Which parish do you belong to?
By Fr Joe Babendreier
Sylvia likes to go to Mass at St Patrick’s. One of her children has already finished university studies, one is doing accounting and the other three are still at home. They go to church either with her or with Samuel, her husband. St Patrick’s is close by and she belongs to the choir.
When it comes time for a special ceremony, like baptising her children, the family goes to St Paul’s Chapel near the University of Nairobi because that’s where the couple got married. Sylvia thinks of St Paul’s as “her church”. She is a member of the CWA there.
Samuel doesn’t like the choir at St Patrick’s. “Too many notes” is the phrase he uses to describe his feelings on the matter. (He has been careful never to mention this to his wife.) He’s tone deaf anyway. He prefers going to any early Mass where he’s sure singing will be kept to a minimum. Every once in a while, he goes to Mass with Sylvia at St Paul’s because he’s the secretary for the Parish Council.
Christians are free to go to Mass on Sundays at any Catholic church. But doesn’t this strike you as a bit chaotic—people crisscrossing town every Sunday to attend different churches?
It is, in part, the result of something St Martin of Tours started. No other saint has had a more profound effect on the way people attend Mass on Sundays. More on that in a minute.
Every diocese has a Family Day. Once a year, all parishes in the diocese come together. The priests concelebrate with the bishop. It’s a day for families, but above all a day when we remember that we are God’s family. We are the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church.
The Church of Jesus Christ is not one church in Nairobi, and a different one in Mombasa, and yet another in Kisumu. It is one, no matter where you go. It is same Church in Kenya and Japan, in England and Argentina, in Nigeria and China.
No matter which parish you go to for Mass on Sunday, never forget that, in some mysterious way, the whole Church is present. The whole Church is present because she is the Body of Christ, and Christ is present on the altar in the Eucharist, hidden under the appearances of bread and wine.
The Church Spreads Out
In the early Church, every Sunday was Family Day. All the Christians, all the deacons and all the priests came together with the bishop. As the number of Christians increased, a practical question arose. How should things be organised for Mass on Sundays?
St Martin of Tours had a brilliant idea. He was a military man before becoming a priest. He was used to working with thousands of soldiers spread across a battlefield, each unit under the command of a lieutenant. Once he became a bishop, he divided his diocese into parishes, each parish headed by a priest. This multiplied the number of Eucharistic celebrations. Other bishops soon copied this way of organising the diocese.
To symbolise unity with the bishop, a deacon would take a piece of the Sacred Host from the altar where the bishop was celebrating Mass and carry it to the altar where one of his priests was celebrating Mass. This was then added to chalice. That’s why, even today, priests break off a small piece from the Sacred Host during the prayer “Lamb of God” and drop it into the chalice. It symbolises our unity: “The fact that there is only one loaf means that, though we are many, we form a single body because we all share in the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17).
Work of the Good Shepherd
Even though the idea of dividing a diocese into parishes does not come from the Bible or from Apostolic Tradition, it is indispensable for maintaining order. According to church law, the priest in charge of a parish is the one responsible for deciding baptisms, wedding and funerals, because it would be too much of a burden for the bishop to make each of these decisions.
In case of doubt or in any case where a dispensation is needed, the priest consults the bishop. But ordinarily, the priest-in-charge decides which children and which adults can be baptised, which couples can get married, and which Christians, once deceased, can be admitted for a funeral and Christian burial.
The priest needs to know his people the way a shepherd knows his sheep. He should be able to say what Jesus said: “I know mine, and mine know me” (Jn 10:14).
The Code of Canon Law states that the priest-in-charge must register baptisms, confirmations, marriages and funerals. He also has to issue a baptism certificate with a record of all pertinent information. The Code (canon 535) also specifies that each parish must have its own seal, which is to be used to stamp baptism certificates.
This practice makes is possible for a parish priest to decide what to do. For instance, according to Canon Law, when a Christian man and woman have decided they want to get married, they have to go to their parish priest with their baptism cards. As simple as that sounds, this gets complicated.
What do we mean when we say: “their parish priest”? If everyone concerned—the couple and their respective families—has been staying in one place for many years, it’s straightforward. If everyone has been moving around for the past decade (parents travelling and children moving here and there for jobs), the usual advice is to say: “Go to the priest of the parish where you go to Mass on Sundays.”
It often happens that a young Christian adult will arrive at a parish to talk the parish priest about getting married. The other spouse-to-be may not be Catholic. The priest has never seen the person before—at least not enough to recognise the person—even though that Christian has been attending Mass in his parish for a few months. Or a mother may show up at a parish with her baby and say she wants the child baptised. Once again, the priest may not know the woman and has no background information that would help him judge the circumstances. Similar difficulties arise for funerals.
How does the priest decide if the couple can have a wedding ceremony? What about baptising a child or celebrating a funeral?
Perhaps now you understand the reason why priests have an obligation to know the Christians who come to them with such requests. Perhaps you also understand why all the moving around on Sundays can make this difficult.
To understand the obligations assumed by priests, we can conclude with a paragraph in the Code Canon Law addressed to parish priests:
“So that he may fulfil his office of pastor diligently, the parish priest is to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care. He is therefore to visit their families, sharing in their cares and anxieties and, in a special way, their sorrows, comforting them in the Lord. If in certain matters they are found wanting, he is prudently to correct them. He is to help the sick and especially the dying in great charity, solicitously restoring them with the sacraments and commending their souls to God. He is to be especially diligent in seeking out the poor, the suffering, the lonely, those who are exiled from their homeland, and those burdened with special difficulties. He is to strive also to ensure that spouses and parents are sustained in the fulfilment of their proper duties, and to foster the growth of Christian life in the family.” (CCL, c.529)
Fr Joe is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei. He is currently a director of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.