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Concursus is a special competitive examination prescribed in canon law for all aspirants to certain ecclesiastical offices to which is attached the cure of souls. There were no parish priests, properly speaking, during the first three hundred years of the Christian Era. A single church erected in the residential city of the bishop was the centre to which people living in city and country repaired on Sundays and festivals to hear Mass, receive instruction, and approach the Sacraments. Gradual growth in church-membership called for the erection of additional churches to accommodate the faithful. In these churches sacred functions were conducted by priests residing at the cathedrals. Consequently, the cathedral was the only parish in each diocese and the bishop, as chief pastor, exercised the care of souls throughout the diocese. A similar reason led to the organization of rural parishes during the course of the fourth century. With one or two exceptions, parishes were not organized in cities before the year 1000. The first step towards the establishment of city parishes, was taken in the Council of Limoges (1032). The amicable settlement of disputes involving a departure from the old regime paved the way for the organization of city parishes in France. Italy was not slow in following the example of France. (Lupi, "De parochis ante annum Christi millesimum", Bergamo, 1788; Muratori, "Dissert. de parœciis et plebibus" in "Antiq. Ital.", VI, 359; Nardi, "Dei parrochi, opera di antichità sacra", Pesaro, 1829-30; Drouyn, "L'histoire paroissiale" in "Rev. Cath. de Bordeaux", 1881, III, 233, and " Bull. hist. arch. du dioc. Dijon ", 1887, V, 225; Zorell, "Die Entwickelung des Parochialsystems" in "Archiv für kath. Kirchenrecht", 1902-3.) Departures from traditional methods gradually took place in other countries until the organization of city and country parishes became general throughout the Church (see PARISH).
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The new regime paved the way for the admission of a general principle whereby ecclesiastical benefices , especially those of major importance, with cure of souls or parochial responsibility attached, were conferred on none save those duly qualified to hold them (see BENEFICE ). Conscientious recognition of this principle was repeatedly inculcated, e.g. by Alexander III, Innocent III, and Gregory X. So long as ecclesiastics were not ordained absolutely, but for some specific office in each diocese, the canonical examinations for orders served naturally as a criterion to determine appointments to benefices. In time, however, this ancient method of ordination fell into decay, and under Innocent III (1198-1216) separate examinations were inaugurated as the most satisfactory method of making appointments to benefices that carried with them the cure of souls ( beneficia curata ). In order to attain greater security in providing for the salvation of souls, the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIV, ch. xviii) obliged bishops to assign to each parish a permanent parish priest who would know his parishioners. The better to realize this design, the same council instituted the concursus, a competitive examination given to candidates seeking appointment as pastors of (canonical) parishes. According to the Tridentine legislation, bishops must designate a day for this examination. At the specified time, such as have signified their intention of undergoing this test are examined by the bishop or his vicar-general and by no less than three synodal examiners. The bishop is required to appoint the one he judges most worthy among those passing a satisfactory examination.
Though the Tridentine regulations are quite clear, some canonists claimed that failure to observe them rendered appointments illicit, not invalid, while others held that bishops were not bound to appoint the most worthy candidate, but merely one passing a creditable examination. To dissipate such errors Pius V issued the Constitution "In conferendis" (18 May, 1567). Later on, to forestall the possibility of groundless appeals on the part of dissatisfied competitors, as well as to ensure strict justice to candidates, Clement XI issued (18 Jan., 1721) a decree regarding the manner of conducting examinations, and the manner of dealing with those entering appeals against the decision of the examiners or the appointment of the bishop. However, Clement XI's regulations occasioned various complaints, and to remedy these difficulties, as well as to complete ecclesiastical legislation concerning the concursus, Benedict XIV issued the important Constitution, "Cum illud" (14 Dec., 1742). A survey of the various stages of ecclesiastical legislation on this question will naturally exhibit a fair summary of its leading points.
