Patron Saints of Churches

Custom of Designating Them Is Ancient

Pope Francis during the morning Mass in Santa Marta

PHOTO.VA - OSSERVATORE ROMANO

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q1: What is the origin of the patron saint of a parish or a church? — D.Z., Beijing

Q2: If my parish is named after the Holy Spirit, is it theologically correct to address the Holy Spirit as the patron of our parish? Precisely, in our parish prayer, a portion reads: “O Holy Spirit, the Patron of our parish ….” But some priests are frowning at that, claiming that the Holy Spirit, who is God, cannot be addressed as “Patron.” But I do know that the term “patron” somehow connotes “advocate,” which is used for the Holy Spirit. Please, I need your clarification. — E.I., Enugu state, Nigeria

A: Since these two questions are related I will attempt to address them together.

The origin of the custom of naming or dedicating churches with a title is not quite clear, although it is practically universal and is not limited to the Catholic Church.

It is probably tied up with the dedication of the earliest purpose-built churches. This happened especially after the freedom of worship granted by the Emperor Constantine in 313. But there is evidence of purposely built churches, or substantial buildings adapted to Christian worship, from about the year 230.

In some cases the church was associated with the tomb or relics of a martyr, and the building was dedicated to him.

In others, especially in Rome, it was associated with the name of a benefactor who either ceded property to the community for the purpose of worship or in some way facilitated its regular meeting. In Romans 16:3-5 St. Paul greets Prisca and Aquila and the “the church at their house.” Despite this mention, the archaeological evidence for the use of private houses for worship in ancient Rome is scanty. Thus, while benefactors were not necessarily the owners of houses where worship took place and which later became churches, their names were associated with some of Rome’s most ancient churches to form the city’s so-called Titulus churches, of which there were 28 according to a list from the year 499. Among these, apart from Sts. Prisca and Aquila, are St. Sabina, St. Praxides and St. Crisogono.

The custom of solemnly dedicating church buildings in some form is probably very early, although the first evidence of a specific rite hails from the first half of the fourth century. Eusebius of Caesarea describes several dedications as early as the year 314.

The custom of dedicating churches with a specific title would seem to have begun around the same time even though there was no law requiring it. Thus, in 435 the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore became one of the first basilicas directly dedicated to Mary, although some claim that honor for Santa Maria in Trastevere under Pope Julius I (337-352), who dedicated the church to Mary when he restored an even earlier building.

The church of Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, in Constantinople was finished in 537 and was the third church of that title to be built on the site.

The rites of dedication became more elaborate over time and were inspired above all by the biblical descriptions of the inauguration of the tabernacle in Exodus 40 and of the various dedications and rededications of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. By the eighth century the rites had become very elaborate, and the obligation to give each church a title was an established binding custom.

Under current canon law (Canon 1218) and the Rite of Dedication of a Church (4) and the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 865:

“Every church to be dedicated must have a titular which cannot be changed after the church has been dedicated.”

The title is given to the church building at the time of dedication through decree of the bishop.

To further clarify these norms and address some new pastoral situations, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments issued a notification, “Omnis ecclesia titulum,” on February 10, 1999, “Concerning the Constitution of Patrons of Dioceses and Parishes.” This brief document states:

“1. Every church must have a title assigned to it within a liturgy either of dedication or blessing.

“2. In their title, Churches may use the Most Holy Trinity; Our Lord Jesus Christ, invoked under a mystery of his life or under his name as already used in the divine liturgy; the Holy Spirit; the Blessed Virgin Mary under a given title already found in the divine liturgy; the holy Angels, or a Blessed or Saint inscribed in the Roman Martyrology.

“3. There may be only one title for a church, unless it is derived from Saints who are inscribed together in the same proper Calendar.

“4. Any Blessed whose celebration has not yet been inscribed in the legitimate diocesan Calendar may not be chosen as the title of a church without an indult from the Apostolic See.

“5. Once established in the dedication of a church, the title cannot be changed (can. 1218), unless, for grave reasons, it is expressly allowed by indult of the Apostolic See.

“6. However, if a title has been assigned as a part of the blessing of a church, according to the Ordo Benedictionis Ecclesiae, it may be changed by the diocesan bishop (cf. Can. 381, 1) for a grave reason and with all factors duly considered.

“7. The name of a parish may commonly be the same as the title of the parish church.

“8. As an intercessor or advocate before God, the patron is a created person, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Angels, a Saint or Blessed. For the same reason, the Most Holy Trinity and the divine Persons are always excluded as patrons.

“9. A patron must be chosen by the clergy and the faithful, whose choice must be approved by the competent ecclesiastical authority. In order that they may carry liturgical effect, the choice and approbation require the confirmation of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which is granted by decree of this same Dicastery.

“10. The patron of a place is distinguished from the title of a given church; they may be the same but are not necessarily so.

“11. When a new parish has been erected in place of several suppressed parishes, the new parish may have its own church, which, unless it is a new building, retains its existing title. Further, churches of suppressed parishes, whenever such parishes are considered as ‘co-parishes,’ retain their own proper titles.

“12. If several parishes are joined together so that a new parish is established thereby, it is permitted, for pastoral reasons, to establish a new name differing from the title of the parish church.”

This document also clarifies one of our questions. The Holy Spirit cannot be a patron in the proper sense of the word, and the prayer that addresses him as such is incorrect. The concept of the title of a church and that of patron are distinct even though in some cases they can coincide.

At times they can be confused in popular piety. For example, the country of El Salvador, which means “The Savior,” celebrates its national day on the feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) in honor of the Divine Savior of the world. The feast day and the days leading up to it are called the “patronal feasts” in popular parlance even though this would be technically incorrect.

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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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