Parish in the Catholic Church

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In the Roman Catholic Church, a parish (Latin : parochia) is a stable community of the faithful within a particular church, whose pastoral care has been entrusted to a parish priest (Latin: parochus), under the authority of the diocesan bishop. It is the lowest ecclesiastical subdivision in the Catholic episcopal polity, and the primary constituent unit of a diocese. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, parishes are constituted under cc. 515–552, entitled "Parishes, Pastors, and Parochial Vicars."

Catholic Church Largest Christian church, led by the Bishop of Rome

The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the largest Christian church, with approximately 1.3 billion baptised Catholics worldwide as of 2017. As the world's oldest and largest continuously functioning international institution, it has played a prominent role in the history and development of Western civilisation. The church is headed by the Bishop of Rome, known as the pope. Its central administration, the Holy See, is in the Vatican City, an enclave within the city of Rome in Italy.

Episcopal polity Hierarchical form of church governance

An episcopal polity is a hierarchical form of church governance in which the chief local authorities are called bishops. It is the structure used by many of the major Christian Churches and denominations, such as the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Church of the East, Anglican, and Lutheran churches or denominations, and other churches founded independently from these lineages.

Diocese Christian district or see under the supervision of a bishop

The word diocese is derived from the Greek term dioikesis (διοίκησις) meaning "administration". Today, when used in an ecclesiastical sense, it refers to the ecclesiastical district under the jurisdiction of a bishop. Sometimes it is also called bishopric.


Most parishes are territorial parishes, which comprise all the Christian faithful living within a defined geographic area.[ citation needed ] Some parishes may be joined with others in a deanery or vicariate forane and overseen by a vicar forane, also known as a dean or archpriest .

A deanery is an ecclesiastical entity in the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Evangelical Church in Germany, and the Church of Norway. A deanery is either the jurisdiction or residence of a dean.

An archpriest is an ecclesiastical title for certain priests with supervisory duties over a number of parishes. The term is most often used in Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholic Churches and may be somewhat analogous to a monsignor in the Latin Church, but in the Eastern Churches an archpriest wears an additional vestment and, typically, a pectoral cross, and one becomes an archpriest via a liturgical ceremony.

Per canon 518, a bishop may also erect non-territorial parishes, or personal parishes, within his see. [1] Personal parishes are created to better serve Catholics of a particular rite, language, nationality, or other commonality which make them a distinct community. [2] Such parishes include the following:

Episcopal see the main administrative seat held by a bishop

An episcopal see is, in the usual meaning of the phrase, the area of a bishop's ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

National parish is a type of Catholic parish distinguished by liturgical rites or nationality of the congregation; it is found within a diocese or particular Church, which includes other types of parishes in the same geographical area, each parish being unique. A national parish is distinguished from the commonly known type of parish, the territorial parish, which serves a territory subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the territorial parish priest. A national parish is an ecclesiastic subdivision which serves a community of people but is not necessarily a geographic subdivision.

Summorum Pontificum is an apostolic letter of Pope Benedict XVI, issued in July 2007, which specified the circumstances in which priests of the Latin Church may celebrate Mass according to what he called the "Missal promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962", and administer most of the sacraments in the form used before the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council.

Anglican Use particular liturgical rite of the Roman Catholic Church

The Anglican Use is an officially approved form of liturgy used by former members of the Anglican Communion who joined the Catholic Church while wishing to maintain the treasures of the Anglican tradition.

All the Christian faithful who reside in a territorial parish are considered constitutive of that territorial parish, and all members of a community for which a personal parish has been erected are similarly members of that personal parish. Membership should not be confused with registration or worship, however. Catholics are not obliged to worship only at the parish church to which they belong, but may for convenience or taste attend services at any Catholic church. [5] The term "church" may refer to the parish – the community that meets together – or to the building. [6] In this article it is used to refer to the building.


Each parish is charged to a parish priest (or pastor in the United States), although pastoral care of one or more parishes can also be entrusted to a team of priests in solidum under the direction of one of them, who is to be answerable to the bishop for their activity. [7] In extraordinary situations, a share in the pastoral care of a parish can also be entrusted to a deacon or lay person under the supervision of a priest. [8] Canon 519 states:

In 1983 the Catholic Church introduced the possibility of entrusting the pastoral care, of one or more parishes to a team of priests in solidum. This provision in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which resembles ancient models of pastoral care in the Roman titular churches with their colleges of priests, was introduced to help resolve some of the difficulties facing many dioceses. These difficulties include shortages of priests, overpopulated urban parishes, depleted and scattered rural parishes, and decline in attendance at Mass. This model of pastoral care is viewed as a practical way of promoting pastoral co-responsibility, as well as fostering a greater sense of the presbyterium among the priests of a diocese.

