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Just as among the deacons of the bishop's church one stood out as the special assistant and representative of the bishop, and, as archdeacon, acquired a jurisdiction of his own, so do we find since the fourth century in numerous dioceses an archpriest, or head of the college of presbyters, who aided and represented the bishop in the discharge of his liturgical and religious duties. As a rule, and especially in Rome, whence the custom spread, the oldest of the presbyters was invested with this rank; in the Greek Church , on the other hand, his appointment often lay in the hands of the bishop. By the seventeenth canon of the Fourth Synod of Carthage , the archpriest was also associated with the bishop as his representative in the care of the poor. After the complete Christianization of the Roman and Germanic peoples, we meet in the West with another kind of archpriest. The spiritual needs of the population scattered through the rural districts multiplied so rapidly that it became impossible for the clergy of the episcopal city to attend to all. Consequently, we soon find the larger rural centres equipped with their own churches, a permanent clergy, and their own sources of support. The inhabitants of the neighbouring hamlets, and of the widely scattered manors were, from the beginning, subject to these larger, or mother-churches ( ecclesia rusticana, dioecesana, parochia ), in so far as it was there that they heard Mass and received the sacraments. The entire parish was known as christianitas or plebs.
The archpriest was the first in rank among priests attached to such mother-churches. He was at the head of the local clergy, had charge of Divine worship, and supervised the duties of the ecclesiastical ministry. He was, however, subject to the archdeacon ; several such large rural communities, or parishes, constituted an archidiaconate. The private chapels, which gradually multiplied on the estates of the great landowners and to which priests were attached, with the bishop's permission, were not exempt from the jurisdiction of the archpriest. All parishioners were obliged to be present at the principal Mass on Sunday in the mother-church ( ecclesia baptismalis, titulus major ). All baptisms took place there and burial services were held nowhere else. In the lesser churches of the territory ( tituli minores ) there were permitted only the daily Mass, the usual devotions, and instruction in the elements of Christian faith. The archpriest of the mother-church was the head of all the clergy in his parish, and was responsible for the proper execution of their ecclesiastical duties and for their manner of life. Gradually, it came about, especially in the Carlovingian period, that many tituli minores became independent parish churches, where all religious ceremonies, including Sunday Mass and baptism, were performed; the number of parishes was thus notably increased. It came about also that when a diocese was very extensive, the entire diocese was subdivided into a number of districts (called archipresbyterates, decanates, or christianitates ), over each of which a priest was placed as dean or archpriest. The use of the term archipresbyterate for these diocesan districts proves that the former extensive parishes made a basis for this division, though the boundary lines of the new districts did not necessarily correspond with the limits of the original parishes. In many cases entirely new ecclesiastical districts were created, and sometimes several former archipresbyterates were united. Sometimes, also, attention was paid to the civil subdivisions of the territory in question. The entire clergy of such a district constituted the rural chapter, at the head of which was the archpriest or rural dean. It was his duty, as representative to the bishop, to supervise the entire religious and ecclesiastical life of the entire territory. He enforced the regulations of the bishop and the decrees of the diocesan synods, and watched over their observance; presented to the bishop for ordination all candidates for ecclesiastical office; adjusted minor differences among the clergy, and made known to the archdeacon any grosser misdeeds of the clergy or laity in order that the suitable penance might be imposed upon the offender. It was customary in the Carlovingian period that on the first of every month the archpriest and clergy of his deanery should meet in common in order to discuss matters of importance. At a later date such meetings were called only once or twice a year. The rural chapter acquired in time the right of presentation to the deanery; it also elected a camerarius for the administration of certain common funds, and a diffinator , or assistant to the dean. The union of such archipresbyterates formed an archidiaconate, whose deans were subject to the archdeacon.
In the course of time, the office of dean or archpriest underwent many changes. This development was not the same in every country, and to this fact are traceable many local differences. The Council of Trent was content with the establishment of regulations concerning the visitations of parishes by the deans (Sess. XXIV, cap. 3, De reform.). St. Charles Borromeo abolished the office of dean in his diocese and established in its place that of rural vicar, or vicar forane ( vicarii foranei ), an office at all times revocable. In France, and in those neighbouring territories affected by the ecclesiastical reorganization that followed the French Revolution, each of the new dioceses was divided into deaneries whose limits was calculated to correspond with the civil subdivisions. In each district the parish priest of the principal church was usually the dean. According to actual ecclesiastical law the division of a diocese into deaneries pertains to the bishop ; he may, if he chooses, combine several such districts and make of them a single larger one. The selection of the deans pertains entirely to the bishop, though in some countries the rural chapters still retain the right of election. Deans possess no proper jurisdiction ; they are merely delegates of the bishop for the performance of stated ecclesiastical duties. Their principal duty is to facilitate relations between the clergy of their deanery and the ordinary (the bishop ), to exercise a certain supervision over the clergy, to visit the parishes, and look into the administration of parochial duties by the parish priests. They are also wont to receive from the bishop permanent faculties for the performance of certain ecclesiastical benedictions. The duty of assisting the bishop at Pontifical Mass, once incumbent on the archpriest of the cathedral, has devolved partly on the dean of the cathedral chapter, and partly on the auxiliary-bishop, should there be one.
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