Not so very long ago, something like this would have been unthinkable, especially in a place like Italy. But this is another sign of the times:

Bishop Giuseppe Marciante of Cefalù, on the Italian island of Sicily, has entrusted a “participation in the pastoral care of the parish of St Paul the Apostle” in the town of Isnello to a “Family Pastoral Service Team” that includes lay people.

A statement from the Diocesan Curia explains that “the decision of Bishop Marciante represents one of the first cases in Sicily of a parish being entrusted to a group of lay people led by a priest.”

In the statement, Bishop Marciante says he hopes to make the community “a place of spirituality for families and priests.”

The decision was taken in light of the recent Instruction on “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church,” prepared by the Congregation for the Clergy.

The Instruction deals with the ongoing missionary conversion in the Church, focusing especially on the role of the Parish. It does not promulgate new legislation, but instead “proposes methods to better apply rules and canonical norms.”

The new Instruction notes that, in some “pastorally problematic circumstances, in order to sustain Christian life and continue the evangelizing mission of the community, the diocesan Bishop may entrust the pastoral care of a Parish to a deacon, to a consecrated religious or layperson, or even to a group of persons.”

At the same time, it cautions, “It should be remembered that we are dealing here with an extraordinary form of entrusting pastoral care, due to the impossibility of appointing a Parish Priest or Parish administrator.” Because this is “an extraordinary remedy,” the Instruction says, “the People of God should be adequately prepared in this regard, cognizant that it is a temporary and not a permanent measure.”

For the same reason, the Instruction notes that “the only canonical cause that makes recourse to it legitimate, is a lack of priests to provide pastoral care for the Parish community.”

The new Pastoral Team of the Sicilian parish will be directed by Father Paolo Cassaniti, who was appointed as “Moderator of Pastoral Care,” in line with the provisions of the Code of Canon Law.