|September 17, 1984
Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine
My brothers and sisters in the Lord:
I was a priest but one month, back in 1959, when Pope John XXIII
announced his intention to convene the Second Vatican Council and to
rewrite the basic laws of the Churchthe
Code of Canon Law.
How much has happened in these past twenty-five
I remember how thrilled I was to attend the opening ceremonies of the
Council in St. Peter's Basilica in 1962. During the four sessions of the
Council (1962-1965) "Catholic" news filled the newspapers. Catholics
were on center stage, it seemed, and there was palpable excitement
everywhere in the Church. Changes were gradually being introduced into
our worship and practices. It was really an exhilarating time to be a
young priest, to be part of a new era.
At the same time, it was quite a challenge to be a young priest
during that period, to be part of the turmoil that ensued. Almost
helplessly, we priests, more than others, suffered the pain of loss of
many brothers, and witnessed the widening identity crisis that pitted
the servanthood of our ordination against the quest for self-fulfillment
that permeated the times.
Some were saying that the years following the Vatican Council should
be called the era of the layman; others didn't know what to call an era
when the priesthood that comes of baptismand
the responsibility that comes of confirmationconverged
to throw the role and relationship of both layman and priest into
confusion. To be sure, it was a period that saw many unsteady first
steps, some rash, some timid, toward creating almost "out of nothing"
various structures of consultation within the Church. . .parish
councils, priests' councils, diocesan pastoral councils. . .strange new
concoctions that had no precedent to guide the pioneer designers.
From 1981 to 1983 the Priests' Council of Arlington did extensive
work on a document that sought to identify the structures and role of
parish councils, to clarify the relationship of pastor and council in
the decision-making process of parish leadership. After studying the
document with the Diocesan Pastoral Council, I thought it best to share
the draft of the priests' document with pastors and parish councils
across the diocese in order to get a preliminary reaction and the
considered opinion of many. This consultation resulted in the decision
to devote this first pastoral letter to the subject of consultation in
To be perfectly frank, I was not at all sure how to approach the
subject. One avenue of approach would be to develop a researched essay
that might bring together the best in contemporary thinking and writing
on the subject. Another approach would be to formulate a legislative
document, stipulating how parish councils and pastors should collaborate
However, after many, many hours of reflectionand
not a little "consultation"I
have thought it best to approach the matter simply through personal
reflections stemming from my experience in parish life, and through some
observations of an "old canonist" on the new Code of Canon Law as it
will guide Church life for many decades to come.
BACK TO BASICS
I wish to speak to you simply of fundamentals, nothing fancy, just some
basic ideas that might cast some lightone
clear, positive, and pastoral terms.
It seems to me that most of the conflict arising in pastor/parish
council relations in the period immediately after Vatican II stemmed
from a confusion over the basic ideas of consultation, authority,
decision-making, role of the pastor, role of the parish council, etc. It
was immensely interesting to me to study the constitutions of various
parish councils to find that the form and structure of a local council
usually follow the patterns with which the writers of the constitution
were familiar. Some constitutions cast parish consultation in the
categories of American governmental systems, others in military
structures or, more commonly, according to models of corporate
management. Yet, the simple concept of ecclesial consultation, properly
understood, should cut through all these categories and remove the usual
pitfalls that inevitably accompany any attempt to construe ecclesial
decision-making in the forms of the secular society we know so well.
The Lord so often would tell a parable to illustrate a point, to
teach us something important, something never to be forgotten. Do you
remember His story of the two men who set out to build homes? The
foolish man builds his house on sand, so that when the rains and wind
come and beat against it, it collapses because the sandy foundation
simply washes out. With no solid foundation, his house has to collapse.
The other man, the wise man, builds his house on rock. Because of the
strength of the foundation, his house withstands the elements and serves
him well. (Matthew 7:24-27)
To design and utilize effective processes of consultation in
decision-making, it is absolutely necessary to build on solid and
fundamental ideas of, e.g., pastor, parish, parishioner, parish council,
etc. To design a consultative process for the Church on popular
secular backgrounds and models, can often lead to a confusion of roles,
misguided agendas, mutual resentment and distrust, or outright
Are there any basics which the Church has developed in its history,
any clear and simple "primeval" ideas which can, and must, be the
foundation for any solid ecclesial consultative process in a parish?
Does the Church shed any light on, e.g., the fundamental role and
function of a pastoron
the fundamental role and function of advisors to the pastoron
the agenda of a parish council?
The answer to these questions is "yes."
