and the dioceses are suffragan sees.

    The diocese is headed by a bishop or, when one bishop has died or retired and his successor has not yet been installed, by an administrator. Theologically, for Catholics the bishop is a successor of the first apostles, the chief teacher and guardian of faith and morals for the people entrusted to him. He has the duty of ministering to his people, leading them to holiness by his own example, by teaching and preaching, and by administering the sacraments.

  • Central Offices

    The central offices of a diocese—called by a variety of names such as chancery, Catholic center, pastoral center—are usually located in the see city, the city after which the diocese is named. But there are exceptions. For example, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s Catholic center is located in Albuquerque, N.M.; the chancery office of the Diocese of Baker, Ore., is located in Bend.

    The way diocesan offices are structured varies widely from one diocese to the next. But there are some offices every diocese must have by church law, such that vicar general, chancellor, finance office and a tribunal; and there are some offices that virtually every diocese needs as a practical matter, such as offices for Catholic schools, religious education or catechetics, Catholic Charities or social services, and liturgy or worship.

  • Bishop

    The bishop who heads a diocese is called the diocesan bishop. He is the chief legislator, executive and judge in the diocese. He alone can legislate. He can exercise executive power personally or through vicars general or episcopal vicars. He can exercise judicial power personally or through a judicial vicar and judges.

    If the diocesan bishop has other bishops assisting him, they are called auxiliary bishops. In some circumstances, especially if he has health problems that limit his ministry or if he is nearing retirement, a diocesan bishop may ask for a coadjutor. A coadjutor bishop has right of succession; that is, upon the death or retirement of the diocesan bishop, the coadjutor immediately becomes the new diocesan bishop. Auxiliary bishops do not have the right of succession.

    Auxiliary bishops always have the title of bishop—Auxiliary Bishop John Smith, Bishop Smith—whether they serve in a diocese or archdiocese. When a coadjutor is appointed to an archdiocese, however, he has the title of arch-bishop: Coadjutor Archbishop John Smith, Archbishop Smith.

  • Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar

    The bishop’s chief administrative aide, the vicar general must be a priest or bishop, ordinarily with a licentiate or doctorate in canon law or theology. Small dioceses typically have only one, but larger dioceses may have several. A vicar general has the same ordinary executive powers over the whole diocese as the diocesan bishop, with the exception of those powers the bishop has reserved to himself and those reserved to the bishop alone by church law.

    Ordinarily the priest or bishop designated as moderator of the curia is also a vicar general. If there is a coadjutor bishop, church law says he is to be made a vicar general. If there is an auxiliary bishop, he is to be made a vicar general.

    If there are several auxiliaries, as there typically are in very large dioceses or archdioceses like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, those auxiliaries not designated as vicars general are to be made episcopal vicars. Priests may also be named episcopal vicars. Within the geographic area or type of affairs entrusted to him, an episcopal vicar has the same executive powers that a vicar general has over the whole diocese. Often episcopal vicars are responsible for a particular geographic region of the diocese.

  • Chancellor

    The chancellor is the official keeper of the diocesan records and archives and is the diocesan notary. He or she is responsible for recording all official diocesan actions and overseeing parish record keeping. Once only priests could be chancellors, but under the new Code of Canon Law adopted in 1983, ordination is no longer a prerequisite. Since then a number of women have become chancellors in U.S. dioceses; it is the highest-ranking diocesan position open to women

  • Judicial Vicar and Tribunal Officials

    Although the diocesan bishop is the chief local ecclesiastical judge in church law, he can and ordinarily does delegate that responsibility to a judicial vicar and to judges who sit on the diocesan tribunal, or court. The judicial vicar oversees the activities of the court and is one of its judges. Most court cases in a diocese concern petitions by civilly divorced Catholics to have their former marriage declared null—commonly called an annulment.

    Sometimes the diocesan courts are referred to as marriage tribunals. This term is technically inaccurate since they do have jurisdiction over other cases as well, but it is fairly accurate as an empirical description of what most of these courts actually do most of the time.

    The judicial vicar must be a priest. Although some other judges on the tribunal need not be ordained, on any three-judge panel (the normal number to hear any case) at least two must be priests. Apart from judges, other key tribunal officials include the defender of the bond—in essence the church attorney charged with advocating for the validity of a marriage against any claim that it was not valid—and the advocate for the person claiming a previous marriage was null. Judges must have graduate degrees in canon law.

  • Presbyteral Council and College of Consultors

    Each diocese has a priests’ council—called a presbyteral council in church law—which serves as a consultative body to the bishop. About half the priests on the council are elected by their fellow priests. In addition, some priests, such as certain diocesan officials, may belong to the council automatically, and some may be appointed by the bishop. The statutes of the council determine whether or to what extent priests in religious orders residing in the diocese are also represented. From among the members of the priests’ council the bishop selects six to 12 priests to serve as the diocesan college of consultors. When the diocesan bishop dies, retires or is transferred, if there is no auxiliary bishop, the college of consultors is responsible for the governance of the diocese and elects a diocesan administrator from among the priests of the diocese. On certain matters the administrator must consult with the college. The priests’ council is automatically dissolved when a diocese is vacant, but the college of consultors is not.

  • Pastoral Council

    A consultative body to the bishop, a diocesan pastoral council is made up mainly of laypeople but typically includes representatives of the diocese’s clergy and religious as well. Church law says it is to be convened at least once a year. It is automatically dissolved when the diocese is vacant.

  • Parishes

    The priest who heads a parish is its pastor and is appointed by the diocesan bishop. Sometimes between pastors a parish may be headed temporarily by an administrator, also appointed by the bishop. In dioceses where there are insufficient priests to have a resident pastor in every parish, some parishes may be administered by a deacon, sister, brother or layperson. In such cases a priest who resides elsewhere must be named the canonical pastor. The canonical pastor ordinarily provides sacramental ministry to the community. If someone who is not a priest is appointed to coordinate other parish activities, he or she may be in charge of a wide range of things such as adult and child religious education and formation, sacramental preparation, coordination of music ministry and other liturgical ministries, oversight of social and other outreach ministries, and worship services such as the Liturgy of the Hours or a Liturgy of the Word on weekdays or on Sunday when there is no priest available to celebrate Mass.

    Parishes without resident priests have become more common in recent years in town-and-country America, especially rural or semi-rural dioceses in the Middle West and Upper Midwest, where previously there were many parishes with only one priest and where now a lack of priests leads to parishes being served sacramentally by a nonresident priest.

    On the opposite end of the parish spectrum are many urban, suburban and exurban parishes—especially in the East and in larger metropolitan areas across the country—where parish size and diversity has led to multiple ministries, many led by lay ecclesial ministers. Those parishes may include priests who are associate pastors, also sometimes called parochial vicars. They may also have lay pastoral associates, religious education coordinators, parochial elementary or high school principals, teachers, youth ministers, liturgy coordinators, music coordinators, office managers and a variety of other people working in paid positions full-time or part-time.

    In addition to paid staff, Catholic parishes large and small have numerous volunteers—parishioners involved in social ministries, catechists, leaders of Bible study or prayer groups, youth ministers, people who visit the sick or homebound, and so on. For Mass and other liturgical services, volunteers may include altar servers, musicians, choir members, readers, ushers or greeters, extraordinary ministers of Communion, and others.

FaLang translation system by Faboba