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Parish Priest

All dioceses are divided into parishes and where this has been done the pastors have become parish priests. Those who rule quasi-parishes and parochial vicars enjoying full parochial powers are included under the title parish priest in canon law and have the rights and duties of parish priests. A parish priest is bound to reside in the parochial house near his own church; however, the local ordinary may, when there is a just cause, allow him to reside elsewhere, provided the house is not so far from the church as to interfere with the proper discharge of his parochial duties.

Among the duties which a parish priest must be most careful to fulfill are saying Mass and administering the sacraments, visiting and comforting the sick and dying, preparing children and others for first confession, Holy Communion and confirmation, preaching on Sundays and feasts of precept, explaining the catechism to adults in Sunday sermons, and keeping the church clean and free from unbecoming proceedings, such as sales for pious purposes. If he is gravely careless in these matters the bishop should call his attention to his fault; if he does not amend the bishop is to admonish him and punish him.

If the parish priest was undoubtedly the admitted center of life in the district, the father of his people and the pastor of his flock, neither on his part nor on that of the parishioners was there any mistake about the rights and duties of the people to the parish church and towards parish matters generally. Within well-defined limits, the parish, which included both parson and people, managed its own affairs. Every adult of both sexes had a voice in this self-government, and in pre-Reformation days a wise freedom in the management of the fabric of the church and its accessories seemed to have been left to the parish by the diocesan authorities.


The Rector or Parson was appointed to his benefice by the patron of the living, with the approval of the bishop, by whose order he was also inducted or instituted. The bishop was bound to satisfy himself that the priest presented to fill the rectory had the necessary qualities of a good pastor of souls. The benefice after his induction became the rector's freehold. The position of a rector differed legally from that of a vicar, inasmuch as he could sue and be sued for the property or benefice he held. A rector is a priest in charge of a church that is neither parochial, nor capitular, nor annexed to the house of a religious community which holds its services there. Rectors are usually appointed by the local ordinary; in other cases they require his approbation; for instance, where there is a right of election or presentation, or where the church is under the control of an exempt religious order or congregation; in all cases they may be removed by him at will for just cause. As a rule the superior of a seminary or college directed by clerics is rector of the annexed church.

Rectors must refrain from acting as parish priests; they may, however, be ordered by the local ordinary to say Mass at a convenient hour, to announce the feasts and fasts, and to explain the Gospel and the catechism, if the parish church is so far away that parishioners cannot attend it without great inconvenience. The tithes payable to the rector of a parish frequently brought in a considerable sum of money. On the other hand, there were many and constant claims made upon the revenues of the parochial church. If a rector was for some reason or other nonresident, by law his charity or "hospitality" had to be administered either by the curate who served the church, or by a resident proctor appointed for the purpose.


The Vicar in many ways had the same work and responsibility as a rector in regard to all parochial duties. He was legally, however, as the word implies, one who took the place, or was the deputy of the rector. Although a rector, actually in possession of a parish and engaged in working it, could with permission and for adequate reasons appoint a vicar as locum tenens, in England almost universally by a "vicar" was meant the priest appointed to work a parish in the case of an impropriated living. The appointed vicar had his portion of tithe, the oblations made to the church he served, and a pension settled by the episcopal authority. These, at any rate, with the rest of the income, afforded adequate support, with, in addition, sufficient to enable him to do the repairs of the chancel, which, in the case of the rectorial benefice, were incumbent on the parson.

There are five classes of parochial vicars or priests who act for a parish priest in the cure of souls, namely, the perpetual vicar, the vicar oeconomus, the vicar substitute, the vicar assistant and the vicar co-operator. When a parish has been fully (pleno jure) united to a religious house, a capitular church or other moral person, a perpetual vicar should be appointed for the actual cure of souls, and should receive suitable compensation. Except when there is a legitimate privilege or custom to the contrary, he should be presented by the religious superior, the chapter, or the moral person as the case calls for, and be instituted by the local ordinary if found fitted by him. Whether he is a secular or religious his rights and duties while holding office are the same as those of a parish priest, and he can be removed only under like conditions.

