Parish Boundaries Still Matter

In my thirty years of priesthood I have come to see the genius in the fact that every Catholic diocese is divided into parishes with definitive geographical boundaries; the strongest parishes seem to be those that assume primary care for those in their territory. (See the territory of my parish in the diagram on the right.)

Prior to about 1980, parish boundaries were fairly strictly enforced, and in the absence of extenuating circumstances, Catholics were expected to attend Mass in the parish of their residence. Since that time, however, not only are they seldom enforced, they are rarely even known about by Catholics. Except in certain arcane matters of canon law and jurisdiction for the sacraments, they rarely come into play. Catholics thus often “shop around,” looking for a parish whose liturgical style, preaching, music, or Mass schedule most suit them. There are also parishes that seek to address a particular niche market, extending their outreach to particular ethnic or racial groups or by offering Mass in different languages.

I have come to believe that this trend is fatally flawed. A parish may successfully cater to a certain liturgical niche or ethnic tradition for a while – even for many years – but unless it focuses on its geographic neighborhood, it becomes, in effect, a “commuter parish,” with people driving past numerous other parishes to be able to partake of what they offer. Often, though, the appeal does not extend to the next generation. For example, parents who have moved to another part of town may still drive back and attend their parish, but experience tells me that this enthusiasm and dedication doesn’t transfer to their children and certainly not to their grandchildren. Hence, parishes that are living on a past legacy and not reaching out to their current residents become isolated and start to empty as the commuters age and eventually die.

Permit me to use the example of a parish within my own diocese. For the purpose of discretion, I will refer to it as “St. Wow,” but the story is a fairly common one.

St Wow’s Parish was once huge. The church building seated more than 1,000 people and in the halcyon days of the 1950s and early 1960s it was largely filled for ten Masses every Sunday. The school had 1,500 students and a long waiting list. It was located in a working-class suburb of second-generation Italians and Irish, who had moved there as the inner city became increasingly populated by African-Americans.

The neighborhood was established just after the Second World War and by the 1960s was heavily populated by Catholics. The Monsignor who oversaw the construction of the church was a legend and a king in his own right. He sat atop a miniature city of Catholics and was both respected and feared by local politicians. He and his parish were a beacon and destination for Catholics in a very tight knit community. There were dinners, bingo nights, school plays, carnivals, movie nights, sports leagues, men’s and women’s groups, a credit union, and even a bowling alley and pool in the Knights of Columbus hall. St Wow’s covered the equivalent of a city block and was the hub of the community; its vast parking lot was full most days until late in the evening.

By the late 1970s, the Black community began to spread to the closest suburbs. Racial dynamics sadly being what they were, many of St. Wow’s parishioners moved further south. Yet St. Wow was still their parish and the grizzled Monsignor had their loyalty. Numbers remained fairly strong through the 1980s.

The problem was that St. Wow’s now looked nothing like the residents in its neighborhood. The parish was 90 percent White while the area was 90 percent African-American. The parish had become insular and was not evangelizing within its boundaries; the writing was on the wall. The commuters aged, and then the famous Monsignor died. Numbers started slipping; parents couldn’t understand why their adult children weren’t as interested as they were in such a great parish. Today the commuters are largely gone; the folk group gave way to a gospel choir, and what is left is now is a smaller but viable group of African-American parishioners who live in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the parish school couldn’t be saved and closed some years ago. One wonders if this could have been avoided if the parish had vigorously evangelized its new residents beginning in the 1970s.

Stephen Bullivant, interviewed in Catholic World Report about his book Mass Exodus, paints a similar picture, one that has been consistently repeated in the urban and ethnic northern United States:

Several factors, on both sides of the Atlantic, combined to erode those classic, urban Catholic neighborhoods That’s a very big part of the book’s argument: i.e., that the “social architecture” that had sustained and strengthened Catholic life and identity was well on the road to passing away by the time the Council came along.

