Some may have noticed the Catholic Directory now lists representatives from the dozen diocesan vicariates as vicars forane, instead of episcopal vicars as they have been known for nearly 20 years.
The change came about after Bishop Richard J. Malone took a close look at the job description for each title. Both oversee the parishes and priests in their jurisdiction, but episcopal vicars are considered local ordinaries, having the same power as a vicar general for their vicariate, an authority they never used. The priests had been doing the work of vicars forane while using the episcopal vicar name.
"Conceptually speaking, not much has changed from what they were doing as episcopal vicars except this canon (555) fits in better with what they had been doing, and they've been given some extra faculties to help them," said Msgr. Paul A. Litwin, chancellor for the diocese. "Local ordinaries have a great deal of authority which they never really exercised. So, they're more properly functioning as vicars forane."
Vicars meet regularly with the priests in their vicariates to learn their concerns, then bring those concerns to the bishop, as well as inform the priests of the bishop's concerns and desires. Duties also include promoting and encouraging good liturgy, developing good leadership, visiting sick priests, and representing the vicariate at funerals of priests and deacons, when possible. Vicars can grant marriage dispensations in emergency situations, and address the moral and spiritual needs of fellow priests, as well as plan common events like penance services, educational experiences at the vicariate level "so every parish doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. They can share their resources and share their programs with one another. That's what that is meant to do," said Msgr. Litwin.
The duties are flexible. Priestly authority can be granted by office or delegation, meaning the bishop can add duties not stated in Canon Law.
"It's the kind of job that is quite adaptable to the needs at hand," said Msgr. Litwin.
Vicars meet with the bishop in October, December, February, April and June, to share information.
Father Robert S. Hughson, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Niagara Falls, has overseen the Western Niagara vicariate since 2006, back when the position was called episcopal vicar. He hasn't noticed any difference to the job since the name change.
"I am a representative of the bishop here in this vicariate and I'm entrusted by the bishop with some leadership here to promote diocesan activity, and to animate and enliven the local clergy by gathering with them and taking care of them," he said.
Father Hughson meets monthly with the priests who cover the dozen parishes in the area. Seminarians, as well as order priests, are invited to attend. Meetings consist of sharing information from the parishes and from the Chancery. Recently, a guest speaker came in to explain the New Evangelization. The recent Lenten reconciliation program, "The Light is on for You," that many parishes held came from Bishop Malone.
"From the vicars meeting I bring it here to our clergy meeting and then just share that with them. Hopefully they're on board. We try to do things together," Father Hughson said.
Father Hughson thinks his fellow priests are happy with the arrangement and sees a benefit in getting priests together regularly for discussion. "Especially encouraging guys who maybe don't socialize as much as someone else, a chance to get together in a nice environment to share the woes of ministry, the joys of ministry with other priests in the area," he said.
Along with his duties as pastor of Queen of Heaven Parish in West Seneca, Father Thomas J. Quinlivan has served the Vicariate of Eastern Erie since 2009. He describes his duties as "basically, to be present to the pastors and to the parishioners in the vicariate, and to help coordinate various activities as needed."
Like Father Hughson, he has brought in speakers to talk about the New Evangelization and vocations, and he has coordinated reconciliation services as outlined in "The Light is on for You." He also listens to his fellow priests about what issues they might have in their parishes.
"They bring them to the group and then, if we feel its appropriate to bring it up to the bishop, I can either bring it up at the meeting with the bishop or directly communicate with him," Father Quinlivan said.
Some issues are talked about among themselves to get a consensus on how to deal with them. Right now pastors are concerned about the school closings slated for later this spring.
Concerns from lay people have also been brought to the vicariate. Vicars meet with a Lay Vicariate Council, made up of two reps from each parish, much the same way they meet with clergy.
"There's not an issue every month. We talked about foreign priests and how they would be integrated into the presbyterate," said Father Gregory Dobson, from one of the smallest vicariates, Southern Cattaraugus. "They wanted to make sure the bishop saw the importance of a formation process, coming from one country to another country. The bishop assured me that would be provided."
Vicars also serve their community in a pinch, finding replacement priests or filling in for sick pastors. The vicar has some authority over the colleges or universities in the vicariate.