After studying twenty years' post-conciliar experience and
experiments, the Church has recently promulgated some basic concepts and
directions for those who must develop workable processes of consultation
in the local church. The source?the
new Code of Canon Law, in effect now since November 27, 1983.
VATICAN COUNCIL II and PARISH COUNCILS
Even though the phenomenon of parish councils appeared in the wake of
Vatican II, it should be noted that the documents of the Council do not
speak of, much less mandate, the existence of parish councils. Although
there is no explicit reference to them in the teaching of the Council,
it would be unfair, however, to say that parish councils simply appeared
on the scene "out of thin air."
There is a passage in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity
(n.26) which recommends that the bishop institute a diocesan council
which would act as a sort of coordinator amongst the various diocesan
organizations promoting the lay apostolate:
"While preserving the proper character and autonomy of each
organization, these councils will be able to promote the mutual
coordination of various lay associations and enterprises."
The document then suggests that this might also be implemented on a
parochial, interparochial, and interdiocesan level, as well as in the
national or international sphere. Commentators on Vatican II are agreed
that this reference really does not speak of parish councils, but refers
to an interorganizational board to promote coordination of effort.
Somewhat germane is a two-sentence paragraph in the Council's
Decree on the Bishops' Pastoral Office in the Church (n.27):
"It is highly desirable that in each diocese a pastoral council
be established over which the diocesan bishop himself will preside
and in which specially chosen clergy, religious, and lay people will
participate. The function of this council will be to investigate and
to weigh matters which bear on pastoral activity, and to formulate
practical conclusions regarding them."
More relevant to the creation of parish councils was the now famous
reference in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (n.37),
"An individual layman, by reason of the knowledge, competence or
outstanding ability which he may enjoy, is permitted and sometimes
even obliged to express his opinion on things which concern the good
of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the
agencies set up by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be
done in truth, in courage, and in prudence, with reverence and
charity towards those who by reason of their sacred office represent
the person of Christ."
This expression of a right and a duty of the qualified layman to
assist and advise his pastor is enshrined now in canon 228 of the new
Code of Canon Law. Beyond the right and duty merely to speak, there
comes from Vatican Council II the theological basis for the layman's
right and duty actively to participate with pastors in the threefold
mission of Jesus and His Church: to proclaim God's word to others, to
sanctify others by His gifts of sacrament and sacrifice, and to lead
others actively to His promise of eternal life.
Virtually all commentators on Vatican Council II agree that one of
the most important and enduring concepts to come out of the Council is
the idea of all the faithful, ordained and unordained, as the People of
God. Gone is the idea that the laity are merely passive recipients of
pastoral service rendered by the ordained. One may no longer envision
Church membership as composed of the ordained, who minister, and the
unordained, who are ministered unto.
No, all of us, through our baptism, in becoming children of God and
heirs of heaven, have received through the Holy Spirit a whole network
of rights and obligations that involve us directly in the mission of
"Let sacred pastors recognize and promote the dignity as well as
the responsibility of the layman in the Church. Let them willingly
make use of his prudent advice. Let them confidently assign duties
to him in the service of the Church, allowing him freedom and room
for action. Further, let them encourage the layman so that he may
undertake tasks on his own initiative. Attentively in Christ, let
them consider with fatherly love the projects, suggestions, and
desires proposed by the laity. Furthermore, let pastors respectfully
acknowledge that just freedom which belongs to everyone in this
earthly city." (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n.37)
And so, in the 1960's began many local attempts to organize parish
councils. There was unbounded enthusiasm among the pioneers, confident
that it was all "in the spirit" of Vatican II.
It was only natural that the early designers would borrow from what
they knew best. Some parish councils took on the form of representative
democratic government, as we know it here in the United States.
Sometimes a council would envision itself as the legislative branch of
parish government, with representatives elected from the various
"districts," "wards," or "precincts." The pastor might be envisioned as
the chief executive who could "veto" legislation of the council. In case
of dispute between the legislative and executive branches in a
particular instance, appeal might be made to the judicial branch, i.e.,
Another model commonly used in designing parish councils was borrowed
from the business world, the corporate management model. The council
would sit as the board of directors of the corporation, representing the
interests of the parishioner "shareholders." The pastor might well be
both chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors.
Then again, he might be assigned only "non-voting" membership on the
Much time and energy was often expended by the designers, trying to
decide whether they should be policy-making boards or simply advisory
boards. Should they be the decision-makers of parish policy, or merely
counselors to the decision-makers? Often, the scope of the agenda was
limitless, "whatever spiritual or temporal matter might come up for
discussion or a decision."
