Categories: Church, From the Pastor's Desk

What is a parish?

What is a parish?

What is a parish?  How does a parish fit into the structure of a diocese, and the church as a whole?  It’s worth reflecting on these questions since a lot of Catholics have no idea about how the church is structured.  If Catholics even think about their parishes, often enough they’re thinking like Protestants or Evangelicals… and without knowing it they have walked away from what the church teaches about parishes, and the universal call to salvation that Jesus wants his church to announce.

In the 4th century, St. Augustine wrote a sermon on pastors and sheep.  “The sheep moreover are insolent.  The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours.  “Why do you want us?” they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out.  “If I am straying,” he says, “if I am lost, why do you want me?”  You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you.  You have been lost, I wish to find you.  “But I wish to stray,” he says; “I wish to be lost.”  So you wish to stray and be lost?  How much better that I do not also wish this.  Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome.”  Augustine clearly thought he was pastor for all the sheep… even the ones who did not recognize this relationship!  It was pretty clear to him that the Lord wanted him to take care of everyone.

Nearly 1600 years later, Archbishop Duval of Algeria (the modern name for Augustine’s homeland) wrote a pastoral letter in which he said, “A Catholic bishop must be a bishop for all people; otherwise, he is only the head of a sect.”   He was convinced that he was the pastor of the Catholics and the Moslems and everyone else in Algeria.  This was after the vicious murder of a group of French Trappist monks in his diocese.  Duval is echoing some of the thinking of Bishop Joseph Ratzinger, who wrote when he was the Bishop of Regensburg about the universal nature of the salvation offered by Christ.    That thinking was later incorporated into Lumen Gentium (#16), when the fathers opened the doors of salvation even to people who do not believe in God.  This is a radical change from the kind of thinking that drove missionaries (like Francis Xavier and all the missionaries over the centuries) to go and evangelize.  They were convinced that if these people weren’t baptized, they weren’t going to Heaven.  If we look closely at the Universal Prayers for the Liturgy of Good Friday, we can see this line of thought woven into our prayer.  Everyone can be saved, even people who do not believe in God (otherwise, why would we pray for them at all?).

When we reflect on the Catholic Church, we have to remember how it is put together and who put it together.

We have to think about the Kingdom of God and the desire of Jesus to save the whole world.  We have to ask a few questions… among them the following:  Does Jesus mean for the whole world to be saved?  Does His Kingdom include the whole world?  Does Jesus love us?  And our enemies, too?  Is every human being somehow included in the salvific will of Jesus?  Even the Jews?  And the Muslims?  And agnostics?  And Buddhists and animists and atheists?  The answer is yes, yes, yes, yes…

This means that the bishop in a diocese is somehow responsible for all the souls in the territory of the diocese.  This includes everyone… as Duval wrote at the dawn of Algerian independence in the 1960’s, otherwise he is only the head of a sect.  In Chicago, that means the Archbishop is answerable to Jesus for all the people who live in Cook and Lake Counties.  This is true whether those people recognize this relationship or not, whether they believe in God or not, whether they like it or not.  This is not something the individuals choose…. It’s chosen and established by Christ.  This can be difficult for us Americans to get our heads around, being that we live in a democracy and that we are modern people!  We have to remember that we have dual citizenship… our modern American citizenship in a democracy is one of those citizenships. In our democracy, we make up the rules, and we choose to belong here.  Our other citizenship is pre-modern. We are citizens of a Kingdom. In the Kingdom, we don’t make up the rules.  Our belonging is not a question of our desire but rather the desire of Jesus.  He chose us to belong to His Kingdom.  And everywhere in the world, every piece of land, falls within the territory of a parish.

