My photo
Waiting in Joyful Hope

Poverty and providence

I grew up in a typical middle-class family. While I weren't surrounded by luxury, I do not remember lacking anything. Of course, that didn't mean I always appreciated what I had. I suppose that is the negative side of being a child blessed with a general sense of material security — you risk taking things for granted, not out of ill-will, but simply out of inexperience.

Still, this did not meant that I didn't know poverty existed. I remember seeing images of extreme poverty on television — families experiencing famine in some distant country, for example, who were on display as part of some telethon to raise money for a charity. Of course, the producers of these telethons would put up the most pitiful scenes, such as of hungry mothers trying to tend to their malnourished children. I was very disturbed by such images, and I remember asking my father about them. My naive question was direct and to the point:

"Why do they have so many children if they can't feed them?" I asked. It seemed to me to be a basic element of parental responsibility.

"Well," my father replied, "they probably had those children at a time when there was enough food. It is only after that the problems began. But you know, Tom, there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. The problem isn't growing it. The problem is sharing it, and getting it to everyone."

My father's answer shed a completely new light on the situation. I suddenly realised that poverty was a deeply moral question, and that it wasn't just a moral question for those who were poor. Somehow, everyone was involved, whatever their wealth or poverty. It was a question of solidarity.

I had a chance to experience in a practical way through an activity organized at a local parish sometime later. It was called a "poor man's supper". I had been to such an event before. They were normally fundraising dinners, in which the participants paid for tickets as for a typical fundraising dinner, but for which the meal was very simple (usually not much more than soup). The goal was to be in solidarity with the poor, not only through the donation of money, but also in what we ate. In the case of this parish, however, there was an additional twist. Once we were seated, an explanation was given regarding what would happen next. Each participant would turn over their plate to see what kind of meal they would get. Most participants were going to get the usual simple meal, but two at each table were to be exceptions: one participant was to only receive water and a bit of bread, while the other would get a sumptuous feast. The goal was to sensitize us to the way food was actually distributed in the world — most got something, while some got almost nothing, and a few were able to eat like kings.

One thing was for sure: in my little kid brain (and little kids are always hungry), I really didn't want to get the non-meal. I remember being quite nervous about it, in fact. As it turned out, however, I ended up with the sumptuous feast! At first I ate with relish — after all, it wasn't as if it was my fault that I got lucky in my choice of seat. Still, as the meal progressed I couldn't help but think that something was wrong with this scenario.

I'd like to claim that I immediately started to share my meal with others, but to be honest I don't remember if I did or not. However, I do remember reflecting on the experience afterwards, putting it in a bigger context. "How is it," I wondered, "that I was born in Canada, in a place of plenty, when I could have just as easily been born someplace else, such as the place shown in the television program, where people lived in desperate poverty?"

In other words, was it just luck, like it had been with the plate?

Or was it a sign of God's providence?

And if it was providence, what responsibility did that mean for me to share what I had with others?

Heavy thoughts for a little kid, but looking back I know now that these were the first stirrings of a sense of social justice and solidarity within me.

CATH 370 -- Administration of Religious Institutions

Welcome to the course page for CATH 370, a course dedicated to the Administration of Religious Institutions. This course is being offered through the Catholic Studies program of McGill University, but is open to continuing education students (including a non-credit option), as well as to students from other universities.

The new anti-spam features seem to work

I had to turn off comments for the few articles I have on this new blog, becaue the spam filter I had originally installed was not working well — at one point, 388 spam comments made it through in a space of 48 hours.

I then installed the Bad Behavior and Antispam modules for Drupal. Unfortunately, Bad Behavior was blocking legitimate users from seeing the site (even I could not see it at times!), so I had to scrap it. The Antispam module, on the other hand, seems to be working well. The last 48 hours have only seen 8 spam comments come in, and they were shunted to a special queue for easy review and deletion.

Should comments ever get turned off again, those who want to discuss can do so through Facebook or Twitter:



Experiencing communion for the first time

Some time after my first confession our religion teachers began to shift gears, starting to prepare us for our first communion. For those unfamiliar with the Catholic tradition, the "communion rite" is the time during a prayer service (usually a mass, although not exclusively) where the people approach a minister to receive and eat what appears to the eye as either a piece of bread (most common), some bread with some wine (less common), or just a bit of wine (least common, for exceptional circumstances). As they are distributed during the communion rite, the term "communion" also commonly applies to the substances being consumed. A person's "first communion", therefore, refers to the first time a person participates in the communion rite by going up and receiving communion.

In some spiritual traditions, such as for many Eastern Catholics, a person receives their first communion at the same time they are baptized, i.e. it can be given even to an infant. However, in the Latin tradition (to which most Roman Catholics belong), communion is not given to infants, but is delayed until the person has attained a level of maturity called the "age of reason" (generally considered to be around 7 years old).

