Which Parish Do I Belong To?

Q: In my diocese there is a parish which describes itself as “a non-territorial parish established to preserve and promote the traditional Latin Mass.”

What is the difference between a non-territorial parish and a “normal” parish?  I would assume the purpose of the non-territorial parish would be to enable any Catholic in the diocese to attend and it would be as if it were their “local” parish as far as Baptisms, Catechesis, Marriages, etc. are concerned?

Here’s a scenario: Geographic Parish A and Non-Territorial Parish B are both in the same diocese.  John lives within the boundaries of Parish A.  Because of his love for the traditional Latin Mass, John and his family attend Parish B.  Is John obliged to support, according to the precept, Parish A or B or both?  Would John require the Pastor of Parish A to give permission for him to marry in Parish B?

In general, which Parish takes precedence? –Peter

A: We saw in “Parish Registration” that parishes are, as a rule, territorial (c. 518).  This means that ordinarily, Catholics determine which parish is theirs based on their home address—whether that’s the parish you want to belong to or not.  We don’t necessarily have to attend Sunday Mass regularly at our parish; as was discussed in “Which Mass Fulfills My Sunday Obligation?” we can attend any Mass on Sunday at any Catholic church.  But ordinarily, Catholics don’t/can’t actually leave one parish and join another without moving to a new location, within the territory of a different parish.

While that’s the rule, the canon just mentioned explains that there are exceptions, and Peter has identified one of them in his question.  Canon 518 also asserts that a diocesan bishop can erect personal parishes, by reason of “rite, language, or nationality … or even for some other reason.”  What does this mean?  Let’s first look at some examples of situations where bishops might feel it warranted to establish a personal (i.e., non-territorial) parish, along the lines suggested by canon 518.

In many parts of the world, there are Catholic dioceses which have a sizeable population of Catholics of a particular national group.  A diocesan bishop can—although he is under no obligation!—erect a personal parish, the members of which are (let’s say) the Brazilian Catholics of the diocese and any other Catholics married to them.  The clergy of such a parish would say Mass, administer the sacraments, and organize catechism classes in Portuguese, and the parish might organize social events celebrating the feast-days of  Brazilian saints or other traditional Brazilian holidays.  In this way, the members of a particular diocese who are of Brazilian origin could find a Catholic priest who speaks their mother tongue, and worship with other Catholics from their native culture.

Since this would be a personal parish rather than a territorial one, it wouldn’t matter where in the diocese these Brazilian Catholics actually resided.  They might find themselves travelling clear across the diocese on Sundays to attend Mass at their parish—but it would still be their parish.

Once again, a bishop doesn’t have to establish personal parishes like this; but depending on the situation it might be helpful to the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful.  Imagine, for example, that Catholic immigrants to a new country are being particularly targeted by members of non-Catholic faiths, with a view toward luring them away from the Catholic Church.  These Catholics might find it attractive to pray on Sundays in a church where everyone is of their nationality—not understanding/caring whether that church is Catholic or not!  Circumstances like these could certainly warrant the creation of a Catholic parish specifically for such immigrants.

Similarly, a bishop could erect a parish for the people of the diocese who speak Mandarin Chinese, for instance.  The parish priest would celebrate Mass and the sacraments in that language, and any Catholic Mandarin-speaker of the diocese (whose family originated anywhere that Mandarin is spoken) could be a member of that parish.  This would be a personal parish erected not necessarily on the basis of nationality, but rather of language.  If the Catholic Chinese speakers of the diocese have difficulty communicating fluently in the local language, it could help them tremendously to be able to hear homilies/catechetical instruction in Mandarin Chinese, and also go to confession in their native tongue.

Canon 518 also mentions that personal parishes can be erected for those Catholics who worship in a certain rite, and this brings us to the scenario which Peter describes.  It appears that in his diocese, the bishop has established a parish specifically for those Catholics who want to attend Mass and receive the sacraments in the Extraordinary Form, following the preconciliar liturgical books.  As with the examples just mentioned, Catholics of this diocese might live anywhere, yet still be considered full members of this personal parish.  Bear in mind that not every parish where Extraordinary Form Masses are celebrated is a personal parish; this Mass is offered at many ordinary, territorial parishes around the world, and in these cases the normal rules about parish membership based on one’s home address still apply.

(By the way, note that when canon 518 is speaking of Catholics of a different rite, it is nonetheless speaking of Catholics of the Latin Catholic Church.  As we saw in “Are They Really Catholic? Part I,” the Catholic Church counts among her members millions of Catholics of other Catholic Churches sui iuris, like the Melkites and Ruthenians, among many others.  These Catholics are not governed by the Code of Canon Law discussed in this space, which pertains to Latin Catholics [cf. c. 1], and a Latin diocesan bishop has no authority to erect parishes for them—speaking broadly, only their own bishops can do that.  See “Why Don’t We Marry Validly Before a Ukrainian Catholic Priest? (Eastern Churches, Part I)” “Adopting Children of Another Faith (Eastern Churches, Part II)” and  “Becoming (Or at Least Marrying) an Eastern Catholic” for more on this topic.)

