There is geography, and there is Catholic geography.
It’s long been said of observant Catholics that when pinpointing a location in the community, they’ll refer to the local parish as the reference for directions, often before major intersections, freeways, landmarks or even the name of the city itself.
“The Hogans moved. They were at Holy Family and now they’re at St. Joseph.”
“Maria’s going to school just down the street from St. Juliana’s. Yeah, Cal State Fullerton.”
“Right, north on the 405 and you get off on the ramp where St. Hedwig’s is.”
It’s tricky but, on a certain eccentric level, it can work.
It also can lead to speculation, particularly among the truly wonky: What are the parish boundaries for St. Joseph’s, anyway? How were they determined? And why? Can they change? And what if I live three blocks from the church but I want to go to Mass at the mission in San Juan Capistrano? Am I going to get in trouble?
To answer the last question first, no. The answer to the others boils down to two concepts: common sense and pastoral needs.
When a new parish church is planned, one of the first topics of discussion involves parish boundaries, say diocesan representatives. And, depending on the ebb and flow of the local Catholic population over time, those boundaries can shift. The principal idea, says George Balch, the Property Coordinator for the Diocese of Orange, is to ensure that the pastoral needs of the local Catholic population are met while also making sure that population is relatively evenly distributed among the surrounding parishes, with no parish being neglected or overburdened.
The final say on the boundaries falls to the local bishop, according to Canon Law, but discussions can involve many others.
“The bishop is the final decision maker but there’s a consulting process involved,” says Father Viet Peter Ho, and Adjutant Judicial Vicar with the diocesan Office of Canonical Services. “There are inputs from neighboring pastors, from the diocese construction office, the land board, the Council of Priests. It’s a wide range of consultants.”
Those consultants take into account “geographical limits such as freeways or flood control channels, or new development that is happening or is scheduled to happen in the near future,” says Balch.
Establishing boundaries also allows diocesan officials to determine parish demographics—age, race, income, number of school-age children, number of retirees, percentage of the local population who identify themselves as Catholic, and the number of local Catholics who regularly attend church. This, says Balch allows the bishop and other diocese officials to more accurately assess parish needs, such as evangelization efforts, outreach programs, number of Masses, stewardship practices, youth programs and priest assignments.
When a new parish is established in an already populated area, the boundaries of the neighboring parishes will shift to accommodate the newcomer, says Father Ho.
When Our Lady of LaVang Church was established in Santa Ana in 2006, the boundaries for the nearby parishes of St. Barbara Church and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church were redrawn, relieving some of the overcrowding at both those churches, says Father Ho. “They didn’t have the capacity to minister to a really large number of people,” he says. “They just overflowed. And now Our Lady of LaVang is packed with people, too.”
The redrawn boundaries for the three parishes did not mean, however, that longtime parishioners would now be forced to attend another church. While the Church discourages what Father Ho called “vagabond parishioners”—people who frequently attend several other churches outside of their own parish boundaries for the novelty of the experience—it’s OK to ally with the parish of your choice, even if you live within other parish boundaries.
“We encourage you to register at a parish because the notion of a parish refers to a spiritual home, a sense of stability,” says Father Ho. “And it may not necessarily be where you live. We don’t want you to go to a parish where you’re not happy. We want people to be spiritually and pastorally nourished.”