Because a diocese is so large, the territory is divided into different parishes.  Everyone within the territory of the diocese belongs to one or another of these parishes.  Everyone… Catholic and non-Catholic alike!  This is true whether the person recognizes and acknowledges this relationship or not.  The pastors in the individual parishes are answerable to Jesus for every soul within the territory of their parish, in the same way a bishop is for his people.  We are modern people, though, and we can get to thinking that we choose our parishes… that they are somehow voluntary organizations.  This is never the case in the Catholic church.  As Cardinal George wrote in What Is a Parish, “For the parish priest, territoriality means that he is responsible for every Catholic residing within his parish boundaries, regardless of whether they are registered, use envelopes, go to Church, or make their presence known.  For the faithful, territoriality means that the church is not a membership organization in which you pick and choose your place of degree of affiliation.  The fact that, in the last thirty-five years or so, such a situation has come to prevail in practice, is a clear indication of the extent to which a congregational mentality has taken hold of our people’s attitude.” (Italics added) chapter 2. The reality of parish membership goes even beyond the Catholics…. somehow a pastor is responsible for every person, for every soul, within his territory.

A "national" parish

Catholics might know that there are two kinds of parishes in Canon Law, “national” parishes and territorial parishes. National parishes are established to serve people of a particular ethnic group, be they Poles or Irish or Slovak or Mexican or whatever.  Any person of the particular nationality is – by birth – able to be a member of this kind of a parish.  Obviously, we don’t choose the nationality of the family we’re born into!

A "territorial" parish

The other kind of parish is territorial.  We make a choice of where we live, and we automatically belong to a parish.  There is no requirement to “register” in a parish.   A way to think of this is to recall the way counties are arranged in Louisiana.  They’re called “parishes,” a pre-modern term left over from when Louisiana was Catholic territory. Some dioceses strictly enforce parish territoriality.  The diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska pays attention to these boundaries.  In a recent posting on the site “The Life I need” ( the author reviewed 7 reasons parish boundaries are a good thing.  They range from a strengthening of stewardship to taking the focus off the priest.  The Archdiocese of Cincinnati recently clarified some questions about parishes and registration and territory. A few years ago, the Archbishop put together a clarification of a few points of Canon Law.  It seems that there was some confusion, in part caused by earlier teaching coming from the bishops’ conference.   Archbishop Pilarczyk wrote in 2009: “All Catholics who live within the territory of a parish are members of the parish.  This means they have the right to orderly access to the sacraments, to personal ministration from the pastor or his agents, to preaching, to religious education, and to all the other ministerial benefits (e.g., Christian funeral) that the parish offers.  This right is not contingent on financial support of the parish, on participation in the liturgical life of the parish, or on the fulfillment of any other requirement.  While pastors should encourage Catholics within the boundaries of the parish to register, to offer their financial support, and to maintain a certain level of activity, the failure of a parishioner to register or otherwise participate in parish life does not allow the pastor to relegate that parishioner to any special category of membership (e.g. “inactive member”).”  This would be news to pastors who require registration for parishioners to receive services like funerals or anointing of the sick or letters of suitability for godparents, etc!  In Church law there is never even the hint of a requirement to register in a parish!

If a parish begins to perceive itself differently, if it begins to perceive itself as a “destination” church, or somehow a voluntary organization, it has lost its essence as a Catholic parish and is in danger of becoming a sect.  Once, I was talking about this reality with a parishioner.  I told her there were some parishes where people chose to attend Mass because they liked the music, or the preaching, or the priest, or the Mass times, or whatever… and that these parishes worked to maintain their excellence in one or another of these areas to draw parishioners.  St. Paul called this getting your ears tickled!  She commented that this was a “Catholic version of Willow Creek.”  She was right.  People who make the decision to attend a parish that’s not their own are missing some of the essential nature of the church and the role of the Catholic Church in changing the world.  They have also lost sight of the Sacramental nature of the Church.  After all, there is the same amount of grace in a Mass whether the celebrant is engaging and charming and witty as a Mass where the celebrant is boring and aloof and sickly.  In 1942 C.S. Lewis touched on the subject in the Screwtape letters, where he wrote about how happy the devil is when Christians become “connoisseurs of churches,” going all over the place to find a place that suits them instead of attending their home parish.  He wrote that a parish, “being a unity of place and not of likings, brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity God desires.  Choosing which church to attend makes each church into a kind of club, into a coterie or faction.” (#81, paraphrased).

