Bishop Bonsu writes on the Apostolic Administrator’s Role in the Church

Question by Joshua Elikplim:

My Lord Bishop, on 18 August 2020, the Holy See, through its Apostolic Nunciature in Ghana, made a press statement that “The Holy Father, Pope Francis has appointed Very Rev Fr John Baptist Attakruh as Apostolic Administrator for the Sekondi-Takoradi Diocese with all the Rights and Faculties of a Local Ordinary in a decree dated 31st July 2010”. I would be most grateful if you could explain what the duties of such an Apostolic Administrator are in a diocese like Sekondi-Takoradi. Could you also explain what is meant by “with all the Rights and Faculties of a Local Ordinary”?

Answer by Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu:

Let us begin by defining the term “episcopal see” which we will encounter a few times in this answer. In the usual meaning of the phrase, it refers to the area over which one is a bishop. Phrases concerning actions taking place within or outside an episcopal see indicate that the term has a geographical reference, making it synonymous with “diocese”. The word see (in episcopal see) is derived from Latin sedes, which in its original or proper sense refers to the seat or chair that, in the case of a bishop, is the earliest symbol of the bishop’s authority.

An episcopal see (diocese) becomes vacant whenever the diocesan bishop dies, retires, resigns, or is transferred from or deprived of his see by the Roman Pontiff. When this happens, a new diocesan bishop is chosen by the Pope as per Canon 377 §1: “The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops or confirms those legitimately elected”. As a general rule, choosing a bishop’s successor almost invariably takes some time, which means that dioceses are frequently left temporarily without a bishop.

If the diocese has an auxiliary bishop, he assumes governance of the diocese. If there are several auxiliary bishops, the most senior of them in terms of appointment assumes this responsibility (Canon 419). If there is no auxiliary bishop, it is required by canon law that the College of Consultors in the diocese meets to elect an “administrator”. Every diocese is required to have a College of Consultors which is composed of between six and twelve diocesan priests chosen by the bishop for a five-year term.  The College is to meet “within eight days of receiving the notice of the vacancy of the episcopal see” in order to elect an administrator (Canon 421).  This administrator – known as the “diocesan administrator” – then takes charge of the diocese until the Pope names a new bishop.

However, it can happen that instead of waiting for the College of Consultors to elect an administrator, the Pope can name one himself.  In this case, the person chosen is known as an “apostolic administrator”, although his function is the same as that of a diocesan administrator elected by the College of Consultors. The Pope can choose a bishop from a nearby diocese as the apostolic administrator, which means the bishop now has two full-time jobs: in addition to his regular duties as bishop of his own diocese, he now has the added (temporary) responsibility of administering the diocese next door. The Pope can even choose a Bishop Emeritus for this responsibility. The Pope can also name a priest to be in charge of the diocese. Such a priest chosen by the Pope for this responsibility is also called an “apostolic administrator”, as in the case of Very Rev. Fr. John Baptiste Attakruh of the Sekondi-Takoradi Diocese.

According to Canon 425 §1, “To be validly chosen diocesan administrator one must be a priest of at least thirty-five years of age who has not been elected, nominated or presented for the same vacant see”. He must also be outstanding in doctrine and prudence. A priest chosen as the diocesan or apostolic administrator is obliged to make a profession of faith in the presence of the College of Consultors (Canon 833, §4). This is comparable to the bishop’s obligation to make a similar profession of faith, though there is no reference to an oath of loyalty to the Holy See in the case of a priest administrator (Canon 380). If the person chosen to be the administrator of the diocese is the diocesan financial officer, the diocesan finance council is to choose another finance officer pro tempore until a new bishop is appointed (Canon 423 §2) In other words, one cannot be the diocesan administrator and be the diocesan finance officer at the same time, just as a bishop cannot also be the financial administrator at the same time. A concern for financial accountability seems to underlie the prohibition of the administrator’s simultaneously functioning as diocesan finance officer. The role of the apostolic administrator ends when the new bishop is installed (Canon 430 §1).

A number of changes are in effect during the time when the diocesan see is vacant (sede vacante): (1) Offices that exercise general or specific authority granted directly by the diocesan bishop cease since their authority derives from the diocesan bishop, such as the Vicars General and Vicars Forane (Deans). (2) There are some offices that remain during the vacant see: chancellor, judicial vicar (i.e., an officer of the diocese who has ordinary power to judge cases in the diocesan ecclesiastical court) and financial officer. These offices are necessary for the ordinary operation of the diocese and so remain in place and assist the diocesan administrator or the apostolic administrator in his work. (3) While the judicial vicar’s authority is granted by the diocesan bishop, it does not cease during the vacant see so the process of justice within the diocese can continue without interruption.

