Q. I am an Irish Catholic/Catholic-school kid, now 68 years old, and this is what I want to know: Given the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, how can my Church allow Bernard Law to remain a priest — no longer in Boston, but at the Vatican, no less? Given his performance in Boston, letting him continue as a priest in good standing is awful. My non-church-going Catholic friends comment on the Church’s hypocrisy because of issues like this one. I agree with them, although I intend to remain a practicing Catholic. (Loudonville, New York)
A. In early 2002, the grave scandal of sexual abuse of children by clergy was uncovered, largely through a series of articles in The Boston Globe. Later that same year, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in the wake of that scandal for what was widely regarded as a lack of proper oversight on his part.
In 2004, Cardinal Law was named archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome; even though that post is largely ceremonial, some saw the appointment as the Vatican’s failure to grasp the magnitude of the sex abuse crisis.
In 2011, shortly after he reached the age of 80, Cardinal Law was replaced as archpriest of St. Mary Major. In accord with the “zero tolerance” policy adopted by the US bishops in June 2002, every cleric who has been credibly accused has now been removed from active ministry, but some have argued that bishops who failed to exercise due diligence in clerical assignments should also be punished.
In June 2015, Pope Francis created a Church tribunal to judge bishops who failed to protect children. During 2015, at least three bishops worldwide have resigned or been removed from office in the wake of sexual abuse scandals in their dioceses.
Q. In our parish, there was an elderly man, a faithful parishioner, whose brother had come to live with him due to ill health. They were told that our parish visiting team could not come to visit the sick man and bring him Communion, since technically they lived outside our parish boundaries.
This man had been a lector in our parish but, naturally, he has since changed parishes to accommodate his brother. So my question is this: At a time when very few people walk to church anymore, are parish lines even necessary? Shouldn’t folks be able to hear Mass in a church where they feel close to God, even though it might not be in their particular neighborhood? (Charleston, South Carolina)
A. First, let me address the particular situation you raise. In my mind, the parish’s decision not to bring Communion to the sick man was silly. We should be grateful that people want the sacraments and do everything possible to accommodate them. If a person lived a very long distance away and could be served more conveniently and more quickly by a closer parish, then I could understand the reasoning — but you gave no indication that this was the case here. (And even then, I would take it upon myself, as the priest first asked, to contact the second parish to ensure that the person would be visited.)
Now to your question. The rationale behind parish boundaries is found in Canon No. 518 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law, which says that, as a general rule, a parish is to be territorial. That is to say, when a bishop formally erects a parish, he sets its geographic boundaries, and all Catholics who live within those limits are automatically members of that parish.
This means, for example, that any Catholic living there has a right to a funeral Mass in that parish church, regardless of whether he or she had been attending it. It also means that Catholics wishing to marry must seek the pastor’s permission if the wedding is not going to take place in the parish church of one of the spouses.
In general, the idea behind parish lines is to give to a parish a clear idea of its primary focus and responsibility. Parish lines also help to determine the relative size of parishes in deciding, for example, the assignment of priests or, in some instances, where financial help from the diocese is most needed.
Although there is no canonical requirement for a Catholic to register formally as a parish member, it is wise to do so — for a couple of reasons, at least. First, it ensures that you will be informed about parish programs and services; but also, registered parishioners are often given preference in such things as admission to the parish school or the scheduling of weddings, particularly in parishes which tend to attract “tourist weddings.”
Most important of all, you are absolutely right that people should be able to attend Mass where they feel close to God — and canon law, in fact, agrees with you. Canon No. 1247 says that the faithful are obliged to participate in Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation — but it does not say where. You are free to attend any parish church you prefer, not necessarily the one in which you reside — free to go where you like the priest and the people, feel nourished spiritually, and seem most at peace.