You can’t say he didn’t warn us. “If a pope clearly realizes,” Pope Benedict XVI said in an interview only three years ago, “that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation, to resign.”
In a number of ways Benedict’s dramatic move is unique, though it is not completely unprecedented. We can firmly identify 7 previous abdications from the papacy. Two resulted from Roman attacks on the early church. Pope Pontian (230-235) was arrested in the persecution of the emperor Maximinus Thrax and sentenced to the mines of Sardinia (where people went but didn’t come back). Rather than leave the church in a situation where a sitting pope was essentially imprisoned for life, he resigned before heading off for the mines. Pope Marcellinus (296-304) went the other way, disqualifying himself by handing over the scriptures to the Roman authorities and burning incense to the gods—major giving-in-to-persecution no-nos.
| POPE GREGORY XII: The last pope
to leave office before Benedict XVI.
Three left office for reasons having to do with either secular or church politics or both. Pope Silverius (536-537) was exiled by the Empress Theodora of Constantinople, restored by the Emperor Justinian, and forced out again by his successor Pope Vigilius. Celestine V (1294) resigned because he couldn’t tolerate ruling as pope under the thumb of King Charles II of Sicily. Pope Gregory XII (1406-1417) reigned during the period known as the Western Schism when no fewer than three men were claiming the papacy. When the Council of Constance was planned to resolve the issue, Gregory agreed to abide by the decision of the council as long he could convene it, thereby establishing himself as a legitimate pope long enough to resign and let the council elect Martin V to be the one of leader of the church.
Another papal departure, that of Benedict IX (11th century), came about because of his scandalous personal life, including the fact that he sold the papal office to a relative. He was elected, deposed, and returned three times before finally leaving for good.
Finally, not much is known of the reign of Pope John XVIII (1003-1009) besides some of his official decisions, but apparently he resigned and lived out his last years in a monastery (sound familiar?).
|POPE Benedict IX, (c. 1012–c. 1056): A "bad" pope.|
So Benedict’s resignation is not wholly unprecedented in that a few of the previous popes who left office did so of their free own will, either for personal reasons or the good of the church. It is, however, dramatic because it hasn't happened in a long time, and the church in recent decades is not used to papal turnover so quickly. Keep in mind that the 26-plus-year papacy of Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, was the second-longest in history. The length of Benedict’ papacy, about 8 years, is actually very close to the average reign of the 265 previous popes—slightly over 7 years—and not far below the average papal term since the 16th century of 10 years.
Benedict’s extraordinary decision has also drawn attention to the sometimes little-known but influential body of canon law that ultimately governs just about everything that happens in the church, including a pope’s resignation.
Before the 20th century, canon law existed in various forms and collections. It was not brought together into one book until 1917. The current Code of Canon Law, published in 1983, was a revision of the 1917 code. Some provisions for the resignation of a pope existed in older forms of the law (in the 13th century Pope Boniface VIII declared: “Our predecessor, Pope Celestine . . . constituted and decreed that the Roman Pontiff can freely resign. . . . we have determined . . . that it be placed among other constitutions for a perpetual memory of the same”). According to the current Code, a pope may resign validly as long as he makes the decision freely (canon 332.2) and makes it known in writing or orally in the presence of at least two cardinals of the church who serve as witnesses (see canon 189.2-4). This Benedict did.
This pope’s resignation is also significant not only because it is the first one to occur under the 1983 Code but also because of its reasons: We don’t know why Pope John XVIII retired to a monastery a thousand years ago, but we do know more about why his successor Benedict XVI is doing the same thing now.
|POPE BENEDICT XVI visited—twice—the tomb of his 13th-century
predecessor Celestine V, who put papal resignation on the books.
Note that in Benedict’s 2010 interview he talked about “a pope,” not “me.” He was speaking of what he thought all popes should do—not only what he thought he should do—when a pontiff is “no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office”: Namely, resign. Clearly Benedict had decided that for him that time had come. He obviously believes that, first, a significantly incapacitated pope should not be in office, and second, by resigning ahead of a catastrophic illness he is making sure the church does not face a situation for which it is not entirely prepared.
