Who Can Be a Chaplain?

Q. During my incarceration I've become acquainted with three Catholic chaplains, all of whom I have the highest regard for. None of them are priests: the first was a deacon; the second, a sister; and the third, a laywoman.

My question: Is it correct for them to have the title "chaplain" if they aren't priests? My guess is that this is simply a title given to a job position by the state of New York rather than a title given by the Church.

Angelo M. Salvatori, Moravia, N.Y.

A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D:

First, Angelo, we're praying for you during your period of incarceration.

Your guess that it's just a "title given to a job position by the state of New York rather than a title given by the Church" is correct.

In the Church, we officially use the title "chaplain" only for ordained clerics -- that is, bishops, priests and deacons.

This matter was addressed 10 years ago in a document from the Vatican, the interdicasterial instruction "Ecclesiae de mysterio: On certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of the priest" (Aug. 15, 1997). In it, we read:

"It is unlawful for the non-ordained faithful to assume titles such as 'pastor,' 'chaplain,' 'coordinator,' 'moderator' or other such similar titles which can confuse their role and that of the pastor, who is always a bishop or priest."

We should note that there are limitations on the role of the deacons as well as on the non-ordained Catholics who serve in prisons. They cannot assume the title "pastor," which is reserved for priests, nor perform functions reserved to priests, such as hearing confessions, administering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick or having the full ordinary care of the faithful.

Nevertheless, you and the rest of the Church are rightly grateful for the charitable works that all those serving in the prisons have offered you. They are beacons of hope among us and bring the good news of Christ that you are not forgotten.