– Rev. Fr. Jose Porunnedom


Canons 482 to 490 in the Code of Canon Law (CIC) and canons 252 to 261 in the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches (CCEO) deal with the office of the chancellor of the diocesan curia and his role in maintaining the diocesan archives. In the 1917 code canons 372 to 384 and in the Motu Proprio Cleri Sanctitati canons 439 to 451 dealt with the same topic. Literally the Latin term cancellarius means gate-keeper. Indeed, he is the gate-keeper of the diocesan archives or the entire documentation centre. In the ancient Roman world chancellor was “the door keeper at the grille of the Roman law court who eventually assumed the duties of secretary to the magistrate.”1 In the 12th century the bishop’s chancery was developed and in the course of time chancellor became the person responsible for signing and preserving the letters of the bishop. After the Council of Trent the chancellor was recognized as the principal notary in the diocesan curia in addition to his duty as the custodian of the curial documents. The figure of chancellor was incorporated into the legislation of the Church for the first time in the 1917 code. It was taken up by Cleri Sanctitati and lately by 1983 CIC and CCEO with adaptations.

Archive is a very important part of the diocesan curia because it is the place where all the documents concerning the diocesan and the related instructions are preserved. Documents are not only juridical instruments but also sources of information and a very important tool for writing history. Bishops, “in the mens of the Church, archives are places of memory of the Christian community and storehouses of culture for the new evangelization. Thus they themselves are a cultural good of primary importance whose special merit lies in recording the path followed by the Church through the centuries in the various contexts which constitute her very structure.”2 In this paper what I am trying to do is to expose the juridical figure of the chancellor as found in 1983 CIC and CCEO and the importance and maintenance of the curial archives and the role of the chancellor in this matter.

1. JA Corriden, TJ Green and DE Heintschel, The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, Bangalore, 1986, p. 392.
2. “The Pastoral Function of Church Archives” Circular Letter of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, 2 February 1997, Para. 1.


Office of the Chancellor and Chancery

CCEO canon 252 # 1 (CIC c. 482 # 1) says: “in the eparchial curia a chancellor is to be appointed who is to be appointed who is to be a presbyter or deacon and whose principal obligation, unless otherwise established by the particular law, is to see that the acts of the curia are gathered and arranged as well as preserved in the archives of the eparchial curia.” In needed assistant chancellors also may be appointed (CCEO, c. 252 #2; CIC, c. 482 #2). Whatever is said in the codes about chancellor is applicable also to assistant chancellor. Even though nothing is said about the appointing authority it is obvious that the bishop is to make the appointment because according to CCEO, canon 255 (CIC, c. 485) he can freely remove the chancellor from the office. Obviously “freely” does not mean arbitrary but following the canonical norms as in the case of removal from any other office. However, the appointment need not necessarily be for a special period. With regard to removal both codes stipulate that the diocesan administrator shall not do so without the consent of the college of consultors. In the Oriental Churches (CCEO, canon 252 #1) only a presbyter or deacon can be appointed as chancellor. On the other hand CIC does not make any such restrictions. Therefore in the Latin Church the office of the chancellor can be given also to lay people, both men and women. This is an important on canon 372 #1 of 1917 CIC according to which only a priest could be appointed as chancellor. The formulators were aware of the difference in this matter between the Eastern and Western legislation but decided to retain it.3 However, both codes prohibit a lay notary to exercise the office in cases involving reputation of clerics (CCEO, c. 253 #2; CIC, c. 483 #2).

With regard to the duties of the chancellor CCEO is more specific than CIC. According to CCEO, canon 252 #1 his principal duty is to see that the acts of the curia are gathered and arranged as well as preserved in the archives of the curia. On the other hand CIC merely says that he is to ensure that the acts of the curia are drawn up and dispatched and they are kept safe in the archive of the curia. In CCEO there is no mention of dispatching while CIC is silent about arranging and preserving of documents.

Both the codes say that the particular law can determine also other roles for the chancellor. In the Oriental Churches this particular law would mean the laws enacted by the synod of bishops for a given sui iuris Church. On the other hand for the Latin Church it means the diocesan statutes and so on. If no such particular law is made then the chancellor has only those rights and duties specified in the canons. Obviously this provision is necessary because dioceses with less priests or less archival works the chancellor can have also other duties.