Pastors who decide to somehow turn their parishes into “destination churches” tear apart the fabric of the Kingdom of God.  Often enough they lower the bar in order to fill up their programs (for example, by doing First Communion preparation in one year instead of two) or they institute questionable liturgical and pious practices (shrines to particular miraculous saints or special blessings at the end of Mass).  This leads to the ridiculous situation of one parish being in competition with another for parishioners.  If we were a chain of McDonald’s restaurants and one place were selling hamburgers for half the going rate, the management would have the lowballer dragged in and beaten!  Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that at the very least McDonalds ought to steal customers from Wendy’s!

These destination church pastors ignore the hard work that’s called for in evangelizing and inviting their own parishioners, the people who live in their neighborhood, into relationship with Jesus.  Instead they go after other pastor’s sheep and debilitate the whole Church.  The people who attend their “parish of choice” have left their own home parishes weakened by their absence.  This is because people seeking a “parish of choice” ignore the web of relationships and connections that is essential for real parish life, because parish life is woven into neighborhood life and is meant to transform neighborhood life and they don’t live in the neighborhood.

The good news in all this is that these “destination churches” are bound to eventually die off.

They die because they are not truly Catholic, in the sense of being universal or following the dictates of Canon Law.  They die because the music changes or the pastor leaves or the people who drive in from far away grow old and stop coming.  If you’ve been around long enough you see what happens.  A parish is founded.  It thrives for a while.  Then the founding parishioners move out of the neighborhood or die off.  The founders children grow up and they stop coming to the parish.  Unless the parish finds a way recapture the energy of founders, unless it begins to welcome current parishioners, the people who actually live in the neighborhood of the parish, it dies.

What is a parish, then, and what’s it supposed to do?  To answer the question, we have to look at what the disciples of Jesus are supposed to do.  We are all called to give our lives away in love.  Those of us who are married are to give our lives away to our spouses and children.  Those of us who are not are still called to empty ourselves in imitation of Christ and in the service of love.  A parish is a place where we go to give something away, not take something away.  It’s the place where we go and pray, are nourished by the Sacraments and then go and change the world.  It provides a space where we can develop relationships with our neighbors and the families around us and make a concrete difference in the lives of those people.  It functions like a small town.  Even today there are places where families see the parish that way and relate to each other and the parish in that way.  It is the center of their lives.  It’s where people go to connect to each other and to the Lord, and to give back to the Lord and their neighbor in gratitude.  Parishes are the places where the Kingdom of God becomes visible, and they are intimately woven into the fabric of cities and neighborhoods and towns.  By nature they are incredibly local and meant to be that way.

But what if you don’t like the priest? What if you don’t like the music at your home parish? What if you don’t feel spiritually nourished or you think it’s too political? What’s so bad about finding a place that suits you better spiritually?

The underlying difficulty with this line of thinking, as C. S. Lewis wrote, is that it turns disciples into critics.  We should be going to our local parish to learn to be holy people.  We are not supposed to be judging whether our priest is a good or bad preacher.  It’s not about the priest, who might be cranky and grouchy.  It’s not about the music, which might be dull, or about the social involvement of the parish.  It’s about the grace of the Eucharist and what we do with our brothers and sisters.  In our parish we weave a set of relationships together that sustain us in difficult times.  Our key relationship in all this is with Jesus, and then with the members of the Body of Christ that we find in our local parish.  This goes right back to the root of the word “religion.”  It’s re-ligare, to tie back together again.  This is how you form a community, and prepare the way for the Kingdom of God.  After all, sooner or later the priest you don’t like will die or move on!  The choir you hate will fade away.  The things you find irritating will disappear, and the parish will remain.  The ties you form in love and respect will remain.

These are the fruits of discipleship, and they will last forever!

These days there are so many things unraveling the fabric of society.  In spite of the instant connectivity afforded by social media, more and more of us are lonely and isolated.  We are bombarded with messages that tell us to mistrust strangers, and young people, and people with beards, and immigrants, and men, and on and on.  We lock ourselves in our living rooms and pretend to be connected on the internet.  The parish is the place where we do the hard work of reconnecting with our neighbors, actual real people, and of preparing the way for the Kingdom of God.  This is what the Lord wants us to be doing, not being consumers who pick and choose a place we “like” for worship on Sunday mornings!  May the Lord give us the grace to announce the good news, the message of hope and joy and healing  our neighbors so desperately need.  This is the message our Lord wants them to hear!