Proper Titles: Church and Parish

In common parlance, the words church and parish have come to be used almost completely interchangably. This imprecise habit becomes very problematic, however, when the emotionally-charged issue of altering the configuration of parishes arises in the life of a diocese. In as few words as possible: a church is a building set aside for sacred worship; a parish is a jurisdictional division of a diocese. And each have their proper names.

According to c. 1218, “Each church is to have its own title which cannot be changed after the church has been dedicated.” This can only be taken to mean the church building: the canon is placed squarely in the midst of the title of the Code dealing with sacred places, and so has nothing to do with parishes qua parishes. However, since clarity concerning this topic has come to be of increased importance in recent years, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued norms on church titles in 1999.[1]

The options for church titles are clearly laid out in the Rite of Dedication of a Church, in a list that is undoubtedly intended to be exhaustive:

  • the Blessed Trinity; 
  • our Lord Jesus Christ invoked according to a mystery of his life or a title already accepted in liturgy; 
  • the Holy Spirit; 
  • the Blessed Virgin Mary, likewise invoked according to some appellation already accepted in the liturgy; 
  • one of the angels [or, it would seem safe to presume, all of them]; or, finally 
  • a saint inscribed in the Roman Martyrology or in a duly approved appendix.[2]

Once the church has been solemnly dedicated[3] under the chosen title, this title cannot be changed: c. 1218 is completely unambiguous about that. These norms offer the possibility of changing the title of a dedicated church, but only for grave reasons and with a specific indult from the Apostolic See.[4] It is not, however, expressly stated any example of what might be a sufficiently grave reason, nor how disposed the Congregation would be to grant such an indult.

Church Titles, Parish Titles

Do parishes have titles, too? As juridic persons, they certainly can, although in most cases such a parish title would be identical to that of the parish church; and as civil corporations they certainly need to be called something in the eyes of the civil government. There is, however, no specific provision in canon law which either requires or regulates a parish name. So if the new parish church is dedicated to Saint Peter, the parish will most naturally be called the Parish of Saint Peter. While nothing in the law seems to prevent the juridic person of the parish from having a name that does not make reference to the title of the parish church, it is certainly traditional to do so.

And what is to be done when existing parishes are merged? According to the norms from CDWDS:

When a new parish has been erected in the place of several suppressed parishes, the new parish may have its own church which, unless it is a new building, retains its proper title. Further, churches of suppressed parishes, whenever such parishes are considered “co-parishes,” retain their own proper titles.[5]

From this it seems very clear that, under ordinary circumstances, the CDWDS expects that parish churches in merged parishes will continue to have the same title with which they were dedicated. Yes, there is provision, as already mentioned, for the diocesan bishop to request an indult to change the tile for grave reasons, but from the wording of the passage just cited, the Congregation does not view the merging of parishes, in and of itself, to constitute such a grave cause. Instead, a new name for the parish may be chosen and used, while continuing to use the proper titles of the separate parish church(es):

If several parishes are joined so that a new parish is established thereby, it is permitted, for pastoral reasons, to establish a new name [for the parish] differing from the title of the parish church.[6]

So, if there are multiple churches in the new parish, they could be referred to by their own proper titles along with the parish name, e.g. Our Lady of ____ Parish at St. _____ Church.[7] While this will appear wordy, formal, and is potentially ungainly, precision in naming is almost always important — and helpful — to maintain.


[1] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Notification, Omnis ecclesia titulum, 10 February 1999, in Notitiae, 35 (1999), pp. 158-159; English translation in Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 1999, Washington DC, Canon Law Society of America, 1999, pp. 17-21.

[2] See Roman Pontifical, Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, II, 4.

[3] If a church has been only blessed, then the diocesan bishop can change the title, for reasons which are sufficiently grave and after having considered carefully all the circumstances (Omnis ecclesia titulum, no. 6; cf. CLSAComm2, p. 1431). Bear in mind, though, that c. 1217, §2 explicitly prescribes that churches  and “especially” parish churches — “are to be dedicated by the solemn rite.”

