Why Should I Register at My Parish?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Fr. William Saunders

I am a recent convert to Catholicism. However, when I wanted to register at the church where I attended adult catechism classes, the parish secretary declined my request because I did not live within the parish boundaries. What are the benefits and significance of parish registration?—A reader in Fairfax

Before delving into the question of parish registration, we must first be mindful of what a parish is. The word parish itself originates in Judaism and identifies the body of people. "Parish" denoted the Israelites living in exile in Egypt. Later, "parish" signified the earthly existence of Israel living in this world but not as part of this world; rather, as a parish of pilgrim people of God, the Israelites looked forward to the heavenly Jerusalem.

In Christianity the term was similarly used to denote the Church community living in the Kingdom of God now in this world but with a view to its fulfillment in the heavenly Kingdom. St. peter reminded the early Church, "Conduct yourselves reverently during your sojourn in a strange land" (1Pt 1:17), highlighting that idea of a pilgrim people journeying toward heaven.

During the time of persecution, the parish was each individual community headed by a bishop. By A.D. 100, the bishop would send priests to offer Mass in homes especially in the rural areas. Moreover, each priest would also carry some of the holy Eucharist consecrated by the bishop to be distributed to the faithful at these sites as a sign of their unity as a whole Church.

After the legalization of Christianity, the diocesan structure soon came into existence. The bishop oversaw the care of the entire diocese, referred to as "the Church," e.g. the "Church of Arlington," and appointed priests as pastors in his stead to care for the local, smaller communities, now designated as "parishes." By the time of Popes Zosimus (417-18) and Leo the Great (440-461), parishes were given specific geographical areas by the bishop to ensure the pastoral care of the people. However, because of the politics surrounding the feudal system of the Middle Ages, sometimes the jurisdiction of the bishop as well as the territory of parishes were not so clear.

The Council of Trent (1545-63) addressed the parish structure of the diocese and established these governing principles: The bishop is pastor of his flock. He must live within and personally govern his diocese, which includes visiting his parishes. He must ensure the authentic preaching of the faith and administration of the sacraments. Therefore, to meet the needs of the faithful, the bishop creates parishes with specific boundaries and appoints properly educated pastors and assistants.

The present <Code of Canon Law> reflects this history, stating, "A parish is a definite community of the Christian faithful established on a stable basis within a particular Church; the pastoral care of the parish is entrusted to a pastor as its own shepherd under the authority of the diocesan bishop" (No. 515). Even if a bishop determines that the pastoral care of a parish or parishes is entrusted to a team of several priests, one priest should direct the activity and be responsible to the bishop. Likewise, in the case of the death of a pastor or when no resident pastor can be appointed, the bishop must still appoint a priest with the powers and faculties of a pastor to ensure the pastoral care of the faithful (No. 517).

The pastor has grave responsibilities to his flock. He must preach the Word of God; instruct the people in the faith; promote apostolic works; see to the Catholic education of children; reach out to those either who have stopped practicing the faith or who do not believe; ensure the devout celebration of the sacraments, particularly the most holy Eucharist and penance; and foster family prayer and devotion (No. 528).

However, parish life does not depend solely on the priests. The Second Vatican Council's "Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People" asserted that the laity should be filled with an apostolic spirit and work closely with their priests. "Nourished by their active participation in the liturgical life of their community, they engage zealously in its apostolic works; they draw men toward the Church who had been perhaps very far away from it; they ardently cooperate in the spread of the word of God, particularly by catechetical instruction; by their expert assistance they increase the efficacy of the care of souls as well as of the administration of the goods of the Church (No. 10).

Therefore, the pastor, his assistants and the faithful work together to build a sense of community within the parish, particularly through the celebration of the Mass. For this reason, under normal circumstances, adults are to be baptized in their parish church and infants in the parish church of their parents; and couples are to be married in the parish where either the bride or groom lives. Through the spirit and practice of the laity and clergy working together to foster this community, the relationship of the parish to the bishop is strengthened ("Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," No. 42).

To help ensure this dynamic in the parish, the Church requires registration. Parish registration creates a two-fold obligation. On one hand, the pastor is obligated to support the mission and needs of the parish. On the other hand, the individual is obligated to support the mission and needs of the parish.

In her wisdom, the Church has seen the practice of registering at the church responsible for a particular territory as the best way for both priests and laity to meet these obligations. The <Code of Canon law> stipulates, "As a general rule a parish is to be territorial, that is, it embraces all of the Christian faithful within a certain territory; whenever it is judged useful, however, personal parishes are to be established based upon rite, language, the nationality of the Christian faithful within some territory or even upon some determining factor" (No. 518).

In our society today, sometimes a person may feel more comfortable at a particular parish or like the ambiance of a particular parish even though it is not the territorial parish where the person lives. When a pastor allows these individuals to register, he also accepts the responsibility for their spiritual care. For instance, if a person were sick or dying, that parish priest now has the responsibility for that person. The ironic part is that in cases of emergency, usually the priests of the closest parish—the territorial parish—get the call.

Pope Pius X reminded us that the purpose of the parish is to gather people with their different backgrounds and talents and insert them into the universality of the Church. The parish is a microcosm of the whole Church. While nurturing the souls of the faithful members, the parish as a whole must be ready to respond to the broader needs of the diocese and the national and international Church. The faithful must also have a sense of serving the needs of all the faithful throughout the world and of building up the Kingdom of God now.

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.