While church law on papal resignation is relatively clear, the same cannot be said for the serious incapacitation of a pope. Here we need to go back to canon law, which does allow for the possibility that the Holy See might be what it calls “impeded,” that is, if a pope becomes totally disabled, mentally ill, or otherwise truly incapable of the tasks of the office. To govern those situations the law refers to “special laws enacted for these circumstances” (canon 335). These “special laws” governing what happens when the Holy See is vacant are found in the procedures the popes establish for papal elections, last revised by the pope in 1996, but within these special laws no provision for an “impeded” pope has ever been made. In other parts of the canon law, procedures exist for removing an infirm bishop but nothing like that is set down for an incapacitated pope—even though he is the bishop of Rome—other than the provision that such a pope have a designated cardinal to oversee Vatican administration.
While it is not without precedent in history and church law, Benedict XVI’s bold decision to resign does set a modern precedent that while a pope is presumably elected for life, he does not have to and should not continue to serve if he is unable to do so. An incapacitated pope does not have to in effect abdicate his office to his aides and can make room for someone better able to lead the church into the future.
• List of all the popes
• Canons 332 and 335 from the 1983 Code of Canon Law
The word we’re looking for is hierarchy. It means “rule by priests” and describes the system of clergy that governs the church. Technically it’s more like “rule by bishop”: Even the pope is bishop of Rome, and no matter how fancy the hat of a cardinal it’s the territorially governing bishops who get the job done. Bishops (Greek episkopoi = "supervisors") were established in the 1st century to preserve church unity over widening areas. Priests and deacons, whose influence is very parochial—local and parish-focused—work for the bishop and declare obedience to him.
A flow chart would help, and if there is one on the walls of the Vatican, I’d love a copy. In the meantime: Think of the pope as first among bishops. Bishops are Vicars of Christ, which means they, like the pope, have the same Boss. When all the bishops get together, as with the Vatican or Lateran or Tridentine Councils, their authority is the highest the church can express.
|CARDINALS in St. Peter's Basilica.|
Cardinals were originally priests with permanent parish assignments. By the Middle Ages, the term, meaning “hinge,” denoted priests assigned to important locations (think Los Angeles, Chicago, New York in today’s terms). Cardinals became electors of the pope in the 11th century by decree of Pope Nicholas II. In the 16th century Pope Sixtus V limited the number of cardinals to 70, matching Moses’ assembly of elders (Numbers 11:16). The 1917 Code of Canon Law made it imperative for cardinals to be chosen from the clergy—previously a layman could be designated. Pope John XXIII shrunk the pool to bishops in 1962 and eliminated the numerical ceiling. The College of Cardinals functions primarily as a consulting body for the pope.
The Roman Curia is a bureaucracy that runs everything from diplomatic affairs (Vatican City is the world’s smallest sovereign state) to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Vatican newspaper. These offices have traditionally been filled by archbishops and cardinals. (There’s no canonical reason why women could not hold these positions in the future.)
Religious orders sweep this flow chart to the floor. There are four broad categories of orders: monastic, canonical, mendicant, and apostolic. Monasteries may be autonomous in their governance, while most orders have central authorities. Some groups are limited territorially, and few universal claims can be made about what they do and how they do it. Somewhere along the chain, though, you can bet someone is accountable to Rome.
• Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17-25; Titus 1:5-9;1 Peter 5:1-5
• “Episkopë and Episkopos: The New Testament Evidence” by Father Raymond E. Brown, S.S.
• Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church by Thomas Reese, S.J. (Harvard University Press, 1998)
• All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks by John L. Allen, Jr. (Doubleday Religion, 2004)
A more precise question might be: Are there Catholics besides those of the Roman rite that are recognized by the church? Anglicanism considers itself both “catholic” and reformed, though they aren’t “Catholic” by Roman standards. While the official relationship between the Vatican and the Church of England is described as warm and cordial, and the Anglican Communion “occupies a special place” (the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, no. 13), Roman Catholics do not share full communion with Anglicans, which is the all-important sign of unity.
Orthodox churches are another matter. While the split with Rome occurred for Anglicans during the era of the Protestant Reformation, the schism between East and West happened five centuries earlier and is still considered the “great schism.” Because the Eastern tradition maintains apostolic succession, their priesthood and sacraments are recognized as valid by the Roman church. Therefore worship in common is both permissible and encouraged by Rome (Decree on Ecumenism, no. 15), although the churches’ shared sense of communion is partial and still problematic.
|WORSHIP in the Slovak-Ukrainian tradition.|
Beyond those two distinctions, there are rites that do enjoy full communion with the Latin (Roman) rite: the Byzantine (the largest, including Albanian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Greek, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Macedonian, Melkite, Romanian, Russian, Ruthenian, Slovak, and Ukrainian); the Alexandrian (some Coptics of Egypt and Ge’ez Ethiopian), the “West Syrian” (Syriac, Syro-Malankara also in India, and Maronite—Lebanese—the president of Lebanon must by law be a Maronite); the “East Syrian” (Chaldean, with headquarters in Baghdad, and Syro-Malabar in India); and the Armenian.
