Establishing Dioceses and Parishes in Mission Lands

Q:  While doing some historical research, I found that my parish church which is 152 years old, when its foundations were laid, had belonged to the Apostolic Vicariate of [X] and the mission of [Y].  I understood these terms as “pre-diocesan” and “pre-parish.”  Is my understanding correct?

When I searched more on this, I found that there are other terms such as Apostolic administrations, prefectures and territorial prelates.  Can you please explain what these are? –Lahiru

A: Lahiru is onto something here!  While we Catholics are well familiar with the concept of a diocese divided territorially into parishes (discussed in “Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals” and “Parish Registration,” among others), there have always been exceptions to this norm.  There are plenty of Catholics living in parts of the world which are considered missionary territory, or where the Church is currently enduring political or other persecution, or where (at least at the moment) there is some other anomaly which prevents Rome from canonically erecting a “normal” diocese with “normal” parishes.  Consequently, the Church has developed several variations on the diocese/parish theme, which sound somewhat different but are entirely legitimate and fully Catholic.  We’ll look first at the norm, and then at these exceptions—and then we’ll be able to see how Lahiru’s current parish and diocese fit into the equation.

Let’s start by looking at the concept of a mission—which is not explicitly defined in canon law.  When Catholic missionaries enter territory which has not been evangelized before, they don’t immediately set about erecting dioceses and parishes.  First, they have to find a willing audience to listen to their exposition of the Catholic faith, and make converts who will henceforth live as Catholics.  This all takes time, and often much effort by missionaries ends up amounting to nothing; but when results look promising, missionaries may choose a location to set up a mission. That doesn’t always mean they build a church (although they might); the mission might be nothing more than a mud hut in a jungle, or a repurposed barn or garage, or a room in a new convert’s home.  Bear in mind that depending on the circumstances, a missionary might have a vast territory through which he travels, and if he makes a couple of converts in a given place, he might not see them again for several months—and who knows, by that time they may have already lost interest!

Thus it makes no sense at this early stage to be erecting a full-fledged parish.  As canon 515.1 tells us, “a parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted,” and there is absolutely nothing “stable” about fledgling missionary efforts.  But if/when there are enough converts to warrant erecting more permanent ecclesial structures in the territory, the Church will look at setting up a diocese-type structure, and the missions within it may ultimately be established as parishes, as per canon 515.

Speaking of dioceses, let’s now move on from missions/parishes, to the larger structures which Lahiru correctly believes constitute “pre-dioceses.”  A diocese is a form of what Catholic ecclesiology calls a particular church, a term which contrasts with that of the worldwide universal ChurchCanon 368 defines particular churches as “first of all dioceses,” but adds that apostolic vicariates, apostolic prefectures, and apostolic administrations are particular churches too.  No wonder Lahiru is perplexed!  What do these terms mean, and what’s the difference between them all?

Before we answer that question, it’s important to note that throughout the world, and throughout the past 2000 years of Christian history, the Catholic Church has expanded in regions with vastly different political, demographic, economic, and even geographical issues.  Sure, sometimes it’s a relatively straightforward matter to establish a new diocese with a new bishop in a given territory: a good example is the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia (USA) which was created by Pope Paul VI in 1974.  Previously, the Diocese of Richmond covered the entire State of Virginia—but as the Catholic population in the region increased markedly over time, it made total sense to split the diocese into two.  One diocese, with one bishop, became two dioceses with two different bishops basically overnight.  While there undoubtedly were plenty of bureaucratic headaches involved with the creation of the new diocese, its erection took place in peacetime, and in a first-world country where the Catholic faith is practiced freely.  It’s fairly safe to assume that there was no bloodshed or other mayhem involved in the creation of this new diocese!

But not every Catholic has had the good fortune to live in such an uneventful era, and in such an advanced part of the world, where Catholicism was already established long ago.  And mindful of Our Lord’s command to the Apostles to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), the Church has perennially been doing whatever it can to establish the faith even in areas where humanly speaking, doing so is complicated at best.

Here’s a typical example, which has occurred countless times from time immemorial.  Once Catholic missionaries have established a sizeable enough population of Catholic converts in a region where the Church has never been before, they naturally move to erect a rudimentary diocese/parish system in the region where they are spreading the faith.  As a general rule, it would make little sense to immediately set up a full-fledged diocese, with a diocesan bishop and priests operating parish churches; in such a situation the new Christian community is almost invariably small in size, and understandably still quite unfamiliar with the Catholic hierarchical structure.  By its very nature, there is still a lot of uncertainty and instability about an entirely new grouping of Catholics like this!  Under such circumstances, the missionaries would likely work with Rome to set up either an apostolic vicariate or an apostolic prefectureCanon 371.1 defines these two terms:

An apostolic vicariate or apostolic prefecture is a certain portion of the people of God which has not yet been established as a diocese due to special circumstances and which, to be shepherded, is entrusted to an apostolic vicar or apostolic prefect who governs it in the name of the Supreme Pontiff.

Note the key phrase “not yet been established as a diocese.”  The Church’s intent in erecting either of these entities is that eventually, God willing, it will become a diocese like any other.  Naturally it will take time—perhaps a few years, or decades, or maybe even longer—for the Catholic faith to take root in the region and for the Church to become firmly established, both in the souls of the new converts and in the culture of the region.

