ASK FATHER: How do I find out which territorial parish I live in?

From a reader…


A recent post of yours got me wondering, how do I know what my territorial parish is? I live in a medium city and there are three parishes almost equidistant to my house.

My wife and I actually go to a fourth parish only slightly further away (the cathedral) because of the preaching.

How do I know which one is my territorial parish, and what are my responsibilities to it? Am I doing anything wrong going somewhere else?

You are not doing anything wrong by going to another parish.  However, when it comes to receiving certain sacraments, the local, territorial pastor shouldn’t be ignored.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law starts out describing a diocese as a “portion of the people of God”.  Dioceses are usually circumscribed by borders, indicating territory.  You belong to your diocese because you dwell in the diocese in a relatively stable way.   (There are exceptions, as in the case of the Archdiocese for the Military, to which members of the military and their dependents belong).  The Code also says that parishes – which could also be described as “portions of the people of God” -are usually territorial (can. 518): if you live in the boundary of the parish, you probably belong to that parish.  (There are exceptions for parishes with boundaries that could stretch to the diocesan boundaries for ethnic or language groups, etc.)

So, in the main, you live in the geographically described territory of some parish.  In general if you live really close to a parish church, that’s probably your parish.

However, now parishes are being consolidated.  You may live close to St. Joseph Terror of Demons Church, which was formerly its own parish.  A couple years ago, it might have been consolidated with the parish Our Lady Mournful Mother Weeping Church to form a larger parish with two churches in it, the new consolidated parish now being called “Through My Fault Through My Fault Through My Most Grievous Fault Catholic Community”.

That’s the sort of name I would come up with, by the way, although on my planet, these consolidations would be as rare as hen’s teeth.  Alas, these days the usual consolidation names are more like “Sing A New Faith Community Into Being Faith Community” or “Engendering Togetherness Community of Welcome”.

To get a handle on what your territorial parish is, you could call what you think is your local parish.  If that doesn’t produce results, call the diocese.  Tell them your address and ask which is your official territorial parish.

Mind you: You may have a problem finding someone who knows a) that there are such a thing as parish borders and b) what those borders are.

Some dioceses make it easy.  For example, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia provides a way to enter your address on their website to find out your territorial parish.  Not all dioceses do that.

This could take some perseverance.

Slowly but surely – at least in developed countries where people are highly mobile – the practical effects of parish boundaries are dissolving and resolving themselves into a dew.

In law people belong to St. Idealia in the Diocese of Libville where with the acquiescence of Bp. Fatty McButterpants the ultra-liberal Fr Bruce Hugalot commits all manner of liturgical abuse and preaches outright heresy, but in practice they are receiving all their services from Msgr. Zuhlsdorf at St. Ipsidipsy, across the diocesan border over in the Diocese of Black Duck!

This isn’t far-fetched.  Say you live near your diocese’s border, and there is a far superior option over there in the other diocese.  A person might drive from N. Illinois up to Madison WI.  Someone might take the subway from Brooklyn (a diocese), into Manhattan (a different diocese).

It’s confusing, but that’s life these days.  People are voting with their feet.

It may be that the law will be changed to reflect new realities.  It is hard to know what that might look like, however, since the world isn’t homogeneous.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. adriennep says:

    You said that if you want to receive certain sacraments, then don’t ignore territorial. Further details? What about registration? We currently live in more rural area where there are no really good parishes for two hours driving. We recently stopped attending (or registering) at parish where we came into the Catholic Church only 11 years ago. Now that parish has been victim of diocesan priest reassignment roulette. And we do have one of the good Archbishops. I truly grieve for this situation but our options are few. Not everyone is able to physically move, either. But is it wrong to not register at all when you don’t feel any home there?

    [You should register where you intend also to receive services. However, you still technically belong to your local parish, and your local parish needs to know about you.]

  2. Will Elliott says:

    Another option might my your diocese’s CYO Athletics office. I once stumbled across an unofficial parish boundaries map on the CYO website of a diocese I used to live in.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    My hometown parish used to have a big map of the parish boundaries, in black and white, right up on the wall in the vestibule. So if people had any question about whether they lived there, or in one of the neighboring parishes, it was pretty easy for Father or the ushers to find out!

    I don’t know why parishes don’t do this now. It’s a lot easier to get a map printout these days, and it made an attractive decoration.

  4. frjim4321 says:

    “Some dioceses make it easy. For example, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia provides a way to enter your address on their website to find out your territorial parish.”

    Impressive. Coding parish boundaries into an online map is cool, but hard work. Nice!

  5. Fr. W says:

    Geographical boundaries are important. This is true not only for the licitness of sacraments celebrated but for the validity of sacraments and other ecclesiastical acts as well. [Ummm….] Of particular concern is the sacrament of marriage and the various delegations and permissions and faculties required of clergy to “witness” marriages sometimes necessary. Seldom an issue if the person is going to a parish other than their proper parish but within the same diocese but a more significant issue particularly across diocesan lines. Canon law does define “proper pastors”. “Registration” is ;argely an American invention. You are normally a member of the parish and the diocese in which you live (with some exceptions). Where have I heard before that the devil is in the details? Perhaps your contributing canon lawyer would like to comment.

    [If no dispensations are needed, two people can validly marry in some other parish without any permissions from their actual pastor. That is to say that pastors can validly marry people from another parish or even diocese (providing they don’t need dispensations, etc). The invalidating impediments to marriage are listed in can. 1083-1094. Street address isn’t one of them.]