Of course, that doesn't stop little kids from wanting to receive earlier. Any minister of communion can tell stories of what often happens when parents bring their children up with them in the communion rite. "Let me see!" they sometimes say when we place the wafer (called a "host") in the adult's hand. "Can I have some? Why can't I have some?" they sometimes exclaim. I've even had a few come up and perfectly imitate the gesture of receiving communion, not noticing Mom or Dad behind indicating, with a shake of the head, that the little one has not yet made his or her First Communion. On some level they know that something special is happening with communion, and they want to take part.

I was no different. I knew I had to wait until I had made my First Communion, and I don't recall making a lot of fuss otherwise. Still, I was curious. During our annual summer holiday at a cottage in the country, I asked the kindly parish priest if I could try a host. My father accompanied us to the sacristy, where the priest took a host out of a tin and gave it to me. It tasted like... not much.

Sometime later I found myself reflecting on this experience. The host was way too small to be worthwhile as food, and as a culinary experience it left something to be desired. So I asked my father about it: what was the big deal?

His answer floored me. "After the host is consecrated, it isn't bread anymore. When we receive the host in communion, what we are actually receiving is the Body of Jesus."

Wait, what?

How was THAT possible?

"It's called 'transsubstantiation'," he explained (and yes, he used that word). "It means that the host keeps all of the outward appearances of being bread, including the look and the taste, but it isn't bread anymore. It is Jesus' body."

This all seemed very strange to me. I didn't have a lot of trouble thinking that transsubstantiation was possible — after all, God could do anything, so if that's what he wanted to do that was his business. But to be honest, it didn't sound terribly plausible. In fact, it sounded a little gross. So I asked where we Catholics got this strange notion that we were eating Jesus' body in communion.

My father's answer? "From Jesus himself." And then he went to a Bible, and showed me chapter 6 of the gospel of John, where Jesus said that the bread he would give the world was his flesh (verse 51). He also showed me how people disputed this saying (verse 52), how some found this teaching intolerable (verse 60), and how some even stopped following him because of it (verse 66). "People had taken him literally," my father explained, "and Jesus did not correct them. When it was the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and said 'this is my body", and then he took wine and said 'this is my blood'. He meant what he said."

I had heard those words before, of course, during Sunday mass. I knew the priest spoke them over the bread and wine, and I knew they had been the words of Jesus. My father explained that this was why we would kneel at that point, why the priest would elevate the elements after each set of words, and why we would ring the bells and bow our heads. Jesus was now present, ready to be received by us as food.

This also explained what happend after receiving communion. I remember being impressed at seeing my parents pray in silence after receiving communion. As I got closer to my first communion, I found myself wondering what I should be "doing" during that time of silence. My father's suggestion was an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be. I knew those prayers, so that seemed simple enough.

Once our special catechism classes for first communion were over, I knew the big day was coming. However, our parish at the time had a curious practice, in that there was no big group first communion ceremony as was found in many other parishes. Instead, the parents were encouraged to decide, as a family, on a particular Sunday when the young boy or girl would receive their first communion along with the regular parish community. As I recall, there was not a lot of extra ceremony.

It was at this time that my mother had an idea. Her suggestion was that I receive my first communion on the Thursday of Holy Week. For those who don't know, the mass of Holy Thursday evening is the special moment of the year when we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus. Every mass is a memorial of that moment, of course, but Holy Thursday has that character in a special way. As she pointed out it would make every Holy Thursday from then on an extra special event in my life. Given everything I had learned, it made sense to me.

I don't recall feeling anything particular in the moment when I finally did receive my first communion. I went up, I received and ate the host, I went back to my seat, and I said my prayers. It was all very matter of fact, and I felt as much.

That is, until the end of mass.

My experience of the end of your usual Sunday mass had been: a closing prayer, a set of announcements, and a final blessing and dismissal. Grand total, about 5 minutes. Mentally, I started to already shift gears into going home.

Except this was Holy Thursday.

After the closing prayer, suddenly everyone was back on their knees. The priest put on what looked like an extra white robe (which I would much later learn was called a "humeral veil"), and picked up the vessels that contained the leftover hosts. Instead of putting them back in the tabernacle, he then began to walk around the inside of the parish church with them. It was a procession, complete with candles and an altar server waving incense.

As the priest walked around, the choir began to sing. It was all a capella, i.e. no instruments. I had never heard that gorgeous melody before, and it was all in a language I didn't understand (I later found out it was the Pange Lingua, being sung in Latin).

Through it all, something spoke to me in my heart, impressing on me not words but concepts:

"This is holy."

"What the priest is carrying, is holy."

"What you received, is holy."

It was a genuine religious experience. Despite whatever hesitations I might have had before, I never again had trouble believing in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist — or at least, not for many years, and even that time of challenge was never about the Real Presence as such. But that is a tale for a later installment of this story.

