Parish: Not a perfect and sinless community
THE Code of Canon Law defines parish as “a certain community of Christ’s faithful stably established within a particular Church, whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor” (Can. 515 §1).
As a certain community, it pertains not merely to a congregation of people within a particular territory. It strictly refers to a group of baptized Catholics called Christ’s faithful, lay faithful or simply laity.
It is stable which means that no other authority, apart from the Diocesan Bishop, can establish, suppress or alter parishes (Can. 515 §2).
This community is under a Diocese or what is called a particular or local church. Other equivalents of a Diocese are: territorial prelature, territorial abbacy, vicariate apostolic, a prefecture apostolic and a permanently established apostolic administration (Can. 368).
An Archdiocese is also called a particular or local church. But more properly, it is called a Metropolitan see, meaning it is competent to perform special functions and has power over other particular churches called suffragan dioceses that compose an ecclesiastical province (Cans 435-436 §1-3). The local ordinary or the head of an archdiocese is called an Archbishop.
The pastoral care of a parish is entrusted to a parish priest or pastor. But other priests may help him provide the spiritual and pastoral needs of the community. These priests may be assigned by the Diocesan Bishop as assistant priests or associate pastors. Others are designated as resident guest priests because they are not incardinated in the Diocese where the parish is juridically a part.
Under the concept of “team ministry”, the pastoral care of a parish or of a number of parishes together, can be entrusted to several priests jointly provided that one of them acts as the moderator, and hence, responsible to the bishop (Can. 517 §1).
In a book entitled, What Is a Parish? Canonical, Pastoral, and Theological Perspectives, the author, Thomas A. Baima wrote, “The parish is the Church inserted into the neighborhood and the world, the place in which the Church encounters the world and the world encounters the Church”. This emphasizes the spiritual character of a parish but one that is not totally removed from secular realities because it is both a place of encounter and of communion of the people of God in the world.
The Church no longer sees itself apart from or against the world but as a partner in dialogue with the world about the fundamental questions of human origin, purpose, and destiny. The Church’s contribution to this dialogue is to present Christ’s universal offer of salvation as the ultimate solution to these questions. The focus of the modern parish, therefore, must be outward and not inward if it is to engage the local world in dialogue. In the words of Pope Francis, “the Church must not be a self-referential church, but one that goes out to the margins, to the peripheries of the world”.
As the locus of encounter, a parish is formed not in a vacuum. It is formed in cities, towns, villages, countryside, and even in remote areas where there are communities, regardless of how secular they are in their manner of living. The presence of the church in these places becomes an evangelizing moment. The priest either organizes them to embrace the faith or simply helps them to strengthen their faith.
One defining character of these communities is their sense of communion. As James A. Coriden said in his book, The Parish in Catholic Tradition: History, Theology, and Canon Law, “They felt joined together as parts of a larger organism. They had a sense of being ‘in communion” with one another’”. They were linked together in Christ as one people, one body, holding fast to the same faith and sharing in love.
A parish, therefore, is also a place of unity and solidarity. Hence, marks of division in it should outrightly be rejected. The parish should be insulated from intrigues, pride, jealousy, envy, competition, backstabbing, gossiping, and quarreling. Sadly, these traits are sometimes rampant and seemingly unavoidable. Rising above these challenges is difficult. No matter how priests emphasize the need for respect, camaraderie, and unity, these unwanted conduct are simply too much to overcome.
The ecclesiology of Vatican II explains the seeming absurdity of a church composed of imperfect members. Vatican II abandons the image of the Church as a ‘perfect society.’ Rather, the Council acknowledged the holiness and sinfulness of the Church as a pilgrim people who shares the existential restlessness and struggle between good and evil with all humankind. The mission of the Church is to reveal to the world that life with Christ through faith is the only definitive response to this restlessness. The parish should assist its members to acknowledge the tension between their call to holiness and their experiences of limitation and sinfulness, to live this tension with hope and courage in the world, and hence, to witness to the presence and power of Christ to the world. (Paul Monkerud, The Modern Urban Parish: Challenges and Opportunities)
This rich theology offered by Vatican II is an eye-opener to critics of the Church, who call her shameless hypocrite at the slightest mistake she makes. Time and again, bishops, priests and other religious leaders do not claim to be sinless and perfect. More than begging for understanding, the Church takes it as a challenge to continue reforming herself rather than be at risk of stagnating and thereby losing her credibility in the process.
The parish is at the forefront of these challenges. Parishioners do not go to their diocese. They actually go to parishes when their children are to be baptized or to be confirmed; they go to parishes for marriage, for Eucharistic celebrations or for funeral Masses; they approach the pastor for counseling, spiritual direction, confession and for blessing; students coordinate with the parish for their parish involvement and exposure; politicians also deal with pastors for issues of common interests such as death penalty, abortion, poverty alleviation, and many others. Pastors are, therefore, called to an active leadership and participation not only in religious or spiritual matters but more so, in matters of practical interests.
We sometimes see pastors failing in these regard. Hence, we see “dead” parishes and “lifeless” parishioners. It’s easy to blame pastors for their failures, but please do not forget that a parish is not the parish priest. It is a community of Christ’s faithful, and therefore, all must share the blame for the death of a parish in much the same way that all must share the joy for establishing and nurturing a lively community that is rooted in faith, hope, and charity.