I was thinking about this comment concerning cliquishness in the churches and how they can help build each other up (or avoid strife).

Smaller towns in rural America with large immigrant Hispanic populations often have Mass in Spanish usually with a visiting pastor. It once was the case that there would be a Polish church and a German church and an Italian church and maybe an Irish church in different neighborhoods. But nowadays, we're lucky if there's one church for a 30 mile radius and we have to share resources.

I just wonder what the official status of these sub-parishes is. If Mass is only offered in your native language once every month is that all you're obligated to attend? Is Bishops goal of having Hispanic outreach to just get people in the door or to make them full fledged parishioners?

  • 1
    I'm interested in the answer here. We Orthodox have a similar ethnic 'issue', but we do not have the concept of obligations.
    – user304
    Apr 23, 2012 at 20:36
  • @RiverC What language is your liturgy in?
    – Peter Turner
    Apr 23, 2012 at 20:38
  • English. But immigrants will often have liturgies in Slavonic, Greek, Arabic, etc.
    – user304
    Apr 23, 2012 at 20:40
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    This need not be a solely Catholic question: I'm an active participant in both the English and Spanish services at our local church. Previously, my wife and I were members of a church that folded the Hispanic congregation into the English congregation for many of the same reasons you hint at here. But I can tell you from a purely practical point of view, that's a mistake. People will always chose to worship God in their heart language when they can. Apr 23, 2012 at 21:25
  • 2
    If we look back in history, mass was rarely if ever in a language understood by the majority of the local population... just sayin' Apr 24, 2012 at 6:41

2 Answers 2


My church (Roman Catholic, on the south coast of the UK) hosts a monthly Mass in Polish, which is well attended. The building was packed for the Polish "Midnight" Mass at Christmas.

It also hosts a weekly (Sunday afternoon) Mass for the Ordinariate congregation, whose members are not members of the local diocese.

In all these efforts, including the Hispanic Masses you reference, I would like to think that the Church is not just seeking to get people in the door, but providing a ministry. It is to be hoped that immigrant churchgoers will seek to assimilate themselves into the local culture, and there is at least a weekly opportunity to attend Mass in English, which would fulfil an obligation. But such assimilation may take some considerable time. If the Church can provide the opportunity for confession and Mass in a native language, and allow full participation in the rites of Church, then why not?

[The answer to Why not is, of course, your point about making fully-fledged parishioners. However in our case, it's quite likely that members of the Polish community are not long-term residents. We do have a sizable Italian Catholic community, and they do attend Masses in English.]


These "ethnic-language Masses", or more properly the groups to which they cater, aren't "sub-parishes" in any sense. A parish is defined by canon law:

A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop.

(Code of Canon Law, Canon 515 Sec. 1)

In general, a parish is the community of Catholics residing in a particular area; but there can be parishes erected by the bishop on the basis of common languages or cultural background:

As a general rule a parish is to be territorial, that is, one which includes all the Christian faithful of a certain territory. When it is expedient, however, personal parishes are to be established determined by reason of the rite, language, or nationality of the Christian faithful of some territory, or even for some other reason.

(Canon 518)

As you point out, it was historically the case that there were enough priests in an area that a bishop could create an ethnic-language and separate English-language parish covering the same geographic area. In most dioceses of North America, that is no longer the case. Yet Catholics still have the right to receive the sacraments, just as priests have the duty to provide them at reasonable places and times.

Of course, it is possible to receive the Eucharist, in particular, without understanding the language of the Mass at which it is consecrated. But since the Second Vatican Council attached great importance to saying the Mass in the vernacular, it seems appropriate to celebrate the Eucharist in locally predominant languages other than the national language, when that can be done. Those attending this Mass don't generally speaking constitute a parish proper; they're parishioners of the local parish and other parishes who gather for a Mass in their native tongue. Residents of other (geographic) parishes who attend these Masses do not become members of the parish at which this Mass is celebrated; they remain members of the parish where they live.

Catholics are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday unless they are ill or have some other grave reason for failing to attend. Being unable to understand the primary language in which Mass is celebrated doesn't constitute a grave reason, so that Catholics are obliged to attend weekly Mass even if it's not the Mass in their preferred language.

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