What is a Parish?

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the November 2006, A.S. XLI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

For the common person, the Catholic church means the parish church. It is the parish church where he conducts most of his religious rituals, acquires his religious instruction, and experiences his social interactions with his fellow coreligionists. Yet most histories of the church only speak of bishops, popes, and theological disputes. The activities of the parish quietly go on in the background. This essay will shine a brief spotlight on those activities.

The word parish comes from the Greek word ‘paroikia’, which means “those living near or beside”. It also has the meaning of “resident alien”. It was with this second meaning that writers of the second century began using the term to describe gatherings of Christians. The idea was that life on Earth was but a short stop in the journey to their final destination of heaven. It was not until the fourth century that it was used as an official term.

In the early centuries of church history the words parish and diocese were used interchangeably. It was not until the expansion of the church, after the conversion of Constantine in 312, that the two terms would become distinguishable. The diocese was headed by a bishop, while parishes were headed by priests under the bishop. The original parishes were organized in the cities when it became too awkward for all the believers to meet in one place. As missionary work extended into the countryside, the system was expanded by creating more parishes.

Parishes are not originally territorial units. Parishes would be formed for various reasons. The most common was when there was enough faithful in a village to justify the regular appearance of a priest. Monasteries were often their own parish. Secular lords would setup their own parish for convenience of worship. Saint and martyr shrines, and former pagan sacred sites were also seeds for parishes. At the end of the 8th century, tithes for the support of the church necessitated the setting of boundaries to settle disputes over who was entitle to what tithe. By the 12th century, the process of creating parishes became more formalized, and few parishes were formed afterward. Later population shifts would make for oddly sized parishes.

Nor were parishes all equal. Between 500 to 700 only those parishes formed by bishops had the right to perform baptisms and to hold mass on major feast days. However, during the 720’s and 730’s, Charles Martel began privatizing these churches to reward his supporters. In 826 Pope Eugene II officially acknowledged these private churches. As the church began to regain control after the Investiture Controversy, there would be periodic efforts to regulate parish activities, most notably at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and the Council of Trent around 1540.

Related to the parish is the benefice. The benefice is part of the feudal economic system. The best known part of the system is the fief, a grant of land given for services given in return. The benefice was a grant of income, usually, but not necessarily, from a piece of land. As the lords set up their churches they would usually also set up a benefice to support the priest. After the Investiture Controversy of the 12th century, the lord was removed from the equation, but the basic system remained in place. The system was frequently suffered the abuse of plurality, that is a single priest drawing income from more than one benefice. Such a priest would hire a vicar for a small portion of the benefice to carry out the duties associated with that benefice, and keep the rest for himself. While outlawed by canon law, the problem continued long past the period.

The parish was not solely the center of worship. It was also central to the social life of its members. The major turning points of life: birth, marriage, death, was celebrated there. The parish church was usually the only large permanent structure in the village, so it also served as meeting place and refuge. Its bell marked the hours of the day and major events. Markets and festivals took place on its grounds. The priest was usually the most educated man in the village, and so was included in most major decisions.

One feature frequently found among town parishes, though occasionally elsewhere, is the religious fraternity or brotherhood. This was a gild like organization dedicated to helping members carry out their religious observances. This most frequently meant handling burial costs, or keeping a candle lit, or praying, for the departed souls. Though there were many other purposes these fraternities carried out. A common activity was to provide a float for the yearly pageant. They were organized from members of a given parish, or a given craft.

For the common people, the parish was the church. The rhythms of its rituals went largely unaffected by the turmoil that so preoccupied the upper hierarchy. The intricacies of the liturgy were little understood, nor of much interest. Even the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation did not change that, for at this level it was more of a political fight then a religious one. While today the parish is largely an administrative entity, every church forms a parish, whether there is one formally designated or not. For the essence of a parish is a community of like believers who gather together to share those beliefs.



Brooke, Rosalind and Christopher. Popular Religion in the Middle Ages. London: Thames & Hudson, 1984.

Coriden, James A. The Parish in Catholic Tradition: History, Theology and Canon Law. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1997.

Genicot, Leopold. Rural Communities in the Medieval West. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Platt, Colin. The English Medieval Town. London: Granada Publishing, 1981.

Riepe, C.. "Parish." New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. X. 1967.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

back to article index