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Who's the boss?

Who owns your local parish? American Catholics faced this question in the mid-19th century, and they still do today.

In the 19th century lay trustees owned many local parishes. As dioceses grew in power, bishops claimed ownership, winning civil court cases brought by the parishes. In Illinois a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln represented a couple of parishes trying to maintain their ownership. He lost those cases but went on to greater things.

Today, as the economic fallout of the sexual abuse crisis continues, some bankrupt dioceses now claim that they don't really own local parishes so that parish assets can be exempt from any diocesan bankruptcy settlement. All economic eyes are focused on today's civil court cases.

Might a "For sale or lease" sign in front of the church building be in your parish's future?

In the midst of these current cases, a visionary book published just last year takes a different tack. A Voice of Their Own: The Authority of the Local Parish (Liturgical Press) by William A. Clark looks at spiritual ownership of local parishes.

Clark's focal point is local faith communities, which he describes as "any regularly gathered group of Christians," from parishes and religious orders to even "the pope with the cardinal prefects." His book focuses on parishes, describing three that are quite different from one another and illuminating the essential nature of local faith communities, their individual charisms, and their indispensable relationship to the church universal.

A gathered group becomes a faith community through intimacy, described by Clark as making known "what is inmost, essential, or intrinsic." Authenticity and authority then flow from the intimacy of the local faith community embodied in concrete social structures, such as family, friendship, work, and government, not from juridical assumptions or dictates.

Clark points out some intriguing historical realities. Ancient dioceses were much closer to the size of contemporary parishes, and therefore the intimacy of local community was at one time experienced on the diocesan level. Regretfully this is often not the case today. Clark also reminds readers that the epistles, treasured as scripture, were originally addressed to specific local faith communities, not the church universal.

Might Clark, book in hand, be called to testify in upcoming court cases centered on ownership of local parishes? That I don't know. But I do know this: A Voice of Their Own should be required reading for parish council members and all active stakeholders in local communities of faith.

Laypeople who have built parishes from the ground up, who carry out many ministries within their churches, who desire a vibrant future in their local communities of faith will be encouraged and energized by this book.

PETER GILMOUR ( teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University Chicago.
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Title Annotation:odds & ends
Author:Gilmour, Peter
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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