When Parishes Merge or Close

by Michael Trueman and Pete Vere


Suppressing a parish or closing a church building is one of the most difficult decisions a bishop may have to make. The same is true of parish mergers. Whether it is because of declining Sunday attendance, whether the facilities are falling apart and the parish cannot afford the necessary repairs, or a number of other unfortunate conditions, a community of Christ’s faithful is being asked to fundamentally alter their way of life. In so doing, the community often leaves behind a sacred building where, for decades, they celebrated Mass, the other sacraments, funerals and so on. This leaves some to look forward to their new parish community, others sad, and not unusually, some mad.

With parish mergers and suppressions becoming more frequent, every layperson should have a basic understanding of these matters. What follows are six questions that the authors, who are lay canon lawyers, are commonly asked:

1) Who owns Church property?

The concept of Church ownership has many facets but from a theological perspective, the Church belongs to Christ. The Church belongs to an enterprise much greater than any corporation or human individual. It would be wrong to think that the Pope owns everything in the worldwide Church or that a bishop owns everything relating to the Church in his diocese. In many ways, Church ownership is indefinable. It can be said, however, that administration of Church goods, such as property, can be managed by individuals or groups and the Code of Canon Law places strict regulations as to how this administration takes shape.

A distinction needs to be made between property that is owned by a public and private juridic person. The term juridic person is a legal way of referring to what we might commonly call a Catholic entity. In both cases, Catholic entities must be approved as such by a competent authority, usually a bishop, and upon approval, will have constitutions and bylaws that, among other things, regulate who owns and manages the group’s property and goods.

A good example of a juridic person is a parish. The parish has a direct relationship with the day-to-day life and ministry of the Church. The parish carries out its stated purpose in the name of the Church and, consequently, the property and goods they manage cannot belong to a private individual. The assets belonging to a parish are ecclesiastical goods, or Church goods, for which the pastor must submit a financial report each year to a diocesan bishop.

2) What is the difference between a parish and a church?

People use the expression parish and church interchangeably, but they are very distinct realities. Although the term "church" can have a broad meaning, such as the Church of Christ into which all the baptized are incorporated (canon 96), a church building is a sacred place, set aside for divine worship (canon 1214). It is comprised of four walls and roof, is blessed or dedicated, and is the location where the faithful from a given parish gather to worship God through the celebration the sacraments and other ways of prayer. It is the place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved for veneration. It has a fixed address (at the corner of St. Mary and St. Joseph streets) and requires lawn maintenance and utility bill payments, etc. You get the picture.

A parish is a bit more difficult to define. It is an entity in canon law that is defined by a territorial boundary, to serve the needs of the people within that boundary, or without a territory to serve a group of the faithful on the basis of language, ethnicity or some other shared quality (canon 518). A parish must have a pastor (or priest administrator) who cares for the faithful and celebrates the sacraments in the parish church.

A distinction between the two is important for many reasons. For example, the building of new church is usually preceded by the creation of a new parish. That is to say that the parish, or parishioners, who will likely help to raise the funds for the construction of a new church, are identified before their parish church building exists. In the case of merging existing parishes, the newly merged parish may have a number of churches at its disposal after the merger is completed. This poses its own set of unique difficulties because the newly merged parish will have to decide what churches to maintain and use.

3) How do parishes merge?

Parishes are increasingly having to address the question of whether or not to merge. The declining number of priests to serve the faithful, as well as shifting populations, have caused dioceses throughout the world, especially in Europe and North America, to consider restructuring. The recent trend in North America was to "cluster" or "twin" parishes. This model involved maintaining two or more distinct parishes, with their own respective church and other resources, buildings and schools, but they share a pastor. This has worked; however, pastors have become increasingly taxed with having to oversee the operation of two parishes and all the administrative trappings that come with it. As well, clustering or twinning often postponed addressing the deeper question of declining parish membership and whether or not parishes are financially viable and, as mundane and un-spiritual it may sound, we must be good stewards of the Church’s resources. It is difficult to determine at what point a parish in decline should end its mission and join with another.

