After an initial inspection, textile conservator Past Crafts Textiles will secure loose gold trim and fringe, check seams for failing threads, stabilize original lining and vacuum the vestment to ensure its preservation and use for another 100 years. (Photos/Diocese of Richmond Archives)

Father Wayne Ball, Special to The Catholic Virginian

It has been 35 years since the current Code of Canon Law went into effect, and yet there are still some parts of this code that we have not fully embraced. As the Second Vatican Council called for a fuller participation of the laity, the new code recognizes the need to distinguish between groups the laity have a legitimate right to form and have recognized, e.g., the Knights of Columbus and the official organs of the Church, e.g., diocese, parish, Catholic school. Those official organs which speak and act in the name of the Church we call public juridic persons. For the sake of brevity, a parish is used as an example. 

When a bishop erects a new parish, it must have a mission to serve a particular area or a group of people. Furthermore, while it may happen that at some time in the future a parish may no longer be needed, the Church presumes that it will be perpetual. 

In order to carry out that mission and guarantee a future, it needs goods, objects and money. Some of those objects and money will be collected and used up in the day-to-day ministry, e.g., wine, hosts, paper, the ordinary operating income. Other things and money are needed to enable the parish to sustain itself and carry out its mission for the long haul. This is what is meant by “stable patrimony.”

Some parts of the stable patrimony are easy to identify, like the land and building, or sacred objects like the altar. In other cases, there may be some discussion and debate. Not every picture is a work of art. For this reason, canon law foresees a dialogue between the pastor and the people of the parish, and the bishop or his vicar general or episcopal vicar. 

Thus, the parish is supposed to prepare an inventory of those things which they believe form part of the stable patrimony, including funds like endowments. The bishop or vicar then approves the inventory. By means of the inventory, all parties can clearly identify those funds and objects that form the stable patrimony and therefore are protected by law.

Unfortunately, there have been examples of objects of historic or artistic value being thrown away or monies being dissipated. By designating funds and property as being part of the stable patrimony, they are protected from the whim of either the clergy or the laity at one particular moment in the history of the parish. 

If, for example, the chalice of the founding pastor of the parish is designated part of the stable patrimony, the current pastor can’t simply give it away because he doesn’t like it. Before any part of the stable patrimony can be alienated, i.e., given away, sold or spent, approval of the bishop, vicar general or episcopal vicar is needed. 

As the Diocese of Richmond prepares to celebrate its 200th    anniversary, it is with a sense of sadness that that the diocese must acknowledge that in many of its parishes many objects of value from the early years of the community have been lost. The concept of “stable patrimony” exists to enable the parish to meet the needs of the present while maintaining continuity with the past and guaranteeing sustainability into the future. 

The 2018 Diocesan Annual Appeal approved $30,000 for grants to parishes to repair, restore or preserve their stable patrimony. Grants will be approved by the chancellor’s office in cooperation with the diocesan archives’ appraisal of patrimonial items submitted by the parishes. A one-page form, on the chancellor extranet site, should be completed and submitted to Edie Jeter, diocesan archivist, at

Three items have been approved for funding: a tabernacle for St. Augustine Parish, Richmond, and two Fraefel copes for St. Elizabeth Parish, Pocahontas. (A cope is a cloak that can be used in liturgical celebrations outside of Mass, e.g., eucharistic adoration, certain blessings and consecrations, and processions). 

Parishes may choose their own restoration expert or work with the archives to identify an appropriate craftsman.

Father Wayne Ball is pastor of St. Augustine, Richmond, and a judge in the Diocesan Tribunal.