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New priestly assignments: an intricate process

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28: 19-20). These are the closing words of Jesus to his disciples prior to his Ascension into heaven, the great commissioning to go out and proclaim the Good News.

Jesus is still with his Church today as we bring the Gospel to the world! Each year at this time, pastors, parochial vicars and newly ordained priests receive their assignments that tell them where their mission field is. I am deeply grateful to all of our priests, who continue to fulfill the command of Jesus to bring others to him, to teach and to preach, and to celebrate the sacraments, most especially the Eucharist. Our priests tirelessly carry the Gospel throughout the vast expanse of our Archdiocese, which covers 39,000 square miles stretching from Rangeley on the Utah border to Julesburg on the Nebraska border. Altogether, our 149 locations include 124 parishes, 19 mission churches and 6 station churches.

As is evident, the archdiocese is vast, with many places that need the service of our priests, which makes the task of discerning how to serve the nearly 600,000 Catholics in our territory a complicated one. Since the announcement of the new assignments always brings letters to my office complaining about a priest being moved or others thanking me for moving the very same priest, I would like to explain what guides the changes and the many factors that are considered.

When a man is ordained a priest, his mission is to serve in the entire archdiocese, whether it be on the Western Slope, on the Eastern Plains, or along the I-25 corridor that ranges from County Line Road to the Wyoming border. The mission is the same for every priest: to bring others to encounter Jesus Christ, to be a shepherd after the heart of Christ, to love and walk with the people he serves as Christ in their midst. His mission is one of service on behalf of Christ and the local Church. And certainly, if a man has the heart of Christ and loves with Jesus’ love, there will always be sadness when he is moved to another parish, both on the priest’s part and that of the faithful. Yet one knows one’s mission is to serve where one is called to go, and it is important for the faithful to always welcome a new priest coming to their parish.

Parochial Vicars are assigned for a 2-3-year period to a parish to gain experience ministering in a parish setting. They are moved more frequently than pastors so they can have a variety of experiences. Pastors are assigned for a 6-year term, with a usual maximum of two terms in one parish. In some very rare cases, a pastor might be given a third 6-year term. All the faithful should be aware that when a pastor completes a 6-year term, he could be moved, and when a 12 or 18-year term is complete, it is most likely that he will have a new assignment. There are also times when a priest can be moved quickly to respond to a great need in a parish. I was moved from my first assignment to my second assignment with only a few weeks’ notice by the archbishop at that time.

The assignment of priests is not done lightly and is made in consultation with the personnel board, which presently consists of 13 priests who are the deans of their region (deanery), the Vicar General, the Vicar for Clergy, the Judicial Vicar, Bishop Rodriguez, and me. We begin to reflect on the assignments in the Fall of each year and try to complete them by the end of March. Sometimes a priest might request to be moved — even before his term is done — if he believes he has given all he can to a particular parish or if a need arises for his gifts and talents in another parish. Other factors involved in determining assignments are the size of the parish, whether a school is present, what ministries are operating, and what type of pastor or parochial vicar they need.

Most years we also have priests who retire from active ministry, and that means we need to find a priest to serve full-time in their place. It is true that we are blessed with a healthy number of vocations to the priesthood in our archdiocese, but our current numbers only keep pace with the number of priests who retire.

In closing, I encourage the faithful of the archdiocese to thank their priests who will be moving this year and to receive their new priests with open hearts. Hopefully, this column has helped you understand the mission of our priests, the geographical challenges of our territory, and the prayerful process behind each priestly assignment. May we all continue to pray for our priests, that they may have the heart of Christ the Good Shepherd, and for vocations, following the command of Jesus. “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Luke 10:2).

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).
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