If you have friends in these rites, you can go to Mass with them and receive communion—but stay awake and pay attention because when you’re not in Rome you can’t always do what the Romans do. The other rites have separate codes of canon law (church law) and very different customs. Some bless themselves with three fingers or genuflect three times, in honor of the Trinity. Communion may be served under both kinds on a little spoon or in the kneeling posture. Parts of the liturgy may be celebrated behind an ornate and beautiful screen called the iconostasis.
Because many of these rites evolved closer to the East, they resemble Orthodox liturgy more than Roman. The clergy are invariably male, may be married, and most likely have more beard than you’re used to. Though it may not be Rome, it is, eucharistically speaking, still home.
• John 17:20-26; Romans 12:3-8; 14:1-15:13; 1 Corinthians 12:4-26; Philippians 2:1-4
• The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey by Ronald Roberson, C.S.P. (Edizioni Orientalia Christiana, 1999)
• Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes by John Meyendorff (Fordham University Press, 1999)
• Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite Orientalium Ecclesiarum
• An excellent historical introduction to the Eastern Catholic churches from the Office of Religious Education of the Byzantine Eparchy of Parma (Ohio), with the Very Rev. Thomas Loya:
Dissent is best understood and undertaken in the context of some other important concepts: authority, tradition, obedience,and the sense of the faithful. I can’t do justice to these topics here but for a fuller treatment on authority see my article in the 2013 VISION Catholic Religious Vocation Discernment Guide.
First, an affirmation of dissent by Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, in The Acting Person: “The structure of a human community is correct only if it admits not just the presence of a justified opposition but also that practical effectiveness of opposition required by the common good.” The tender issue here is that the church is not only a human community but also a mystical body. That which is mortal about the church must respect and address justified opposition. Which leads to the sticking point: Who decides what is justified?
|YVES CONGAR, O.P. (1904-1995)|
I’d like to suggest two determinants: the magisterium and the mystical body. The magisterium, the church’s teaching body, is composed in each generation of specific persons who, through apostolic succession and the power of the Holy Spirit, have attained the seats of discernment: pope, curia—the Vatican offices that assist the pope in governing the church—the College of Cardinals, and national bishops’ conferences. They write the documents promulgated into binding teaching for the whole church.
The mystical body of Christ is a much larger assembly. It’s comprised of the faithful to whom the Holy Spirit is likewise entrusted. That Spirit can draw up from the whole body a sense of the faithful (sensus fidelium) that engenders a sea change in church understanding, the way Pentecost did for its first responders. For the most part the magisterium and the sensus fidelium confirm each other, as in the Acts of the Apostles: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind” (4:32). Sometimes they also are at odds, as when Saint Paul discerned that Gentiles should not have to come to Christianity by way of Judaism (Acts 15 and Galatians 2:11ff).
Paul is the poster child for handling church dissent. He went to Jerusalem to argue his case and get a ruling from Saints James and Peter and the elders. He also—literally—got into Peter’s face later in Antioch—but he stayed in relationship, which was the main thing. Every great dissenter after him—Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Catherine of Siena, Cardinal John Henry Newman, the great Dominican theologian Yves Congar, the Australian saint Sister Mary MacKillop, among others—stayed in tandem with the magisterium and eventually pulled it forward.
• Acts 2:1-4, 42-47; 4:32-35; 9:31; 15:1-29, 36-39; Galatians 2:11-14
• Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church by Robert McClory (Orbis Books, 2000)
• Creative Fidelity: American Catholic Intellectual Traditions ed. by R. Scott Appleby, Patricia Byrne, and William L. Portier (Orbis Books, 2004)
• Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium by Francis A. Sullivan (Paulist Press, 1996)
• Documents of the pope and the Vatican curia
• Documents of church councils
The good news is that you don't need to convert back. Technically speaking you're still Roman Catholic. Having remained within the Christian framework these past 20 years, you haven't denounced your baptism or anything grave like that. So anytime you're ready, the Catholic Church is open to you.