What’s the difference between an apostolic vicariate, and an apostolic prefecture?  The code doesn’t actually explain this, but as a general rule, an apostolic prefecture is put under the care of an apostolic prefect, who is normally a cleric that isn’t a bishop.  An apostolic vicariate is headed by an apostolic vicar, who is ordinarily a bishop (but not a diocesan bishop, since there is no diocese yet!).  You might say, if you like, that an apostolic vicariate is sort of a notch higher than an apostolic prefecture, since its leadership by a bishop makes it a bit more similar to the structure of a normal diocese, which the Church hopes it will one day become.  It is common—though not legally obligatory—for a territory to be first established as an apostolic prefecture, with a non-bishop at the helm, and to be raised later to the status of apostolic vicariate.

Although neither the apostolic prefect or the apostolic vicar is a diocesan bishop, both are equivalent in law to a diocesan bishop, as per canon 381.2.  So within their territory, they have the same basic kinds of authority that a diocesan bishop has within his diocese, when it comes to assigning clergy to various ministries, spending funds, granting dispensations, creating laws governing the Catholics living within the territory of the apostolic prefecture or vicariate, etc.

This is probably all sounding pretty abstract, so here’s a concrete, real-life example.  In the country of Peru, in the Amazon rainforest, is the city of Iquitos.  Its population is about half a million people, but Iquitos is no ordinary city: as this travel website explains, “Iquitos is the world’s largest city that cannot be reached by road.”  Yes, there are plenty of Catholics there, thanks to heroic missionaries of generations past (a neat summary of early Jesuit missions can be found here, under “History, Early Period”); but its extremely isolated location, and its complex political/cultural history involving both indigenous peoples and European colonists who didn’t always mix, all seem to have led Rome to keep the region in the “missionary territory” category for more than 100 years.  Originally the Church established an apostolic prefecture in this region; and just as was mentioned above, it later became an apostolic vicariate, which it remains to this day.

There’s a third type of non-diocese which Lahiru mentions, which is somewhat different from the two we’ve just seen: the apostolic administration.  This is defined in canon 371.2 as “a certain portion of the people of God which is not erected as a diocese by the Supreme Pontiff due to special and particularly grave reasons and whose pastoral care is entrusted to an apostolic administrator who governs it in the name of the Supreme Pontiff.”  In other words, Rome creates apostolic administrations when there is some kind of a problem that prevents the Church from establishing a regular diocese.


Francis Hong Yong-ho, Bishop of Pyongyang, was arrested in 1949 and disappeared

The problem is frequently a political one.  A particularly tragic and extremely complicated example of this is Pyongyang, North Korea, which in generations past was established as an apostolic prefecture, and later as an apostolic vicariate.  It may have been reasonable to assume that ultimately, Pyongyang would become an ordinary diocese with its own diocesan bishop; but that all changed with the division of Korea into two political entities in the 1940’s, and the imprisonment (and eventually the total disappearance) of the Bishop of Pyongyang in 1949.  Since the open practice of the Catholic faith was completely banned in North Korea by its dictatorial government, it quickly became impossible for the Church to operate there with any degree of normalcy—and so the status of the the Church structure in Pyongyang isn’t normal either.

For much of the 20th century there was no bishop for Pyongyang at all, at least partly because the political upheaval and uncertainty in the entire nation of Korea for many years hindered the establishment of stable dioceses with defined borders.  In 1962, the apostolic vicariate of Pyongyang was made a diocese, as one part of the overall restructuring of both North and South Korea into dioceses—but there was (and still is) simply no way for Rome to install a regular diocesan bishop in Pyongyang, for political reasons.  That’s why officially, the diocese—which has its own website, by the way—is under the care of the Bishop of Seoul, South Korea, who is officially the apostolic administrator of Pyongyang.  There do not seem to be any Catholic clergy still alive in North Korea today, and there are no Catholics living there openly professing their faith, either; but the spiritual wellbeing of the underground remnant of the Church there is the responsibility of a bishop who actually resides in another country, and is unable to visit them.

It pretty much goes without saying that the presumed diplomatic negotiations (or at least attempted negotiations) between the government of North Korea and the Vatican, and between the government of North Korea and the Church in South Korea, are not known to the public—but they’re undoubtedly headache-inducing and deserving of our prayers.  (An outdated, but still very interesting, interview with a previous Archbishop of Seoul/Apostolic Administrator of Pyongyang can be read here.)  We can see why it makes total sense for the Church to have alternate structures with which it can govern the Church and minister to Catholics who are living in regions with messy situations like this.

If we turn to the Church in Lahiru’s region, what he tells us should by now be perfectly clear.  When what is now his parish church was first erected 152 years ago, it was a mission, not a parish; and it was located within an apostolic vicariate, not a diocese.  Today, however, the Church’s structure in Lahiru’s country has been regularized: at some point the apostolic vicariate was deemed by Rome to be stable enough to become a diocese, and his mission church likewise was considered sufficiently stable to be canonically erected as a parish.  Thank God for granting the grace of a missionary vocation to all the good Catholic missionaries who first went into this part of the world to preach the faith!  Their efforts, as Lahiru indicates, have borne much fruit.


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