One needs to answer this from a canon law perspective. There are two codes of canon law in the Catholic Church, one for the Latin or Western Church which came into being in January 1983 and the second for the Eastern Churches which came into being in October 1990.
Under the current Code of Canon Law (1983) every diocesan bishop must appoint at least one vicar general to assist him in the governance of the diocese. The vicar general exercises all the executive power of the diocesan bishop except that which the law reserves to the bishop or those functions that the bishop chooses to reserve.
The Code of Canon Law (1983) recognises two types of power/authority: ‘proper power’ and ‘vicarious power’. Proper power is given by canon law to an individual who holds a particular office eg a bishop or parish priest. Vicarious power is exercised by someone representing the person who holds the proper power. The power of the vicar general is said to be ordinary power as it pertains to his office. The vicar general does not share the bishop’s power to make particular law for the diocese nor as chief judge even though these are also elements of the power of governance.
Under the previous Code of Canon Law (1917-1983) the position of vicar general was recognised but not mandatory. By the time of the 1983 Code it was recognised that bishops needed to be absent from their dioceses for various reasons and for significant periods of time and that it was, therefore, necessary to have another to govern the diocese. On these occasions the vicar general acts with the mind of the bishop. This is the work of the vicar general.
As vicar general I work closely with Bishop Bill and exercise his power with the same mind as he does. I cannot make decisions independently from the bishop. I have to try to think as he would.
There are particular responsibilities I undertake on behalf of the bishop, such as Vocations Director, Director of Seminarians, Vicar for Religious, Director of Clergy Life and Ministry as well as sitting with the bishop on a number of councils and committees.
This year, in union with the international church, our diocese has focused on the Year of Mercy and honoured the faith of our own community since the arrival of our first resident bishop 150 years ago. Many celebrations have occurred. One was the gathering at St Mary’s, All Saints College, Maitland where we remembered and honoured the contribution of consecrated men and women from over 30 religious congregations, to the life of the diocese. Our original cathedral was dedicated as a diocesan shrine. Frs Camillus Nwahia and James Odoh were ordained to the priesthood. We have two students studying for the priesthood at the Beda College in Rome and early next year we hope to welcome two more students to begin priestly formation.
As the Director of Clergy Life and Ministry, with the Clergy Life and Ministry Team, I have the responsibility of organising two annual “live-in” experiences: the annual residential Clergy Conference held after Easter at the Josephite Conference Centre in Kincumber and the annual Clergy retreat also held at Kincumber during October, as well as other opportunities. As the Director of Clergy Life and Ministry I also serve as the NSW representative on the Australian Catholic Council for Clergy Life and Ministry.
So now you know what a vicar general is!