The power of reconciliation

One of the "rites of passage" of a Catholic child is making his or her first confession. For those unfamiliar with confession in the Catholic tradition, the practice is that the penitent confesses his or her sins to a priest, who offers some counsel as well as a penance which the penitent must accomplish (usually a prayer or an act of devotion or charity of some kind). It is generally held that it is unlikely that a child has sufficient moral awareness before the age of 6 or 7 to commit a real sin (and even then, it is unlikely to be very grave). Still, we all know that kids have at least started, by that point, to have some sense of moral action, and so it is normal that young Catholics start to be educated about this sacrament of forgiveness of sins.

I remember when I was first being taught about sin and reconciliation. Like lots of kids, I wasn't too sure how to know when something was a sin and when it wasn't. My father gave me the following advice: "For something to be a sin, you have to know it is wrong, you have to have chosen to do it, and you have to have done it."

We then talked about those criteria. The following conversation isn't an actual verbatim account, but it generally summarizes the conversation we had that day.

"So if I didn't know it was wrong, and I did it, it isn't a sin?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered. "But that doesn't change the fact that it was wrong, and so probably hurt somebody. We have a responsibility to learn what is right and what is wrong, so as to be good people."

"And if I did it by accident, and not by choice, it isn't a sin?" I continued.

"Correct," to replied. "But that is only true for true accidents, and not something that happens because of negligence. Also, even if we do something bad by accident, we are responsible to help set things right."

"And what do you mean by 'You have to have done it'?" I asked further.

My father replied, "I mean that sometimes we feel a temptation to do sins, and we can feel bad that we have those temptations. Still, a temptation is not a sin. When you go to confession to the priest, you can talk about your temptations with him if you want, and maybe he can help you deal with them. But you should not feel guilty about them like you would for actual sins you've done."

With this information, I felt I was getting pretty ready for my first confession. I had been taught that God loved me and wanted for forgive me for any bad things I had done, and that now I had a much better sense of what "sin" actually was (and so I knew what things I was supposed to say). Still, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous. I trusted the priests I knew — they had always been very kind to me — but did I really need to tell them about my bad acts? Couldn't we just forget them, pretending like they had never happened?

As it turned out, something occurred during that time of preparation that changed my perspective on this sacrament forever.

At a certain point in that period of preparation — I don't remember exactly when — an adult I looked up to hurt my feelings. I don't remember what it was about, all I remember was the deep sadness I was feeling. Even worse than the hurt, mind you, was the alienation: when someone we look up to and love hurts us, it can make us feel terribly alone. That lonesomeness can even be worse than the original pain.

A few hours after the hurtful incident in question, the same adult came to see me. I had no idea what to expect. In gentle tones, he told me he had thought about the incident, and that he felt badly. He then came right out and apologized. He had done wrong, he admitted it, he promised not to do it again, and he wanted to make amends.

I was in awe.

I was partly in awe of this adult, who was making this offer to a little kid. As a child I had often felt others' love and care, but this was the first time I had ever felt so respected.

But I was also in awe of the moment itself. I knew something extraordinarily special was happening. I remember thinking to myself, "God must be like this somehow."

And so, we were reconciled. Truly reconciled. Again, I don't even remember what the actual hurtful incident was, but I do remember the sadness and pain of alienation being replaced by the joy of genuine reconciliation.

I should add that I was now completely sold on the actual sacrament of reconciliation itself. That adult had examined his conscience, seen he had done wrong, admitted it to another, promised not to repeat it, and offered to make amends. I figured that if an adult had been willing to respect a little kid enough to ask for forgiveness, I as a little kid should be willing to do the same with God. If confession was the means — and the steps the adult had lived sounded a lot like what I had been taught about going to confession — then so be it.

It went beyond this, though. It wasn't just that I was now comfortable with another element of my Catholic duty. No, I wanted to go to confession. We had heard the story of the Prodigal Son as part of our preparation for this sacrament during our catechism classes. I remember being struck by the joy of the father when his errant son came home. I had no trouble believing that part of the story at all. I could imagine the pain of separation each one must have felt when the son left, but I could also understand very well the joy of their reconciliation.

That's what confession was about, I reasoned. It wasn't about rehashing our sins, it was about bringing joy to God and letting him bring an end to our own spiritual isolation.

I don't remember who the priest was for my first experience of the sacrament. I have no idea what I said in my first confession, and given I was only a kid I doubt it was anything all that terrible. But I do remember knowing how holy a moment it was that I was living.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that this sacrament can be called by different names, but my favourite title, even to this day, is the "sacrament of reconciliation".

My earliest understanding of God

I grew up in a practicing Catholic family. I was baptised as an infant, learned my prayers at an early age, and was brought to mass by my parents. While I don't ever recall it being at all overbearing, I also can't recall a time when religion wasn't part of our family experience. Simply put, God, prayer and Church were just there, as part of our lives. It felt very natural.

