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How Catholics join together as a community of faith Print
Guest column
Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

This is the first of a two-part series on how Catholics join together as a community of faith as expressed in the Church’s law on parishes (part one) and sacred places (part two).

Man is a religious being. Man is a social being. These two fundamental truths of human nature spring from our having been created with an immaterial soul capable of knowing and loving.

As such, we have an innate desire to use these faculties to be in communion with God and with those around us. This aspect of humanity is expressed beautifully in the account of creation in Genesis 2, in which Adam and Eve are established in a state of perfect harmony with God and with each other.

One result of mankind’s dual religious and social nature is the desire to come together in order to worship, a ritual expressed in every civilization in human history. We naturally join with those around us to pray and worship God, and what’s more, we often set aside some space dedicated to this purpose of communal prayer.

In this two-part article I will examine the way in which we, as Catholics, join together as a community of faith as expressed in the Church’s law on parishes (part one) and sacred places (part two).

The diocese

While on earth, Jesus Christ chose 12 men whom he constituted in a college with Peter as its head and to whom he gave a share in his own mission of sanctifying, teaching, and governing. These 12 were entrusted with the duty of shepherding the Church, acting as the visible sources and foundations of unity over portions of the people of God.

A diocese is that portion of the Lord’s flock which has been entrusted to one of the successors of the Apostles, called a bishop, who gathers the faithful together in the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the Eucharist.

The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative in a diocese. Since it is impossible for the bishop to be present everywhere in his diocese, the current law of the Church requires him to establish smaller groupings of the faithful, called parishes, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a priest who acts as a co-worker of the bishop in his ministry.

The parish

In the Code of Canon Law, a parish is defined in canon 515 §1 as a certain community of the faithful stably constituted in a diocese whose pastoral care has been entrusted to a pastor (parochus) under the authority of the diocesan bishop.

Blessed John Paul II spoke of parishes as the Church’s “most immediate and visible expression” and “the fundamental unit in the daily life of the diocese,” since it is in this community where the people of God concretely experience the universal Church. In this community we hear the Gospel message, receive the graces of the sacraments, and are taught to put our faith into practice through works of charity and solidarity.

You will notice that in the definition of a parish, no mention is made of a church building. Churches and oratories, though important and helpful, are not essential elements of a parish. Rather, the parish is a familial and welcoming home centered around Jesus Christ whom we meet truly, really, and substantially in the Eucharist.

How do we become part of this parish family? Through baptism we are freed from the guilt of original sin, become members of the Body of Christ, and are incorporated into the Church. These members of the Christian faithful come together into parishes, which are either territorial or personal. As a general rule, parishes are territorial, that is, one which includes all Catholics of a given territory, according to boundaries established in the parish statutes.

Some parishes, however, may be personal, whereby the faithful are associated according to ethnic background, language group, or some other personal characteristic. For example in Madison, there is a personal parish for students and staff of the University of Wisconsin, commonly known as St. Paul University Catholic Center.

Parochus, parochial vicar, and priests in solidum

Every parish, whether territorial or personal, is to be entrusted to the care of a parochus, which is the Latin word often translated as “pastor.” Since different terms are sometimes employed for this office (e.g. pastor, parish priest, etc.), for clarity’s sake, I will refer to him in Latin.

A parochus is a priest who has been appointed by the bishop to exercise pastoral care of a parish by participating in the threefold office of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, which he accomplishes by carrying out the function of sanctifying, teaching, and governing in that parish. He does this primarily by administering the sacraments, by proclaiming the Gospel, and by fostering the common good of the parish as a whole. Needless to say, it is an enormous task.

When it is necessary or opportune to better carry out the pastoral care of a parish, one or more parochial vicars (sometimes called associate pastors or assistant priests) can be appointed to assist the parochus. Parochial vicars are priests who are co-workers with the parochus and sharers in his solicitude for the wellbeing of the parish by offering service and common counsel under the authority of the parochus. Many of the larger parishes in our diocese (e.g., St. Maria Goretti Parish) have a parochial vicar who is a great blessing to the parish.

In unique cases when circumstances require it, the care of a parish or a number of parishes may be entrusted to several priests jointly, in solidum. This situation is very much akin to having multiple pastors appointed to the same parish or parishes, and for this reason these priests in solidum are sometimes referred to as “co-pastors” in common parlance. In this case, a moderator is appointed among the priests to direct the joint action and be responsible for it to the bishop.