It's recommended for anyone who's been away from the church for any reason, especially for many years, that you approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation before returning to full participation in the Eucharist (you may have called it Penance or Confession 20 years ago, but it's generally known as Reconciliation now).
Most parishes still have "confessions" on Saturday afternoons, but in your case you may want to call the local church and make an appointment with a priest at a time of mutual convenience. That will give you the time you need to really talk things through. Directness is the best policy here. Tell the priest you've been attending your husband's church and would like to "come home" to your own tradition. This would be a great opportunity to explore with him what your needs are in regard to religious practice.
Some larger parishes have regular support groups for Catholics who've been away to help catch you up on what may be new in church practice. These groups are variously known as Landings, Catholics Coming Home, or Re-Membering Church, among others. It can be enormously comforting not to feel alone as you resume your place in the Catholic assembly.
If your local Catholic parish doesn't have such a group, you may want to read one of the books below as you find your way. Also, if you're in an urban area, you might want to go on a "parish quest" and try sitting through a few Sunday Masses in various Catholic churches. You're coming from a "high church" Orthodox experience, and in the Roman tradition we've got everything from formal cathedral liturgies to guitar Masses. Maybe something in the middle of the road will suit you better at this time (or maybe what you're looking for is a let-your-hair-down celebration!). Either way, welcome back. Our prayers are with you as you settle in.
Romans 1:9-12; 8:28-39; 10:8-13; 11:29; 15:7
Catholics Can Come Home Again! A Guide for the Journey of Reconciliation with Inactive Catholics by Carrie Kemp (Paulist Press, 2001)
A Faith Interrupted: An Honest Conversation with Alienated Catholics by Alice Camille and Joel Schorn (Loyola Press, 2004)
Your basic church takes its cue from the Greek origins of the word assembly and also the phrase "belonging to the Lord." If a building is consecrated to assemble the faithful for worship (those also known collectively as the church), and if the building is therefore a "house of God," then it's a church.
A cathedral, by contrast, is the particular church in which the bishop presides over worship and, by extension, over the diocese at large. Historically, cathedrals were grand works of art that took centuries to build: Those who began the construction rarely saw its completion. The cathedrals of Europe were vibrant centers of urban life and learning. Cathedrals tended to be larger than the average church, although the trend toward mega-churches in parts of the United States today have made some local cathedrals seem diminutive by comparison.
Basilicas were originally official buildings of the Roman Empire; the Greek word means "king's hall." When Christians acquired these buildings they were appropriated for Christ the King. These historical structures include four major basilicas of Rome: St. John Lateran, St. Peter's, St. Paul's Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major.
One might imagine there could be no such thing as a modern basilica by definition. But minor basilicas continue to be named according to a church's historical significance for a particular region. At present more than 1,500 basilicas encircle the globe, with four countries—Italy, France, Poland, and Spain—garnering over 100 each. Five cities enjoy more than ten basilicas, including Rome, Buenos Aires, and Krakow. Jerusalem and Paris each have five. The U.S. has 65 basilicas, including the Cathedral of St. Augustine, Florida, where the first American Catholic parish was founded; Mission Dolores in San Francisco; Sacred Heart Basilica on the campus of the University of Notre Dame; and the Baltimore cathedral.
If churches are intended to gather all the faithful to worship, chapels (sometimes called oratories) serve more specific populations. Folks stuck in airports appreciate the terminal chapel; prisons, hospitals, schools, convents, and religious houses also have chapels for their communities. Each bishop has the right to an oratory in his residence. In addition, some churches have a smaller chapel attached for daily use.
Exodus 3:4-5; Isaiah 56:6-8; Psalms 24, 42, 84, 95, 100, 122, 133; Mark 11:15-17
Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship, from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley by Richard Kieckhefer (Oxford University Press, 2008)
How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals by Richard Taylor (HiddenSpring, 2005)
If I had to identify one church question most vital to address in the 21st century, it would be this one. Today we inhabit a global community that is drawing ever-more closely together. It’s like the world got shrink-wrapped in a single generation and we’re all breathing the same remarkably limited and interdependent air now.
Theologians at the Second Vatican Council saw this new reality on the horizon and recognized that the church had to reexamine and clarify its interfaith stance. In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 1965) it formally opened the issue to further exploration.