The process of parish merger is simple in theory and complicated in practice. This article has the convenience of addressing the matter in theory and your authors certainly sympathize with those who have to sort out the merger in practice. The prerogative of creating, suppressing, and altering parishes belongs exclusively to the diocesan bishop (canon 515 §2). In some instances, the diocesan bishop may request, to their surprise, that parishes merge but in most cases, the request will come from the pastor and parishioners themselves after a period of discernment. Although there is typically extensive study in moving forward toward merger, at a minimum, the matter must be discussed with the presbyteral council. The diocesan bishop must also consider the wishes of the founder and benefactors, as well as acquired rights. The wishes of founders refer to intentions of the founders at the time the parishes was erected. The reference to benefactors concerns those who made major donations to parishes for a particular purpose, not those who participate in a parish’s weekly offertory. Acquired rights could be, for example, those belonging to a religious community that, by agreement, has provided pastoral care for a parish for many decades.

Once the necessary presbyteral council consultation is complete, the diocesan bishop can bring about the merger by way of a written decree. The decree will identify the fact that the assets and debts of the former parishes are assumed into the newly merged parish. The parish will then operate with one pastor, parish council, finance council, etc. The task of bring together two unique communities into one will unfold over the course of years, not weeks and months.

4) What happens with the bank accounts and property in the case of merger?

Two canons in the Code of Canon Law oversee the method of merging the juridic person that is a parish. Canon 121 talks about a merger that involves an amalgamation of two or more parishes, in their entirety, to create a new one. Take, for instance, St. Mary and St. Joseph Parishes. Both parishes were territorial parishes and, within their respective boundaries, had seen a decline in Catholic constituents. Muslims began populating the once predominantly Christian neighborhood. The parishes had been "clustered" for a few years, sharing a pastor and working together on joint ventures such as a joint-parish fair. The parishes proposed that they be merged and in doing so, the territory of the two former parishes became the boundary of the new parish. In this case, the parish proposed the name Holy Family Parish, which the bishop accepted. The bank accounts of the former parishes were closed and a new account was created for Holy Family Parish. The St. Joseph Parish account had a slight debt, but the St. Mary Parish account had a slight surplus. Both St. Mary Church and St. Joseph Church continue to be used by the parish, with an alternating Mass schedule. It is clear that within a few years, St. Mary Church will be retained and probably renamed as Holy Family Church. St. Joseph Church will be closed and sold, with the proceeds going to Holy Family Parish. The staff members have centralized their offices in the same building and there is now one parish council, finance council, liturgy commission, and stewardship commission.

Canon 122 addresses a situation where one parish is assumed into other neighboring parishes. In other words, the parish is broken into pieces and the territory is divided. The neighboring parishes continue to exist, as they were, just with more territory to care for. Take, for instance, St. Christopher Parish, which has been struggling with attendance and finances for a long time. A few parishioners argued, unsuccessfully, for its continued existence. It was clear there was no future for a parish in that part of the city. The parishes surrounding St. Christopher Parish were, however, doing fairly well. The diocesan bishop made the difficult decision to force the closure of St. Christopher Parish and divide its territory into the neighboring parishes. This was a "tough sell" for the neighboring parishes since St. Christopher had incurred a $1,500,000 debt in its bid to stay open over the past ten years. Fair market value on the property would only yield $750,000. That left a $750,000 shortfall. The territory of St. Christopher Parish was divided equally into three parts to the three neighboring parishes. In doing so, unless other arrangements are agreed to, the debt would be assigned at $250,000 per parish. It so happened, however, that the religious artifacts of St. Christopher Church were distributed to the neighboring churches and the former parishioners, now parishioners of the neighboring parishes, depending on where they live, were encouraged by the fact that their heritage lives on.

5) Does parish suppression simply mean that the Church is closed?

