December 1, 2006


Parish communities must be stable but also in transition


Catholic parishes in the United States have experienced many changes in the past 40 years: liturgy, staffing, ministry, Mass attendance, finances, ethnic and demographic shifts.

Many regions of our country, including central and southern Indiana, have witnessed parish closings and mergers. Other areas of the United States—especially in the south and west but also right here in our archdiocese—face the urgent demand for new parishes to meet the needs of shifting Catholic populations.

Resources are a real challenge in every case. New parishes require more human and financial resources than most dioceses have readily available. Merged, clustered or closed parishes have facilities and other assets that must be used appropriately.

A recent communication from the Vatican to the bishops of the United States seeks to clarify how parish closings or mergers are to be handled.

According to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, “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 … forming a larger territorial unit. While the parish church and the physical plant may be closed and the name of a particular parish extinguished, the spiritual needs of the portion of the faithful which once constituted that parish must continue to be provided for in accord with their rights in law.”

What about the assets of a closed or merged parish? How are these to be dealt with?

According to Cardinal Castrillon, “the patrimony and obligations of the closed parishes must follow the faithful in an equitable and proportionate fashion.” This means that the physical assets of a parish that is closed or merged must follow the parishioners to their new parish or parishes. The assets do not belong to the diocese, but to the enlarged or new parish community that welcomes the members of a former parish into their new spiritual home.

The practical implications of this clarification of Church law are obvious. No bishop can close a parish simply to have access to its property or financial resources. But what are the pastoral implications of this view of what a parish is? What does this interpretation of the disposition and use of parish property tell us about the role of parish communities in carrying out the mission of the Church?

Two things stand out.

First, a parish is more than the sum of its physical parts—its geography, its facilities and finances. A parish is an ecclesial community of faith that is intimately connected to a wider community, the diocese or local Church.

The mission of every parish is to serve the spiritual needs of its people. If it becomes necessary for pastoral reasons to suppress a parish (to merge with one or more other parishes), the bishop’s obligation to make sure that the spiritual needs of parishioners are met remains as strong as ever.

Second, no parish is an island unto itself. As a territorial division of a diocese, a parish community must be both stable and in transition. That is, it must be stable enough to provide for its own needs as a community of faith, and it must be able to reach out to serve the needs of others beyond its geographic boundaries even if this means transitioning to a new form (cluster, merger, consolidation, etc.).

A Catholic parish should never be parochial in the narrow, pejorative sense of this term. A parish does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the broader mission of the Church as this is carried out in the larger territory or region under the care of the local bishop, the diocesan Church.

Given the rapid and unsettling changes that are taking place in contemporary society, there is a tendency to look to the Church for stability and constancy in all things. We are right to expect that the Church will remain true to its fundamental beliefs and its basic moral principles. But we must also look to the Church for renewal, adaptability and appropriate change when it comes to meeting the spiritual and pastoral needs of the family of God.

Parishes, like the Church itself, must be stable and dependable. But as the Greek word paroikos (sojourner or wayfarer) implies, Catholic parishes are always in transition—no matter when they were founded or how long they are able to remain viable as stable-yet-flexible communities of faith.

— Daniel Conway

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