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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey


Rev. Frank MorriseyThe church provides for various models of parish communities as community grows

Canons 515 and 528 describe in legal terms what a parish is expected to be. To begin with, it is a eucharistic community, centred on the blessed sacrament. It is a defined community of people. The basis for the community can be, for example, territory, language, culture, rite (whether one of the various Eastern rites, the Tridentine rite or the new parishes of the Anglican ordinariate).

A parish is situated within a particular church, such as a diocese. Its pastoral care, under the direction of the diocesan bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest. Ordinarily, a priest is assigned to one parish; however, given the shortage of priests in many parts of Canada, it is now rather common for a priest to have three or even more communities to serve.

There are various types of parochial communities. When a group of persons comes together, such as a number of new immigrants from a given country, they are often gathered together in what the code refers to as a “Christian community.” In some instances, these are simply called “chaplaincies.” As a group grows, it can become what is known as a “quasi-parish,” sometimes called a “mission parish.” Then, when it reaches the required stability and has acquired an identity, the diocesan bishop can establish the entity as a canonical parish.

Like a diocese, a parish has canonical juridical personality. Its temporal goods belong to it, and not to the diocese or some other entity, even though for civil purposes it is sometimes integrated into the diocesan corporation. The Holy See has recently asked the Canadian bishops to look into the possibility of having each parish incorporated separately, so that there is a clear distinction between diocesan goods and those belonging to a parish. Moves are now being made in various parts of the country to implement this request.

Lately, as the number of the faithful attending church diminishes, bishops have had to resort to other means to provide pastoral care. Thus, for instance, in some dioceses, we now have “clusters” of parishes, where the parishioners share a number of services together under one parish priest — such as sacramental preparation, home visitation of the sick, catechetical work, liturgical preparation, and so forth.

There are instances when it is not possible to have a priest directly assigned to a parish. In those cases, the diocesan bishop can appoint a deacon or a lay person to co-ordinate pastoral and liturgical activities in the community, with a priest coming in at appointed times to celebrate the sacraments.

Each parish is to have its own finance council and, if the bishop makes it mandatory, also a parish pastoral council. These are advisory bodies whose members assist in co-ordinating pastoral leadership in the community.

Parishes can be grouped together either in deaneries or in pastoral zones. A deanery focuses on the life and ministry of the priests assigned to the various parishes, supporting them, especially when they are ill, helping to provide a replacement if they are absent, and so forth. A pastoral zone, on the other hand, groups all those who are involved on a full-time basis in pastoral work within the area (priests, deacons, religious, laity). The focus of each group is different, although in some dioceses, depending on the situation and on the mentality, there is only one of these two entities which covers the roles assigned to both.

Membership in a parish is usually determined by the domicile of the persons (see canon 107). However, today, especially in larger cities, we note that people do not feel bound by territory. Rather, they go to the church of their preference, sometimes based on the pastoral style of the parish priest, the type of liturgy and preaching that is offered, convenience of scheduled times for mass and other celebrations, etc.

This can create problems when it comes to marriage and to the celebration of some of the other sacraments. For this reason, in some dioceses, bishops have recognized the notion of “crossover parishes,” where those who are not domiciled there are nevertheless registered in the church they attend and constitute, as it were, a special Christian community within the parish itself.

Ideally, each parish is to have a permanent place of worship. But, in some cases, especially when a new parish is established, mass in celebrated in a school gymnasium or some other appropriate place until such time as sufficient funds are available to begin building a church. In other cases, particularly when three or four parishes have been combined into one, there can be more than one place of worship within the territory; sometimes, these second or third churches are called “chapels of ease.”

The parish cannot exist without the diocese and, more particularly, without the diocesan bishop. Together, bishop and parish priests work as one to foster the pastoral good, not only of the individual parish, but also of the entire community. In our next column, we shall examine how the threefold mission of teaching, sanctifying and governing is carried out respectively by the diocesan bishop and the clergy working together to build up the people of God in the pastoral area entrusted to their care.

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 32nd article in a series.