Historical Background

Origin of term / Early use

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 fulfilment 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

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

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

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.
  • The bishop 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.

Canon Law

According to the Code of Canon Law, “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”

The pastor

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.

Parish Life

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 people 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”.

Therefore, the pastor, his assistants and the faithful work together building 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;
  • 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