What is a parish? What is a church?
'Fourth Plan' teaches the distinction is critical for pastoral planning

Shirley Nowak stands outside Holy Family Catholic Church in Silver Lake. The parish was established in 1993 when the town’s two Catholic parishes – St. Adalbert’s and St. Joseph’s – merged. Nowak and her ancestors were parishioners at St. Adalbert’s. Both church buildings were used until 1998, when St. Adalbert’s church was closed. (Photo by Sam Patet)

Shirley Nowak stands outside Holy Family Catholic Church in Silver Lake. The parish was established in 1993 when the town’s two Catholic parishes – St. Adalbert’s and St. Joseph’s – merged. Nowak and her ancestors were parishioners at St. Adalbert’s. Both church buildings were used until 1998, when St. Adalbert’s church was closed. (Photo by Sam Patet)

by Sam Patet
The Prairie Catholic / March 2014

SILVER LAKE – At the corner of Lake Street North and Frank Street in Silver Lake is St. Adalbert’s Catholic Cemetery. It’s small – about the length of a city block on all sides – and lies just to the west of the now-closed St. Adalbert Catholic Church.

Despite its headstones being buried in a foot of snow, Shirley Nowak can still point out where her grandparents and mother are buried. The lifelong Silver Lake resident has deep roots in the town’s Catholic community.

Her great-grandparents were some of the first parishioners at the Parish of St. Adalbert when it was founded in the late 1800s. Her grandfather, a dairy farmer, raised his seven children there, including her father. By the time she was born, the tiny Polish parish had already been home to three generations of her family.

“The immigrants put the Church and God first because that was important to them,” she said.

Nowak and her siblings experienced that growing up. Every Sunday they piled into the family car to make it to 8 a.m. Mass. During the school year she brought her breakfast to St. Adalbert’s Catholic School because, due to the Eucharistic fast from midnight, she couldn’t eat anything until after morning Mass. And once or twice a year she attended the parish’s Forty Hours devotion, which featured perpetual Eucharistic adoration and over 20 priests singing together at the closing ceremony.

She remained connected to her parish as an adult, serving as a lector and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, participating in the CCW, and helping out with the parish bazaar each October.

By the early 1990s, however, it had become clear to Nowak and others at St. Adalbert’s that life at their parish would have to change. According to a 1992 article from the Hutchinson Leader, Silver Lake’s two Catholic parishes – St. Adalbert’s and St. Joseph’s – had been sharing a single priest since 1988. The article also said they’d been having joint celebrations of Confirmation, first Holy Communion, and Reconciliation, and had even begun to establish common committees for both parishes.

Eventually, the decision was made to merge the two parishes. The new one – Holy Family – was established in 1993; both church buildings remained open.

“I never remember being angry about it,” Nowak said. “I just (thought), ‘This is how it’s got to be.’”

While Mass was still celebrated at both locations, the new parish continued to consolidate its ministries and activities, Nowak said. For example, it formed a single CCW council and it started having one bazaar each year instead of two.

Five years later the arrangement proved to be too much. The parish couldn’t financially support two buildings, Nowak said, so it decided to close the St. Adalbert church building. The last Mass was celebrated there on Jan. 4, 1998.

“It’s like losing a family member at first, because you’re so close. You go to that church every Sunday,” she said. “I’m sure the older ones, it was harder on them.”

While Nowak was sad, she understood why the decision was made. “I just remember being saddened, but life goes on. It’s like when you lose a family member: you don’t quit living,” she said. “We have to see the bigger picture.”

Parish different from church

Merging parishes and closing churches isn’t easy. The Diocese of New Ulm’s most recent pastoral planning document – the “Fourth Plan for Parishes” – recognizes this. “Change is seldom easy. It can be difficult when it involves a faith community that we hold very dear, such as our parish. It can be especially difficult when it involves a church building that has become so familiar and important in our lives” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 119).

Understandably, Catholics can feel a range of emotions – from denial and anger to fear and sadness – when they realize that something might have to happen at their home parish.

What can make these feelings even stronger is the belief that merging a parish means its church building will be closing. But as the history of the Catholic Church in Silver Lake demonstrates, this isn’t the case. In fact, the “Fourth Plan” indicates that the two decisions have to be addressed separately in pastoral planning.

“The options for altering a parish through a merger or in some other way and the options for closing a church building are spelled out in the Code of Canon Law,” the “Fourth Plan” states. “The procedures involved in each are similar but must be kept separate” (p. 120).

That’s why before the “Fourth Plan” outlines what happens during a merger or a closure, it first defines what a parish is and what a church is.

For Aldean Hendrickson, director of the diocesan Tribunal who holds a degree in canon law, getting those definitions right is critical for pastoral planning. “When we can make the distinction clear, then we can start to discern honestly and fruitfully together – as parish communities and as a diocese – what the next steps will have to be,” he said.

