Dear Friends in Christ,
Catholics use the word “Church” in a variety of ways. In the first sense, we speak of the universal Catholic Church, and we usually indicate this meaning by the use of the capital “C.” This is the worldwide assembly of disciples established by the Lord Jesus on the foundation of the apostles and which was first found only in Jerusalem but which from the beginning had a universal mission and scope. This is the Church we confess in the Creed to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
As the disciples were dispersed from Jerusalem, they organized Christian communities in the various cities where they took refuge, and then in the great missionary journeys of Saint Paul and the other apostles, Christian communities were planted where none had been before. Within the lifetime of the apostles, these local communities were also spoken of as “churches,” and we now call these diocesan churches. These are the gatherings of Catholics presided over by a bishop who is assisted by a group or college of priests and deacons, and it is the diocesan Church that our tradition calls the “particular” or local Church to distinguish it from the universal Church found all over the world. The universal Church comes before all particular Churches in time and being, but in each diocese, the particular Church is the full expression of the universal Church. So, for example, the Catholic Church in South Carolina is the Diocese of Charleston. And to this we must add the Churches of the Christian East which have their own bishops and liturgical Rites, like our Maronite brethren. So the Diocese of Saint Maron, to which the Church of Saint Rafka belongs, is also a “particular Church.”
All of this is by way of saying that Catholics do not believe that the local congregation is the fundamental unit of the universal Church’s life. Or, to put it otherwise, we are not congregationalists. Nevertheless, from Christian antiquity every diocese has been organized into parishes, and now I come to my main point. No Catholic is in full communion with the universal Church or with his or her proper diocesan Church until and unless he or she is living fully the Catholic faith and life in one specific parish church. It is by full participation in the life of one parish church that a Catholic participates fully in the life of the whole Church. To do this requires one to worship each Sunday at one’s proper parish, to share fully in the life of that parish, to contribute to the support of that parish, and – according to present custom – to be registered in that parish. Those Catholics are true parishioners of this parish church who come to Mass here each week, who are involved in some way in the life of the parish, who support the parish with their time, talent, and treasure according to the stewardship guidelines, and who are registered here. We invite everyone who visits St. Mary’s to become a true parishioner by observing these simple precepts, because only by being truly a member of one parish church are we fully involved in the life of both the diocesan Church and the universal Church.