In the first place, appointments to canonically erected parishes are null when no concursus has been held, unless the Tridentine legislation has been abrogated by long usage or special permission of the Holy see. Questions and answers pertaining to a concursus must be committed to writing. The matter of the examination is taken from theology (moral and dogmatic ), liturgy, and ecclesiastical law, and is chiefly of a practical character. A Lesson in catechism and a brief sermon may be prepared by the candidates. All competitors are examined in the same place and at the same time. The bishop is not justified in appointing simply a worthy competitor, but is obliged to choose the candidate he deems the most worthy among those approved by the examiners, whose office is exhausted when they have attested the worthiness ( idoneitas ) of the various competitors. The examiners, however, are bound to consider, not only the learning, but also the age, prudence, integrity, past services, and other qualifications of competitors. Candidates not appointed are at liberty to enter an appeal to the metropolitan, and then to the Holy See, but this does not suspend meanwhile the execution of the episcopal decision. The judge to whom such an appeal is made must base his decision on the proceedings of the concursus already held; this precludes a second concursus or the introduction of additional evidence. While this is the general ecclesiastical law, certain exceptions must be noted. This law does not cover appointments to parishes where the incumbent is not permanently installed nor to parishes whose revenues are not sufficient to justify such proceedings as a concursus involves. Nor, according to the common law, is a concursus advisable when the bishop, after hearing the advice of the synodal examiners, apprehends serious disorders in case a concursus were to take place.
The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) decreed that in the United States one in every ten parishes of a diocese should become a permanent rectorship. To inaugurate this plan, the council ruled that the establishment of such rectorships, and the appointment of incumbents thereunto should take place no later than three years after the promulgation of its decrees. Bishops were allowed to name permanent rectors for the first time without a concursus, though they were required to seek the advice of their consultors. Thereafter the appointments of such rectors are null unless a concursus takes place. In a special case the bishop may waive the concursus in favour of an ecclesiastic whose learning is well known or whose services to religion are noteworthy, provided the advice of the synodal or pro-synodal examiners is taken. (Conc. Plen. Balt. III, ch. vi, nos. 40 sqq.) The method of conducting a concursus in this country is substantially the same as that prescribed by the general law of the Church. Candidates for admission to a concursus must have creditably exercised the ministry in a diocese no less than ten years, and, during that time, must have given evidence of ability to direct the temporal and spiritual affairs of a parish. Bishops are obliged to appoint the most worthy of the competitors. Examiners should approve all worthy candidates. The right of determining the most worthy of those approved is vested in the bishop. Appeals and the method of treating them are subject to the general ecclesiastical law. Finally, where circumstances militate against the feasibility of a concursus as often as a permanent rectorship is to be filled, the Holy See has tolerated or allowed the holding, under the conditions already specified, of general annual examinations, to determine the standing of candidates in ecclesiastical science, while judgment concerning the other necessary qualifications is given whenever a permanent rectorship is vacated. Those passing the examination once are counted worthy, in point of learning, for appointment to any permanent rectorship falling vacant within a given period, usually not more than six years, after such an examination. Should they wish to enjoy a like title after that period, success in another examination is required.
Canada has no permanent rectorship. As a consequence, the manner of appointing rectors of parishes is subject to the discretion of the bishops. (Gignac, Comp. Juris eccl. ad usum cleri Canadensis, Quebec, 1901, De Personis, p. 355.) In England no concursus is held to determine appointments to permanent rectorships ( Taunton, The Law of the Church, London, 1906, p. 231). According to the decree of the Synod of Maynooth held in 1900, legislation similar to that of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore was adopted for determining appointments to parishes in the various dioceses of Ireland. Since 1895 the law of the concursus obtains also in the Commonwealth of Australia (Second Plen. Council of Australia, No. 47 sqq.). The acts of diocesan and provincial councils, sessions of Roman Congregations, and papal conclaves testify that the Tridentine legislation concerning the concursus has long prevailed in Italy. The same regulations were introduced into Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century; they obtain also in South America. While the observance of the law was general throughout France before the middle of the seventeenth century, changed conditions long since led to its abrogation in that country (Duballet, Journal de droit canon., 1891, 452-74). In Belgium the Synod of Mechlin (1570) adopted the Tridentine regulations, but since then, save for Liège, the earlier freedom of episcopal collation has returned ( Vering, 471). At present, German, Austrian, Hungarian, and Prussian bishops base their appreciation of a candidate's learning on the results of general examinations at regular intervals. Exception being made for minor differences, the above-described regulations govern the examinations in those countries. The consideration of other necessary qualifications is made whenever a vacancy occurs and an appointment follows. While in other places bishops may use their own discretion in appointing rectors, the Holy See bespeaks even in such places all possible conformity to the spirit of the Tridentrne law. It may be added that in Austria, since Joseph II, the State has insisted on the parochial concursus, and has embodied it in art. 24 of the Concordat.