Still, I do recall when I put forward what may have been my first real question about God. I know I was at most five years old. We were sitting at the supper table, and out of the blue I asked, "Where is God?"

My father replied, very simply, "God is everywhere."

I pressed on a bit. "Really? Is God here in this room with us right now?"

"Yes, he is," my father said.

I remember holding up some solid physical object, and asking, "Is he in this?"

"Yes," he repeated, and with a bit of a smile as I seem to recall. But he didn't stop there, adding, "But more important than that, he wants to live inside of you. He wants to live inside all of us."

For a young child, that last statement was big news. I remember that my questions in that conversation stopped at that point, not because I understood, but because I needed to think about what I'd just been told.

The question, in my little kid brain, was simple: how could God be everywhere, and yet at the same time be inside of us in a special way?

I don't quite recall how long it took, but a few days later I came up with an answer. Simply put, I thought about air. Air is all around us. Since it is invisible, most of the time we don't notice it unless it is acting upon us (as with a breeze, or the wind), but that didn't make it any less real. Finally, the most important air was the air we breathe in — the air inside us that gives us life.

Again, in my little kid brain, my question now had an answer: God was like air. I knew he wasn't actually the air, but that he was like air: invisible, all around us, but able to be inside us in a special way, especially to give us life.

Now it may sound funny, but this insight actually had an effect on my early prayer life. Up until then, prayers were things I said. After this, though, I started to sometimes do a kind of childlike praying where I would think about my breathing as I was doing it, and pretending that I was feeling God being around me and inside me. I won't pretend that I was particularly disciplined in this form of prayer, and I don't claim that "intentional breathing" is necessarily spiritual, but I do know that this practice was important for me. God was around me, God was inside me, and imagining God as I breathed helped me be aware of the presence of God.

Bishop Tom Dowd's personal story of faith

During my time of private spiritual preparation for the Year of Faith, I have felt called to share the story of my personal faith journey. The notion first arose when I was being interviewed by journalists prior to my ordination as a bishop. More than one reporter asked me if I had ever had any doubts or questions about my Catholic faith. In all honesty, while I am a firmly committed believer in Jesus Christ and in his Church, I (like lots of people) have indeed had my struggles. That being said, while those times were certainly difficult, I have to admit that the process of working through those challenges has helped me become the man of faith that I am today. As I sometimes tell people, "I used to believe what I did because I was a Catholic; but now, I am a Catholic because of what I believe." This holds true today. Indeed, it has become even more important to me now that I am a bishop, because as a bishop I supposed to be doing more than just be teaching "the party line". I don't see how I could ever have considered being a priest, much less a bishop, without a profound and examined conviction that what I would be teaching was actually the Truth: the truth about God, the truth about the cosmos and the human condition, and the truth about our deepest longings and our common destiny.

I don't want to claim that my journey of faith is somehow universal, and that everyone is obliged to accept it as universally valid. After all, my life experience is unique to me. That being said, I have often appreciated hearing about the faith journey of others, even though that journey was unique to them. Very often, I found myself challenged by the issues others would wrestle with, and nourished by the answers they found. Most importantly, I would find myself in admiration at their desire to follow where their emerging convictions would lead them. Faith, after all, isn't just an external content, a list of truths: it is also a personal response consistent with those truths.

I am not a perfect Catholic, and I don't want to pretend that my life today is some sort of ideal response to the truths of the Catholic faith. While I'd like to be a living saint (and I really mean that), I know I'm still a sinner, and that I have a long way to go. Still, even that is a grace. After all, one can only know their weakness if they also know their potential strength. The Catholic faith is part of that strength: it has given me a reliable map to guide my life, and firm foundation upon which to build as I have made (and continue to make) my life choices. To be honest, it has also led me to have a life that is, quite frankly, extremely rich and interesting, and full of opportunities for joy. And so, in this Year of Faith, I feel called to share my personal story of faith, in the hopes it will help others find their foundation and source of joy in Christ as well.

The Trinity, object and source of our faith

As an initial offering for the Year of Faith, here is a Youtube video I put up last year for a conference I gave on the Trinity. Simply put, I love this subject, because talking about the Trinity means talking about the love of God, in this life and in the life to come.

Entering into the Year of Faith

Today, October 11, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (i.e. Vatican II). Pope Benedict XVI has invited us to a period of reflection over the next few months called the Year of Faith. You can read his letter regarding the Year of Faith, as well as have access to other resources, on the Vatican web site.

As an initial activity for this Year of Faith, the Pope has call a meeting of the Synod of Bishops to discuss the New Evangelization. This particular synod topic has generated a lot of buzz in the Catholic world — it has been wonderful seeing Catholics from all walks of life studying the synodal preparatory documents, as well as attending lectures, conferences and so on. Some of my brother bishops from Canada are presently in Rome joining in the discussions of the synod, and I know how eager they were to participate in this important event.

