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What is the history of periodically transferring parish priests?

St. John Vianney was the curé (parish priest) of Ars until his death (18th cen.). Even today, priests in some rural parts of Mexico stay at their same parishes their entire lives. Yet, in the U.S. it is common practice to transfer priests every (approx.) 4 to 7 years or so.

When did this practice begin? Why was it instituted?

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  • I believe this is a post-conciliar practice, but I need to do a little more research before adding an answer.
    – jaredad7
    Mar 9, 2023 at 15:35

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According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law

Can. 522 A pastor must possess stability and therefore is to be appointed for an indefinite period of time. The diocesan bishop can appoint him only for a specific period if the conference of bishops has permitted this by a decree.

Now, the USCCB did in fact promulgate such a decree on September 24th, 1984. It is my understanding that it would have been illegal for a United States bishop to appoint a priest as a pastor for a term, rather than indefinitely, before the promulgation of this decree. According to this decree, bishops in the United States may appoint a priest to the position of pastor for a 6 year term, which can be renewed.

The 1917 Code of Canon Law, which the 1983 version replaced, does not permit bishops' conferences to overrule the corresponding canon with a decree, instead saying in canon 454

§ 1. Those who are placed in parochial administration as proper rectors should be in it with stability; but this does not prevent, nevertheless, that all of them could be removed from it according to the norm of law.

§ 2. But not all pastors obtain stability; those who enjoy more [are] irremovable; those [who enjoy] less are usually called removable.

§ 3. Irremovable parishes cannot be turned into removable ones without apostolic pleasure; removable ones can be declared irremovable by the Bishop, but not by a Vicar Capitulary, with the advice of the cathedral Chapter; new ones erected are irremovable, unless the Bishop, in his prudent judgment, attentive to the particular circumstances of places and persons, having heard the Chapter, decrees that removable is more expedient.

§ 4. Quasi-parishes are all removable.

§ 5. But pastors belonging to a religious family are always, by reason of person, removable at the discretion of the local Ordinary, the Superior having been advised, or, with equal right, by the Superior, having advised the Ordinary, and not requiring the consent of the other: and in neither case need the cause of this judgment be explained, and even less does it have to be proved, with due regard for recourse in devolution to the Apostolic See.

Therefore, the practice of appointing priests to be parish pastors for set terms rather than indefinite periods (and thus of periodically moving them) arose in America in the 1980s, when the USCCB permitted the practice under the provision in the new Code of Canon Law. Prior to this, at least as far back as 1917, but probably in older versions of Canon Law as well, pastors were not regularly transferred.

Since this is a very new innovation, I think that it is up for legitimate critique by members of the Church. It is clearly a kind of experimentation with diocesan governance. The priests I have spoken to about it say that it was implemented out of a desire that the pastor not get too attached to the parish and not begin to have the attitude that it is "his" parish. Experientially, they seemed not to be big fans of the requirement. Personally, I also think that it is a bad rule. Pastors are supposed to be spiritual fathers to the community they serve. We don't rotate familial fathers on a 6-year term basis, why would we rotate spiritual fathers?

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