Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I’m a member of a religious community and we had our chapel or oratory recently blessed by the local ordinary of the diocese. The request of the superior was to dedicate our oratory and its altar. However, the liturgist of the diocese said that the dedication of the church and its altar is limited to parish churches, so the rite prepared was the rite of blessing of a church and that includes the altar. There was no separate rite of dedication of the altar. But in the praenotanda in the rite of blessing a church, it did not imply that a church is a parish church. “Churches are permanently set aside for the celebration of the divine mysteries ….” “[O]ratories, chapels or other sacred edifices set aside only for temporarily divine worship … more properly receive a blessing.” With the latter quote, our chapel or oratory is not set up for temporary use. Is the dedication of the church limited to parish churches? How about for the oratory and its altar of the religious community, which is for public use and permanent, can it not be dedicated (consecrated)? And would there be differences liturgically in the use of the term church, chapel, and oratory? — R.S., Philippines
A: I respectfully disagree with the interpretation of the diocesan liturgist, at least as regards the distinction between parish churches and other churches. The relevant law can be found in the following selection from the Code of Canon Law:
“Can. 1205 Sacred places are those which are designated for divine worship or for the burial of the faithful by a dedication or a blessing which the liturgical books prescribe for this purpose.
“Can. 1206 The dedication of any place belongs to the diocesan bishop and to those equivalent to him by law; they can entrust the function of carrying out a dedication in their territory to any bishop or, in exceptional cases, to a presbyter.
“Can. 1207 Sacred places are blessed by the ordinary; the blessing of churches, however, is reserved to the diocesan bishop. Either of them, moreover, can delegate another priest for this purpose ….
“Can. 1214 By the term church is understood a sacred building designated for divine worship to which the faithful have the right of entry for the exercise, especially the public exercise, of divine worship.
“Can. 1215 §1. No church is to be built without the express written consent of the diocesan bishop.
“§2. The diocesan bishop is not to give consent unless, after having heard the presbyteral council and the rectors of the neighboring churches, he judges that the new church can serve the good of souls and that the means necessary for building the church and for divine worship will not be lacking.
“§3. Although religious institutes have received from the diocesan bishop consent to establish a new house in the diocese or the city, they must also obtain his permission before building a church in a certain and determined place.
“Can. 1216 In the building and repair of churches, the principles, and norms of the liturgy and of sacred art are to be observed, after the advice of experts has been taken into account.
“Can. 1217 §1. After construction has been completed properly, a new church is to be dedicated or at least blessed as soon as possible; the laws of the sacred liturgy are to be observed.
“§2. Churches, especially cathedrals and parish churches, are to be dedicated by the solemn rite.
“Can. 1218 Each church is to have its own title which cannot be changed after the church has been dedicated.
“Can. 1219 In a church that has legitimately been dedicated or blessed, all acts of divine worship can be performed, without prejudice to parochial rights.
“Can. 1220 §1. All those responsible are to take care that in churches such cleanliness and beauty are preserved as befit a house of God and that whatever is inappropriate to the holiness of the place is excluded.
“§2. Ordinary care for preservation and fitting means of security are to be used to protect sacred and precious goods.
“Can. 1221 Entry to a church is to be free and gratuitous during the time of sacred celebrations.
“Can. 1222 §1. If a church cannot be used in any way for divine worship and there is no possibility of repairing it, the diocesan bishop can relegate it to profane but not sordid use.
“§2. Where other grave causes suggest that a church no longer be used for divine worship, the diocesan bishop, after having heard the presbyteral council, can relegate it to profane but not sordid use, with the consent of those who legitimately claim rights for themselves in the church and provided that the good of souls suffers no detriment thereby.
“ORATORIES AND PRIVATE CHAPELS
“Can. 1223 By the term oratory is understood a place for divine worship designated by permission of the ordinary for the benefit of some community or group of the faithful who gather in it and to which other members of the faithful can also come with the consent of the competent superior.
“Can. 1224 §1. The ordinary is not to grant the permission required to establish an oratory unless he has first visited the place destined for the oratory personally or through another and has found it properly prepared.
“§2. After permission has been given, however, an oratory cannot be converted to profane use without the authority of the same ordinary.
“Can. 1225 All sacred celebrations can be performed in legitimately established oratories except those which the law or a prescript of the local ordinary excludes or the liturgical norms prohibit.
“Can. 1226 By the term private chapel is understood a place for divine worship designated by permission of the local ordinary for the benefit of one or more physical persons.
“Can. 1227 Bishops can establish a private chapel for themselves which possesses the same rights as an oratory.
“Can. 1228 Without prejudice to the prescript of can. 1227, the permission of the local ordinary is required for Mass or other sacred celebrations to take place in any private chapel.
“Can. 1229 It is fitting for oratories and private chapels to be blessed according to the rite prescribed in the liturgical books. They must, however, be reserved for divine worship alone and free from all domestic uses.”
Canon 2015 §3 clearly contemplates the possibility of a religious community building a church. It is worth noting, however, that the bishop’s permission is required from the beginning. Therefore the question faced by this religious community should never have arisen.
Canon 2017 §2 says, “Churches, especially cathedrals and parish churches, are to be dedicated by the solemn rite.” The word “especially” is not exclusive and certainly is not restrictive. Therefore a church, built with all the proper permissions by a religious community, can be dedicated by the solemn rite even if not a parish.
The crux of the matter, therefore, is not so much the distinction parish or non-parish church, but rather if the place of worship of the religious community qualifies as a church or as an oratory in accordance with the norms of either Canon 2014 or of Canon 1223.
Thus if the worship space is “a sacred building designated for divine worship to which the faithful have the right of entry for the exercise, especially the public exercise, of divine worship,” it qualifies as a church. If, on the other hand, it is “a place for divine worship designated by permission of the ordinary for the benefit of some community or group of the faithful who gather in it and to which other members of the faithful can also come with the consent of the competent superior,” it is classed as an oratory.
If the building is an oratory, then, following Canon 1229, it is to be blessed and not dedicated.
While I do not agree with the statement that only parish churches can be dedicated, I do not have sufficient information to be able to determine the specifics of this particular situation.
The distinction is not always easy to make, and it does not necessarily depend on the actual reality of the situation. For example, how can one distinguish if the faithful have a “right to enter” in the terms of Canon 2014 or if they enter “with the consent of the competent superior” in accordance with Canon 1229?
Since this eventual consent of the superior can be very general and open, the faithful themselves might not notice any realistic difference in their worship practice. However, the possibility of a solemn dedication or of a blessing can hang on this subtle nuance.
Therefore, I am unable to say if the diocesan liturgist made a correct decision regarding the actual blessing or dedication. I can affirm that denial of the rite of dedication is not justified by the mere fact that the religious chapel was not a parish church.
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