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An archpriest is a priest with supervisory duties over a number of parishes. The term is most often used in Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholic Churches, although it may be used in the Latin rite of the Roman Catholic Church instead of dean or vicar forane.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, during the persecution of Roman Catholics in England, an archpriest appointed from Rome had authority over all of the church's secular clergy in the country. In the present-day Church of England, an archpriest closely resembles a Rural or Area Dean.
In ancient times, much as the archdeacon was the head of the diaconate of a diocese, as is still the case in the Eastern Orthodox Church, while the archpriest was first the chief of the presbyterium of the diocese. His duties included deputising for the Bishop in spiritual matters when necessary.
In the western church, by the Middle Ages, the title had evolved and was that of the priest of the principal parish among several local parishes. This priest had general charge of worship in this archpresbyteriate, and the parishioners of the smaller parishes had to attend Sunday Mass and hold baptisms at the principal parish while the subordinate parishes instead held daily mass and homilies.
By the time of the Council of Trent the office of archpriest was replaced by the office of vicar forane, also known in English as "dean". The first recorded use of this meaning of the title comes from St Charles Borromeo's reforms in his own diocese. Unlike vicars general and vicars episcopal, vicars forane are not prelates, which means they do not possess ordinary power. Their role is entirely supervisory, and they perform visitations for the bishop and report to the bishop or vicar general any problems in their vicariate.
The title of archpriest has survived in Rome, in Malta and elsewhere, where it is now held by the rectors of the major basilicas. However, the title is entirely honorary, reflecting the fact that these churches held archpriestly status in the past.
There are currently four Archpriests of the major basilicas in Rome and all are bishops. These are;
- Basilica of St. John Lateran — Agostino Cardinal Vallini
- Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore — Bernard Cardinal Law
- Basilica di San Paolo fuori le Mura — Archbishop Francesco Monterisi
- St. Peter's Basilica — Angelo Cardinal Comastri
A archpriest (presbyter) celebrates every minor basilica. Many churches (thousands) in the world, other than basilicas, have the right to be governed by an archpriest, according to the specific historical tradition. Hence, the title is mostly honorary. Today, the archpriest has no control over the subordinate clergy. The use of "archpriest" in Roman Catholicism should not be confused with "protopriest," the senior cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. Protopriest may also be termed protopresbyter in Roman Catholic usage.
In Eastern Orthodoxy and Greek-Catholicism, the rank of archpriest remains as a title of honour or seniority. It is synonymous with that of protopresbyter in Greek usage, but in Slavic usage they are distinct offices, with protopresbyter the higher of the two. In either case, it is the highest rank married clergy can ordinarily expect to attain. Archpriests are styled "The Very Reverend" and are distinguished by the award of a gold pectoral cross. An archpriest will usually have already been awarded the kamilavka (which may be purple or red, the colour not signifying rank), the gold cross, and the nabedrennik. An archpriest may be further awareded the privilege of wearing the palitsa, and later the mitre, although this is distinguished frm the mitre of a bishop in that it is not supplanted by a jewelled cross. The highest award for a priest is the privilege of performing services with the Royal Doors open. He might possess some limited supervisory responsibility over other clergy as the local dean or diocesan chancellor, but only because as senior clergy they are more likely to be selected for such offices. Some hierarchical functions may be delegated to an archpriest if the bishop so directs. One example is the consecration of a church.
In the Church of England there is at least one Archpriest, the Archpriest of Haccombe. This is a hamlet in Devon, near Newton Abbot where the parish is combined with that of Stoke-in-Teignhead with Combe-in-Teignhead. The modern office most closely resembling that of archpriest is the role of Rural Dean (rural dioceses) or Area Dean (urban dioceses). Like the archpriest of old, these officers have supervisory duties, but not ordinary jurisdiction, and are entitled to carry out visitations of subordinate parishes when so commissioned. With this in mind, although the Archpriest of Haccombe holds a unique role in the Church of England, it must be considered analogous with certain Incumbencies which bear the title "Dean" regardless of whether or not their Incumbent is the actual Rural or Area Dean. One example of this historical oddity is the office of Dean of Bocking in East Anglia.
- Archpriest Controversy
- Arnaud de Cervole, also known as "the Archpriest"
- Archpriest of Hita
- Cross, F. L. , ed. (1957) Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. London: Oxford University Press; pp. 79-80
- further reading: Amanieu, A. (1935) "Archiprêtre", in: Dictionnaire de Droit Canonique; coll. 1004-26 (includes good bibliog.)
- "Archpriest in Catholic Encyclopedia". NewAdvent (organization). http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01697b.htm.