Note: A “declaration” isn’t the same thing as a “dogmatic constitution,” of which the same Council produced a few. Constitutions are fairly finished documents, not to be tampered with in their essence. Declarations blaze a trail, or at least mark the trailhead, but welcome refinement and progress.
Nostra Aetate, while not a perfect document, had some remarkable things to say. It asserts unequivocally that humanity is one community with a common destiny in God. People turn to different religions in search of the same answers to questions as fundamental as: What is the purpose of life? What is good and evil? Where does suffering come from and what is its meaning? What leads to happiness? What lies beyond death?
Then the document makes its boldest claim: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (no. 2). While Christians are bound to witness to “Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6),” we should also “acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians.”
It lists, for starters, that Hindus seek the divine mystery in myth and philosophy, and practice asceticism, meditation, and confidence in God’s love. Buddhists testify to the inadequacies of the material world and that wisdom must be sought through liberation from the trap of possessions. Muslims worship the one God, see in Abraham a spiritual father, and regard Jesus as a holy man and Mary as a source of intercession. Muslims adhere to familiar practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Our shared spiritual heritage with the Jewish community is so intimate that it has spawned many additional teachings since Vatican II. Pope John Paul II called Judaism “the elder brother” of Christianity. Stay tuned as the interfaith dialogue continues!
Isaiah 66:23; John 14:6; Acts 17:26; Romans 9:4-5; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Galatians 3:7-9; Revelation 21:24
• Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) (October 28, 1965)
• What the Catholic Church Has Learnt from Interreligious Dialogue by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, M. Afr. (2006)
• The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Joan Chittister, Saadi Shakur Chishti, and Arthur Waskow (Beacon Press, 2006)
• One Earth, Many Religions by Paul F. Knitter (Orbis Books, 1995)
The scholar E. P. Sanders has the most quotable quote on this matter in his book Jesus and Judaism: “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God, but it was the church that arrived.” To some folks’ reckoning, that’s a bit of a letdown. Although kingdom coming is a realm where every tear is wiped away, the concrete manifestation of the church at any point in history might just as often give you reason to cry. We’re reminded that the church is made up of people who maintain the freedom to behave as saints or sinners—not perfected souls saved and freeze-dried on the spot.
So when we say that Jesus established the church, we don’t mean Jesus laid down the blueprint for Vatican City. Some of us were taught that Jesus instituted the sacraments—complete with gospel references where each ritual was literally installed. It’s more accurate to say that the church, which practiced as many as 22 sacraments and as few as three at various moments in its history, finds theological grounding for its present seven sacraments in the ministry of Jesus.Trying to draw straight lines from Jesus to contemporary church practice sometimes makes us crooked. Few of our present practices fell from heaven as is.
My theology professors used to point out that Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. But he never told them how to do that organizationally, much less across 20 centuries and counting. Institutions develop as the best vehicles for stability and continuity for something that is meant to last. Leaders must be found, formed, and empowered. Teachings must be agreed upon for universal availability. Practices must be set, membership identified, rules defined. Institutions are great for holding things and people together.
Institutions do have their downside: They tend toward inflexibility and self-preservation and are notoriously resistant to change. Which is why the original “people of the Way” identified in the Acts of the Apostles sometimes have to get out of the way to let the Spirit blow on through.
Matthew 10:1-10; 16:13-19; 28:16-20
John 13:1-17, 31-35; 15:1-17; 17:1-26; 21:15-17
The Second Vatican Council’s document on the church (Lumen Gentium)
A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins (Eerdmans, 2006)
When it comes to authority structures, many of us find that we have a monkey on our backs. In a society that exalts freedom and individualism, thinking universally and acting obediently to a higher power just doesn’t sound very American.
Yet for Roman Catholics the unity of the church is one of its greatest possessions. We don’t go it alone as Rambo-style disciples. We are church, all of us together. The great unity prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper reveals his concern that the church remains “one” in spirit and truth.
The institution of the church has many names and plays many roles in the lives of believers. The church is a mother, giving birth to faith through its preaching mission. The church is a servant, continuing the ministry of healing and the restoration of hope that Jesus practiced. And the church is a teacher, bringing the light of truth to every generation in matters of faith and morals.