Chancellor by law itself is notary of the curia (CCEO, 252 #3; CIC, c. 482 #3). According to CIC he is also secretary of the curia. Similarly CIC, canon 474 specifically mentions the role of the chancellor to countersign the documents issued by the eparchial bishop. “Acts of the curia which of their nature are designed to have a juridical effect must, as requirement for validity, be signed by the Ordinary from whom they emanate. They must also be signed by the chancellor or a notary. Here the signature of the chancellor or notary only authenticate the documents in question (CCEO, c. 253; CIC, c, 483 #1). The chancellor is boud to notify the Moderator of the curia about these acts.” On this role of the chancellor CCEO is silent. It would follow from the above mentioned canon of CIC that document of juridical effect issued by the vicar general or Episcopal vicar also must carry the signature of the chancellor in his capacity as the notary. In either case he is to inform the matter to the Moderator of the curia.4

3. Nuntia, 23, p. 61.
4. Moderator is the person in charge to coordinate the activities concerning administrative matters and to ensure that the others who belong to the curia properly fulfil the office entrusted to them. He is to be a priest. As far as possible he shall be the Vicar General or one among them if there are more than one (CIC, c. 473 #2).

With regard to the qualification of the chancellor and notaries CCEO says that they must be of good character and above reproach (c. 2532 #2). According to CIC they must be of unblemished reputation and above suspicion (CIC, c. 483 #2). The chancellor and notaries are official who declare the authenticity of juridical documents. One can well imagine the consequences if they themselves are not trustworthy.

As mentioned before the chancellor’s primary duty is to gather, arrange and preserve the documents in the curial archives and dispatch them whenever circumstances require it. All these actions are to be according to the scientific norms established for this purpose. There may be various departments in the curia. It is the duty of the chancellor to ensure that documents emanated by them are gathered promptly for arranging and preserving. Arranging the documents in a scientific manner (registering the documents with individual identifying number, preparing the inventory etc.) requires that he be also qualified in such matters. He does not substitute the archivist but he is to serve in the first stage of the archival activity in the curia or function as the archivist in case none is appointed to that office. Preservation of documents calls for elaborate arrangements in the archives. This activity requires also technical expertise in preparing the archives and preserving and restoring old and damaged documents.


Archives of Diocesan Curia

Archive is the place where the documents of the curia are preserved. A properly maintained archive is one of the keys to the success of diocesan administration. CIC, canons 486 to 491 and CCEO, canons 256 to 261 give detailed norms concerning the setting up and maintenance of Church archives, especially archives of diocesan curia. As to the canons in CCEO there was an observation from one of the organs of consultation that they were too detailed. But the competent Pontifical Commission retained that such detailed norms must be there in the common law given the importance of archives.5 Archives occupy a very important place in the life of the Church because it is the primary source of its history and the storehouse of information about its activities, besides being the link between the past and the present of the Church. “Archives are places of Church-memory which must be preserved, transmitted, renewed, and appreciated because they represent the most direct connection with the heritage of the Church community.”6 Any institution in the Church must have an archive. Among them diocesan curia archive take the first place as it acts as model for other institutions (PFCA, n.2.1.). Given the importance of archives in the life of the Church detailed norms have been made concerning them. Apart from maintaining a well-furnished archive the Pontifical Magisterium during the last century issued significant documents on archives (cfr. PFCA, footnote1). As we have already said, the two codes and the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus (Art. 101-102) have canons about diocesan and other ecclesiastical archives. Moreover, the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church regularly issues instructions and documents highlighting the importance and necessity of preservation of documents and maintenance of ecclesiastical archives. Pastor Bonus specifically mentions as the duty of this Commission to ensure that archives are set up and maintained all over in the Church because documents are considered to be objects of historical interest and cultural value (Art. 101 & 102).

5. Nuntia, 23, p. 60.
6. The Pastoral Function of Church Archives, Circular Letter of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, 2 February 1997, n. 2. Hereafter PFCA.


Importance of Church Archives

1) Source of History

Writing the history of any institution involves a faithful narration and truthful and objective interpretation of events taken place both inside and outside that institution in the course of its existence. Narration and interpretation can said to be faithful and truthful and hence objective only as much as they are based on facts and figures and as much as they can be verified from contemporary documents. It is archives that provide such documents. “They (documents) present a primary source for writing the history of the multiple expressions of religious life and Christian charity” (PFCA, Introduction, para 17). Absence of documents may cause distortion of history because there will be too much reliance on memories of persons or legends and hearsay. A book on history without a solid foundation on contemporary records will have little credibility and will not stand up to the rigorousness of modern historiogrphical tests. Absence of documents can also lead to unnecessary and unpleasant disputes and controversies leading even to schisms in a Church.

