Fr. Porterfield — Judicial vicar, chief canonist never forgets Canon Law’s holy purpose


The salvation of souls must always be the supreme law of the Church.

Father Mark Porterfield believes understanding the last canon in the Code of Canon Law, encapsulated above, is key to putting the other 1,751 canons into practice.

“Canon Law exists to help bring about the salvation of souls, which is the purpose for the existence of the Church,” said Fr. Porterfield, judicial vicar for the Jefferson City diocese. “Everything we do should be with that in mind.”

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight recently appointed Fr. Porterfield, who has been the diocese’s judicial vicar since 2012, to serve also as vice chancellor, vicar for clergy, and a member of the bishop’s cabinet.

He is to function as chief canonist for the diocese, advising staff at the diocesan and parish levels on matters pertaining to Canon Law.

The Revised Code of Canon Law is a codified compilation of all the judicial laws of the Church, giving clear direction for its internal operation.

“As decisions are being made with regard to the governance of the diocese, it’s important for us to take the Code of Canon Law into consideration,” said Fr. Porterfield.

Serving as a vicar to the bishop means Fr. Porterfield exercises authority that belongs to the bishop and can only be used in accordance with his wishes.

As vicar for clergy, Fr. Porterfield will help arrange coverage for Masses when a priest is sick or traveling. He will also work with priests to promote their health and wellness and help them be successful in their ministry.

Part of his role as judicial vicar is to serve as promoter of justice, representing the Church in handling certain marriage cases and other situations as prescribed in Canon Law.

For instance, he would be called upon to work with the diocesan review board in responding to allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy, in accordance with the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

“The promoter of justice’s responsibility is to help discover the facts of the situation and then recommend a course of action,” said Fr. Porterfield. “He does not make the decision, but is required to make some kind of recommendation and help establish the facts of a case.”

As with all proceedings of the Tribunal, he must help ensure that the rights of all people involved are protected and that justice is carried out as best as humanly possible.


“I will observe Your statutes”

Fr. Porterfield said Canon Law is filled with truth, wisdom and beauty.

He noted that the Church has had established legal norms in place since Apostolic times.

Various regional compilations of Church law came into use over the centuries as the Church spread across continents into many nations and cultures.

A theologian named Gratian developed the first universal compilation of Canon Law, known as the Decretals, in the 12th century.

Pope Benedict XV promulgated the first Code of Canon Law in 1917.

The current Code of Canon Law, handed down by Pope St. John Paul II in 1983, came after the previous document was reviewed and updated in light of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Pope Francis has made two major changes to Canon Law in the past five years, both reemphasizing each bishop’s decision-making authority in his diocese.


Ministry of reconciliation

As judicial vicar, Fr. Porterfield heads up the Diocesan Tribunal, the judicial branch of the diocese, handling matters of Canon Law under the bishop’s oversight.

Most of the Tribunal’s work involves applying Canon Law to matters relating to marriage, specifically whether two people have a valid case when applying for a decree of nullity of a marriage.

“We essentially have cases where people who have civilly divorced are seeking reconciliation with the Church or to enter into a sacramental marriage,” said Fr. Porterfield.

Through a thorough and meticulous process, the Tribunal staff gathers testimony and other evidence to help determine whether something prevented one or both parties from entering into a valid sacramental marriage.

The Tribunal does not — nor does any individual or institution on earth — have the authority to declare a sacramentally valid marriage null.

“We don’t grant ‘Catholic divorces,’ because there’s no such thing,” Fr. Porterfield noted. “No one, not even the Pope, can put asunder a marriage that is sacramentally valid.”

But because a man and a woman confer the sacrament of marriage upon each other, both individuals must be fully capable of giving and receiving the sacramental grace at the time they consent to be married.

Factors such as unresolved childhood trauma can limit or block a person’s ability to do that.

“That’s where we have to consider not only the intention of the couple entering into the marriage but also their understanding as well as their ability to enter into the sacrament,” said Fr. Porterfield.

If it can be determined that an impediment to marriage was clearly present or that improper form was used at the time of the wedding, a declaration of nullity can be given, freeing both individuals to remarry in the Church.

Fr. Porterfield said the Tribunal also carries out other judicial functions in the diocese, “but our work primarily consists of helping people to be reconciled with the Church.”


“Enlighten the darkness”

Bishop McKnight told Fr. Porterfield that he doesn’t want advisors to rubber-stamp his own initiatives.

“He wants vibrant, constructive debate,” the priest said.

And while the words on the pages of Canon Law are clear, the process of understanding and applying them in proper context remains a never-ending challenge.

“It’s one thing to read the Code word for word and another thing to understand what it’s trying to do and call us to do,” said Fr. Porterfield.

Years ago, he found an old prayer that he now prays every time he gives a homily or makes a decision: “Come, Holy Spirit. Enlighten the darkness of my mind. Teach me what to say. Tell me what to do. Use me as You will.”


Mother of the Eucharist

Fr. Porterfield spent his senior year in Hannibal at St. Thomas Seminary, which was the diocese’s high school for young men considering the Priesthood.

Still uncertain about his calling, he then went to Linn State Technical College (now the State Technical College of Missouri) in Linn, completing an associate’s degree in accounting.

He prayed on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, asking God and His mother Mary to reveal what he should do next.

“At that moment, I realized that my call was to return to the seminary,” he said.

He transferred to Conception Seminary College as a seminarian for the Jefferson City diocese.

He continued on to theology studies at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.

“I did a lot of reading of the works of Pope St. John Paul II,” he said. “In fact, my master’s thesis was on his Holy Thursday addresses to the world’s priests.”

In those annual addresses, the sainted Pontiff emphasized the centrality of the Eucharist and devotion to the Blessed Mother.

“Both of these are very important in any priestly life, as I have found them to be in my own,” said Fr. Porterfield.

On May 7, 1994, in Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Frankenstein, Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe, now deceased, ordained Fr. Porterfield to the Holy Priesthood.

He served as associate pastor of Holy Family parish in Hannibal and taught Scripture, geography and the Missouri Constitution at St. Thomas Seminary.

In 1998, Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos, now retired, sent Fr. Porterfield to the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum, in Rome to work toward a licentiate in Canon Law.

“It was two years of Canon Law studies, all seven books,” said Fr. Porterfield. “And not only the Code itself, also the theory behind it and the practice of it.”

He learned and interacted with priests from all over the world, opening his mind and spirit not only to the beauty and necessity of Canon Law but also to the universality of the Church.

“What that did was cause me to look beyond the law as far as it applies to the Diocese of Jefferson City, to see how it is written to apply everywhere,” he said.


Prayers for wisdom

Since then, Fr. Porterfield’s Priesthood has been a balance of diocesan and parish work.

“I’ve been blessed with parishes that have been very fruitful and spiritually alive,” he said.

While serving on the Tribunal since 2000, he has ministered as pastor of the parishes of Sacred Heat in Rich Fountain, St. Alexander in Belle, St. Thomas the Apostle in St. Thomas, St. Margaret of Antioch in Osage Bend, St. Cecilia in Meta and currently St. Brendan in Mexico.

He will become pastor of St. Martin parish in St. Martins on June 27.

“I am a Christian with them, not just a pastor for them,” he said, echoing St. Thomas Aquinas.

Fr. Porterfield requests prayers for God to fill him with “all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially wisdom and understanding.”