Dear Fr. Joe: Is it OK to parish shop?

Q. The pastor of a local church told us we were not allowed to “shop” for a new parish. Is that true?

A. OK, this may not be the answer you wanted to hear, but ... it depends.

First of all, you are allowed to go to Mass in any Catholic church in the world. The word “catholic” means universal, and that is part of the beauty of our faith – that we can walk into a Catholic church in any country and take part in the Mass.

Now, in some areas, you are allowed to register at any parish you wish. The Catholic Diocese of Lansing, for example, allows people to choose their parish affiliation. However, in some dioceses, although you can go to Mass wherever you choose, you may only register in your geographic parish. In some of these cases, geographic boundaries may affect your ability to participate in other sacraments.

What’s a geographic parish?

The world is divided up into lots of geographic zones by the Church. For example, here in Michigan, we have seven different areas called “dioceses.” These dioceses are divided into regions, which are then divided into parish boundaries. When you moved to wherever you live, that is what placed you in your parish. It’s based on geography. The word itself comes from a derivative of a the Greek word for neighbor – it essentially defines your neighborhood. In fact, in Louisiana, a parish is the equivalent of a county.

As a Catholic, the parish in which you live is assumed to be “your parish.” It is hoped that you will register there (everyone should register at a parish!) and actively involve yourself in your community, offering your gifts and talents and receiving the gifts and talents of the community.

The high point of the community and the source of its unity are the eucharistic celebrations that are held there. Not going is a big deal – we need the Eucharist and the Eucharist needs us.

However, to be clear, if you reside in a parish’s boundaries and it’s “not working,” there is nothing wrong with looking for a Catholic church that does, in fact, work for you.

You need to spend some time prayerfully considering why it is that the parish is “not working” for you. Are you being motivated by a real desire to more fully experience the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth, or are you acting out of anger or pride or a desire to be among people who are more “socially acceptable” to you?

If you are leaving because the pastor is cruel or not preaching the word of God, make sure you have explored all the options open to you short of leaving. Have you spoken to the pastor to make sure you just haven’t misunderstood him? Have you asked him to clarify his preaching? If you have done so, and did not receive a helpful response, then you may need to find a new spiritual home in a different parish. If you are leaving because the community is cold or distant or in some other ways is not welcoming, that’s understandable, too. A word of caution with that, however: Do you see a possibility of being the person who takes the parish out of cold and distant and into the wonderful land of welcoming and warm? Maybe that is what God is calling you to do.

If you are leaving because you just don’t like what the pastor is saying – maybe his homilies make you a little uncomfortable – perhaps you need to think deeply before walking away. Sometimes, what we need to hear and what we want to hear are two different things. Maybe you need to be challenged? If you leave because what the priest is preaching is what the Church teaches, you should absolutely take this to prayer.

Whatever your parish situation, remember that the parish is made up of other people like you – that we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord. Together, in the love of Christ, we are called to build up his kingdom on earth. Enjoy another day in God’s presence!