Parishes, parish life and lay leadership were the focus of the Canon Law Society of America’s 74th annual convention Oct. 8-11 at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont, Ill.
“The parish is the place where people encounter Christ regularly. That’s where people are baptized and confirmed. That’s where all their celebrations of their life take place,” said Rita Ferko Joyce, immediate past president for the Canon Law Society of America.
More than 350 canon lawyers and others involved in church legal work attended the convention.
The society wanted to focus on the structure of the parish and explore how it has changed over the years and what it might be like in the future, Joyce said.
In his talk about parishes in the future, Msgr. Roch Pagé, judicial vicar of the Canadian Appeal Tribunal, described the parish as a means to reach the goal of establishing a eucharistic community, he said. Shifting populations, a shortage of priests and a decline in religious practice are causing parish mergers and closures in the United States and will continue to do so, he said.
Pagé, who has written previously about the future of the parish structure, noted that issues facing parishes today are not the same everywhere and aren’t happening everywhere at the same time.
The shortage of priests will result in more parish closings or mergers in years to come, he said.
“The parish must be renewed and be above all a eucharistic community. How can a community be eucharistic without the priest?” he asked. Therefore, priests will pastor larger and larger parishes or clusters of parishes, as is already the case in some places, he said.
Parishes are being closed and merging also because the Catholic population is not aligned with where the parishes are. In recent years the South and Southwest have seen an upswing in the number of Catholics while more historically Catholic parts of the U.S. and Canada — where more parishes are — have seen a decline, he said.
While some dioceses will continue to recruit international priests to help fill in gaps, in the short term, Pagé said, many parishes will increase the roles of the laity and deacons in the parish.
“The next decades will certainly see the canonical status of the laity conform with its theology,” he said.
With the increased role of the laity, Pagé said he foresees an evolution in the theology of the laity over the next 50 years, which in some ways began with the Vatican II document the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. Increased participation of the laity will bring major change to the parish and diocesan systems and approach to priestly ministry, he said.
“It’s better to presume the laity are here to stay and we should act accordingly,” said Pagé.
Even though the church has used the parish system for 16 centuries, that doesn’t mean it’s eternal, he said. There are other ways of achieving the goal of establishing eucharistic communities.
“I also think that the parish system as we have known it so far is probably going to die,” he said.
This won’t happen everywhere and at the same time. If it stays in some places, it will look different than it has in the recent past, he said.
Groups of Christians — much like lay movements and associations — will gather together in community and likely replace the parish in the future, Pagé said. Lay movements will be a source of drawing back those who have fallen away from the church and a source of new vocations, the canonist said.
“One should remember that the parish is not the church. The church has lived before the parish existed,” he said. “She will not disappear if the parish system as we have known it ceases to exist.”
In the closing address, Sister of St. Francis Katarina Schuth, chair for the social scientific study of religion at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., spoke about lay ecclesial ministers in parishes and the people they serve.
The 2012 Catholic Directory reports 40,000 lay ministers serve the church today. That number increases to more than 200,000 if you include Catholic school teachers, she said.
“The church depends tremendously on lay ministers,” Sister Schuth said.
These ministers are serving diverse communities with diverse needs and will increase with the shortage of priests and future changes in parishes. In many places already, Sister Schuth said, laypeople are doing jobs that used to be done by a priest.
Canon law is the body of laws that govern the Catholic Church. Many people encounter these laws directly only when dealing with a declaration of nullity for a marriage. The laws deal with everything from parish and school structure and diocesan advisory councils to clerical dress and teaching the faith on radio or television.
The laws pertain to the universal church but conferences of bishops can enact “particular legislation” pertaining to the church in their own countries, according to the U.S. bishops website.
However, when all is said and done the laws are about more than structure.
“What we always have to remember is canon law is pastoral in nature. It’s not punitive,” Joyce said. “The last canon of the Code of Canon laws says that we keep in mind that the real purpose and understanding of the law is the salvation of souls.”