As canon 518 mentions, it’s possible to erect a personal parish “for some other reason” as well as those specifically mentioned.  Here’s a possible example: as we saw in “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” a diocesan bishop can establish a parish for a particular school or university located within his diocese, if he deems it prudent.  Depending on how the decree erecting such a parish is worded, it might be purely territorial: “the parish of St. Richard’s includes all Catholics residing on the campus of  the College of XYZ, south of this street, west of that street, north of the highway, and east of the river,” for example.  But our imaginary St. Richard’s could conceivably be erected as a personal parish instead, if the bishop’s decree said it is intended for “all the students of the College of XYZ, as well as their spouses and children if applicable,” whether they live at the school or not.  In the first case, St. Richard’s would be considered a typical, territorial parish—which happens to coincide with the territory of the campus of a particular school.  All Catholics living on the campus, including not only students but also any Catholic employees and their families who happened to live there too, would ipso facto be members of St. Richard’s.  In the second case, St. Richard’s would be a personal parish, and any Catholic student of the College of XYZ (but not their parents or siblings, even if they all live in the same house!) would be a member until he/she ceased to be enrolled as a student—regardless of the student’s address.  The precise status of the parish of St. Richard’s, as a territorial parish or a personal one, would depend on the wording of the bishop’s decree erecting the parish.

Let’s look at the other elements of Peter’s question.  As is the case for parishioners at any territorial parish, members of a personal parish would normally be prepared for the sacrament of marriage in that parish; both “Can Catholics Marry in Any Parish Church They Want?” and “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?” discussed this issue in detail.  And the children of adult parishioners would attend catechism classes and be prepared for their First Penance and First Holy Communion at their personal parish too.  After all, a personal parish is still a parish, even if it isn’t territorial, so it should be providing catechetical instruction for its parishioners.  (This, by the way, is not true of every Catholic church, as we saw in “Is Every Catholic Church a Parish?”)

As for the imaginary scenario Peter gives us, let’s take a closer look.  Imagine that John’s house is located territorially within the parish of St. Michael’s, in the Diocese of X.  But in the Diocese of X is also Our Lady of La Salette, a personal parish “established to preserve and promote the traditional Latin Mass,” like the one Peter describes—and since John is an aficionado of the old Mass, he prefers to attend Our Lady of La Salette and consider it his parish.  Assuming (as one ordinarily does) that the decree erecting Our Lady of La Salette doesn’t limit its membership in any way that would exclude John, then that’s his parish!

As a member of Our Lady of La Salette, John is expected to contribute to its support (see “Tithing and Excommunication” and “Contributing to the Support of the Parish: A Precept of the Church” for more on this topic).  If John wants to get married, he would naturally approach the pastor of Our Lady of La Salette to arrange this.

This means, logically, that even though John lives within the physical boundaries of St. Michael’s, he is not a member of that parish.  The pastor of St. Michael’s is not John’s pastor, and is therefore not spiritually responsible for him.  And John is certainly not expected to contribute to the financial upkeep of St. Michael’s—he is already supporting Our Lady of La Salette.

To be fair, this can sometimes seem much clearer on paper than in real life.  After all, what’s supposed to happen if our imaginary John hasn’t been practicing his faith for years—but now he knocks on the door of the parish office of Our Lady of La Salette and tells the pastor, “Hello!  I’m a member of the parish and I’d like to plan to get married here”?  At least in theory, there exists the potential for a Catholic to try to abuse the concept of the personal parish in this way.

But at the same time, this same issue could arise in a territorial parish too!  As we saw in “Marriage and Quasi-Domiciles,” it can (and definitely does) happen that someone approaches the parish priest out of the blue and declares, “I’m a member of the parish,” even though nobody has ever seen him before.  If that person simply wants to attend Mass and receive the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion, it isn’t necessarily a problem—but if (let’s say) he wants to get married, or have his child baptized in that parish, the priest will naturally need to figure out who exactly this person is and what’s going on.  That’s because such sacraments presume spiritual preparation (see “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” among others), and it’s the job of the person’s own pastor to ensure that he gets it (c. 851 n.2 and c. 1063 n. 2).

While we’re on the subject, what happens if for a while our fictitious Catholic John considers a personal parish in the diocese to be his, but later changes his mind and wants to be a member of his territorial parish?  Perhaps he no longer feels enthusiastic about the specific reasons why the personal parish exists; or maybe he and his wife are unhappy with their catechism program—so they want to switch their children to the classes at the territorial parish.

Again, on paper it’s a simple matter to “change parishes” in and of itself, since it doesn’t involve moving to a new location or anything comparably momentous.  If John is simply attending Mass and receiving the sacraments regularly at the one parish, as a general rule he just has to start doing this at the other.  But if something like his children’s reception of First Holy Communion or their regular catechetical instruction is involved, John will naturally have to contact the “new” parish and see how best to work out the transfer of the kids to the other catechism program.  It’s not an insurmountable problem, of course; but it’s John’s responsibility to see that it is done.

So we can see that when a Catholic has the option to be a member of a territorial parish or a personal parish in his diocese, neither of them “takes precedence,” as Peter puts it.  Regardless of the specific reasons why the personal parish was established by the diocesan bishop, it exists for the spiritual wellbeing of the Catholics of the diocese who are eligible and wish to belong to it.  There should be no animosity or competition between a personal parish and a territorial one; they both exist, first and foremost, for the spiritual wellbeing of the faithful of the diocese.

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