Major Reduction in Number of Parishes Proposed in Saginaw Diocese

An all-too-common news item in recent years: Catholic dioceses in the United States closing churches and merging parishes to save costs and try to stretch reduced prebyterates farther and farther to meet the needs of the faithful. In this case, the Diocese of Saginaw (Michigan) is looking at reducing its number of parishes by as much as half of the current total of 105.

About the only heartening news I take from this piece is that it appears that (so far, at least) the process is careful, and that the plan has a properly-informed canonical direction. While the imprecise (i.e. non-canonical) wording of this article obscures this a bit, it seems that the proposals are looking at canonically altering existing parishes through merger (canon 121), and that at least some of the church buildings which are current parish churches will remain in use as “additional worship sites” within the newly-altered parish boundaries. While I find the terminology of “additional worship sites” unlovely and seeming to come more from the language of business than from the language of the Church, I do applaud the realization (which too many diocese up to this point have seemed to miss) that the disposition of church buildings and of parishes are not identical questions, and that a parish can well have more than one active, useful church building within its bounds. I hope that more dioceses will keep this in mind in the years ahead as this long and painful process is repeated all over the country.


Possible New Models for Parishes (The Parish in Canon Law, part 3)

Our earlier comments are not intended to imply that diocesan bishops have simply sat still on pastoral planning and parish staffing while the world changed around them: far from it. As populations have dwindled or shifted, and numbers of available clergy have declined nearly everywhere, bishops across the United States (and elsewhere in the world, too) have moved to make real and sometimes drastic changes to the internal structures of their dioceses, and to how they provide pastoral care for the souls committed to their care. There are a number of very different options that have been pursued in different places; in the next few installments of our series we will attempt to sketch the outlines of these different canonical configurations along with their strengths and weaknesses where applicable. We will look at 1) a single priest serving as parochus of more than one parish; 2) a group of priests in solidum sharing the duties of parochus for one or several parishes; 3) the vicariate forane as a possible “super parish” solution; 4) the quasi-parish; and 5) oratories. Not all of these concepts are equally applicable (or even applicable at all, as we shall see), but all have been “in the mix” in the ongoing exploration and experimentation in the area of pastoral planning, and so a clear understanding of each is required for adequate engagement with the scope of our overall topic.


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.

Bishops and their presbyters

Priests don’t work for the diocesan bishop; they work for the diocese. 

That, at least, was the principal takeaway from the lecture delivered by Rev. Michael Joyce, CM, JCD, at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. The president of the CLSA was making his customary annual visit to “the other” of North America’s two schools of canon law, and students and faculty filled the back rows of the otherwise-empty amphitheater for the talk. The topic was an interesting one: the employer-employee relationship of the diocesan bishop and his priests seems at first glance to be obvious, and civil law certainly would like to use that understanding, for purposes of both taxation and — more critically — liability and prosecutorial matters. 

Building off canon 384, Fr. Joyce rightly spoke of the relationship between bishop and presbyterate as a communio, a communion of mutual service to the particular church — the diocese — with all that is entailed in such ministry. But the nature of priestly ministry is not equatable with any secular job, nor with any civil corporate management structure, despite outside viewers’ incompletely-informed impressions to the contrary.

Ultimately, then, the bishop has a duty to ensure that the priests of his diocese have what they need to live and carry out their ordained service to the People of God in that place (remuneration), as well as a sort of authoritative yet fraternal exhortative guidance. But this canonical relationship cannot be extended to considering the bishop responsible in civil jurisdictions for the criminal acts of a priest. The priest alone is responsible for his own moral and criminal actions, both before God and before systems of human justice.

While I am relatively comfortable accepting this conclusion on its face, it raises two questions in my mind that I wish I had been impertinent enough to raise with Fr. Joyce. On the one hand, such a position seems to lead to bishops quickly ‘washing their hands’ of problematic clerics, cutting them loose to fend for themselves; this is difficult to reconcile with the  ‘peculiar solicitude’ required of bishops toward their clerics. And in the other direction, in far too many cases, bishops (and their curial officials) have involved themselves in trying to ‘manage’ the problems caused by criminal priests, and thus have inextricably involved themselves in the criminal culpability as well.