The full story is too big to précis in any detail here, but consider just one U.S. case. Suppose you were brought up in an inner-city Polish or Italian neighborhood in the 20s or 30s in somewhere like Chicago or Milwaukee, where the parish was the center of social and cultural and educational and (quite probably) sporting life just as much as it was of your religious life. Then you go off to war, meet—and live and serve alongside—non-Catholics for the first time. Maybe you meet a girl while stationed somewhere—the first romantic interest you’ve ever properly spoken to not from your or a neighboring parish. Anyway, you come back from war with much wider horizons than you left with, and—thanks to the GI Bill—the prospect of going off to college. When you do get married, you’re a) significantly more likely, on average, to be marrying a non-Catholic than in your parents’ generation; and b) unlikely to be moving back to your home neighborhood. You’re a graduate now, remember, and hey—don’t those new suburban communities look just a swell place to raise Junior? When they do get ’round to building a proper Catholic church in Levittown—a Catholic school was the main priority—it’s a good couple of miles away. And while you have got a shiny new car to get to Sunday Mass, there’s plenty more exciting places you can drive to in it than just the round of parish rosary, sodalities, and fish fries that your parents still frequent back home.

I could go on, but you get the picture: Junior is brought up in a very, very different world than you were, and even if you’re still faithful Mass-goers, it’s a far less close-knit parish than your parents’ was. (Their parish, incidentally, ends up being merged with several others in the 1980s, before being sold off as luxury condos—as, I might add, was the Chicago church (St Boniface) that adorns the front cover of Mass Exodus.)

In examples like this, we see that a parish can ill afford to depend on parishioners who move away to keep commuting back. A Polish or Italian parish cannot long remain that if the Poles and Italians have moved away! It is essential to retool and gracefully adapt to welcome new people. It is certainly important to maintain traditions that still sustain the parish and make sense, but it is also time to adapt to the needs of the current population as well.

Parishes that do not prioritize reaching out to and evangelizing the residents of their neighborhood but instead remain focused on ethnic or racial groups that have moved away, or rely on the charisma of their pastor, or depend on the loyalty of former residents, can survive for a while—perhaps even ten or twenty years—but not forever. After all, charismatic pastors can be moved or die, and loyalty can fade.

There is no substitute for working with the residents within a parish’s boundaries. The genius of the Catholic Church is that we have divided the entire world up into parishes defined by geographical boundaries. The pastor and the parish together are responsible for the evangelization and salvation of every man, woman, and child within those boundaries. Parish boundaries used to tell Catholics where they were supposed to belong and attend Mass. Nowadays parish boundaries tell the parish where it is supposed to go to gather parishioners: here are the people for whom we are responsible even if they don’t look like us or speak our language or have our exact liturgical sensibilities. They are ours; we exist for them and to bring them to the Lord.

Parish boundaries still matter.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  Parish Boundaries Still Matter

25 Replies to “Parish Boundaries Still Matter”

  1. Its rare that I disagree with the (Msgr.) Pope, but here I must. As a first generation Polish immigrant everything you say about ethnic parishes is correct. However, it strikes me that you are ignoring the elephant in the room. The fact of the matter is that many parishes simply are not Catholic. The priests don’t believe or at least do not ACT like they believe in the Real Presence, Confession, Hell, the Devil, the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, Natural Law, etc., etc… never mind satanic parishes like the one on the W
    west coast that recently blessed an active “married” gay man’s … no not wedding… his suicide. Even in parishes where heresy is not actively being preached may priests lake the backbone preach the truth for fear of ending up like the Forerunner. So while in principle I agree with parish boundaries I can’t recommend the scruple of feeling obligated to attend your local parish. Many of our parishes have inverted the passage at the end of the Gospel of John’s sixth chapter–to whom shall we go… My advice go to a parish where the Words of eternal life are preached, share the narrative of the spiritual warfare going on in the Church and World with your children, and hope that the heroic witness of making a great sacrifice to get the family to a orthodox parish impresses the importance of the faith on your children. Nostagia, a beloved priest, (bad) folk music, etc. are not good reasons to cross parish lines–orthodoxy is.

      1. This is targeted at all of us in my opinion because if we were taking Christian Stewardship seriously in the Catholic Church and everyone was participating fully in Sodalities, Home Groups and other similar things within the life of the church, every parish would be filling up on any given Sunday, and the use and acceptance of multi-lingual masses would also help breaking the racial divisions that exist in mixed parishes. We need to stop avoiding the simple problems that we are facing.