In the early days, parish councils frequently stood out more by their
differences from one another than by what they had in common. The
history of some councils was one of reverse logic. First the group would
come into being; then it began to wonder what it should do. Some
councils had extravagant structure and devoted themselves mostly to
procedure rather than to substance; other councils had no structure to
be efficient at all.
In any case, one of the sadnesses in the post-Vatican Council era was
the occasional conflict which arose within some parish councils. Looking
back now, one might say that the confusion of that period was really
inevitable, given the fact that there were very few absolutes by which
to judge roles, responsibility, or competence.
"The problem, however, was that there were no adequate models to
follow, and most parish councils became battlefields for power or were
just plain boring. Most parish councils have adopted the model of
corporate management, which often leads to frustration and unresolved
conflict and tension. They did not have a clear purpose and were usually
burdened with structure for the sake of structure and hampered by strict
observance of Robert's Rules of Order. Meetings were often long, dull,
nonproductive, and nothing more than an endless succession of committee
reports." (Sofield/Hermann, Developing the Parish as a Community of
Service [19841 p. 13)
In those pioneering days, there were so many obstacles and
uncertainties to deal with that parish councils and pastors often
succeeded in irritating, not only each other, but the parish at large.
In my judgment, the greatest single weakness of some parish councils was
the conviction that unless the council have real power to dictate policy
and programs, it was useless in enhancing the quality of parish life.
Some were truly persuaded by their experiences in secular life that a
parish council is worthwhile only in so far as the collective votes of
its individual members could indeed be the decision-maker. To say that a
council is "only advisory" or "only consultative" to the pastor was to
enervate its purpose and to reduce its usefulness to naught.
It would certainly be more exciting to devote this pastoral letter to
the mission of the Church, the things to be accomplished in the name of
Jesus, the people to be reached and touched, the corporal and spiritual
works of mercy to be generated in actual human situations, etc. But here
we are talking about something prior to all that, something irritatingly
fundamental in the very structure of planning how to accomplish such
things. We are dealing here with the nuts and bolts of the process of
getting those noble things into existence.
The real purpose and mission of a parish, of course, is outward in
thrust, reaching out in service to people, ministering to them through
the threefold mandate of teaching the word of God, sanctifying persons
and leading them toward eternal life. So you must excuse us if we pause
to undergo a bit of introspection, turning in on ourselves and our inner
mechanics of operation. But this is basic to achieving success in our
real mission outward to people... to proclaim the Gospel effectively, to
recognize the signs of holiness all across the parish, to deepen that
holiness throughout the parish by prayer, sacrament, and personal
example, to help people worship God in the best way possible.
THE PASTOR: FATHER OF A FAMILY
Most of the people whom a pastor serves in his parish have a primary
identification with family and family life. They are naturally at home
in an atmosphere of family life where they experience support,
acceptance, intimacy, and availability. They naturally tend to seek
these same traits in their parish community. Indeed this family
characteristic of the laity profoundly influences and shapes the
community life of Christians.
With a tinge of pride, a pastor will refer to "our parish family of
St. Matthew's." The pastor is indeed the father of this parish faith
community. The image of father is apt; the title "Father," so
appropriate. He may not be the greatest organizer among his people, or
the greatest accountant or public speaker. But he is the father. And
that has a wealth more meaning than any worldly skills he may have. ..or
not have. When the pastor senses that his people see him as their
spiritual father, as their father in the faith, it helps him immensely
to give the kind of overall leadership his office requires.
THE PASTOR: SERVANT AND LEADER
More than anyone else in the parish, the pastor publicly represents the
credibility of the Gospel and the Church to the world:
"All pastors should remember too that by their daily conduct and
concern, they are revealing the face of the Church to the world. Men
will judge the power and truth of the Christian message thereby."
(Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n.43)
When a man accepts a pastorate, he becomes inescapably the appointed
leader of the parish, the designated head, the adopted father in the
faith to this community of believers. There is no getting away from that
fact. It is simply the structure of the job, the office of pastor as
designated by the Church. It is not too surprising that priests
sometimes have a difficult time stepping into that leadership role,
because, though called to be leaders in virtue of their ordination, they
also are called to be servants of the people. Integrating the dual roles
of leader and servant is not always an easy task.
