What is a parish?

Benjamin Being Catholic

Most Catholics experience the Church through their local parish, but what exactly is a parish?

The Code of Canon law, which is the law of the Catholic Church, defines a parish as “a definite community of the Christian faithful.” The same passage goes on to say, “the pastoral care of the parish is entrusted to a pastor as its own shepherd under the authority of the diocesan bishop” (canon 515 paragraph 1).

This definition tells us that the parish is actually the people; it is the Christian people who live in a certain area. Every Catholic is under the authority of the local Bishop, who leads and guides the local Church in union with all the bishops throughout the world. The bishop entrusts the pastoral care of a certain community of Catholics (usually those who live in a certain area), to the care of a parish priest. This local community is the parish.

Even the Catholics in the area who never come to church are members of the parish, and they have been entrusted to the care of their pastor. This means that the pastor is responsible to see that every soul in his parish – especially those who never come to Church – have heard the Gospel, and are prepared for death when their time comes.

This definition means that the parish is not the church building; the building is where the parish gathers to praise and worship God. This also means that the parish is not the little corporation that owns property and pays the electricity bills. While we do have corporations that pay their bills, the parish would still exist even if there was no corporation.

This is worth reflecting on because it is easy for priests (and for parishioners) to look at the parish and never notice the people. We can get caught up in the business that needs to be done to manage the little corporation, or in the work that needs to be done to take care of the buildings, and forget to care for the people.

Here in the United States there is a tendency in the Catholic Church to register parishioners and to focus on those lists. This leads to an attitude that “our people” are the registered parishioners, and we don’t have to be concerned about the others. In fact, all the Catholics in the parish territory are “members” of the parish, and the church is their home even if they never come to visit. +