Why Can’t You Change the Name of a Church?

Q:  If a church was consecrated by the diocesan bishop in the name of a particular saint, can a different bishop later change its name?

I ask because my parish church was consecrated 150 years ago to the Mother of God.  Now the current bishop of our diocese has been reducing the number of parishes because of a shortage of priests, and he has merged our parish with a smaller one nearby and announced that it’s now dedicated to a totally different saint.

We’re trying to figure out how he could do that, just by decreeing it, without reconsecrating the church to the new saint.  Can you enlighten us? –Amber

A: Amber subsequently provided more details about what has happened in this specific case, and these days it’s a fairly common occurrence.  With regard to name-changing, let’s take a look at (1) what legally can be done, (2) what legally must not be done, and (3) what was actually done at Amber’s parish.

To begin with, when an edifice is constructed with the intention that it be used permanently as a Catholic church, it must be formally dedicated using the rite found in the Church’s liturgical books (cf. c. 1217; and if like most Catholics you don’t own a set of the Church’s liturgical books, you can find relevant excerpts here).  Normally this happens when construction is completed, although in some cases the church is dedicated before all churchthe work is completed: in 2010, for example, then-Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s still unfinished basilica (shown here back in 1957).  Even though the church had not yet been completed, enough of the structure was finished by 2010 that Masses could be celebrated there, down on the ground level, while builders continued their work overhead—and since Benedict’s dedication of the church, that’s exactly what has been happening.

When a church is dedicated, it thus becomes a suitable place for the celebration of Mass, because now it is properly considered a sacred place (cf. c. 1219).  And as we saw in “Does Mass Have to be Said in a Church?canon 932.1 states that the Eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place—unless a particular necessity requires otherwise, in which case it is to be held in another, suitable place.

When a church is dedicated in accord with the Church’s liturgical rites, it receives its name, or title.  Catholics are well familiar with the sorts of names which are approved for our churches: these include titles referring to the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, a mystery in the life of Christ (like “Ascension” or “Nativity”), the Blessed Virgin Mary or another canonized saint.  If the church can be dedicated on its feast-day in the Church’s liturgical calendar, that’s great—but it doesn’t have to be.

Canon 1218 tells us that the title of a church cannot be changed after the church has been dedicated.  So if, say, your parish church was dedicated back in 1802 to Saint James the Less, the title of the church can’t be subsequently changed to Our Lady of La Salette.  Neither the bishop nor anybody else can argue that (for example) since this Marian title didn’t exist back in 1802, and devotion to Our Lady of La Salette has become widespread in the diocese, the diocese should change the name of one of its churches to reflect that devotion.  In fact, your parish of Saint James the Less can’t even be changed to Saints Philip and James, thereby including the original saint’s name while adding one more.  Your church was dedicated to Saint James the Less, and that’s the name the church will always have.

But what happens if your parish church of Saint James the Less is totally demolished by flooding or fire?  If a dedicated church is either completely destroyed, or at least it is so seriously damaged that it can no longer be used for the celebration of Mass … that’s a different story.  If a parish church building has become so decrepit that it no longer can be safely used for the celebration of Mass, the bishop can certainly arrange to have what’s left of the church demolished, and then build a new church to replace it.  (Some elements of this issue were already discussed in “Canon Law and Closing a Parish.”)  If that’s what he decides to do, there is no reason why the new church building must have the same title as the original one.  Sure, it might make sense, to avoid confusion among the faithful, to replace the old Saint Agatha’s with an entirely new church which is also called Saint Agatha’s; but if you’re constructing a new building, you can lawfully give it a different title.

Given all this information, it sure sounds like something illegal is happening at Amber’s parish, doesn’t it?  But not so fast!  Before drawing any conclusions about this particular case, it’s critical to note the distinction between the title of a dedicated church, and the name of a parish.

Ordinarily, the name of a parish, and the title of the parish church, are one and the same—and that’s the way it should be.  But as Amber indicates, there’s a modern reality that the Church has to deal with, and it involves the merger of parishes.  Sometimes, this is necessary for purely demographic reasons: perhaps a century or two ago, a given region was populated with a high number of Catholics, requiring the construction of multiple parishes within a relatively small area … but nowadays, people have largely moved away and the churches are almost empty of parishioners (and the few who are left can’t afford the upkeep).  In other cases, a dire shortage of parish clergy prevents a diocesan bishop from assigning a pastor to every parish, and so parishes are obliged to double-up, with one priest ministering at two (or even more!) different churches.  In these sorts of situations, it sadly makes sense to restructure the diocese into a smaller number of parishes.  That, in turn, means that in some parishes, there will be more than one church—each of which will retain its original title.

A couple of concrete examples should make this clearer.  Imagine that the parish of St. Matthew is being merged with St. Andrew’s parish.  Neither church building is going to be closed: the parish priest intends to celebrate weekday Masses at St. Matthew’s, and Sunday Masses at St. Andrew’s, thus ensuring that both church buildings are regularly being used for worship.  It’s possible for the bishop to name the new parish “St. Matthew-St. Andrew” if he likes (here’s an example of a parish in the U.S. where this was done); or perhaps it might be called “Holy Apostles,” since both Matthew and Andrew were among The Twelve.  Or the bishop might name the new parish something totally different: for example, he might wish to name it after a more recently canonized saint, like “St. Teresa of Calcutta” or “St. John Paul II” (an example of this can be found here).  Regardless of the name given to the parish, the diocesan bishop must issue a decree clearly stating that the former parishes of St. Matthew and St. Andrew no longer exist because he is suppressing them—and that their territories are now included in the new parish.

In such a case, the two churches themselves retain their titles, neither of which matches the name of the new parish.  Canonically, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this.

“But it doesn’t say that anywhere in the code!”  No, it doesn’t.  That’s probably because back in 1983, when the current Code of Canon Law was promulgated, the merger of parishes in this way hadn’t yet become such a common phenomenon, requiring clarification about what can and cannot be done.  No doubt the increasingly frequent occurrence of such mergers is what prompted the then-Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (now the Dicastery for Divine Worship) to issue the notification Omnis ecclesia titulum in 1999, providing guidelines for these situations.

Omnis ecclesia titulum does not change any existing laws; rather, it reiterates the relevant canons (some of which have just been explained here), and fills in some gaps which were causing confusion.  Among other things, this notification tells us that the name given to a parish should correspond to the title of the parish church (#7), and that when a parish is suppressed, that parish’s church building still retains its original title (#11).  It adds that even church buildings which jointly constitute a parish’s churches will still keep their original titles (also #11), but the new parish can have a name different from the titles of any of its church buildings (#12).

Returning now to Amber’s particular case, her bishop didn’t actually change the titles of any church buildings; he merged multiple parishes and gave the newly created parish a totally different name.  The church buildings themselves retain the titles they received back when they were originally dedicated.  Even though these churches’ dedications don’t match the name of the new parish, there is nothing canonically irregular going on here—it perfectly matches the scenario described in #12 of Omnis ecclesia titulum, as described above.

The actions of Amber’s bishop are in complete accord with the law in this case.  (What a pleasure, to be able to write that sentence!  As long-time readers are well aware, that’s not always the answer to questions addressed here.)  The name of your parish, and the title of your parish church building, are usually the same; but as we’ve just seen, they don’t always have to be.


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