[4] Omnis ecclesia titulum, no. 5.

[5] Ibid., no. 11 (emphasis added).

[6] Ibid., no. 12.

[7] See John Huels, “Change of Title of Church,” in CLSA Advisory Opinions 1994-2000, Washington DC, Canon Law Society of America, 2002, pp. 392-393.


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.

One or More Parishes, Multiple Parish Priests (The Parish in Canon Law, part 5)

The notion of a small group of priests being put jointly in charge of the pastoral care of one or more parishes is another provision that was new of the 1983 Code, although not without long precedent. It should be noted that this canon is not describing a parish with a pastor and one or more associates/parochial vicars. What is described in c. 517, §1 is a group of priests who are all, as a group, each given all the rights and responsibilities of a parochus, while none of them is specifically the parochus (although one must be the moderator, who coordinates the joint pastoral activity and is responsible for reporting to the Diocesan bishop on behalf of all the others). While it is a new addition to the current legislation, it is also one that has seen very little application in practice. With a seemingly-ever-dwindling supply of active priests being stretched farther and farther, an option that involves multiple priests living and working together in the same place has — perhaps understandably — not appeared to be a solution to many of the pastoral planning problems facing bishops in recent years.[1]

There is one significant example of a bishop making extensive use of this provision, albeit not without controversy. An interesting case study[2] has been published of the Diocese of Brugge (Belgium), and the way in which this specific canon was used to effectively reconfigure the entire parochial structure of the diocese. Using the term ‘federation’ for the resultant grouped parishes, Brugge joined 349 of its 363 parishes into 79 federations, with 14 parishes remaining distinct for various reasons, served by 732 priests.[3]

Canonically, this arrangement appears to have left the juridic personality of each parish unchanged; the federations seem ultimately to be superimposed organizational framework, a new paradigm in how clergy are distributed, but ultimately effecting no permanent alteration of the parishes themselves. Indeed, this seems to have been very much the intention: since the secular government in Belgium pays the salaries of parish priests, salaries which “are linked to the concrete territorial parish [so if] the territorial parish is suppressed, the salaried positions disappear as well.”[4] Thus in the Belgian situation, any permanent mergers of parishes would result in the loss of vital income for the Church.

While the financial ramifications that likely drove the Brugge pastoral planners do not apply in the North American context, a consideration that hangs over this case would be relevant: both paragraphs of c. 517 make provision for exceptional circumstances, and so the use of this particular canon to structure a diocesan-wide pastoral restructuring seems to be problematic. Also, the particular arrangement of several priests sharing pastoral charge of a grouping of parishes is perhaps more different from the status quo than it seems to be at first glance, and could involve a major shift in the experience of the presbyterate of a diocese, a shift which, while possibly beneficial, would nonetheless on a human level be very difficult to advocate and achieve.[5]


[1] Roch Pagé pronounces dismally that this particular provision “had arrived too late even in 1983” (“The Future of Parishes and the Present Canonical Legislation,” in The Jurist, 67 [2007], p. 184). (As an aside, while it falls far outside both the scope of this series — and the competence of this author — I have long wondered whether an option that brought more communal living to the lives of parochial priests, particular in our rural diocese, would not be of great benefit in terms of morale and spirituality for the priests themselves.)

[2] Kurt Martens, “The Parish Between Tradition and Renewal: Theoretical Consideration and a Case Study of C. 517, §1,” in The Jurist, 69 (2009), pp. 340-372.

[3] Ibid, p. 368.

[4] See ibid., 370-371.

[5] Martens notes that in their deliberations, the deans of the Brugge diocese noted this potential for “friction” since “pastors are accustomed to working alone” (p. 365). (On a personal note, I have long quietly thought that a shift from the solitary life of almost all of our rural priests to a more central/communal living arrangement would be hugely beneficial for the clergy in the long run, but this is far outside the scope of both this report and my competence.)

