Is Every Catholic Church a Parish?

Q:  My wife, preschool son and I regularly attend Sunday Mass at the Shrine of –.  My wife and I also go to confession there regularly.

Our son will be starting school next year… we discovered that there is no CCD of any kind being provided.  The priest told my wife that instead, we have to take our son to St. – Church for Sunday School and First Confession/Communion preparation.  We were flabbergasted!  There aren’t many children who regularly attend Mass at the Shrine, it’s true.  But aren’t they still required to provide religious instruction for the ones who do, instead of pawning the responsibility off on another church?  –Steve

A:  Steve is making an understandable yet erroneous assumption, that the shrine where he and his family attend Mass isn’t providing catechetical instruction simply because there are few children to instruct.  But the canonical issue here is actually quite different.

If the priest really had told Steve’s wife to take their son to another parish for instruction, only because there weren’t enough kids to warrant a CCD program at the shrine, there would indeed be cause for concern here.  The number of children who happen to be of the right age to begin catechetical instruction at a given parish does not affect the responsibility of the pastor for their spiritual formation.  The pastor of a parish is obliged to see to the religious instruction of the people of his parish, regardless of how large or small the population happens to be (cc. 528.1, 776).  Even if there is only one child in the entire parish, canon 217 asserts that as a member of Christ’s faithful, he has the right to a Christian education.

But before concluding that the priest at the shrine Steve mentions is evading his legal obligations, it’s important to note that these laws specifically pertain only to the pastor of a parishCanon 515.1 provides the definition of a parish: it is a community of Christ’s faithful that has been established in a stable manner within a particular Church, the pastoral care of which has been entrusted to a parish priest [i.e., the pastor] under the authority of the diocesan bishop.

The shrine where Steve and his family attend Mass does not meet this definition.  To understand why not, let’s take a look at how the parish-system works.

The geographical territory of every Catholic diocese is divided up into parishes, and only a diocesan bishop has the authority to establish new parishes, close existing ones, or merge multiple parishes into one (c. 515.2).  Whenever a new parish is created, its territorial boundaries are carefully defined: the official documentation might say, for example, that a given parish extends east from Main Street up to and including Union Street, with the northern boundary being the 800 to 2500 blocks of Maple Street and continuing down all of Oak Street, and extending south up to the northern edge of the city park.  With such specific descriptions of each parish, every square inch of diocesan territory is thereby accounted for!

But one might also find some other Catholic institution located within the territory of a given parish.  For example, let’s say that within the boundaries of the parish of St. John the Baptist, there happens to be a convent of Dominican sisters.  At some point in the past, those sisters received permission from the diocesan bishop to establish their convent within his diocese (c. 609.1).  Ordinarily, of course, a convent contains an oratory intended for the use of the sisters themselves (cf. c. 1223), where the Eucharist is reserved (c. 934.1 n. 1), and where the sisters gather for community prayer and daily Mass.  If the sisters wish, they may invite the Catholic faithful to join them for Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, recitation of the rosary, etc.

This means that the territory of our fictional St. John the Baptist parish contains not only the parish church itself, but also another lawfully erected, Catholic institution where Mass is being celebrated as well.  If Catholics live in St. John the Baptist parish, yet attend Mass at the Dominican convent, they are certainly not doing anything wrong!  But the chapel inside that convent isn’t their parish.

This is not only the case with convents.  A diocese might contain a non-Catholic university with a Newman Center, where Mass is celebrated regularly.  It may contain a Marian shrine that is frequented by pilgrims from both within and outside the diocese.  Maybe there’s a home for elderly/infirm priests, with a chapel for them that is also open to the public.  In each of these examples, the entity in question exists in the diocese only because the diocesan bishop permits it to be there.  (See “Can the Bishop Shut Down a Shrine?” for more on this topic.)  These are all totally legitimate Catholic entities, where one can attend Sunday Mass, and maybe also go to confession.  But unless the diocesan bishop has legally established them as parishes in and of themselves (which sometimes happens!), they are located within the territory of a parish which normally has its own parish church.

What difference does it make?  Well, when it comes to fulfilling your Sunday obligation, none at all!  Catholics are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and holydays of obligation (c. 1247), but they are not required to attend Mass at their proper parish church (cf. c. 1248).  Similarly, as per canon 991, we Catholics may confess our sins not just to a priest of our parish, but to any priest who has faculties to hear confessions (see “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?” for more on how confessional faculties work).  There’s no reason, therefore, why a Catholic couldn’t go to confession at a Marian shrine, or at a college Newman Center, or at any other lawful Catholic institution where confessions are being heard.

But there are certain spiritual matters which, by their very nature, are the specific responsibility of the pastor of a parish.  The catechetical formation of Christian faithful who live within the boundaries of a particular parish is, as we’ve already seen, one such example.  This is why it would be entirely inappropriate for one’s children to receive CCD instruction from a convent chapel, or a Newman Center, or a Marian shrine, or any other Catholic entity which has not been established as a parish.  The priest(s) assigned to minister at such places are not responsible for the catechetical instruction of the children who happen to attend Mass there.  That is the duty of the pastor of the parish in whose territory they live.

Consequently, the priest at the shrine, who told Steve’s wife that their son should attend Sunday School at their parish, was absolutely correct.  The particular shrine that Steve mentions was not established by the diocesan bishop as a parish; rather, it is located within the boundaries of a parish which has its own church.  Thus nobody is evading his duty here!  On the contrary, the priest who ministers at the shrine is obliged to defer in such matters to the pastor of the territorial parish, who is responsible for the catechetical instruction of Steve’s son.

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