Parish: a community of God’s faithful

The “Fourth Plan” first defines what a parish is. It is “a definite community of the Christian faithful established on a stable basis within a particular Church” whose pastoral care “is entrusted to a pastor as its own shepherd under the authority of the diocesan bishop” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 108, quoting Code of Canon Law, c. 515 §1).

One chapter later it gives the definition of a church: “A sacred building designated for divine worship to which the faithful have the right of entry for the exercise, especially the public exercise, of divine worship” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 113, quoting Code of Canon Law, c. 1214).

Put simply, a parish is the community while the church is the building. “The parish is the community of God’s faithful that’s been called together,” said Msgr. Eugene Lozinski, chancellor for the Diocese of New Ulm who also holds a degree in canon law. The church, on the other hand, “would be the locus – or the place – where this community would gather to worship and celebrate the sacraments and hear the Word of God.”

One of the most important parts of the Code’s definition of a parish is what isn’t there, Hendrickson said. Nowhere does it state that a church building is a necessary part of a parish, such that if the church ceased to exist, the parish would cease to exist.

“Obviously, such a community needs a fitting place to gather to worship; that is stipulated elsewhere in canon law,” Hendrickson said. “But that building is in no way constitutive of the parish reality.”

One only has to look to St. Peter to see this at play. In 1998 a tornado destroyed the church belonging to St. Peter’s Parish. It wasn’t until 2000 that a new church building was ready to use. During those two years, Catholics still belonged to the Parish of St. Peter, even though the parish didn’t have a church.

A place to be priest, prophet, and king

So a parish is first and foremost a “community of the Christian faithful” that “is entrusted to a pastor.” Quoting a 2007 article by Cardinal Francis E. George of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the “Fourth Plan” states that “the essential relationship in the parish is between the faithful and the priest,” so much so that the parish’s ministries “must support and foster that indispensable relationship” (“Fourth Plan,” pp. 109, 110).

The parish, then, is one of the “primary places” where the faithful – priests and laity – are called to exercise their baptismal priesthood by imitating Christ in his priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices (“Fourth Plan,” p. 108). “The parish initiates the Christian people into the ordinary expression of the liturgical life (priestly office) … it teaches Christ’s saving doctrine (prophetic office); it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love (kingly office)” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 108, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2179). As this Catechism passage indicates, the emphasis is on the activity of the faithful, not on a building.

Part of a diocese

A parish, however, doesn’t simply consist of the community and its pastor. Another essential element is the bishop, who has charge of all the parishes that have been established in his diocese. That’s why Canon 515 states that a parish is “established on a stable basis within a particular Church (that is, a diocese)” and that its pastor is entrusted with his work “under the authority of the diocesan bishop.”

“By very definition, the parish is a portion of God’s people; it’s not the whole reality,” Msgr. Lozinski said. “It receives its lifeblood from the diocese.”

Hendrickson pointed to the history of the early Church to explain why this relationship exists. Jesus Christ appointed the Twelve Apostles to carry out his work. As the early Church grew and expanded from cities to the countryside, the Apostles’ successors – the bishops – had to care for more and more people. They realized that they couldn’t do this on their own. So they appointed other men to represent them – priests – who would care for a particular group of the faithful.

“As part of organizing this sharing of the work of the bishop, the diocese is therefore divided into smaller geographic portions called parishes,” Hendrickson said. “The diocese is not a collection of parishes. The parishes are divisions of the diocese into the most manageable and reasonable portions so that the available priests can, in union with their bishop, best meet the needs of their flock.”

This means that if a particular portion of a diocese would receive better pastoral care if a parish was reconfigured, then a bishop should consider doing that, whether that entails merging several parishes or dividing one up.

Church buildings ‘sign of pilgrim Church on earth’

The fact that the Code’s definition of a parish focusses on the community doesn’t mean that churches aren’t important. On the contrary, the “Fourth Plan” emphasizes again and again how important they are. A church is “a visible sign of Christian identity, a home for the faithful, a building of art and history,” a structure that is “a special sign of the pilgrim Church on earth and reflects the Church dwelling in heaven” (“Fourth Plan,” pp. 113, 124).

Most importantly, it is a sacred space permanently set aside for worship that is available to all the faithful (see Code of Canon Law, c. 1214, “Fourth Plan,” p. 113).

That’s why canon law and the “Fourth Plan” take closing a church so seriously. Churches were intended by their builders to last for generations, just as Christ’s “mission to establish his Kingdom on earth is carried on from one generation to the next” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 124). The decision to close a church, then, must have a strong justification and be kept separate from the decision to merge a parish.

While Nowak hasn’t been able to go into the St. Adalbert church building for over a decade, she has been able to stay connected to it whenever she goes to Sunday Mass. Holy Family Parish incorporated several articles from St. Adalbert’s – including its tabernacle, crucifix, and statues of Jesus and Mary – into its parish church.

That’s just what she needs to stay connected with her childhood parish community.