As soon as a parish becomes vacant, a vicar ceconomus should be appointed by the local ordinary with a suitable salary. Before his appointment, the government of the parish, if no other provision has been made, is to be taken over by the vicar co-operator, or if there are several, by the one who has held office longest; if there is no vicar, one of the neighboring parish priests takes charge, the ordinary having decided beforehand which of them should do so; if the parish is under the care of a religious, his local superior should act. Those who are thus empowered to take charge must notify the local ordinary as soon as the vacancy occurs. A vicar orconomus has the same rights and duties as a parish priest in the cure of souls, but he may not act to the detriment of the rights of the parish priest or of the parochial benefice. On the termination of his office an ceconomus must, in presence of the vica-forane or other priest named by the ordinary, hand over to the new parish priest or to a succeeding oconomus the key of the archives and an inventory of the books, documents and other things belonging to the parish, and must give an accounting of the receipts and expenses during his administration.


Next in importance among the parochial clergy come the assistant priests, known as Curates (curati), or those entrusted with the cure of souls. Vicar co-operators are usually known in English speaking countries as curates. They were also occasionally called vicars, in the sense of taking the place of the rector, etc... The word curate is ambiguous. Sometimes it expresses the person, whether priest or deacon, who officiates under the rector or vicar, employed by him as his assistant, or to supply his place in his absence: sometimes the person officiating in general, whether he be rector, vicar, or assistant curate, or whoever may perform the service for that time : sometimes exclusively the rector, vicar, or person beneficed, who has curam animarum, as in the rubric in the Ordination Service, where it is stated to be the office of the deacon to inform the curate respecting the sick poor, and impotent people of the parish.

Curates are called in canon law vice curati, or capeliani, who "administer the sacraments, not in their own name, but in the name of another" - that is, in the name of the rector or perpetual vicar. The vicar proper, if he found it necessary, had to provide help in the way of a curate. In this there was no distinction between a rector and a vicar; and it is obvious that, where this was required, provision for it had been made in the arrangement which had been come to in the first instance between the impropriators and the bishop ; or that arrangement had subsequently been modified to enable the vicar to meet the expense of extra help. Every curate by law was to receive from the rector or vicar who employed him a fixed and sufficient salary, and all manner of bargains as to payment or contracting out of obligations were prohibited.

Chantry Priest

Next in order of importance among the priests of a mediaeval parish come the clergymen serving any chantry attached to the church. These chantry chapels were, as is well known, very numerous in pre-Reformation days, particularly in towns ; but it has hitherto not been sufficiently recognised that the priests serving them in any way helped in parochial work. This is simply because the purpose, for which those adjuncts to parish churches existed, has not been understood. Speaking broadly, the chantry priest was an assistant priest of the parish, or, as we should nowadays say, curate of the /parish, who was supported by the foundation fund of the benefactors for that purpose, and indeed not unfrequently even by the contributions of the inhabitants. For the most part their raison d'etre was to look after the poor of the parish, to visit the sick, and to assist in the functions of the parish church. Moreover, connected with these chantries were very commonly what were called " obits." These were not, as we have been asked to believe, mere money payments to the priest for some anniversary services ; but they were for the most part money left quite as much for annual alms to the poor, as for the celebration of any anniversary offices.

Stipendiary Priest

The Stipendiary priest differed in little from the curate, except that he was engaged and paid for some special service and not for the general purposes of a parish like a curate. The stipendiaries lived upon the stipend paid them for their service, and had no fixed title or claim upon the church where they offer up their Mass, except that they are paid for doing so for a year or other fixed time. They had no claim whatever to fees or oblations, and indeed, they were prohibited from receiving them. Like all other priests dwelling within the bounds of a parish, Stipendiaries were bound to attend in the choir of the parochial church in surplice at Matins, High Mass, Vespers, and at all other public Divine service. They were to be ready to read the lessons, sing in the psalms and other chants, or take any other part, according to the disposition of the rector or vicar. Some entries in the Chantry certificates show that this duty was understood and fulfilled to the end. At Costessy, in Norfolk, to take but one example, a stipendiary priest was paid 6 by King's College, Cambridge, to offer Mass in a Free chapel, for the convenience of the people at a distance, and the certificate adds, "and the said priest hath always used to help the curate sing divine service upon holy day in the parish church."


Chaplain was a name given apparently to two sets of 'priests. The priest employed, by a nobleman or other person of distinction, to say Mass in a private chapel, and the priest who served a chapel of ease, established for the convenience of the people in a much extended parish, were both designated chaplains. Of the first, it is only necessary to say, that so far at the parish was concerned, it could claim the presence and help of even all private chaplains at the ordinary services of the church.

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