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Q&A: How does the priest assignment process work?

Every year, the Archdiocese of Denver releases their much-anticipated priest assignments. (In case you missed them, here are the latest!) For priests, being re-assigned to different parishes is standard practice and is among the vows of obedience they took at their ordination. For parishioners, however, it can be an occasion for much consternation.

Even so, as with everything in the Church, there are good and just reasons why priests are reassigned to different parishes after serving for certain time periods. Father Angel Perez-Lopez serves as the Vicar for Clergy for the Archdiocese of Denver, and his office oversees and consults on the priest reassignment process, with final decisions reserved for Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. 

We sat down with Father Perez-Lopez to ask some of the burning questions you likely have about priest assignments, and hopefully, bring more clarity to the oft-misunderstood process. 

Denver Catholic: Why does the Church deem it prudent to reassign priests to different parishes after a certain time period? 

Father Angel Perez-Lopez: The Church makes a distinction in the different kinds of assignments that there are. There is a stability that is wanted for pastors and Church law provides such provisions. In the particular law of the Archdiocese of Denver, we assign pastors for a period of six years to give stability. Usually, we are in the custom of renewing them for a second term, so a total of 12 years. A pastor could renew for an additional third term, in some special circumstances. 

A very different situation is that of the parochial vicar.  His assignment is ad nutum archiepisopi, which means at the nod of the bishop. He could change from one year to another. We still try as much as we can to give three-year assignments to parochial vicars. But you can see the difference. We need to remember that the formation of a priest is ongoing. It does not end with ordination. In the first years of priesthood — three, four, five years — we learn how to become pastors. And the best way we learn is with a good pastor, working in collaboration with him. That’s why there are different time limits for these assignments.  

There are other assignments which are very important, too, like seminary. Not too long ago, some people were complaining to my office because their priest was so good; how could Archbishop have put him in the seminary? And my answer was, well, so that we have more like him. The Popes have always taught that a bishop wants his best priests as seminary formators, because that is one way of reproducing those same virtues, gifts, talents, zeal, enthusiasm, etc. Hence, seminary positions are also very key. They are usually ad nutum also, but we envision them for a long term, almost like a pastor in a way, because of that long term influence. 

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DC: What are the factors that go into determining priest assignments? 

Father Perez-Lopez: Let’s be very clear: it is the archbishop, who makes the assignments. My office facilitates a consultative process which has different layers. There is an internal layer that is called the Deans’ Board. The whole archdiocese is divided into deaneries. The dean is a vicar of the bishop in that region. And in their region, he is supposed to be like an older brother to his brother priests. He ensures also their spiritual welfare. Deans are, in a way, an extension of the bishop and also of my own office, to reach out to all the priests. They are the ones who visit parishes in their deanery. At least once a year, they have deep conversations with other priests in their area about their assignments, whether it’s working, what are the difficulties, challenges, etc. And all the deans meet monthly with the archbishop and the auxiliary bishop, the vicar general, and the vicar for clergy. I orchestrate a little bit the logistics of these meetings. Then, there is another consultative body, which is made by the Episcopal vicars and by the auxiliary bishop. And we also meet, more or less monthly, about personnel matters. So, these two entities are, at the end of the day, what archbishop consults in terms of priest assignments

We also are making a huge effort to get to know very well our priests and to know where they are at and any difficulties they may be facing. In my first year as Vicar for Clergy, I visited with all the priests of the archdiocese individually. If they were outside the metro area, I would drive to their parish, in an effort to better know their location and to see if their assignment is a good fit. Moreover, priests are also welcome to speak with me and give me feedback about their successes and difficulties. 

Together with these different approaches to know well our priests and parishes, there is also a practice that starts at the end of the summer, in which we begin looking at who is retiring, which pastors are finishing their second term, which are the parochial vicars, who have been more than three years in their assignment, which pastors would like to renew for a second term, who is going to be ordained, etc.  

DC: So, it sounds like the priests, while they don’t get to decide their assignment, do play a role in where they’ll be assigned. 

Father Perez-Lopez: They give us their input. They don’t decide their assignment, as you said. We all made a promise of obedience to the bishop and his successors. Having said that, we want them to succeed. We make an effort to know the priest and the parishes well, so that we can determine as best as we can a good fit between the talents of the priest and the place where he goes.  