      2. Yes, thanks Richard. This is exactly the point. I don’t begrudge Catholics shopping around especially in situations padre describes. My admonition is to pastors and parishes that niche marketing and other strategies have a limited lifespan and connecting to the neighborhood remains a central key to a lasting pastoral plan. Boundaries today don’t so much tell Catholics where they’re supposed to go; they tell the church where we’re supposed to go.

      3. “The pastor and the parish together are responsible for the evangelization and salvation of every man, woman, and child within those boundaries. ”
        The aim is evangelization and that is clearly the job of the Laity. Check out the Legion of Mary.

    1. I understand where you’re coming from, but it doesn’t contribute to the solution to the problems you cite, rather it exacerbates the problems. Having faithful, involved parishioners is what these churches need. In my situation in which I recently moved to a new area and parish where I often doubt the orthodoxy of the pastor, I approach this in a spirit of humility. I place my trust in God and assume the pastor’s intentions are good and holy. Ultimately, I go there to assist in the holy sacrifice of the mass, which any validly ordained priest offers in persona Christi. I can get orthodoxy by listening to EWTN, going to daily mass at my old parish, and going on pilgrimages, but I prefer not to “shop” churches to get the brand of religious experience I’m looking for.

  2. My assigned parish is 7 minutes away by car. Over the last 30-40 years the middle class moved onto the new better neighborhoods on the other side of the county and immigrants and working class moved in, and that is the overwhelming majority of the parish now. They are lovely people, but want to worship in their own language, which I understand. The parish is doing what Msgr. Pope suggests: becoming the face of the community now. So where does that leave those who still remain? The parish is now almost all Spanish speaking and more recently Creole. The English speaking community is almost all gone and there are no English speaking groups within the parish. The school closed because it was not supported by the newer parishioners. So where does that leave me? I stuck it out as long as I could, going to English speaking Bible studies across town, supporting my faith online, etc. Eventually we left the parish. Moving to a different one that had a school for my son. It is 15 minutes away by car. In an immigrant neighborhood, but Masses are in English and there is a Bible Study & other studies. Sometimes you just have to go where you can go. It does feel sometimes though like you are a refugee in your own town. One problem too is that parishes are not made to be in neighborhoods anymore where you can walk to them. They are consolidated and made large to save money. I think you lose a lot that way.

    1. I think I mention in the article that it is not a goal to abandon all that was, but to be open to what is new. In my own parish we added a Mass rather than drastically retool other Masses that still speak to our longtime members, many of whom still commute for those very sort of masses that feature gospel music and joyful worship. It is important to take care of them since this is their parish as well.

  3. Yes. Perhaps the Roman Pope should be more like Msgr. Pope. That is, travel less in the big world who has good priests, nuns, lay people, and bishops (as well as some bad), to care more for his Church. Humility demands that friends are rare gifts of grace, and we cannot all be world citizens. Despite the ecumenical intentions of the Second Vatican Council, that acknowledged humble service to our faith, the Roman Pope has centralized and reformed, so as to globalize the gospel according to himself. Perhaps this was necessary, to hold together on the Church entrusted to Peter, but on the other hand, Peter cannot preach in every city. Not that this is for me to give advise on history. Probably, when people realizes that every Christian serves God who has once and for all revealed the way, the truth, and the life, our interest in the Roman Pope will be more sober. Certainly, globalization is still his prerogative.

      1. Yes, that is what I meant, but no, because, “urbi et orbi” is Peter’s double responsebility, and it is for divine grace how he exercises it. On the other hand, Paul’s responsebility was “orbi,” but he ended in Rome, and helped with “urbi.” That was almost two thousand years ago, and today we have trade, aeroplanes, and internet.

  4. We go once a month to a parish 35 minutes away because it offers the EF liturgy, and the preaching is very good. Our registered parish is okay but seriously lacks the reverence and solid preaching of the first parish. I think families in this day of continuing crisis have the right to a full Catholic form of worship. Pastors can evangelize with their parish the local community while still be open to visitors.

    1. I agree. You certainly have a right to do this. Again, my admonition is to pastors and parishes not to you per te

  5. I do have to respectfully disagree here. As we continue catering to those who come here and want nothing to do with us we are being pushed out of our parishes. I’m not going to miss half of a multilingual Mass because we’re trying to appeal to them. That’s the smaller problem.
    The bigger one is this. I’m going where I’m getting authentic Catholic teaching and liturgical reverence. Since that is not the norm traveling to find it is essential. The Catholic label doesn’t mean much anymore so discernment is required. I couldn’t care less about an imaginary line on a map. And fellowship to me is not coffee, donuts and chatter.