  6. Anneliese says:

    I frequently attended parishes that were outside the boundaries of the one I belonged to. Currently, the two parishes that are close to me are not my cup of tea, bongos and guitars are verboten in my book.

    Also, I like how you discreetly used Monsignor.

  7. William says:

    School districts, Little Leagues, and even the Mormons make sure you know what zone you’re in. Dioceses can do it too. It’s not that hard.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  8. APX says:

    I just moved and checked the parish boundaries map. Sadly I am no longer in my parish boundaries. If I lived across the street from my place I would be.

  9. Cafea Fruor says:

    The Archdiocese of St. Louis has an online thing where you can punch in your address, and it shows you your parish and the boundaries. The chancery folks at my home diocese, from what I understand, are currently working on a Google map with boundaries plotted out because the boundaries can follow things not on your typical online map (follow X north until it hits the Y county line, then follow county line west until it intersects with blah-de-blah river…), but for now, one can either call the possible parishes to find out (they tend to know their own boundaries and those of their neighbors pretty well), or you can call the chancery, as they’ve got a large map on a wall somewhere that they can consult.

    BTW, whether or not you can register where you actually attend (if it’s different than your home parish) is not always possible. It’s the pastor’s prerogative to say yea or nay. Some pastors in our diocese absolutely will not let anyone from outside their boundaries register in their parishes because A) some of our parishes are bursting at the seams already, and B) allowing you to register is taking on some responsibility for you, like showing up at the hospital when you’re sick, etc., and they may not want to be driving 25 miles each way in the middle of the night to the sickbed of a parishioner who is registered but lives far away.

  10. Sword40 says:

    I no longer attend my territorial parish because of poorly presented liturgy and resentment from locals. I now drive 80 miles each way to my FSSP parish. My old parish continues to print monthly envelopes for me even though they know I no longer attend there. What a waste of time and money!

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  12. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Archdiocese of Denver is revising and publishing parish boundaries (main revision is using road names and county boundaries instead of surveyor’s descriptions so average folks can understand). There’s a new set in the Denver Catholic Register just about every issue. Pretty easy indeed.

    Your point about cross-diocesan attendance is well-taken. A friend has moved twice in the past 20 years. When he was received into the Church, he lived about a quarter-mile from the parish where he was received. First move was about six miles out, next move was way the heck out to an exurb in the Diocese of Colorado Springs, but he has persisted in the same parish.

  13. Suburbanbanshee said:

    My hometown parish used to have a big map of the parish boundaries, in black and white, right up on the wall in the vestibule. So if people had any question about whether they lived there, or in one of the neighboring parishes, it was pretty easy for Father or the ushers to find out!

    I don’t know why parishes don’t do this now. It’s a lot easier to get a map printout these days, and it made an attractive decoration.

    There are two reasons this doesn’t happen that occur to me immediately. First, I have no idea where to get such a map printout these days, and I suspect I am not the only one. When I arrived in my current parish, I contacted the chancery to ascertain my parish boundaries. Using that information, I created a map the old-fashioned way: I drew lines on a photocopy from a map-book I keep in my car.

    The second reason I suspect most parishes don’t do this, is because of all the announcements, posters and other sorts of things that parish priests are asked to display in their churches. That is to say, there usually isn’t room in the vestibule for anything else!

  14. Regarding parish registration…

    My reading of Canon Law leads me to believe that no one is, strictly speaking, required to complete a parish registration. But it is a courtesy, and it is practical.

    Although you may not show up at your territorial parish very often, there likely will be times when you will want something from that parish. If you are asked to be a godparent for baptism, for example, you may be asked to obtain a letter from your pastor, indicating you are a faithful, practicing Catholic. Many other examples can be cited. At such times, it’s good to have some priest, somewhere, you recognizes your face. And I might add, it is a little annoying as a priest only to hear from someone when s/he wants something from you. Priests, being human, may be tempted to go very much out of their way for someone in that situation.

  15. hwriggles4 says:

    I live in the Southern United States and I notice that several Hispanic Catholics will only attend parishes that have Spanish only Masses. Quite a few will take the time to drive to a parish that has Spanish Mass, which is fine, but several refuse to interact with English speaking Catholics and a few are even uncomfortable with a non Hispanic priest, even if the priest has full knowledge of Spanish. Quite a few do not register anywhere, so their numbers aren’t counted.

    I do find it frustrating that several people coming to America these days make an effort to segregate themselves. I also know white Catholics who complain that they felt run off from their home parish of 20+ years because their neighborhood changed.

  16. JesusFreak84 says:

    When I was in southern IN, I drove over the state line into Louisville for a TLM. I’m still not 100% sure what my territorial parish was; after I lost my job and couldn’t afford the gas to go to the TLM, I picked where I got my Sacraments based on how much gas it took to get there more than anything else…

  17. daughteroflight says:

    For curious people who want to find their territorial parish, some (not all) dioceses in the USA actually have a parish search function on their website which also displays the territorial boundaries of each parish. It’s an easy google search to find out if your diocese has this convenience, and another quick call to your chancery to bug someone about it if they don’t. This information is important for sacramental purposes, and should be widely available (I had lots of fun sending permission requests to the territorial priests of various people trying to get married at my parish – they all called me with confusion in their voices. One savvy priest was actually able to correct an error that I had been making in the process, though. Kudos to him).

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