Many Parishes, One Parish Priest (The Parish in Canon Law, part 4)

What has been commonly referred to (in the United States, at least) as ‘clustering’ parishes is usually an application of c. 526 §1, which allows the diocesan bishop, in the case of a shortage of available clergy, to make the same priest the parochus of more than one parish at the same time. The text of the canon itself is quite clear that this is a provision for what is still seen by the legislator as an exceptional case:

A pastor is to have the parochial care of only one parish; nevertheless, because of a lack of priests or other circumstances, the care of several neighboring parishes can be entrusted to the same pastor.

This was not envisioned by either the Code Commission or the legislator as becoming the norm, but as an accommodation that would be available should circumstances require it. It is no secret, however, that circumstances have required it on a vast scale in the years since the promulgation of the Code, to the point that it is difficult to consider this arrangement as even nominally exceptional anymore. It should be noted that the canon specified neighboring parishes, for obvious practical reasons.

It is worth considering what is happening juridically in such an arrangement. The provision of c. 526 §1 has provided an exception to the general rule of c. 152: “Two or more incompatible offices, that is, offices which together cannot be fulfilled at the same time by the same person, are not to be conferred upon one person.” The parochial care of two (or more) distinct parishes simultaneously could be considered incompatible to the extent that it is difficult or impossible for one man to adequately fulfill the pastoral obligations toward each parish. Yet, as Antonio S. Sánchez-Gil points out, while it is easy and logical to think of “the pastoral care of various parishes in practice as a single task that the parish priest must perform, in a strictly juridical analysis it seems preferable to consider said task as a plurality of offices.” [1]

The same author continues:

In fact, pastoral care is the spiritual end for which the office of parish priest is established (cf. c. 145), and it is not identified stricto sensu with him. Consequently, when the Code speaks of entrusting the care of several parishes to the same priest, it seems that it must be understood that this is done through the canonical provision to the office of parish priest in each case (cf. cc. 146, 986 §1). Moreover, it is easier this way to distinguish, right from the act of provision, the possible particularities that, according to the pastoral needs of the case, could affect the parishes in question and to consider repercussions in the corresponding office: such offices can be entrusted at the same time or at chronologically separate moments; it can be established that there be a single act of taking of possession or several (cf. c. 527); a parish priest can be appointed for an indefinite time in one parish or for a determinate time in the rest (cf. c. 522); his office can lapse in one parish and remain preserved in others (cf. c. 538); etc. On the other hand, the consideration of a plurality of offices emphasizes more the autonomy of the entrusted parishes: in effect, each parish conserves unaltered the configuration that it had before the appointment of a common parish priest, and it will be opportune to maintain, therefore, in the majority of cases, a juridical representation separate from each one of them (cf. c. 532). [2]

There is a lot of detail to consider in that quoted text, but in summary, c. 526 §1 makes it possible for one priest to cover several assignments simultaneously, without — and this is what makes this in many ways the simplest option available — making any juridical modification to the canonical configuration of any of the parishes thus provided with a parish priest. The map of the diocese remains unchanged; it is only the pastoral assignment chart which is altered.


[1] Antonio S. Sánchez-Gil, in ExComm, Vol. II/2, p. 1312 (emphasis in original).

[2] Ibid.

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.