For both of these reasons, this is a big year for a new Vatican department, known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. They have a whole web site set up to help us all enter into the Year of Faith, and it seems like a great resource.

For myself, I see this Year of Faith as an wonderful opportunity for me as a bishop to present the beauty and power of the Catholic faith anew. I've long believed that we need to present not just the "what" of the faith, i.e. the content, but also the "so what" of the faith — in other words, how the truths of faith can lead us to the kind of hope that transforms behaviour and indeed whole lives.

To help with this, I've been working hard on reformatting my personal website for the Drupal content management system. It has been a tough slog — Drupal is quite a software beast — and it isn't perfect yet, but the basics are now in place. I'll slowly work at transferring materials from other sites to this one location, and of course new content will be coming as well.

Welcome to the Year of Faith!

Parish and fabrique: an introduction

One of the ways that the province of Quebec is rather unique in the world is that its civil law includes a special statute on the governance of Roman Catholic parishes. It is a throwback to the old French colonial regime, when the king of France had a special responsibility for the protection and promotion of the Catholic faith. Quebec has not been a French colony for centuries, of course, and the current cultural climate definitely favours a separation of Church and State. That being said, this law is still on the books and still serves to provide the legal structure for Roman Catholic parishes in Quebec.

Catholics growing up in Quebec are sometimes surprised to discover that there is no corresponding statute in other jurisdictions. On the other hand, Catholics coming to Quebec are usually quite surprise to discover the degree of legal “interference” that exists in the internal management of the Roman Catholic Church. This is especially true of priests and lay persons involved in parish leadership, who (if they come from elsewhere in North America) are often used to the model of a “corporation sole”. In this model, an episcopal corporation (headed by the diocesan bishop) actually owns all the parishes of a diocese: the subdivision of the diocese into parishes is handled internally within that overall legal structure (much as how a company might be divided into operating divisions that are not themselves separate corporations). A individual coming from this sort of environment often does not understand how to legally administer a parish within the Quebec context.

The purpose of this article is to try and clear up any such confusion, with an eye especially to helping people understand the practical ecclesiology of Roman Catholic parishes in Quebec.

Concept #1: groups and organizations

Human beings are social animals. They form communities. Some of these exist on the level of human nature itself, such as the family (the basic unit of society) or the State. The key characteristic of the State is that the people generally accord it the legitimate right to use coercion to enforce social policy. In other words, the State has the right to not only make laws but to enforce them. The State is obliged, however, to only use this power to promote the common good: if it fails to do so, the people (whether in whole or in part) will generally rebel in some form and replace the current state structure with another.

In addition to the family and the State there are many other forms of human community. Sometimes these are mere groups, gathered together for some purpose but without any clear structure. Some groups, however, do possess a level of organization, and are therefore themselves called “organizations”. The key aspect of an organization is that it is a group (i.e. is possesses a purpose) with a form of internal government (i.e. a leadership structure of some kind, along with a set of policies or traditions that govern its existence and action).

Concept #2: trusts and corporations

One of the realities regarding organizations is that they continue to exist even if the members change. A seniors club, for example, may continue to exist long after the original members have died or moved on, thanks to the influx of new members over time. Because the organization has an existence that transcends the individual members, it often also possesses its own assets as a kind of patrimony dedicated to the carrying out of the purpose of the organization. For example, the seniors club mentioned above may own its own clubhouse where the members meet. The clubhouse is part of the patrimony of the club.

A key difficulty that often arises in the management of an organization, however, is this: who actually legally owns the assets involved? What if a power struggle erupts within the organization, for example, with one group wanting to sell certain assets and another group wanting to retain them? Who actually “owns” these assets, and therefore gets the right to decide? One obvious answer is that no one actually owns the assets, in that they are owned by the organization as a whole. While this may be true in theory, however, because the organization may not have any legal recognition of its existence, it is not possible for “the organization” to go to court and defend its rights.

The difficulty mentioned above gets worse when we consider the debts of an organization. If the seniors club borrowed money to buy the clubhouse, for example, and then stops paying its debts, whom will the bank sue in order to get its money back? Once again, in theory “the organization” as a whole is responsible, but if it is not legally recognized then technically there is no one to actually sue. In such cases the leadership of the organization becomes personally responsible for the debts and other liabilities. On one level this seems only natural – after all, if a group of people is responsible for incurring a debt, they should be responsible for paying it back. But what if the debt was incurred by a previous administration? Or what if the debt arises out of something unforeseen, such as an accident on the property of the clubhouse? Is it really fair that the new administrators be held responsible for these things? Indeed, the fact that they would be is often a powerful disincentive for people to become involved in organizations.

Society, of course, has an interest in fostering and promoting organizations, so it has developed a couple of legal mechanisms to deal with these issues: trusts, and corporations.

