by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Father Gary Pennings was still a relative rookie when Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann threw him a curveball: How would you like to be chancellor?
“I was shocked when the archbishop revealed to me his intentions,” said Father Pennings.
He had only been a priest for seven years when, in the spring of 2007, the archbishop offered him the position of chancellor — an assignment normally reserved for a churchman with more experience.
“At the time, I was recovering from a ‘cardiac event,’ as they call it,” said Father Pennings. “Although nothing happened that year, it was the first awareness I had that he was thinking of it.”
A year later, the archbishop brought the subject up again, and Father Pennings felt he had to give him an answer.
“I’ve always operated under the premise that, once we’re ordained, God calls us to ministry through our bishop, and I wanted to be responsive to that,” said Father Pennings.
“I told him, ‘If you’re brave enough to appoint me, I’ll be brave enough to try to do the job,’” he recalled.
The appointment became effective July 11. Unlike his predecessor, Msgr. Tom Tank, Father Pennings would be a full-time chancellor.
Soon after agreeing to the proposal, Father Pennings asked something that might have given Archbishop Naumann pause.
“What, exactly, does a chancellor do?”
Father Pennings has spent the last three months finding out.
Although canon law requires that each diocese have a chancellor, it doesn’t enumerate all the officeholder’s duties.
First and foremost, the chancellor serves the primary record-keeper of a diocese. That means he keeps track of all the official decisions, actions and decrees of a diocese. A nun or layperson can serve as chancellor, but more commonly the office is held by a cleric because only a cleric can notarize certain church documents.
The chancellor’s position is so critical to the governance of a diocese or archdiocese it is designated a “stable” office, meaning that the chancellor’s tenure does not coincide with that of a single bishop; a single chancellor could conceivably serve under several bishops.
One of the challenges of sorting out the duties of the position here in the archdiocese, explained Father Pennings, was the fact that the chancellor’s list of duties became quite long and varied under Msgr. Tank — and almost inseparable from his duties as vicar general.
“Every diocese adds duties to the role quite uniquely based on the needs of that diocese,” said Father Pennings, “so Archbishop Naumann summarized my role as being basically to assist him in the administration of the archdiocese, and that involves a variety of things.”
He works closely, for example, with the chief financial officer of the archdiocese and the vicars general. He advises the archbishop on a variety of topics and handles a plethora of correspondence. He grants faculties to priests and deacons, and writes the annual report submitted to Rome.
But he’s also involved in pastoral planning, archdiocesan construction, and oversight of the chancery building and of archdiocesan administration. He also oversees the operations of the archdiocesan archives and Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg.
As chancellor, Father Pennings is director of Savior Pastoral Center, sits on the board (often as president) of most archdiocesan corporations, and is on or chairs several additional archdiocesan boards. He is a consultor on the Presbyteral Council and is an ex-officio member of several committees and organizations.
And of course, he is subject to the infamous contract clause that, if he had a contract, would read “assigned to duties as deemed necessary by the archbishop.”
The big question is: How can he do all this?
“The bigger question is how did Monsignor Tank do all that, plus be vicar general and chancellor,” said Father Pennings. “Yes, it is a little daunting when you look at all the duties.”
Although he admits to still feeling a little overwhelmed right now, Father Pennings sad he’s gratified by the help he has received from the chancery staff and from Msgr. Tank, who continues to serve as one of the two archdiocesan vicars general. (Msgr. Charles McGlinn is the second.)
“I told [the archbishop], ‘Don’t expect me to be Monsignor Tank,’” said Father Pennings. “Monsignor Tank is an extremely skilled and wonderful priest and administrator, and has worked in a chancery role in some form or fashion since he was ordained. I always marveled how he could do so many things so well.”
When most men enter the seminary, they don’t envision living out their priesthood in an administrative role, and Father Pennings is no exception. He misses being a pastor, although he still celebrates weekend Masses at St. Paul Parish, where he is in residence, and sometimes at Prince of Peace Parish, both in Olathe.
When the archbishop initially approached him about the position, Father Pennings assumed it was because of his skills from his pre-priesthood career as an administrator for an emergency medical service. This, however, was not the case.
“I asked the archbishop why [he chose me], and he said his main reason was that he thought I had a good pastoral sense, which kind of surprised me,” said Father Pennings.
“He said that he believed that administrators need to have a good pastoral approach — that they need to be good pastors — which is an interesting comment. It showed me that he was concerned that, even in the administration of the archdiocese, we should always consider being good shepherds.”