DC: Does your office have much input into the assignment of religious order priests? 

Usually what happens is that we’ll entrust the pastoral care of a parish to a religious order, for instance. Then, the religious order proposes to the archbishop who will be assigned there. Thus, it’s different in that sense and is more internal to the religious order.  

This year, for example, we had the Jesuits notify us that they were not going to continue ministering at St. Ignatius of Loyola. Well, that’s a diocesan parish entrusted to a religious order for a long time. But they decided, for other internal reasons, that they couldn’t continue ministering there. So, it came back to us, and we actually asked another religious order, the Community of Saint John, to take care of it. 

DC: What about priests who come from other dioceses or are sent to other dioceses? 

Father Perez-Lopez: Diocesan priests are incardinated into a particular diocese. Simultaneously, the Second Vatican Council and the magisterium before recognizes that we priests are ordained for the universal church. Hence, there is a possibility in our canon law for the redistribution of clergy for different purposes, for missionary purposes, for instance. We do have a very large number of foreign priests, who are applying or interested in coming to serve in our archdiocese. And we honestly need them.  We do not have all the men in seminary we need. We are not ordaining enough priests to cover our needs. I hope more young people answer generously to God’s call to the priesthood. 

Also, we need foreign priests because we have a huge growth of the Hispanic community in the Archdiocese of Denver that is not paired with a growth in our vocations to the priesthood who are bilingual or who learn Spanish. In my opinion, priestly ministry It’s not a matter of race. Following the example of Saint Paul, we are to become all things to all men to win some (1 Cor 9:19-20). Thus, it’s a matter of being able to minister in a particular language. And we don’t have enough priests who speak Spanish.  

Some of our foreign priests, like me, have come to Denver as seminarians, through our missionary seminary Redemptoris Matter. Once ordained, these priests are diocesan. They are incardinated in our archdiocese.  

Other foreign priests apply to come here after their ordination. Once we get these applications, my office is responsible for screening the candidates, for ensuring that they are a priest in good standing and of good reputation. I do interviews and then we have an agreement that is called fidei donum — gift of faith, so to speak — and this is an agreement between the priest and the Archdiocese of Denver in this case to serve for a number of years. This allows us to get to know the priest, but also, he gets to know the archdiocese. Eventually, if a priest decides to stay after five years of service here, we can evaluate the possibility of incardinating him here or not. Or he could say that he wants to go back home.  

DC: Why do you think it’s a good thing that the Church has these laws in place to move a pastor to a different parish after a certain amount of time? 

Father Perez-Lopez: I think we have competing goods here. There are good things to both approaches. Universal Church law says that “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” (Canon 522). Our particular law in Denver follows the second part of this canon and has these periods of six and twelve.  

There are other dioceses around the world which have no terms. In my hometown in Spain, when you are young, you get moved as a pastor, but once you reach a certain age, mid-50s or 60s, your assignment could last until you retire or until you die. So, there are different approaches to this. There is not only one way of doing it.  

The people who say we would like father such and such to stay with us forever could think that maybe there is another parish, who didn’t get a priest who was a good fit for them. Also, there is a human tendency, once we are there for a long time, for things to become and remain status quo. To have a term of six or twelve years gives us a certain stability, the possibility to develop a vision, and enough time to implement it. But it is also truly good to stay at a parish longer, to develop deeper paternal relationships with parishioners, where you baptize their kid, you celebrate the marriage for their kid, or even for their grandkid. I don’t think there is only one right way of going about this. We have chosen one way, which I think is good, but it is not the only way.  

DC: It sounds a little bit like a job change, where after a certain amount of time, it’s good to move on. 

Father Perez-Lopez: To a degree, sure, but I think here we find an important point where the analogy breaks down. This is very essential to highlight: priest assignments are much more than a job! To be sure, they’re like a job, but they’re much more than a job, because we are fathers. This is not a metaphor! We are no less of a father than your carnal father is to you. We are, I would argue, equal or more of a father to people, always participating in God, the Father, from whom all fatherhood receives its name in heaven and on earth (Eph 3:15). 

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.

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