A “trust” is founded on the basis of a legally recognized “trust document” of some kind. This document describes the assets to be managed and the purpose for which the trust is created. The document also describes who the leaders of the trust are, and how they are to be replaced. These leaders are called “trustees”, and the notion behind their appointment is that they are trustworthy to manage assets that are not their own for the purposes given. Once a trust is founded its assets are recognized to constitute a separate patrimony, and legal powers are given to the trustees to defend that patrimony in accordance with the purpose of the trust.

A “corporation” takes this notion one step further. The word “corporation” comes from the Latin word “corpus”, meaning “body”. Just as a human body is composed of many parts which nevertheless work together despite their diversity, an organization is composed of many persons who each (in theory) contribute to the overall good of the organization as a whole. For an organization to be “incorporated” means that a particular legal jurisdiction gives a parallel status of “personhood” to the organization, recognizing that the organization is greater than the sum of its parts. And because this organization is now recognized as a legal person, it possesses a number of legal powers, such as the right to enter into contracts, to own assets, to borrow money, and so on. Of course, this new “virtual reality” person does not possess a brain to think with, for example, or hands with which to sign cheques, so it also has trusted people to manage its affairs. The title given to these persons is sometimes also “trustees”, but other titles also exist, such as “governor” or “director”. This last title is actually the most common.

On a conceptual level, a trust and a corporation may seem to be the same thing, and in many ways they resemble each other. The key difference, apart from how they are managed legally in the different jurisdictions of the world, is in emphasis. A trust exists to manage assets in accordance with a purpose; an organization exists to promote a purpose and is given the powers it needs to get and use assets. Trusts, therefore, often have a temporary existence and may not even have any living members (for example, the executor of a will is acting as a trustee of the deceased person). Corporations, on the other hand, have a perpetual existence by definition – they only cease to exist if the same jurisdiction that gave them existence then revokes it. They also almost always have members, as the whole reason for their existence is to “incorporate” those members into a single “body”.

Concept #3: corporations, jurisdictions…and parishes

Legal recognition as a corporation can only be given by a sovereign entity, such as a country or a province. This is because a corporation is given a number of rights, such as the right to defend itself in court, and therefore only the same body that runs the court system can offer incorporation to organizations. The technical name for the actual paper certifying the creation of a corporation is something like “letters patent” or “articles of incorporation”. In older times these letters patent were often signed by the king himself, and even today they must be issued by a sovereign entity or someone delegated by it.

What happens, however, when a corporation wants to do business in a territory different from the one controlled by the original sovereign entity? For example, suppose a Canadian corporation wants to do business in France. It is recognized as a legal person in Canada, and so can go to court to defend its rights in Canada, but can it do so in France? In fact, the government of France must also recognize this corporation in order for the corporation to have legal rights. Usually an existing corporation simply needs to register itself within the new jurisdiction – it does not actually have to be “re-incorporated” within that jurisdiction. There are exceptions, though. In some countries, every kind of corporation needs to have a locally incorporated version. In other countries, only certain kinds of corporations need to follow this requirement.

When it comes to the Catholic Church, there is a long-standing recognition that the Church is a sovereign entity. After all, the Holy See predates the vast majority of modern states, and the Catholic Church does possess its own internal court system for the settling of disputes. Catholic canon law even includes clauses related to the creation of what are called “juridical persons”: some of these are aggregates of goods (i.e. they are like trusts) while others are aggregates of persons (they are like corporations). Once a juridical person has been canonically created it possess certain rights within canon law as well. And one example of a juridical person within canon law is a parish, which is an aggregate of persons called “parishioners”.

While the Church possesses the right to erect ecclesiastical juridical persons (thanks to the sovereignty conferred upon it by God), this does not however mean that these “corporations” are automatically recognized elsewhere in other jurisdictions. In some cases the Holy See signs a treaty with a country (called a “concordat”) thanks to which civil legal recognition is automatically given to ecclesiastical corporations. In most cases, though, the particular church organization has to go through the same sort of local registration process any other foreign corporation must do. Again, the laws vary from place to place, but the following are typical scenarios:

  • The ecclesiastical corporation remains incorporated only within canon law, and all the assets are actually owned by the corporation of the diocesan bishop (the “corporation sole” model often found in North America).
  • The ecclesiastical corporation remains incorporated only within canon law, but a trust is established to govern the property. This is rarely done in North America, although ironically the Quebec model for parishes most closely resembles this approach (in that a civil corporation, the fabrique, acts like a trustee for the ecclesiastical corporation).
  • The organization has only a civil incorporation, but applies to the Church for recognition (much like the above example where the Canadian corporation applies to France for recognition). This model is most typically used for associations of lay faithful, not for public ecclesiastical institutions (like parishes).
  • The ecclesiastical corporation gets incorporated a second time within the local jurisdiction; it therefore has a kind of “double incorporation”, once within canon law, and once within civil law.