The parish priest is the proper clergyman in charge of the congregation of the parish entrusted to him. He exercises the pastoral care of the community entrusted to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop, whose ministry of Christ he is called to share, so that for this community he may carry out the offices of teaching, sanctifying and ruling with the cooperation of other priests or deacons and with the assistance of lay members of Christ's faithful, in accordance with the law. [9]

In American usage, a "parish priest" is any priest assigned to a parish even in a subordinate capacity, and some may be designated as associate pastors or assistant pastors. Globally they may be known as assistant priests, [10] parochial vicars [11] or curates .

Other personnel

In addition to the parish priest and any assistant priests he may have, a parish commonly has a staff of lay people (vestry), religious, and ordained deacons. For example, a parish secretary may assist in administrative matters, a parish sister in activities such as visiting the sick, and a perhaps married permanent deacon in sacramental as well as pastoral or administrative duties.

A parish is obliged to have a finance committee [12] and, if the bishop considers it opportune, a pastoral council or parish council. The finance committee and pastoral council are only consultative. [13] Often the parish council is elected, to be broadly representative of the parish community, while members of the finance committee are more often appointed by the pastor according to their expertise.

Parish life

In addition to a parish church, each parish may maintain auxiliary organizations and their facilities such as a rectory, parish hall, parochial school, or convent, frequently located on the same campus or adjacent to the church.

Parish church

Inside the Anglican Parish Church of Saint Lawrence in Bourton-on-the-Water, England St Lawrence's Church nave and chancel, Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire.jpg
Inside the Anglican Parish Church of Saint Lawrence in Bourton-on-the-Water, England

Each parish has a single seat of worship, the parish church. Geography, overcrowding, or other circumstances may induce the parish to establish alternative worship centers, however, which may not have a full-time parish priest.

The parish church is the center of most Catholics' spiritual life, since it is there that they receive the sacraments. On Sundays, and perhaps also daily, Mass is celebrated by a priest resident in the parish. Confession is made available, and perhaps Vespers in the larger or more progressive parishes. There are also laity-led activities and social events in accordance with local culture and circumstances.

Parochial school

Many parishes in different parts of the world operate schools for the children of the parish, though their organization, staffing, and funding varies widely according to local practice. However, many parishes cannot support schools alone, and there may be regional schools run by some parish or by the diocese. In addition to the standard curriculum, students at parochial schools are given moral and religious education in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church.


A parish has two constitutive elements: a body of Christian faithful and a parish priest (called the pastor in the United States) to serve their spiritual needs. The parish is a "juridic person" under canon law, and thus recognized as a unit with certain rights and responsibilities. [14] It is not autonomous, however. The diocesan bishop has the sole power to erect, suppress, or alter parishes, after consulting with his Presbyteral Council.

Ecclesiae Sanctae , a 1966 Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI issued motu proprio , directs that

parishes in which apostolic activity can be performed only with difficulty or less effectively because of the excessive number of the faithful or too vast a territory or for any other reason, be suitably divided or dismembered according to the various circumstances. Likewise parishes which are too small should be united insofar as the situation demands it and circumstances permit. [15]

Where a parish priest has been named to pastor a defined community, but circumstances do not permit it to be formally erected as a parish, the congregation is recognized as a quasi-parish. [16] Quasi-parishes would be found in new mission churches, called "missions" of the mother parish, in new neighborhoods, and in communities too small to support their own priest. [17]


Canon law provides no formal guidelines for choosing a name for a parish or quasi-parish; however, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued guidelines in 1999 that it may commonly be the same as the name of the parish church. [18] In turn, the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar [19] stipulates that this name must be

If two or more parishes are merged, the church buildings of each parish retain their names, but the parish itself may adopt a different name for pastoral reasons.

Merger and suppression

Suppression is a Catholic term for the formal disbanding of a parish or other ecclesiastical entity. It differs from the more common practice of merging parishes. Suppression only occurs when the Church believes the entity of the existing parish cannot continue. This includes cases such as bankruptcy, abuse, or deviations from canonical teachings. In practice the parish is merged into others after a suppression, as the geographic area must by canon law be covered by other parishes.

Bishops may close parishes through two legal mechanisms under canon law. Under suppression, the identity of one parish is abolished, and its former congregants are joined to one or more extant parishes and take on their identity. In a merger, the identity of two or more parishes are abolished, and their former congregants organized into a new parish, and take on its identity. Because a parish is a community of people and not simply a legal entity, canonical suppression is in practice a form of merger, as Dario Castrillón Hoyos of the Congregation for the Clergy notes in a 2006 letter to Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

[O]nly with great difficulty can one say that a parish becomes extinct. A parish is extinguished by the law itself only if no Catholic community any longer exists in its territory, or if no pastoral activity has taken place for a hundred years (can. 120 #1). When a parish is "suppressed" by competent authority, in reality, the still existing community of Christ's faithful is actually "merged" into the neighboring community of Christ's faithful and constitutes a larger community, and the territory of the extinguished parish is added to the other, forming a larger territorial unit. [20]

Parishes are typically suppressed or merged when they become unsustainable due to a decline in the local Catholic population. For example, given the ongoing priest shortage, a bishop may wish to reallocate clergy serving a small parish so that they can help serve a larger one, or a decline in contributions may make upkeep of a large, old parish church economically impossible. The merger or suppression of a parish does not necessarily require that its parish church or other operations be closed, however. The former parish church may be retained as an alternative worship space, for example, or converted for other pastoral use.