  6. Excellent advice – to evangelize around our parish churches. I’m hoping to start a St. Paul Street Evangelization program around our FSSP Latin Mass parish. It’s a *ridiculously* crowded church already, but the people in the surrounding neighborhoods still need the truth and love of Christ! BTW, we drive an hour to attend the Latin Mass. The priests and people are wonderful and we want to support the full orthodox traditions of the Church. God bless Msgr. Pope & all who read this blog!

    1. Thanks. It is good to hear the Church is already crowded. It might even lead to the formation of another FSSP parish

  7. This is an interesting topic. Another priest I trust and admire as much as I do Msgr. Pope is Fr.Dwight Longenecker. He writes for many online outlets, so I haven’t yet located the article, but he recently wrote something titled (more or less) “The Geographic Parish is Dead” and argued for the reality of this and how to best adapt. I would love to see a discussion between him and Msgr. Pope.

    1. I think both Fr. L and I are making a similar point. My point is not that there should never be niche marketing but that we must be sober that it alone has a shelf life. Further, that we still have obligations to those inside our boundaries. We are juridically responsible for them and cannot simply prefer to cater to others.

  8. On a visit to the United States in 1976, then Cardinal Wojtyla (later Pope Saint John Paul II) publicly spoke: “We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel.” Mgsr. Pope, is it acceptable for a family to register in and travel to an adjacent parish outside their geographical boundary that conveys the fullness of Catholic truth in its preaching and liturgy, as opposed to staying in one nearby that conveys the impression of being part of “the anti-Church” the future pope referred to?

  9. I respect you, Monsignor, and almost always agree with you, but I strongly disagree with you on this.

    I am a member of an inner-city parish, with a stunning church built in 1905 by Bavarians and Alsatians. There is no neighborhood, and the only residents within the boundaries are college students and the homeless.

    We are the home of the University of Akron Newman Center, ranked 18th in the USA in terms of service to the Church and faithfulness. It is not unusual to have 50-60+ students at monthly Adoration – in fact, they have formed a parish group, Adoro Te Devote, specifically to promote this devotion to young adults (and the rest of us!) We also feed the homeless daily with bagged lunches, and offer hot meals several times per month. We have a thriving K of C and other parish organizations, and are most faithfully led by our pastor, who has been ordained for 8 years and is only 35 years old.

    Father is also pastor of our sister parish, which is one mile away and is in a largely African-American and immigrant neighborhood. This is also the site of their parish school, which has a current enrollment of 212, 92% of whom are non-Catholics – the Catholic children being Hispanic. Six of the Protestant children, with the support of the parents, requested to become Catholic, and gave up their lunch hour for the entire school year in order to receive RCIA classes, and were received into the Church with Baptism and First Holy Communion this past June. The parish itself is very small, but the our sister parishioners are devout and believe strongly in our mission to their neighborhood and our downtown neighborhood – to evangelize and bring Jesus to the poor, the immigrants, and the homeless.

    Those of us at both parishes could easily go to parishes that are closer to home (I live 3 miles from my parish, but there are others only 2 miles away). But I and the rest of us think Catholicism is not only for the middle- and upper-classes – we need to be a presence and of service to God and the poor and underprivileged. Catholic parishes and schools are *NOT* just for the upper classes and the wealthy – they should be for all, and that means being near to the poor, who do not always have a means to attend Mass at a parish that is not in their neighborhood.

    You do make a lot of sense in your reasoning, but I think it would be a terrible and unworthy action to abandon inner-city and poor neighborhoods simply because the parishioners do not live there. There is a *LOT* of work to do for the Kingdom in these neighborhoods, and other areas as well.

    With the greatest respect, and wishing you and all here God’s blessing and protection – Susan, OFS – St. Bernard Parish – Akron, Ohio

  10. In addition to my previous comment, I must say that for the last 25 years or so, our bishop decreed that we no longer recognize boundaries within the Diocese (Cleveland, Ohio, USA). If we want to belong to a parish 50 miles away, that is fine as long as we show up for our weekly Mass duty and support the parish with our time and talents. And it seems to work for us! God bless you and all here!

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