The Nature of Parishes (The Parish in Canon Law, part 1)

The parish is “the place where all the faithful can be gathered together for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. The parish initiates the Christian people into the ordinary expression of the liturgical life: it gathers them together in this celebration; it teaches Christ’s saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love.”[1] It is the fundamental face of the Church for most members of the christifideles, the locus for almost every significant ecclesiastical experience throughout a Catholic’s life, from baptism to their funeral rites, and even continuing after death as the community joins their ongoing public prayer for the final repose of the souls of the departed.

From the perspective of canon law, it is the diocese — not the parish — that is the most fundamental element in the organization of the Catholic Church. Drawing from the ecclesiological documents of the Second Vatican Council, the 1983 Code of Canon Law defines the diocese as

a portion of the people of God which is entrusted to a bishop for him to shepherd with the cooperation of the presbyterium, so that, adhering to its pastor and gathered by him in the Holy Spirit through the gospel and the Eucharist, it constitutes a particular church in which the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative (c. 369)

The Christian faithful, gathered around the Eucharistic table with their bishop—a successor of the Apostles and the vicar of Christ for his flock—as celebrant: this is the very epitome of the local church.[2] It is the ideal, and yet for practical considerations, since it is not physically possible for a bishop to be everywhere in the diocese personally meeting the spiritual and pastoral needs of all his flock, it is required by canon law for each diocese to be divided into parts, typically called parishes, wherein ordained priests assist the diocesan bishop in caring for the People of God entrusted to him.[3] To turn this around the other day, the parish is not itself “an autonomous entity of pastoral government,” but is rather “a territorially or personally circumscribed institution, the community of which has been entrusted primarily to the pastoral care of the bishop of the diocese, and which the bishop entrusts to the care of the proper parish priest who, under his [i.e. the bishop’s] direction and governance, directly supplies the cura animarum.”[4] It is not possible for a parish to exist independent of a diocese: it “is always part of a broader ecclesiastical organizational structure” and has “the character of a public organizational structure of the particular church.”[5]

Yet we must not fall into the trap of thinking the parish is merely a jurisdictional imposition, a human construct for the efficient management and delivery of services.

The parish institution is meant to provide the church’s great services: prayer in common and the reading of God’s Word, celebrations, especially that of the Eucharist, catechesis for children and the adult catechumenate, the ongoing formation of the faithful, communications designed to make the Christian message known, services of charity and solidarity and the local work of movements. In brief, the image of the sanctuary which is its visible sign, it is a building to be erected together, a body to bring to life and develop together, a community where God’s gifts are received and where the baptized generously make their response of faith, hope and love to the call of the Gospel.[6]

Another concern voiced by our previous Pontiff was that the parish priest must not become too much a manager and administrator, but that prayer must remain the center of priestly life in parishes.

Indeed prayer for the needs of the church and the individual faithful is so important that serious thought should be given to reorganizing priestly and parish life to ensure that priests have time to devote to this essential task individually and in common. Liturgical and personal prayer, not the tasks of management, must define the rhythms of a priest’s life, even in the busiest of parishes.[7]

And yet, with the numbers of ordained priests in active ministry in most dioceses drastically reduced from those which were seen even a single generation ago, how is this beautiful goal possibly to be met? Diocesan bishops everywhere are struggling to answer this question, but it is often obscured by what is seen as the even more pressing question: how are the sacraments to be administered to the faithful under their care? While canon law always strives to be firmly rooted in solid theological ground, it cannot always seamlessly translate the reflections and insights of popes, councils, and theologians into legal frameworks, or can do so only after what seems a considerable lag of years. But nevertheless it is sincere theological reflection which must always precede juridical determinations.

In the efforts to answer these questions, and to discern and implement concrete responses to the changed (and changing) circumstances of a particular diocesan church, diocesan bishops and those who advise them must take great pains that the mission of the Church is carried out, the rights of the faithful are safeguarded and fostered, and that the theological understanding of the diocese and parish — and the ministries proper to each — are clearly seen and fostered. In achieving all these worthy ends, the shepherds of each local church should be guided not by innovation, however well-intended, but by the living laws of the Universal Church.

In our next installment, we will look at how parishes have traditionally formed the map of the diocese, and how this typical model is no longer as ubiquitous as it probably should be.


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 2179.

[2] See Lumen Gentium, 26.

[3] Canon 374, §1: Every diocese or other particular church is to be divided into distinct parts or parishes. Can. 515, 1: A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop.

Given the occasional confusion engendered by the translation in the United States of parochus as ‘pastor’ rather than ‘parish priest’ (as is the use in most other English-speaking countries), I will typically follow the convention advocated by Msgr. John Renken of leaving the word parochus in Latin.

[4] Juan Ignacio Arrieta, in Exegetical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Ángel Marzoa, Jorge Miras, Rafael Rodríguez-Ocaña (eds,) and Ernest Caparros (gen. ed. of English translation), Montréal, Wilson & Lafleur and Chicago, Midwest Theological Forum, 2004 (hereafter ExComm), Vol. II/1, pp. 744-745. Arrieta continues: “The division of the diocese into parishes is not, therefore, a phenomenon of decentralization, but rather of vicarious deconcentration of the pastoral duties of the bishop in favor of the parish priest, who exercises them in his own name, though under the guidance of the bishop who, in the strict sense, is the proper pastor of the parish community.”

[5] Antonio S. Sánchez-Gil, “Parishes, Parish Priests and Assistant Priests,” in ExComm, Vol. II/2, 1257.

[6] John Paul II, “The Vocation of the Parish,” 25 January 1997 talk given to the third group of French bishops on their ad limina visit, as quoted in John P. Beal, James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green (eds.), New Commentary of the Code of Canon Law, commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America, New York and Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, 2000 (hereafter CLSAComm2), p. 673.

[7] John Paul II, “Priests, Their Life and Ministry,” 21 May 1998 talk to the bishops of Michigan and Ohio on their ad limina visit, as quoted in CLSAComm2, p. 673.


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