Because the church’s precious unity depends on our profession of a common creed and a common understanding of the faith, Catholics rely on teachers to protect the coherence and integrity of the gospel message. Each bishop exercises the teaching authority in his diocese. He doesn’t act independently but in concert with the bishops of his nation or region, as our bishops do with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
In turn, each bishops' conference exercises its teaching role in keeping with the magisterium (teaching office) of the episcopal college—all bishops together throughout the world who meet in periodic synods to discuss contemporary concerns. The pope is the head of the episcopal college and can exercise the supreme teaching authority of the whole college.
In these ways the magisterium ensures that careful theological reflection, and not only reaction, remains at the root of the church’s message.
John 17:20-26; Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Timothy 2:2
Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium by Francis A. Sullivan (Paulist Press, 1996)
Turning Points: Unlocking the Treasures of the Church by James Philipps (Twenty-Third Publications, 2006)
Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith by Cardinal Avery Dulles (Sapientia Press, 2007)
Let’s start with a big word: soteriology, or the meaning of God’s saving actions. What are we saved from, and what are we saved for? When most Christians say they’re saved, often they mean “safe from the possibility of going to hell.” For Catholics the usual formula for salvation gets boiled down to this: The danger of hell comes from original sin. Original sin is washed away by baptism. Baptism is a sacrament in Christianity. The Catholic Church contains the only full expression of Christianity. The bottom line: There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.
I don’t question the statements in that chain of logic. But additional links in the chain allow room at the conclusion for the equally Catholic mystery of divine grace. For one, salvation is God’s work, not a human enterprise. You and I are in no position to save anyone, and we don’t want to presume to tie God’s hands either. Although we might say where salvation is readily available, it would be arrogant to say God can choose no other channels of operation. Being divine, God is utterly free.
God’s freedom is a huge consideration. Another is the idea that hell is all we need saving from. What about absurdity, which arises from the reality of death? The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus imbue mortal life with purpose and destiny that rescues us from despair. And what about the baptism available through other Christian traditions? The Roman church admits baptism as a valid sacrament when it uses the formula of the Trinity (“In the name of the Father . . . .”).
Finally, church teaching maintains that everyone is “called by God’s grace to salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 836) and that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, no. 16).
Isaiah 45:22; 49:6; 52:10; Luke 3:6; 9:24; 1 Timothy 2:3-4
“Salvation” in The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. (Liturgical Press, 1996)
The necessity for established, well-defined parish boundaries was identified at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) as a way to protect pastors and their communities from the harm that evolved from uncertain lines of authority and property. The original trouble was grounded in the feudal system: In earlier times the church was by no means separate from the state, as it is in most countries today. The notion of a parish with canonically (that is, by church law) protected rights and responsibilities serves to clarify what you and I “get”—and have a right to—when we join up.
Parish boundaries aren’t always geographically defined. Most are designated by territory, but they can also be defined by language, rite, ethnicity, or other elements that serve the community. For example, in large U.S. cities a French or Korean parish might serve all who speak those languages primarily. There’s also a military diocese that encompasses U.S. service folk wherever they may be, creating parishes anywhere armed forces personnel are serving. Rites in communion with Rome, like Maronites, Melkites, Ukrainians, and others, establish parishes defined less by geography than by the particular liturgy customary for those communities.
As a Catholic you may worship freely in any of these parishes or all of them if you wish. But there are advantages to registering with a particular parish—whether or not you live inside its technical boundaries—that are worth considering. A parish is defined by four basic elements.
First, it stands to serve a certain segment of the People of God. Second, it’s administered by a priest specifically charged with its sacramental care (even a parish with a nonordained administrator on-site reports to a member of the clergy who holds the official title of pastor). Third, a parish is governed by church law which outlines reciprocal rights and duties of pastor and parishioners. Finally, a parish is guaranteed a suitable site containing all that’s necessary for the Catholic spiritual life: Eucharistic equipment, baptismal font, confessional, cemetery, and a place for sacramental records to be kept. Those who register with a particular parish will have full access to all that’s necessary for Catholic identity when the time comes. Trust a former parish secretary here: Get on the books. It makes your sacramental life easier!
• 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 12:1-31; Ephesians 2:19-22; 4:1-7, 11-16
• See nos. 26-27 of Pope John Paul II's 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici
• Parishes Online lets you find websites, Mass times, and directory information for any parish or diocese in the U.S.
• Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices by Paul Wilkes (Paulist Press, 2001)
• The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism by Richard P. McBrien (HarperOne, 2008)