Bishop Conlon Parish Nov 05

Parish configuration guidelines published by Bishop Conlon





Parish life for most Catholics is a wonderful experience.  In close relationship with the parish priest and fellow parishioners, people come to know the Lord and gather to worship him.  They find support for their faith and can depend on comfort and assistance at times of need.  They can put their gifts and talents to good use.


Like every gift, however, parishes are a means to help Christ continue his work in the world.  No parish exists for itself.  And no parish is complete in itself.  Specifically, parishes are part of a diocese, the basic communal unit of the Church.  The bishop of the diocese is ultimately responsible for assuring that parishes exist and function well.


The economic and population characteristics of a diocese and its various areas dictate the appropriate number of parishes and the location of parish churches.  Other factors, especially the number of available parish priests, also must be considered. 


During the first thirty years of the Diocese of Steubenville’s history, many communities experienced a strong economy and growing population.  The last thirty years, however, have seen a significant decline in both economy and population.  The Catholic population of the diocese is only about half of what it was in 1944, yet there are, in net, three more parishes and missions than then.  The number of available priests has also declined by more than half, and the number will be even smaller in the next few years.


This change is a real situation that must be faced realistically.  On the other hand, because of our confidence in God and the durability of the Church, these new circumstances need not be a cause of gloom or anxiety.  In fact, they call forth from us a positive desire to make useful adaptations.  We must use the good gifts we do have to do the best possible work for the Lord.


Since the concrete experience of ecclesial life is most readily found in parishes, the way we structure or configure our parishes is a key piece in the task of adaptation to new circumstances.  The Deanery Pastoral Councils of the Diocese of Steubenville are being asked to take a major role in shaping the future of our parishes.  These councils are comprised of the pastors and lay representatives from all the parishes in each of the five deaneries.

It is the task of the Deanery Pastoral Councils to study, discuss, pray about and ultimately recommend to Bishop Conlon, no later than April of 2007, a plan for configuring the parishes in each deanery.  These plans must be comprehensive but may entail phased implementation.  The councils need to be creative and courageous.  They need to consult widely among the People of God.  They need to work with accurate information about the parishes and regions.  They may wish to engage professional facilitators to assist them.  Above all, they must entrust themselves to the Holy Spirit.  (The DPCs have responsibility for developing plans for the overall ministry of the Church in their area.  Parish configuration is only one, although significant part of that pastoral planning.)

The attached material is intended to guide the Deanery Pastoral Councils in their work. While the points that follow are not “laws”, they should be considered normative, unless some unique circumstance warrants a variation.

The point of this planning effort is not to see how many parishes can be closed or merged.  The point is to arrange our parishes in the way that will provide the best possible experience of a faith community for our people and the most effective ministry of the Church, given our limited earthly resources. 

That there will be change in some of our parishes is inevitable.  And change is usually painful.  It may lead to anger, envy, mistrust, anxiety and other reactions that are quite natural.  But as Scripture says, we are no longer simply “natural” people.  Through Christ, we have become “supernatural”.  As such, we can claim divine assistance as we work through the planning process.  Prayer is the best offense and defense.



Parish—a stable community, usually with a defined territory and all the Catholics living there; a juridic person with a pastor (and perhaps a parochial vicar), church, pastoral council, finance council, independent finances and a full range of parish functions.

Clustered Parishes—two or more separate parishes (as defined above) but sharing a pastor (and perhaps a parochial vicar); more than the usual degree of collaboration between parishes will be likely.

Parish with more than one church—one parish (as defined above) but with more than one church, after the merging of two or more parishes.   (Such an arrangement makes sense only if travel time and/or church capacity require it.)

Mission—separate community and church but attached to a parish; may have an advisory council and independent finances, if agreeable to the pastor and the pastoral council; may have a regular Sunday-obligation Mass and some other functions, but will otherwise participate in the parish’s life.

Chapel—church (“oratory”) with no defined community; attached to and maintained by a parish; no independent finances (although the parish may maintain a separate account), regular worship or other activities; may be used on occasion for weddings, funerals or other events.

