Renew My Church: What is a parish?

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Monday, May 14, 2018

Chicago Catholic file photo

With the first group of reconfigured parishes under Renew My Church announcing their new names on May 13, Chicago Catholic wanted to take a look at what a parish is as understood by the universal Catholic Church.

“The best definition comes from right after the time of the New Testament when Ignatius of Antioch was trying to teach his own people of the nature of the church,” said Father Thomas Baima, vice rector of academic affairs for the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein. “In one of his letters he described the church as the bishop, surrounded by his priests, assisted by his deacons, in the midst of the baptized, celebrating the Eucharist. You can figure out pretty much everything else just by starting there.”

Baima is editor of the book of essays “What is a Parish? Canonical, Pastoral and Theological Perspectives.”

Some American Catholics are confused about the definition of a parish because the United States is, in many places, a largely Protestant culture, and Protestantism has its own idea of what parishes are.

In that way of thinking, a congregation is loosely defined as a voluntary association of individual Christians that exists to foster worship, service and community.

“It starts with an individual person and builds its way up and it’s about a task,” Baima said. “The Catholic idea of that building on the corner is it’s a part of the people of God defined by the bishop as a definite group to which he sends a pastor to enact the sacramental life of the church.”

To understand what a parish is, Catholics must understand what the church is. From Jesus’ crucifixion in 33 A.D. up to the 300s, when Christianity was legalized, Christians were persecuted and the church grew slowly.

“Generally, what you had was a single gathering of all the Christians in place around their bishop,” Baima said. “That really went on all the way up until Constantine legalized Christianity in 310 A.D.”

Christians at that time were mostly centered in cities, but occasionally a priest would go out into the country to celebrate the Eucharist with Christians there.

When the church received legal recognition, Christians began building large churches and cathedrals.

“For practical purposes, smaller churches were built in the cities and they were called titles or tituly,” Baima said. “They are still called that in Rome today. They kind of resembled our parishes but they really were chapels for celebrating the Eucharist and the sacraments because that sense of belonging to the one city church was still very strong.”

The parish began to appear after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West as the church went out to evangelize the largely rural, Germanic parts of Europe.

“The parish as we know it today is really born in that reality where you have a single priest-pastor being placed to serve a local group of faithful where they’re the only thing. There are not a part of the bigger city church because it’s so rural,” Baima explained.

He said two things are absolutely essential to the basis of a parish: It’s a stable relationship between a priest-pastor and a definite group of the baptized and it’s a sacramental relationship where the local church — the diocese — enacts its eucharistic identity.

“Like in the Archdiocese of Chicago, the only way the bishop’s church is able to be a eucharistic church is for the faithful to gather around their priest-pastors every Sunday. That’s the only way we are able to really be eucharistic because we can’t all gather in Soldier Field every week,” he said.

The group of faithful who gather can be defined by territory, ethnicity or rite.

“The key thing here, though, is the bishop sends a priest-pastor to that definite group as their own proper pastor. He is the pastor of that group of people,” Baima said. “It’s a little hard for Catholics to get this because we have three pastors simultaneously.”

Those three pastors are the pope, the bishop and then the priest-pastor.

“Each one is pastor always and at the same time, but they provide different roles of service to us,” Baima said. “It’s a little hard for people to think that way.”

The pope is ministering to all Catholics every day, as does the local bishop.

“In a particular way, the priest-pastor of the parish is also actively ministering to us but in ways that Cardinal Cupich can’t and in ways the pope can’t,” he said. “You have to fit the idea of the parish into this larger notion of belonging to a universal church.”


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