A history whether it is of persons or institutions not based on documents can hardly do justice to them. Writer of a biography of a person does not do justice to that person if he does not describe the events related to him in an objective manner without exaggerating and at the same time without leaving out anything. In other words maximum objectivity is needed and objectivity demands concrete facts and figures based on contemporary documents. This is equally valid also for juridical person. Therefore preserving documents is also a sign one’s sense of justice towards persons, both physical and juridical.

An institution that does not preserve its documents will have to accept other’s points of view of itself and there is every possibility that the other is heavily prejudiced, knowingly or unknowingly. If the Church in India does not take care to produce and preserve the documents concerning it in a scientific manner then we will be forced to accept the views of others about our history and that is what has happened to us until now. The early books about Indian Christianity were written mostly by Europeans and everyone comes after them invariably draws on them. Even if we know that there might be lack of objectivity in them we can seldom prove it because we do not have with us contemporary documents produced by us.

Absence of documents can be either purposeful or accidental. In either case the result is the same. Therefore one needs to be extremely truthful as well as careful and scientific in producing and preserving documents in order to give a correct picture of the past to the future generations. A scientific approach to the production and preservation of documents demands a well-maintained archive. Therefore the canon says: “The eparchial bishop is to set up in a safe place the archive of the eparchial curia in which documents pertaining to affairs of the eparchy are to be preserved” (CCEO, c. 256 #1; CIC, c. 486 #2). “With all diligence and care, an inventory is to be drawn up of the documents which are preserved in the archive of the eparchial curia with a brief synopsis of each of the documents” (CCEO, c. 256 #2; CIC, c. 491 #1).

1) Tool of Pastoral Help

Archives of ecclesiastical institutions are of immense help for the pastoral activity in the Church. The documents preserved in the archives give us an idea about the ways and means used by those who went before us. They tell the story of their successes and failures enabling us to choose the right path and make the required changes in our strategy. In other words archives have an important pastoral function in the life of the Church. Documents related to ecclesiastical institutions not only help write history but plan the evangelizational and pastoral activities of the Church. “A well-documented and unprejudiced study of its own past makes the Church more “expert in humanity” because it reveals the historical richness which lies behind it and also allows her to identify herself with her essential, continuing and varied mission of inculturation and acculturation. A study such as this, which proceeds from a careful collection of all that which can be documented, helps out in planning a future founded on the contributions of Tradition whereby memory is also prophesy….. In terms of specific content, archives preserve the sources describing the historical development of the Church community as well as those relating to the liturgical, sacramental, educational and charitable activities which the clergy, religious, and lay members of the Church have carried out throughout the centuries up to the present day. Often they preserve documents regarding the achievements sponsored by these individuals as well as documents regarding the juridical relationship between communities, institutions, and individuals” (PFCA, Introduction, para. 3 & 5). Pope John Paul II says that due attention must be given to documents because they stand as “witness to the Christian tradition and represents a means to carry out the work of new evangelization required today” (PFCA, Introduction, para. 9). In short everyone who is engaged in pastoral or some sort of apostolic work can greatly benefit from the experience of his or her forerunners by studying the documents in the archives. That way one can also avoid waste of time, energy and money.

2) Gives Sense of Tradition

According to Pope John Paul II “Tradition is the heritage of Christ’s Church. This is a living memory of the Risen One met and witnessed to by the Apostles who passed on his living memory to their successors in an uninterrupted line, guaranteed by the apostolic succession through the laying on of hands, down to the Bishops of today. This is articulated in the historical and cultural patrimony of each Church, shaped by the witness of martyrs, fathers and saints, as well as by the living faith of all Christians down the centuries to our own day.”7 Unless there is something to touch and feel from the past it is extremely difficult to instill in the younger generation a sense of that Tradition because Tradition then will be for them a fantastic idea without any corresponding reality. It can also happen that they become fundamentalists fanatically holding on to every fantastic idea about Tradition put forward by over enthusiasts. Therefore the Instruction from the Pontifical Council for the Cultural Heritage of the Church says: “Historical memory constitutes an integral part of the life of every community. The knowledge of all that which witnesses the succession of generations, their know-how and their actions, creates a sense of continuity between past and present. Therefore, if documents are known and communicated, archives can become useful instruments for an enlightening pastoral action because through a memory of the facts Tradition becomes more concrete” (PFCA, n. 1.3.).