Now that we can see who has authority over a diocese when there is no bishop, let us examine what it is that he is able to do.  Canon 427 §1 states that a diocesan administrator has the power of a diocesan bishop, excluding those matters which are excepted by their very nature or by the law itself.  What is said in the Pope’s appointment letter with regard to Very Rev. Fr. John Baptiste Attakruh should be understood in the light of this canon. The letter says that he has been appointed apostolic administrator “with all the Rights and Faculties of a Local Ordinary”. In general, the fact that the administrator fulfils the most significant leadership position in the diocese means that he normally enjoys a legal status comparable to the diocesan bishop (Canon 427 §1). Thus, the administrator is subject to the same obligations and possesses the same powers as a diocesan bishop. However, there are certain limitations on the power of the administrator that hinge upon his status. Canon law itself denies the administrator the power to perform certain actions that are permitted to the diocesan bishop. The administrator has the authority to make the necessary decisions for the daily operations of the diocese. However, major decisions and initiatives are deferred to the new bishop unless an urgent situation requires action. The administrator is charged with deciding what issues need to be addressed during this interim period and what issues need to wait for the attention of the new bishop.

The administrator cannot make major personnel-changes in the Marriage Tribunal, for example, removing the Judicial Vicar and/or adjutant Judicial Vicars from office (c. 1420 §5), since this is exclusively the purview of the diocesan bishop himself.  Nor can an administrator remove the diocesan Chancellor from office, unless the College of Consultors has granted their consent (c. 485).  There are certain functions that the administrator may perform only after the diocesan see has been impeded or has stood vacant for more than one year (c. 525 §2). For example, the administrator may grant incardination or excardination to priests and deacons only if the diocese has been vacant for a year. The administrator can name priests as administrators of parishes but cannot name them pastors (parish priests) unless the diocese has been without a diocesan bishop for at least one year. The office of pastor is understood to be a stable office. Since the administrator is not to make any innovations, the conferral of a stable office should not happen except in the situation noted here. If a parish becomes vacant before that year time frame has occurred, the administrator may appoint a priest as the parochial administrator since this is not a stable office. Similarly, he may appoint priests as parochial vicars because that is not a stable office. Finally, Church law prohibits the administrator from taking actions which may prejudice the rights of the diocese or its bishop. This would include suppression of parishes and relegation of churches to profane use.

Apart from such limitations, the administrator enjoys powers and has obligations equivalent to those of a diocesan bishop in all respects. For example, with regard to selling of ecclesiastical property, the administrator (like the bishop) needs to obtain the consent of both the College of Consultors and the diocesan finance council when the value of the property to be alienated falls within the minimum and maximum amounts set by the episcopal conference.

In general, the administrator, whether elected by the College of Consultors or appointed by the Holy Father, maintains the necessary day to day functioning of a diocese but does not make any structural changes that would truly be innovations in the particular diocese. There are other limitations on the role of the administrator, and they all serve to underscore a general statement found in canon 428 §1: while the episcopal see is vacant, no innovations are to be made. This is only common sense.  No one but the diocesan bishop himself should be engaged in any sort of major overhaul within a diocese – and so when the diocese has no bishop, its administration should ideally be functioning in a routine, ordinary way, on a sort of “auto-pilot”.  When the new bishop arrives, he and only he can decide to radically reorganize his chancery staff and reassign chancery officials, rearrange parish boundaries and create new ones (c. 515 §2), establish new diocesan Catholic schools (cf. c. 802), and make other significant changes in the diocese.

On the liturgical front, we should take note of two things. (1) If the administrator is not a bishop, certain distinctly episcopal prerogatives, especially in the sacramental arena, are outside his sphere of competence. Thus, he cannot ordain deacons and priests, and cannot celebrate the Chrism Mass during which the Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the Sick are blessed, and the Oil of Chrism is consecrated by a bishop. The Oil of Chrism can only be consecrated by a bishop.

(2) If the administrator is a priest, the phrase “for N. our Bishop” is completely omitted from the Eucharistic Prayer at all Masses in the diocese until a new bishop is ordained or installed in the Diocese. If, however, the administrator is a bishop, his first name is mentioned, for example, “Joseph, our Bishop”. It should not be “Joseph, our apostolic administrator”. The title “apostolic administrator” is not a liturgical title, nor does it have any bearing on his ability to be a source of communion, which comes rather from his ordination as bishop.

Let me conclude by adding that if a priest or a bishop is chosen to be the administrator, it does not necessarily mean that he will automatically become the next bishop of the diocese. Indeed, Rome could confirm him later as the new bishop or Rome may choose somebody else.

For further explanations or enquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number).

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