Merged Parish—two or more parishes are combined into one new parish; every effort is made to blend the people and functions of the previous parishes into a wholly new entity; a new name will likely be chosen; thereafter, all affairs are handled as defined under “Parish” above.

Closed Parish or Mission—members join one or more parishes; the temporal resources of the closed parish are assigned to a neighboring parish or parishes; the sacramental registers are assigned to one neighboring parish.

Pastor—technically “parish priest”; a priest assigned by the bishop to provide regular and overall leadership and care for a parish; ultimately responsible for the well-being of the parish, the organization of its ministry, the pastoral care of its members, and the administration of its temporal resources.

Parochial Vicar—a priest assigned by the bishop to assist a pastor in providing leadership and care for a parish or parishes.

Pastoral Assistant—a deacon (with the consent of the bishop) or lay person, with appropriate training, experience and faith commitment, appointed by the pastor and delegated to provide regular, general service at a parish or parishes where the pastor does not reside; serves under the supervision of the pastor, with a clear, written job description; may be paid or serve as a volunteer; parish consultation and preparation are required before a pastoral assistant is appointed.  (N.B.  A pastor may never delegate complete care of parish to a pastoral assistant; he must always be seen as the parish’s true pastor.)


  1. The ideal arrangement is one parish/one pastor/one church.  While other arrangements may be called for, they should always be viewed as exceptions, not the rule.  Achieving the ideal may lead to difficult decisions, such as closing or merging parishes, building new churches or enlarging existing ones, hiring additional lay personnel, and surrendering treasured traditions.
  2. Every county must have at least one parish, but not necessarily a resident pastor.
  3. Each deanery plan must include at least one parochial vicar position, in order to provide assignment opportunities for new priests.
  4. Every parish must have at least one Sunday-obligation Mass on a regular basis.
  5. The maximum number of parishes or churches for one pastor is three.  However, no priest will celebrate Mass on a regular basis in more than two churches on Sundays.  Allowance needs to be made for elderly or infirm priests.
  6. The maximum number of Sunday-obligation Masses for a priest is four, although three should be the norm.  A priest may not routinely celebrate more than one Mass on weekdays (Monday through Friday).
  7. Spacing between the beginning of Masses will be at least 90 minutes, plus any travel time for the priest.
  8. No more Sunday-obligation Masses are to be scheduled than are truly necessary to accommodate the number of parishioners attending.
  9. Sunday worship without a priest may occur only in exceptional cases (e.g. unexpected illness of the priest).  If the absence of the priest is anticipated and no substitute is available, people should make plans to fulfill their obligation by attending Mass at another church, if at all possible. The faithful are obliged to attend Sunday Mass, not a Communion service (c.f. canon 1247). If worship without a priest is necessary, a trained and designated lay person should lead the service in accord with established liturgical norms, preferably without the distribution of Holy Communion (c.f. canon 1248.2).  Communion services without a priest should not be routine on weekdays; other forms of prayer, especially the Liturgy of the Hours, are recommended. 
  10. When a priest serves as pastor of more than one parish, he may, after consulting the pastoral councils, consolidate certain programs or services of the parishes he serves, including pastoral councils, in order to achieve more effective ministry and efficiency.  However, separate finance councils and separate accounting are to be maintained.
  11. Names of dedicated churches may not be changed, according to Church law.  However, parish names may be changed.
  12. If a parish or mission is closed, and it has a cemetery, responsibility for the cemetery passes to the “successor” parish.  All cemeteries and their perpetual care funds must be maintained properly.
  13. If a church or chapel is no longer needed, it is either to be demolished or sold to another party.  Every effort is to be made to see to it that churches and do not fall into the hands of people who will use them for an inappropriate purpose.  Unneeded sacred furnishings should be retained in the Church’s possession.
  14. If a parish, mission or chapel is closed, every effort should be made to help people deal with their loss and to be welcomed into a new parish.
  15. Every deanery must develop and implement a program of prayer and recruitment for priestly vocations.  The deanery programs are to be coordinated with the diocesan Vocations Office. 


October 26, 2005