Letter to Robinson K. Russo a young seminarian, continued.
It was a delight to see you and all the other seminarians from Bathsheba Bible College at the annual retreat a few weeks ago. The retreat director struck me as a little odd, but at least the pizza was good. Say hello to the brethren for me. Back to the disquisition.
Let’s talk a little about the perish, I mean the parish. A parish is a stable community of the faithful within a particular church, the care of which is entrusted to an ordained pastor under the authority of the diocesan bishop. It is the primary unit of a diocese. In the Code of Canon Law, parishes are discussed in cc. 515–552, “Parishes, Pastors, and Parochial Vicars.” The word parish is derived from a Greek word that means “…the area around the house.” My only perspective is that of a diocesan priest. I cannot comment on the experience of religious order priests. The diocesan priesthood has changed greatly during my short life, and I cannot predict where it will go. I can only comment on where it has come from and how it has developed. People ask me, “What order do you belong to?” I used to answer flippantly, “The order of St. Peter.” I cannot do that anymore. There is now a group called the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), so that joke won’t work anymore, as if it ever did.
What I meant is that I am part of the original simple structure of the Catholic Church. The essential structure of the Church is the parish. (Warning the next few lines are speculation garnered from a lifetime of study. They may be absolutely wrong.) I suspect that in the first century of the Christian era, one town had one supervisor ("mebaqqer" in Hebrew, "episkopos" in Greek, "bishop" in English,) who was assisted by a few table waiter/helpers (“shamash” in Hebrew, "diakonos" in Greek, "deacon" in English.) His congregation was probably never more than a couple hundred people. He was probably called “Pappas” ("Father" in Greek) and was a spiritual father to his small community. The bishop presided over the Eucharist and approved new members of the community who were then instructed by the deacons. He re-admitted the fallen back into fellowship after a time of repentance and probably anointed the sick as well as preached. He was both supervisor of the faithful and wise elder (“Zaken” in Hebrew, "presbyteros" in Greek, "priest" in English.) When things got a bit too much, he might appoint tried and true deacons as fellow elders, thought this would have been honorific. They could preside at the Eucharist in the absence of the bishop, the main elder, but could not admit others to holy orders and did have authority to re-admit the fallen to the fellowship by means of penance. If a local church had more than one house of assembly, that is a parish, in a given district, the bishop might put that community in the care of a trusted presbyter and a deacon or two.
So, there it was. You had a very simple structure: supervisor, assisted by table waiters and elders. (Bishops, deacons and priests in English) Each diocese was essentially autonomous in its administration, though united to the wider Church by means of local synods of bishops, and when a big doctrinal issue came up, they looked to the bishop of Rome for instruction. Around 170 AD, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, a Greek bishop of a French city, wrote, “…we do put to confusion all those who…assemble in unauthorized meetings by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. (It is) the faith… which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church… (Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3)
Irenaeus was born into a Christian family around 125 AD. His pastor (bishop) was St. Polycarp who had been instructed by St. John. This means that one long lifetime from Christ, one short generation from the Apostles, Christians in the little Catholic Church already looked to Rome for theological guidance. This was not much different from the church in which I was raised. There were no deacons anymore, but the pastor was pretty much the bishop in his parish and was assisted by a few assistant pastors. The church was the parish. The parish was the church.
The parish was almost as much my home as was the house I grew up in. We played in the church lot, went to the parish school, assisted at the Mass, went to parish ice cream socials, dances, catechism classes, retreats, holy hours, and even the occasional lecture. There were men’s clubs, ladies’ guilds, book discussions, card parties and on and on. It was the parish, the village of our souls. We didn’t have cable, nor had we IPads or IPods. We played baseball, went to Boy Scouts which then was made up of people you knew and trusted. The pastor was scary. He never smiled. He knew us very well, better than we wanted to be known. I suspect even though he never smiled, he actually cared for each of us and knew us each by name. You didn’t go to the next parish over because the pastor was crabby and gave long sermons and longer penances after confession. The parish was home. If you went to the next parish over, the pastor would send you right back to your own home parish. There was no church hopping, just as there was no wife swapping, at least as far as I knew. The churches of my youth were full. The intimate community of believers that shepherded by the overseer/elder, heir to the apostles was preserved in the simplicity and familiarity of the parish. The parish was not incidental to the faith. It was the faith. This system worked pretty well for almost two thousand years, and then something happened.
Next week: ‘til death do us part, you old sourpuss.