ASK FATHER: Obligation to attend the local parish instead of going somewhere else

From a reader…


Someone told me that I am bound to attend mass at my territorial parish, even though it is a rule that is not followed by many people. I was told this as reason for why I should not be attending the TLM at a church about 30 minutes away from my house. Is this true? Am I required to attend mass only at my territorial parish church?

In the 1983 Code of Canon Law we find that on Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass (can. 1247).  We also find that, “a person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.(can. 1248 §1).

Hence, you can go to Mass anywhere, so long as it is a Catholic Mass.

In the older Code, now superseded by the 1983 Code, there was a stronger obligation to attend one’s local parish.

Keep in mind also that there are different kinds of parishes.  Some are territorial and some are personal.   An example of a personal parish is my home parish in St. Paul, St. Agnes, which founded within the boundaries of a territorial parish but for immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and German speakers.  Some parishes today are for certain ethnic or immigrant groups or even TLM parishes for those who want tradition.

But it you don’t belong to one of these personal parishes, then you are probably under the jurisdiction of the pastor of the local territorial parish.  You are not obliged to attend Mass there, but the local pastor can still have a say in your life, when it comes to sacraments.  Say, for example, you live in one territorial parish, but you are attend Mass in a different territorial parish.  You get involved, find a gal, and want to get married.  Your true, local territorial pastor must give permission to the other territorial pastor.

Many people find a parish across town which they prefer.  They “register” in the parish.  That doesn’t make you a member (unless, for example, there are “personal parish” issues).  Registration helps for when you need some service, but you are not thereby a member.

Keep in mind that, out of justice, if you are receiving services from a parish, you should be supporting the parish financially (or an equivalent) as well.

Ironically, were pastors of parishes to follow the prescripts of law that outlines what their duties are, fewer people would want to escape to another place.   If pastors insist on their prerogatives outlined by law, then lay people should do the same.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Philmont237 says:

    As a member of the military, I’ve always wondered if I belong (canonically) to the territorial parish or to the nearest base chapel. Right now I go to the territorial parish because the priest is very tradition-minded, unlike the base chaplain.

  2. AndyMo says:

    Canonically, the territories of parishes have less to do with the attendance of parishioners and more to do with the responsibilities of pastors. A pastor is responsible for those within his territorial parish even if they attend a different church, or no church.

  3. chuckharold says:

    I attended a “destination” parish for years because … When the new Pastor was appointed the music went to …, his Irish brogue was so thick you couldn’t understand his sermons or his Mass. So I went back to my local parish for a few weeks. The Pastor, a really nice chap, spoke with an Eastern European accent so thick you couldn’t understand one word of the sermon. His Parochial Vicar was from an Asian country with, again, an accent so strong that the parish soon became the destination parish for the thousands of Filipinos in the area. The Lutheran church in town is “high church” and, well you get the idea.

    [I’m not sure that I “get the idea”. Is it that these are just a string of excuses made by people who don’t want to attend their local parish? Otherwise, choosing not to go to Mass at a place because you can’t understand the sermon, seems vaguely Protestant to me. Catholics have more than just “singing and preaching”.]

  4. William says:

    I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Dioceses do not make it easy to determine which parish is your local parish. The best I’ve seen is when the boundaries are listed on the parish page on the diocese. Still somewhat complicated. In the end, most of us are left to a guess. There are three parishes which could conceivably be my territorial parish depending on how the boundaries are drawn. But I go to a TLM personal parish, so I don’t worry about it.

    School districts handle this easily, and I can go onto most school districts and find which homes are in their bounds and which schools the kids would go to. If schools can do this, so can we.

  5. My diocese is known for orthodoxy, a number of locations for the Extraordinary Form on Sundays and Holidays, and reverent Masses in the Ordinary Form in most cases. My territorial parish is run by a religious order, and fits none of these categories. Ostensibly a parish serving its African-American neighborhood, it has been taken over by aging adolescent Boomers who can’t get their way anywhere else. The parish has a long history of promoting errors against the Faith, and the diocese appears to do nothing. Its pastor couldn’t care less if no priest shows up (or shows up late) for the half-hour time slot on Saturday afternoon for confession. I know because he told me as much, and then wondered why he never saw me there. Fortunately for him, I didn’t answer.

    And so I pass it by to attend a parish with the Traditional Mass and confessions in between the Masses (and even once the Mass has started). My diocese used to be a real stickler about registering in one’s “proper” parish. They’re not so much anymore. I guess ignoring the problem was easier than confronting it. We’ve had a lot of that in the Church lately. Hmmm.

  6. AmjdhA says:

    Philmont237, if you’re on Active Duty in the US Military, you fall under the jurisdiction of both the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS) and your local civilian diocese. The AMS is both a personal and territorial Archdiocese, and its jurisdiction is cumulative. AMS jurisdiction is explained in Chapter 2 of the AMS Priests’ Manual that is available online at

    I don’t believe you are doing anything “wrong” if you choose to go to a local civilian parish. You are still within the territory, and most military Catholic communities are limited in their offerings. It’s also prudent to have a good relationship with a local parish given that the military Catholic Chaplains are not always available and are reassigned every 1-4 years. You were part of a territorial parish before you were in the military, and you will be a part of a territorial parish after your time in the military is finished. You don’t “drop out” in between.

  7. DelRayVA says:

    When we bought our house (17 years ago), we found it was in the boundaries of one parish (call it St. Mary’s of the Good Shepherd) but our siblings were in the boundary of the next parish (call it St. Hugh’s) We wanted to join the same parish where our siblings were attending. We wrote a letter to the pastor of St. Mary’s of the Good Shepherd, and asked permission to attend and register at St. Hugh’s. The pastor was happy to write to the pastor of St. Hugh’s, and let him know that we had his permission to register there. It was easy, and eased our consciences completely.

  8. Bunky says:

    When I was growing up, my late father told me that if I were to ever have a personal problem with a priest (including but not limited to one trying to break his vow of chastity with me), the proper thing to do in such a situation would be to switch parishes, “no goodbyes or explanations necessary”. And that while the rights of laypeople were greatly limited and circumscribed, there was no question about the right of the common layperson to switch parishes on a dime, or to ask any priest to hear one’s confession, again, there exists the right to switch priests on a dime, and just show up in a church where they never heard of you. I don’t know how well this knowledge was distributed among the Catholic population, but it definitely predated the 1983 Code of Canon Law. I think people should have used it more often prior to the priest scandal. If there were ever a priest without an audience, I am inclined to think that a definite message would have been sent to Rome. That said, some real estate ads here in NYC mention which parish a house or apartment is considered to be in, with St. Albans being generally considered the most desirable in Queens. It can be a selling point…or not!

  9. hwriggles4 says:

    I remember being told by my mother and other Catholics to register at a parish, even if you attend other parishes sometimes (i.e. many Catholics attend a parish closer to the office on Holy Days). This way a Catholic is counted somewhere within the diocese. Many Catholics don’t register, and others end up getting multiple collection envelopes because they are registered more than once.

    I do want to mention young adults…many do attend different parishes depending upon activities. Young adults (yes, I was one) would rather not attend a parish where the bulk of the congregation is over 55. Good priests are aware of this, and many do attend Sunday Mass weekly. Many young adult groups have a good balance between spiritual and social too. Quite a few are good places to develop friendships outside of work, have a support group, and some young adults meet a good Catholic spouse through one of these venues.

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