7. Orientale Lumen, Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, dated 2 May 1995, n. 8.

An institution as Church draws heavily on Tradition. But Tradition needs to be based on reality and not legends. It is the archives that makes possible to verify that our Tradition is based on reality. “Church archives while preserving the unique and spontaneous documentation produced by persons and events, cultivate the memory of the life of the Church and manifest the sense of Tradition” (PFCA, n. 1.3.). A sense of belongingness to the past and an appreciation for the values of one’s forefathers are essential ingredients of the sense of Tradition. “They (documents) contribute efficiently towards the growth of a sense of ecclesial belonging in every generation and they show the Church’s effort in a certain territory” (PFCA, n. 1.3.). Documents are necessary to show that the values of a community are not the invention of someone today but something that we have inherited from Jesus Christ or the apostles and their successors. “In fact, through the diversified history of the community as recorded in the documents, the traces of Christ’s action are revealed, an action which nourishes His Church as a universal instrument of salvation and inspires her on the path of mankind. In Church archives, as Pope Paul VII loved to say, are kept the traces of the transitus Domini in human history.”8 Therefore “an institution which forgets its own past, will hardly be able to design it s function among men in any social, cultural, or religious context. In this sense, archives, while preserving the witnesses to religious traditions and pastoral practices, have their own intrinsic validity and validity. They contribute efficiently towards the growth of a sense of ecclesial belonging in every generation and they show the Church’s effort in a certain territory” (n. 1.3).


Diocesan Archives : Canonical Norms

1) Obligation of Diocesan Bishop

While it is the obligation of the authorities of every institution to set up its own archive, canon law makes the diocesan bishop directly responsible for erecting the curial archives and ensuring that all institutions in his diocese do the same (CIC, 486; CCEO, c. 256). In CIC canon 486 #2 without specifying the competent authority says that in every diocesan curia there must be an archive while canon 256 #1 of CCEO expressly requires the eparchial bishop to establish an archive in the curia. From the wording of the canons it is obvious that the diocesan bishop has no option in this case. It is also clear that archives shall not be makeshift arrangements or merely a part in his office but a permanent and separate place. Archives must be set up in a safe place which can be locked and accessible only to authorized persons. Setting up of archives involves also that necessary personnel is appointed and facilities are provided. “Competent authorities should assign the direction of Church archives to qualified and properly trained individuals. A careful selection should be made so that this type of Church service, which must be assigned whenever possible to capable and expert individuals according to stable working conditions, may further increase. The importance of this service should be considered in reference to the historical archive as well as the one for current affairs” (PFCA, n. 2.5). “Thus, of fundamental importance is adequate training of staff members who are active in this field of archive science at various levels. In the long run, this service will contribute to the development of that cultural basis which today seems to be extremely necessary for pastoral work….” (PFCA, n. 2.5). “The compliance to numerous needs connected to archive science depends on the professional background of the archive department’s staff members, to whom the diocesan bishop assign the management and direction of the archive collections, as well as their sense of responsibility towards the Church and towards culture in general” (PFCA, n. 2.5). From the canons as well as from the Instruction of the Pontifical Council quoted above one can see that a well-furnished archive is mandatory for the eparchial curia.

8. Paul VI, on Church Archivists (September 26, 1963), quoted in PFCA, n. 1.3.

The diocesan bishop has also the duty to make sure that all institutions under his jurisdiction maintain their archives properly. “The diocesan bishop is to ensure that the acts and documents of the archives of cathedral, collegiate, parochial and other churches in his territory are carefully kept and that two copies are made of inventories or catalogues. One of these copies is to remain in its own archive, the other is to be kept in the diocesan archive” (CCEO, c. 261 #1; CIC, c. 491 #1). “The diocesan bishop is to ensure that there is an historical archive in the diocesan, and that documents which have an historical value are carefully kept in it and systematically filed” (CIC c. 491 #2).

It is also the duty of the diocesan bishop to draw up a set of norms for the proper functioning of the curial archives. All that concerns the diocesan archives must conform to the prescriptions in these norms (CCEO, c. 261; CIC, c. 491 #3).

2) Categories of Archives

In terms of topology archives can be of the diocesan curia, provinces and generalates of religious congregations and so on. In terms of function we find current archives, historical archives and diocesan secret archives (PFCA, n. 2). Current archives means the place where all the documents of recent arrival are kept. When these are no more needed for every day reference they are shifted to the historical archives. As the documents are shifted to the historical achives a detailed inventory of every single document is prepared and kept in the same archives (CCEO, c. 256 #2; CIC, c. 486 #3). These inventories are necessary tools for consultation of the documents both for the persons in charge as well as for researchers who might wish to consult them when the archives are opened to the public. All sections of the archives must be well-furnished and protected from the attack of insects and natural phenomenon such as moisture and direct sun light.

Secret archive is the place where archive documents which are to be kept under secrecy are to be most carefully guarded (CIC, c. 489 #1; CCEO, c. 259).

