The Life of a Parish Priest

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the September 1995, A.S. XXX issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The following is based on a class I was asked to give at Valor this year. Before I get into the life of the parish priest, I will first describe who he was, starting with who he was not. The Catholic clergy break into two groups: the regular and the secular. The regular clergy concerned themselves with the Opus Dei, or Work of God. Most simply stated the Opus Dei is about knowing and understanding the will of God.

The regular clergy are in turn broken into the cloistered and the mendicants. The cloistered are your classical monks and nuns. Their basic theme is that the best way to focus on the Opus Dei is to remove themselves from the world with all its distractions and temptations. They were to leave the monastery only for special business and only for as long as it took to do that business. Thus in the regular course of business you would rarely see a monk. The mendicants are basically your friars. They took the opposite view from the monks and saw the Opus Dei in the world around them, and it is their particular mission to bring that wonder of God to the people. So they went to wherever there was people, especially the emerging urban areas. This is why Thomas Bacon is a friar not a monk.

The mission of the secular clergy is to administer to the spiritual needs of the people. They include everyone who is not a member of an established religious order. The parish priest is the front line worker of this endeavor.

The parish is the basic unit of the church organization consisting of a church with its priest and the laity that went to that church. Especially in the early Middle Ages the parish boundaries had no correlation with political or economical features. The church for a village could be elsewhere, or a village could be split between two parishes. And, of course, a town could have several, depending on its size.

The reason for this is that many churches started as chapels for various lords or monasteries. It was only over the centuries though population shifts and rebuilding programs that parish and village coalesced.

Another effect of these origins is that the head of the founding family or monastery had the right to appoint the priest, and more importantly, thus controlled the income of the church. And this was much abused.

The position of parish priest is called a benefice. An ambitious and well connected aristocrat, who had taken holy orders, could build up a sizable income by acquiring a number of these benefices. A vicar would be appointed to carry out the actual duties of the benefice with some small portion of the income. The end result is that the typical parish priest was an ordinary peasant who could barely stumble through Mass.

So we have worked our way to the parish priest and his condition. Now, remember this is an overly broad generalization, and not be too quick to condemn all priests as incompetent. And for many, what they lacked in training, they made up in devotion. Nor was the upper clergy ignorant, nor complaisant of the situation. Periodically there would be a bishop who would investigate the qualifications of the priests under him, and find many wanting. But he usually had to leave them in place for lack of suitable replacements. The truly educated could find better employment elsewhere then the meager pay of vicar. And so there would be calls to eliminate the plurality of benefices, to no avail.

This also brought up the question of whether a sacrament given by an ignorant priest is valid. Again the practical consideration of no replacements, lead to the doctrine that the sacraments transcended the priest, and so were always valid. The other great clerical scandal was the married priest. Clerical celibacy dates to the early church. But for most priests human nature was strong, the religious calling weak, surrounded by friends and family, and usually isolated from other clergy, and so the inevitable happened. An actual marriage was rare, concubinage being the usual state. Nor was any pains taken usually taken to hide the arrangement. And again all the ranting of the reformers was ignored for lack of better alternatives.

It would take the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation before the Church successfully attacked the problem of the quality of its priest. But the Counter-Reformation lies in a different period.

The daily life of the parish priest differed little from his peasant flock. His morning would open with a singing of Low Mass, then he would go out to tend the fields that provided his subsistence. On holidays he would sing High Mass. Sermons were rare and most often given by visiting clergy, such as a friar. And, of course, the occasional sacrament such as marriage, baptism, and extreme unction.

The other major expectation of a parish priest was for him to teach. At a minimum he needed to teach the responses at Mass and the basic lessons and doctrine of the Church. If he was able, he would also teach reading and writing to a select few. The brighter ones might be able to go on to the bishop's school, and maybe, even to the university to a career in the Church or royal chancellery. One or two might stay on to help the priest in his duties, and perhaps succeed him as vicar.

The life of a parish priest was not an easy one, with many expectations, and little resources and training to carry them out. And while theoretically answerable only to the local bishop, in practice he had to be salacious to the local lord, and maintain the good will of his congregation. The wonder is not how many who could not live up to these demands, but how many who did.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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