As was addressed in a previous response, parish and church are different entities. It is odd to refer to a closed parish since a parish is not a building. It is better to say that a parish is suppressed or, perhaps, that a parish has ceased to exist. On the other hand, churches can be thought of as closed, since it happens the doors of the church are typically closed and locked when the parish is suppressed.

Recently, the Apostolic See has clarified that though the canon law term of parish suppression is sometimes used, a parish can never really be suppressed, only merged. This is a good point to consider. Take, for instance, St. Luke Parish. The financial disaster of the parish was brought about overnight. The parish had been struggling for a long time but managed to pay its bills. When an announcement was made that the local manufacturing plant was going to close, in a matter of days the future of the parish was grim. In subsequent months, the number of parishioners at Sunday Mass dwindled to approximately 35, down from 100. The collection plummeted and bills went unpaid. Quite by everyone’s surprise, the parishioners met and asked that the parish be suppressed. The situation forced the diocesan bishop’s intervention. In consultation with the pastor, the bishop decided to convene the presbyteral council to help him consider the situation. The presbyteral council members agreed that the parish had to immediately cease to function. The bishop then issued a decree of suppression. Though most Catholics moved from the neighborhood in search of work, a hole was created in the diocese. The diocesan bishop is obliged to ensure that a priest be assigned to the former territory of St. Luke Parish to care for the pastoral needs of the people left behind. After conferring with the presbyteral council and neighboring pastors, the diocesan bishop redistributed the former territory of St. Luke Parish to the neighboring parishes.

As a rule, the diocesan bishop is responsible for pastoral care of the faithful in his diocese. With the cooperation of his priests, he divides the diocese into parishes and assigns a pastor to each of them. If he were to suppress a parish, this would create an area of land not covered by a priest and he would have to reassign responsibility of that territory. In the case of personal parishes that serve and ethnic or other such identifiable group (i.e., parishes without boundaries), these parishes can, in fact, be suppressed since care for the parishioners would dissolve to the pastor of the parish where the individual lives.

6) What name do we give a new parish?

Since our churches are sacred places where the faithful gather to worship God, canon law requires that churches be solemnly dedicated or simply blessed (canon 1217) and given a name (canon 1218) that corresponds with certain norms that are found in a liturgical book called the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar (1989). The name must be:

  1. the name of the Trinity, or
  2. a name for Christ, invoked in the liturgy, or a mystery of his life, or
  3. the name of the Holy Spirit, or
  4. a name for Mary, invoked under a title for her used in the liturgy, or
  5. the name of a holy angel, or
  6. the name of a canonized saint, as it appears in the Roman martyrology (or appendix), or
  7. the name of a blessed provided the Apostolic See has given its permission.

The Code of Canon Law does not give explicit direction to naming parishes, but clarification was provided in 1999 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, stating, "The name of a parish may commonly be the same name as the title of the parish church." The norms went on to say that if several parishes are merged into one, the names of the churches from the former parishes are retained and the newly merged parish, for pastoral reasons, can adopt a name different from the names of the churches it will inherit.

If the newly merged parish name is different from the name of the church designated as the main worship site, traditionally called the parish church, the name of this church may be changed for a grave reason, only if it was simply blessed. If the church in question was solemnly dedicated, the title may only be changed for a grave reason and with the permission of the Apostolic See. Though canon 1218 implies that the diocesan bishop can change the title of a blessed church, the above-cited 1999 Norms seem to favor retaining a church’s original name.

Canon law leaves it to the diocesan bishop to erect, suppress, or notably alter parishes (canon 515 §2), so it follows that he enjoys the prerogative to name them. Nonetheless, a diocesan bishop would typically want to hear from the pastor and parishioners as to what names they prefer.

 

This article has been adapted from a chapter of Pete Vere and Michael Trueman’s book Surprised by Canon Law 2: More Questions About Canon Law, available (along with Surprised by Canon Law) from Servant Books, an imprint of St. Anthony Messenger Press. To order, call 1-800-488-0488.


This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 6.