Quebec is a very special civil jurisdiction with regards to the way it recognizes ecclesiastical corporations. There are at least three separate laws dealing with how Roman Catholic organizations are specifically handled:

  • The Roman Catholic Bishops Act (RSQ, chapter E-17) permits the creation of a corporation for each diocesan bishop, so that when the bishop is replaced as head of the diocese the corporation continues under the leadership of the new bishop; it also allows the diocesan bishop to himself incorporate new organizations, which then have automatic legal recognition as well.
  • The Religious Corporations Act (RSQ, chapter C-71) generally governs corporations for religious orders. They have their own law because traditionally they possess a certain independence within canon law vis-à-vis the diocesan bishop, and so it would not be appropriate for them to be incorporated (and therefore governed) by the bishops as would be the case were they to be incorporated under the first law mentioned above. Because of this independent structure it is also possible for a non-Catholic group to seek incorporation under this law as well, although in practical terms most choose to simply get incorporated under the non-profit section of the regular law governing Quebec corporations (as it is more flexible).
  • The Act Respecting Fabriques (RSQ, chapter F-1) is a special law meant to govern the most common form of ecclesiastical corporation: the parish. In canon law, a parish comes under the jurisdiction of a bishop but also possesses a certain independence of action. There are many stories of bishops who tried to boss around (or even dissolve) a parish and who found themselves having to defend their actions before a Roman ecclesiastical tribunal. Quebec recognizes this distinction by having its own parallel law specifically for parishes.

There are also many private laws on the books regulating specific Church institutions, but this is beyond the scope of this article. With regard to parishes, the typical legal situation in Quebec works as follows:

  1. The diocesan bishop decides to create a new parish. He issues an ecclesiastical decree to that effect, and the parish is constituted under canon law.
  2. This new parish is a legal person under canon law, but still has no right to represent itself under civil law (as this is a separate jurisdiction). The bishop therefore registers the existence of this new ecclesiastical corporation with the Quebec government.
  3. The Quebec government, rather than simply extending recognition of this ecclesiastical corporation, instead creates a separate civil corporation called a “fabrique”. The fabrique acts like a trustee on behalf of the parish, owning and managing all its assets for the sake of the purposes of the parish.

In short, under the Quebec system two separate but related corporations actually come into existence. The parish comes into existence by the bishops decree but does not have any civil recognition within the province of Quebec, and so cannot own property or defend its rights in civil court. The fabrique comes into existence once this episcopal decree is deposited with the government (specifically, the Enterprise Registrar) and so therefore does have these powers, but the law that governs it restricts the use of those powers to the promotion of the purpose of the underlying parish.

Parish and fabrique compared

Originating jurisdiction: Roman Catholic Church Province of Quebec
Name: Parish of Saint Brendan Fabrique of the parish of Saint Brendan
Purpose: The purpose is religious: strictly speaking it is undefined in canon law, but generally it is to engage in divine worship and acts of charity in accordance with the gospel. The purpose is strictly temporal: to acquire, possess, hold and administer property for the practice of the Roman Catholic religion in the parish for which it is constituted.
Membership: Hundreds, possibly thousands of people: the Catholics that live within its territorial bounds (sometimes also limited by ethnic or ritual criteria), also known as parishioners. Seven or eight people: the pastor, six churchwardens elected from among the parishioners, and possibly an additional person appointed by the bishop to act as chairman.
Leadership: The pastor, aided by the pastoral council and finance council (constituted according to the directives of the bishop). The pastoral council is a consultative body only, and sometimes does not even exist: the pastor usually has final say in pastoral matters. The finance council must exist, and where it does not two or three other persons are designated to assist the pastor in governing the temporal matters of the parish. The pastor often also has final say, but must consult for certain matters according to the directives of the diocesan bishop. (Note that, in Quebec, given that parishes each have a corresponding fabrique, they do not usually have a finance council: these duties are delegated to the fabrique.) The pastor is the automatic chairman if no external chairman has been appointed by the bishop. The chairman (pastor or not) has no special powers apart from the right to call and chair meetings of the fabrique. Only the fabrique as a whole may make decisions. It delegates to whom it chooses the right to act on its behalf (such as delegating the right to sign cheques). A vice-chairman may also be appointed by the bishop, but only from among the current churchwardens; the vice-chair does not have the power to call meetings of the fabrique, but may preside over duly called meetings in the case the regular chairman is absent. A fabrique cannot hold a legal meeting without either the chairman or vice-chairman present.

Common issues

The parish-fabrique system as found in Quebec is meant to solve a particular problem, i.e. how a non-Quebec corporation (the parish) is legally allowed to own expensive properties, take out insurance, etc. The Quebec solution is to create a parallel civil corporation (the fabrique) to handle these temporal duties for the parish. In most cases, the system works well, but problems can arise due to the particular power relationships between the main stakeholders, i.e. the bishop, the pastor, and the churchwardens.

