The Instruction from the Holy See on Parishes was published on July 20, 2020. Before I read it, I had an initial thought based on my experience. The first time I served as an Advocate (lawyer) for a parish fighting merger was in 2004. After that initial case, over the next sixteen years, I probably did another ten parish cases as Advocate. I knew of hundreds more from other canon lawyers (on both sides of the issue) and from news accounts. We could have used a little more direction from the Holy See on these matters over those sixteen years of nothing by way of guidance.
Understand, in canon law, unlike civil law, there is no precedent. Case decisions are made in a vacuum. You may hear of an outcome, but not why or what was considered in coming to a decision. There is no publication of cases and decisions. I represented a parish that was being merged into a neighboring parish for all the wrong reasons. We worked hard appealing to the Holy See. After two years of appeal (not a long time in these cases at all) we got a negative decision of the Court, in Latin. I could translate it but I was sure that I could not do it the justice that Rome could. A word or two off here or there could make a huge difference to these parishioners’ understanding the outcome.
I will not take on a parish case unless the people inquiring can show that one hundred registered members of the parish were supporting fighting the merger. In a parish that is looking at being merged or suppressed into nothing, that can be hard to show. But if you do not have that minimum number, failure is a certainty. This parish had more than one thousand registered parishioners sign Mandates (papers appointing me to serve as their Advocate) that went to the Holy See showing their active support of the case. All one thousand of them had followed the case start to finish and never lost interest as happened in many parishes after a year or two. So I wrote to the Apostolic Signatura, the Court handling the case at that point, and I asked them for their English translation of the decree and decision which was rather lengthy. I explained how many of the parishioners were involved and how understanding what happened in the appeal might be what kept these folks from leaving the faith and from not merging into the other parish. The Signatura wrote back and said no, you got what you got. Just the fact that Rome did not care about these people enough to go that extra mile, was enough for many of them to just walk away from the parish merger and go another route in their religious life that was not Catholic.
This issue of parishes is one of the most highly charged emotionally I have seen as a canon lawyer. I believe from my experience and from other canon lawyers with experience in these cases, that when a merger or suppression is started, forty percent of the parishioners it affects, will not go along to get along in the Catholic Church. They will not go to the newly named or appointed parish. They just will not. We lose them and we lose them for good. I absolutely believe this and I am gutted by it. I just wish the Church were as concerned as me.
My next blog will deal more with the Instruction itself and some more of my experiences in these cases. Maybe I can get some of those forty percenters back. Join me for more on this topic. It is so important to us as individuals, as Catholics and as a Church.