A parish is a definite community of the Christian faithful established on a stable basis within a particular church; the pastoral care of the parish is entrusted to a pastor as its own shepherd under the authority of the diocesan bishop” (Canon 515, Code of Canon Law).
The canonical definition of a parish introduces a brief ecclesiological insight. It teaches that the Universal Church consists of the union of many “particular churches.” A particular church is what we know as a diocese. The pastor of the diocesan church is the bishop. The diocese is, in turn divided into a number of more manageable units that we call parishes. Each parish has its own canonically appointed leader — the pastor.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes a parish as “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” (No. 2179).
A canon law professor of mine once told us seminarians that the Catholic understanding of “parish” was unique among all Christian denominations. Why? Because a Catholic parish alone has geographical boundaries. The Catholics who live within those boundaries, who are neighbors to one another, who share the same lifestyle and have similar concerns and needs, but can also be quite diverse, fittingly gather to worship together in the parish church. It was virtually unknown in my youth that a Catholic would venture outside of the parish boundaries to worship regularly at another Catholic church.
I can recall well the sense of belonging that we experienced as parishioners of Corpus Christi Church in Jennings, Missouri. That did not mean that there were never any problems, or that we always admired the leadership of every pastor that served in the parish. It did mean, however, that whatever struggles we had with the clergy or religious leaders in the parish, or whatever difficulties there were in our relations with fellow parishioners, we did not run away. Belonging to a parish meant building a real community, even when times were tough.
There was something quite brilliant about the parish structure of those days. The stability that it provided served the people very well. The Code of Canon Law still provides for geographically circumscribed parishes, but long gone is the same sense of loyalty that held us together as fellow parishioners.
I sometimes see on the cover pages of parish bulletins that the parish is identified as, for example, “St. Athanasius Parish Family.” “Family” conjures up a number of wholesome and warm sentiments. Family members love one another. They bear with one another. They support one another. They forgive one another. They rejoice with one another. They work to build family unity and harmony. Family members, we pray, don’t leave each other to find another family when they face challenging times.
That same canon law professor would remind us that parish boundaries kept us from worshipping only at those places in which we felt comfortable, in which there were few or no problems, unlike our Protestant brothers and sisters. They could attend Sunday services wherever they liked. They could follow their favorite pastor wherever he went. Catholics had to stay and work with the pastor they had to help the parish grow in strength and holiness.
The understanding of “parish community” that prevailed in my youth has changed for many Catholics, and, in so doing, has diminished the richness of parish life as we once knew it. No parish is the fullness of the Catholic Church, but in each parish we should always be able to find the presence of Christ through whose power and influence the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is constituted. The Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” reminds us very beautifully what a parish is — or ought to be:
The parish offers an outstanding example of community apostolate, for it gathers into a unity all the human diversities that are found there and inserts them into the universality of the Church. The laity should develop the habit of working in the parish in close union with their priests, of bringing before the ecclesial community their own problems, world problems, and questions regarding man’s salvation, to examine them together and solve them by general discussion (No. 10).