While the bishop has the legal right to prevent the fabrique from undertaking certain actions (e.g. going to court, undertaking major renovations, undertaking risky investments), he is also very limited in what he can compel the fabrique to do. This applies as well to the pastor: even if the churchwardens are people of goodwill, there can sometimes be considerable resistance to necessary (but costly) pastoral initiatives. The pastor, after all, only has one vote in seven (or eight).

And what if the churchwardens are not people of goodwill? Because the fabrique controls all the assets (including the money), if a clique of parishioners gets control of a fabrique they can make life a nightmare for the pastor (or even the diocesan bishop). Stories abound of churchwardens each having a key to the parish rectory, for example, coming and going as they please, or of churchwardens refusing to make necessary repairs to the residence of the priests.

As well, the churchwardens do not always understand that they have no power on an individual basis, but only as a group when voting on something (or when specifically delegated to carry out something that has been voted on). A certain arrogance sometimes sets in: a lay chairman, for example, may begin to think he is “President of the Parish” and the pastor is his employee (therefore turning the fabrique into a congregationalist parish, in fact if not in theory).

Pastors also do not always understand the possibility of these power dynamics. As already stated, things usually work out well, but in cases of tension or conflict a pastor who tries to “throw his weight around” can find himself in trouble quite quickly. Rather than being diplomatic he may act in an even-more authoritative manner, which is then felt as bullying (thereby increasing resistance even more). Sometimes the pastor instead begins to act secretively, hoping to by-pass the fabrique, but this then breeds more suspicion. Often the pastor, feeling terribly frustrated by the hampering of his pastoral drive by potential delays, appeals to the bishop for him to “do something”, not understanding that in many cases there is little that the bishop can do except hope that the obstructionist churchwardens do not get re-elected at the next annual meeting of the parishioners.

While it may seem that this system creates more headaches than necessary, this is only true if the natural tensions between these power centres grow into mistrust. And the fabrique system is not without its benefits: one key advantage of the Quebec model over that of the “corporation sole” (i.e. the one used in the rest of North America) is that the assets of the parishes are protected. In the recent sex-abuse cases that have rocked several North American dioceses, many innocent parishes have seen their assets threatened by lawsuits because all those assets are actually legally owned by the diocese. Some diocesan bishops in the USA have attempted to argue that, since the parishes are separate entities in canon law, their assets should not be seized should a lawsuit go badly against the diocese; these arguments have not worked up until now, simply because those ecclesiastical corporations do not have civil recognition (as explained above). There is greater central control in the “corporation sole” model, of course, but at the cost of greater joint liability. The same economic situation simply cannot happen in Quebec, however, because each parish has its own civil corporation for the ownership and management of those assets (i.e. the patrimony is kept separate). We have less centralised control, but the parishes are better protected from the poor decisions of their neighbours (or their bishop!)

Some practical advice: things a pastor needs to know about managing a fabrique

To help keep things running smoothly, a pastor should keep in mind the following:

  1. A fabrique can only make legal decisions at a legal meeting of the churchwardens. For a fabrique meeting to be legally valid, the churchwardens need to be given proper advance notice (i.e. they get the notice on Monday for a meeting on Friday, with Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday being the three clear days typically required). This advance notice also needs to mention the business that will be discussed at the meeting – no new items may be added at the meeting itself except for information purposes only. While many fabriques set out a schedule of meetings for the entire year to allow the churchwardens the chance to reserve the dates in their agendas, a formal notice of meeting must still be sent for each individual fabrique meeting.
  2. For a fabrique meeting to be legal it must be presided by the chairman or vice-chairman.
  3. A fabrique may only make decisions according to the powers given to it by the Fabrique Act. Many of these decisions require the approval of the bishop before they can be implemented; others also require approval by a meeting of the parishioners.
  4. If churchwardens put into practice any decisions that were made at a meeting that was not legally valid, or any decisions that required the approval of the bishop and/or parishioners but for which this approval was not obtained, those churchwardens (including the pastor) become personally liable for the financial consequences of that decision. For example, if a fabrique signs a renovations contract without prior diocesan approval, and problems arise, the churchwardens can be personally sued by the other company (instead of just the fabrique being sued).
  5. The items discussed at a fabrique meeting should be limited to the acquisition and management of the property required for the activities of the parish. This is, after all, the legal purpose of the fabrique. The actual spiritual life and direction of the parish is for the parish itself, as a separate entity, to look after.

Pastoral leadership of a Roman Catholic parish in Quebec is a tricky thing. A pastor must be a leader, but must exercise this leadership with patience and diplomacy. The churchwardens have a legal responsibility to act in the best interests of the parish, and the pastor should recognize and respect this fact and help them as best he can in this duty. Transparency and tidy administration are critical to avoiding distrust, and pay off in the long run. In short, just as the parish and fabrique are partner corporations, the pastor and his churchwardens are also partners.