3) Obligations of Chancellor, Vice-Chancellors and Notaries

As mentioned above it is the responsibility of the curial chancellor to “see that the acts of the curia are gathered and arranged as well as preserved in the archives of the eparchial curia” (CCEO, c. 252 #1; CIC c. 482). In addition there can be vice- chancellors and notaries who are responsible for the scientific production of documents. They are to write the acts and documents relating to decrees, dispositions and obligations (CCEO, c. 254 # 1; CIC, c. 484); to put faithfully into writing those things which are done and to sign the acts of these matters with a notation of the place, day, month and year (CCEO, c. 2543 #2). It is the notaries who are to furnish acts or documents to one legitimately requesting them and to declare copies of them to be in conformity with the original (CCEO, c. 254 #3).

As the chancellor is directly responsible for the archives he must also be a qualified archivist in order that he can produce the documents and preserve them according to archivistic practices. Three are the duties prescribed for him: Gather, arrange and preserve the documents, obviously produced by himself or by the notaries according to the canonical prescriptions. All these three acts require technical expertise. As any other science archivistics is a science and archivists must be persons with a formal training in archivistics. It goes without saying that the chancellor and preferably also the assistants must also be qualified archivists besides being canonists and persons with at least a working knowledge of as many languages as possible. It follows also from the canons that the proper maintenance of archives requires a concreted effort and not of one person alone. Unless all persons involved in the process of production and preservation are prompt in doing their own duties the archives will not be up-to-date and scientific.

4) Accessibility to Archives and Removal of Documents

As it has already been mentioned according to the codes the diocesan bishop is to set up the archives in a safe place. Besides, the archives must be locked and the key must be kept by him and the chancellor (CCEO, c. 256 #1; CIC, c. 487 #1). None is permitted to enter it without the permission of the bishop alone or the protosyncellus along with the chancellor (CCEO, c. 256 #1). In CIC it is the Moderator of the Curia who is responsible along with the Chancellor (CIC. c. 487 #1).

Removal of documents from the archives can be done only with the permission of the diocesan bishop alone or of the protosyncellus (or Moderator of the Curia in CIC) along with the chancellor (CCEO, c. 258). It may also be noted that removal is permitted only for a brief period. In other words as far as possible they shall not be taken out of the archives. It is a safeguard any eventual loss or tampering of the documents.

In the case of the secret archives it must be securely closed and bolted and which cannot be removed (CIC, c. 489 #1; 259 #1). The diocesan bishop alone may have the key (CCEO, c. 260 #1). When the see is vacant the secret archive is not to be opened except in a case of true necessity and then by the eparchial administrator himself (CCEO, c. 260 #2; CIC, c. 490 #1). In no circumstance documents are to be removed from the secret archives (CCEO, c. 260 #3; CIC, c. 490 #3).

5) Preservation and Destruction of Archival Documents

All the documents received in the curia and a copy of all the documents dispatched from the curia must be kept in the curial archives. Besides there may also be acts of various events such as meetings of different collective bodies like presbyteral council and college of consultors. In the same manner all documents which are to be kept under secrecy are to be most carefully kept in the secret archives (CIC, c. 489 #1). Ordinarily very few are the documents that can be destroyed because every sheet of paper in the long run may get some historical value. However, the law requires that certain categories of documents in the secret archives be destroyed. Each year, the procedural acts for inflicting penalties in matter of morals are to be destroyed in which the guilty party has died, or in which ten years have elapsed. (CCEO, c. 259 #2; CIC, c. 489 #2). Even in such cases a brief summary of the facts and the text of the definitive sentence or decree must be retained (CCEO, c. 259 #2).

Besides, the documents proper to the curial archives there should be kept also the inventories of the documents of the archives of other institutions of the diocese. The diocesan bishop is to see that the acts and documents of the archive of the cathedral, (collegiate in CIC) parochial and other churches are diligently preserved and two copies of the inventory of the acts and documents are to be made, one of which is to be preserved in the church’s own archive and the other to be preserved in the archive of the diocesan curia (CCEO, c. 261 #1; CIC, c. 491 #1).


In short, the diocesan chancery is the place where most of the activities in connection with documentation take place. Diocesan bishop must appoint a chancellor and if needed assistant chancellors. Both chancellor and assistant chancellors are ipso iure notaries. Unless otherwise specified in particular law the principal duty of the diocesan chancellor is to draft, dispatch, gather and preserve the documents of the curia and attest them as and when it is required of him.

The diocesan bishop is to set up an archive of the curia with all the necessary facilities and personnel. All documents related of the curia are to be preserved there. The functioning of the archive is to be regulated by its own statutes approved by the diocesan bishop as well as by the common law.