Deacon and lay staff

In many parishes of our diocese, we are also blessed by the faithful service of deacons and lay staff. It is the task of deacons to assist the bishop and priests in the celebration of the liturgy, in distributing Holy Communion, in conferring the sacrament of baptism, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in proclaiming the Gospel, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to various ministries of charity and service.

It is the task of lay parish staff to collaborate closely with the parochus in his duty of sanctifying, teaching, and governing in the parish. In the United States, it is common for a parish to employ laity in the following positions: secretary, accountant, director of liturgy, director of religious education, youth minister, etc.

It is important to keep in mind that the three-fold ministry entrusted to the parochus who acts in the name of the Church remains his alone and that lay parish staff participate in that ministry. So, I often jokingly tell lay directors of religious education that they really should be called extraordinary ministers of holy catechesis, because they are always cooperating in the ministry of catechesis which properly belongs to the parochus and to the parents of each child.

Finance council and pastoral council

There are two ways explicitly mentioned in the Code of Canon Law in which laity collaborate with the parochus in the governance of the parish: the finance council and the pastoral council.

Both of these councils are consultative, not deliberative, which means that they assist the parochus by providing him with advice. It is the task of the parochus to appoint members to these councils, to preside over these councils, and to hear their recommendations.

Canon 537 requires every parish to have a finance council which assists the parochus in the administration of the temporal goods of the parish. Because of the specialized nature of the questions addressed by this council, the parochus will often appoint men and women who are accountants, lawyers, or small business owners. Some parochi have even seen the genius in appointing the occasional stay-at-home-mom who has become an expert in running a household on a shoestring budget.

Canon 536 encourages parishes to also have pastoral councils whose task is to assist the parochus in the pastoral activity of the parish by providing proposals and suggestions on missionary, catechetical, and apostolic initiatives.

It is important to note that the parochus is in no way bound to the opinions of either council, since he alone has been entrusted with the care of the parish and alone bears the authority, responsibility, and final decision on such matters before the diocesan bishop. In no way can either council substitute for the parochus in the governance of the parish or on the basis of majority vote constrain the parochus in the direction of the parish.

A parish is its members

Having examined the canonical structure of a parish, it is important to recall the essential nature of it. A parish is a community of the faithful. In other words, a parish is the very members which compose it, i.e., a family.

Of course no parish is perfect — just as no family is perfect — because it is composed of sinful human beings who are not yet the saints they hope to be. We must remove from our consumer-driven minds the idea of a parish as a “religious vending machine” into which we deposit a few dollars via the collection plate and expect a certain product, and if it isn’t what we want, we “parish shop” for a better product.

A parish is not about the “economic vote” of money in the spiritual marketplace; it’s about us working to make others more holy and others working to make us more holy in the parish setting. In short, a parish is a family, not a business.

Ora et labora

The Benedictine motto, ora et labora (pray and work), is the perfect attitude we all should have toward our parishes.

First, pray for your parochus, your parochial vicar, your deacon, and your parish staff. Pray for the members of your parish finance council, the pastoral council, and your fellow parishioners, the parish families, the single men and women, and especially those discerning vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.

But, do not just pray for your parish community, pray with it. Participate in the common prayer of the Church by going to Mass and confession, by praying the Stations of the Cross, and by joining a Bible study or prayer group.

Then, with a prayerful spirit, go to work. Make of yourself an offering to your parish community by working for its greater good. Offer your charisms, your gifts, and your whole self.

Do you wish that your parish did more service to the poor, or did a better job welcoming new parishioners? Do you wish that its youth ministry was better, or that its liturgies had better music? Then, work to make it happen!

Use all of the gifts that you have been given and have cultivated through experience and study to make your parish great. Offer these gifts to your parish family through the parochus who can see the big picture and see where you are needed most.

And, if you know members of your parish with gifts and charisms that are going unused, encourage them. There are so many people in your parish who have gifts that can transform the community but are simply waiting to be asked. Your parish is lacking nothing of what is required for greatness. Ora et labora.


Paul Matenaer is defender of the bond and promoter of justice in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Madison.