Mapping the Diocese of Today: Parochial Structures (The Parish in Canon Law, part 2)

Since a diocese is required to be “divided into distinct parts or parishes” (c. 374, §1), it seems to follow that, as one distinguished canonist put it to me in conversation, “Every square inch of a diocese has to be part of a parish.” Given the peculiar history of the Catholic Church in the United States, however, this is often not true. Partly this is due to the relative novelty of parishes as such in this country. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and indeed right up until the 1917 Code of Canon Law took effect, the bishops of the United States established very few true canonical parishes in their territories. As John Beal reports it:

Although there were churches with stable communities of the faithful who built and supported them within dioceses, these communities were not canonically erected as parishes. In fact, throughout the nineteenth century, American bishops fiercely resisted pressures from clergy and laity on the one hand and from the Holy See on the other to erect these stable communities of the faithful canonically as parishes. The bishops found canonical justification for their resistance in the fact that the law of the Church at that time identified a parish as “benefice,” i.e., a juridic entity consisting of an ecclesiastical office and the right of the office holder to receive as compensation for his service the revenues of the dowry or endowment attached to the office. Since almost no stable communities of the faithful in the United States had such endowments and since they all compensated their priests from free will offerings, bishops argued that these communities did not meet the canonical definition of a “parish” and, therefore, should not be formally erected as such.[1]

Once the universal law of the 1917 Code was put into practice in the U.S., this provisional situation should have been systematically rectified: however, it very likely was not in many places. So instead of a careful patchwork of parishes across the whole of a diocesan map, parishes dot the map like outposts in a wilderness. While this may well be meet and fitting in a frontier missionary context, it is considerably less so in an established diocese.

To provide a bit of context, much of the resistance on the part of the American bishops of old was predicated on the equation of parish with benefice in the canon law of the time. In other words, the parish was defined by the office of the parish priest, and more specifically the endowment or other financial arrangements established for his support. Almost all American ‘parishes’ were built and maintained by the free will offerings of the community, and so lacked the substantial monetary foundation which was expected in the Old World for the steady remuneration of parish priests. But this understanding has been swept away by the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent 1983 Code. “The current legislation considers the parish as a community of the faithful stably constituted within a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor under the authority of the diocesan bishop.”[2] But how are such communities defined, and how are they best served?

Traditional model of the Parish

Most conversations concerning the future of parishes in Catholic dioceses begin from the unquestioned assumption that the norm — and the ideal — is a parish in every civilly-defined community, and a priest in every one of those parishes.[3] This is certainly not fundamentally mistaken: a long-standing tenet of ecclesiastical law is the principle of ‘one parish, one parish priest.’[4] From ancient times the monogamous analogy of a bishop being united to his diocese was applied as well to the exclusive commitment of the priest to the parish entrusted to his care. Yet throughout the history of the Church exceptions have perennially existed to this principle.[5] After centuries of canonical reflection, the unicity of the parish is no longer considered essential (in the ontological sense) to the notion of the office of parish priest, but it continues to be regarded as an important principle “for the effective accomplishment of pastoral care.”[6]

But when there are insufficient active priests to fill all the parochial assignments in a diocese, something needs to be done. The obvious answer, of course, is more priests, and as a Church we continue to hope and pray for exactly that. But it seems that for too long too many dioceses have chosen to treat the shortfall as temporary, and have adopted measures that were similarly temporary to ‘tide them over’ until a welcome resurgence in vocations would return things to the status quo. While we wait in prayerful hope for such an increase, the circumstances of the present must be met with decisions and actions in the present. And so, given a situation of fewer priests than parishes, the obvious, most direct action would seem to be for the diocesan bishop to reapportion the diocesan territory into a number of parishes that corresponds to the number of men available to serve them.

In our next installment, we will wend our way through the various possibilities for structuring parishes — and the pastoral care thereof — that differ from the ‘one parish, one priest’ principle, and attempt to assess the merits and drawbacks of each.


[1] John Beal, “It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again: Lay Trusteeism Rides Again,” in The Jurist 68 (2008), pp. 505-506.

[2] John Renken, in CLSAComm2, p. 674, emphasis added.

[3] Latent, too, in this assumption is the popular but erroneous equation of parish with parish church, a problem which I shall touch on more than once in this series.

[4] See Sánchez-Gil, in ExComm, Vol. II/2, p. 1310.

[5] See ibid., p. 1311.

[6] Ibid.

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.