Opposition to suppressions

Controversy has arisen in the United States over the suppression of parishes, and over the disposition of parochial assets and liabilities following such a change.

Some bishops have interpreted suppression as equivalent to the extinction of a parish under canon 123 [21] (as due to war or disaster), in which case the assets and liabilities of the former parish revert to the diocese. In most cases, however, the local Catholic population was stable, and could not be said to be extinct, and so they should have been distributed to the successor parishes, as the Congregation for the Clergy emphasized in 2006 letter to the USCCB. [22]

In other cases, parishioners have objected to the closing of churches, making administrative recourse to the Vatican and staging sit-in protests at churches in Boston, Springfield, and Worcester, Massachusetts; Allentown and Scranton, Pennsylvania; and Syracuse and Buffalo, New York. In 2010 the Supreme Tribunal Apostolic Signatura, the highest court within the Catholic Church, overruled bishops, ruling that the closing of churches in Springfield, Allentown, and Buffalo was unnecessary and thus not permitted under canon 1222. [23]


The number of parishioners varies widely from parish to parish, even within the same diocese, reflecting local demographics and worship practices. The "ideal" size parish is a subject of debate. [24] According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the average parish in the United States grew in size from 2,260 parishioners in 2000 to 3,277 in 2010 [25]

The number of parishes, similarly, varies widely from diocese to diocese. As of December 2012 there were 221,740 parishes, among total 456,503 pastoral centers in the world. Some statistics on the total number of parishes in different countries are maintained by their respective Episcopal Conference, and reported in the Annuario Pontificio :

See also


  1. "canon 518", Code of Canon Law
  2. Bruce, Tricia Colleen. Parish and place : making room for diversity in the American Catholic church. ISBN   9780190270346. OCLC   999442986.
  3. 1 2 John P. Beal; James A. Coriden; Thomas Joseph Green (2000), New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Paulist Press, ISBN   9780809140664
  4. "Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum on the "Roman liturgy prior to the reform of 1970" (July 7, 2007) | BENEDICT XVI". Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  5. "canon 1248 §1", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  6. "THE CORRECT MEANING OF "CHURCH" AND "ECCLESIA"". Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  7. "canon 517 §1", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  8. "canon 517 §2", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  9. "canon 519", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  10. "canon 545", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  11. "canon 545", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  12. "canon 537", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  13. "canon 536", 1893 Code of Canon Law
  14. "canon 515 §1", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  15. Pope Paul VI (1966), "21. Establishment, Suppression and Change of Parishes", An Apostolic Letter Issued "motu Proprio," Ecclesiae Sanctae
  16. "canon 516", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  17. Note that in the 1917 Code of Canon Law , the definition of quasi-parish differs. Quasi-parishes existed only as divisions of apostolic vicariates or apostolic prefectures, and were led by quasi-pastors. In the 1983 code, quasi-parishes are led by pastors and can exist anywhere.
  18. Michael Trueman & Pete Vere (July 2007), "When Parishes Merge or Close", Catholic Answers , 18 (6)
  19. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, translated by International Committee on English in the Liturgy (1978), Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar (PDF)
  20. Letter from the Congregation for the Clergy to Bishop Skylstad, president of the USCCB, Prot. Num., 20060481, July 2006
  21. "canon 123", 1983 Code of Canon Law
  22. Filteau, Jerry (1 August 2006), "Vatican: Suppressed parish's assets must go to receiving church, not diocese", Catholic Online, Catholic News Service
  23. Shaw, Russell (24 April 2011), "Vatican intervenes in U.S. parish closings", Our Sunday Visitor
  24. Desmond, Joan Frawley (22 August 2011), "Church Size in Flux", National Catholic Register
  25. Filteau, Jerry (2011-08-02), National Catholic ReporterMissing or empty |title= (help)
  26. Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, Otto per mille
  27. Spis 2006 pod redakcją naukową ks. Witolda Zdaniewicza SAC, ks. Sławomira Zaręby i Roberta Stępisiewicza
  28. Vatican Information Service (2010-10-29), Statistics for the Catholic Church In Spain
  29. Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, "Frequently Requested Church Statistics", CARA website, retrieved 2013-10-07


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