VATICAN CITY, NOV. 23, 2001 ( John Paul II encouraged the collaboration of the laity with priests, but reminded an audience that only an ordained minister can be a parish priest.

The Pope clarified the Church´s position on the figure of the priest when he received in audience today the participants in the plenary assembly of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy. The conferees are meeting in the Vatican to discuss the topic "The Priest: Pastor and Guide of the Parish Community."

In his address, the Pope emphasized that only an ordained priest can be a valid pastor. Parishioners may collaborate with him but can never take his place.

"The priest celebrates the sacrifice of the Mass and administers the sacraments ´in persona Christi,´" the Holy Father said. "Therefore, for a parish to have a priest as its own pastor is of capital importance, and the title of pastor is reserved specifically to the priest."

"In fact, the presbyterial order represents for him the indispensable and essential condition to be validly appointed parish priest," the Pope said. "Other faithful may certainly actively collaborate with him, even full time, but as they have not received the ministerial priesthood, they cannot replace him as pastor."

"The ecclesial community absolutely needs the ministerial priesthood to have Christ present in her as head and pastor," the Pope stressed.

"Among the numerous activities carried out by a parish, none is so vital or formative for the community as the Sunday celebration of the Lord´s day and his Eucharist. None will ever be able to replace it," the Pontiff emphasized.

"Where there is no priest, it is necessary to ask God insistently with faith to give numerous and holy workers to his vineyard. It would be a fatal error to be resigned to present difficulties and behave, in fact, as though one must prepare for a future Church imagined, virtually, as deprived of priests," he said.

Such strategies, "adopted to fill the present lack, would be highly damaging to the ecclesial community, despite good will," the Pope clarified.

Lastly, Peter´s Successor pointed out that the "collaboration of others who have not received this sacramental configuration with Christ is desirable and often necessary."

However, those people "must be faithful to the consultative end that is proper to them," he added. Therefore "it will be necessary to be on the alert before any form which, in fact, tends to diminish the authority of the parish priest," the Pope added.