Moreover, the pastor is to be the animator (a favorite word of Pope
John Paul II); he is to motivate his people to work together towards
eternal life. Yet, at the same time, he is expected to be the healer,
the one who, though perhaps suffering himself, is called upon to reduce
and neutralize tensions, to defuse antagonistic emotions, to bring peace
and unity to his people.
It is no wonder that pastors are a rather rare breed. One of my
pastors recently reminded me that, among the People of God, pastors are
really a tiny minority. "Here in the Diocese of Arlington," he said, "we
have 58 pastors among 188,000 Catholics. Within the People of God, we're
outnumbered better than 3,000 to 1!"
PASTORING AS AN ART
The new Code of Canon Law goes into great detail describing the rights
and duties of pastors. The local bishop may not take away those rights
and duties (nor may his parishioners), but we can and must develop
processes and procedures to help the pastor fulfill his
Some have said, however, that successful pastoring is more a matter
of personality than process. There is an old Latin disjunction, id quod/modus
quo (substance/manner), enshrined by usage through the centuries
(especially by priests who came up through the Latin route) which was
often invoked to say: What you do is not as important as the manner in
which you do it; a person's style of leadership is more important than
his credentials as leader; your decisions are not as important as the
manner in which you arrive at them, announce them, implement them. The
substance of decisions sometimes does not affect people's openness and
acceptance half as much as the manner in which the decision was arrived
at and implemented. It is not so much the authority that a pastor
represents, but the manner in which he exercises that authority that
really counts with people.
Modus quo means a lot for a leader. The manner, the way, the
style, the timing, the wording, the settingall
these things mean much to the people's perception of the decision
itself. I don't think it's too far off the mark to surmise that most
conflict in parish councils has arisen, not because of the substance of
a decision, but because of the manner in which it was made.
LEADERSHIP AND AUTHORITY
It is basic to our Catholic faith that Jesus, in instituting the Church,
conveyed His authority to it as a working principle within the Church
until the end of time. He transmitted that authority sacramentally so
that it is entrusted to publicly discernible persons. It is so important
that we not consider authority in the Church in the manner that we see
and know authority in secular societies.
Pastors participate in that divine authority. Like their parishioners
pastors have certain responsibilities which are theirs alone. They have
duties which must be exercised personally in virtue of the mission they
have from Christ in ordination and from the bishop through their
appointment to the pastorate. While retaining all the responsibilities
which belong to the baptized in common, a pastor holds an additional
office which aims at the good of the whole body. Pope John Paul II, in
speaking to the bishops of central France during their ad limina
visit of March 23, 1982, said:
"It is quite clear that the priest must retain among the laity
his role as animator, trainer, and coordinator, not to mention those
activities which are peculiar to his ministerial priesthood and
ought to be the essence of his life: the authorized teaching of the
truths of the faith, the formation of consciences, training in
prayer, the gift of God's grace through the sacraments, particularly
the eucharist and penance."
Those who are called to the ordained leadership in the Church are, to
be sure, especially accountable. Theirs is a commitment to service
beyond the commitment of baptism. The ordained are especially bound to
God's divine revelation, to the fundamental traditions and structure of
the Church, to the sacraments, to the teaching of the magisterium of the
Church. This leadership, carried out in interdependence with the total
church community, provides the parish community with unity in doctrine,
in worship, in moral guidance, and in church life and achievement.
To carry out effectively their heavy responsibility pastors really
need the encouragement of their people, and people really need the
encouragement of their pastors. The clergy need to learn from their
people, and the people need to learn from their clergy. They absolutely
need to appreciate each other, to trust one another, to communicate
openly with one another, to know one another in truth and in faith.
If we truly understand the magnitude of a pastor's responsibility, we
can appreciate easily that a pastor needs all the help he can get from
whatever quarter. Someone once asked me the question: What does an
associate pastor have in common with a bishop? The answer, of course,
is: They both have the task of helping the pastor do his job more
The parish has only one purpose for its existenceto
continue the mission of Jesus. Its primary goal is to help every member
grow to the fullness of his or her christian vocation.
One of the many pleasant discoveries in the new Code of Canon Law is
the definition which it gives for a diocese and for a parish, both along
the same lines: a) a portion of God's people, whose pastoral care is
a single public servant (bishop or priest). A parish is not a place
where, but a people who. Understanding the Church as "the
people of God" has awakened the laity to a crucial role: the
responsibility of all the baptizedclergy,
religious, and laity togetherto
continue the mission of Jesus here on earth. Baptism confers inalienable
rights and duties to this end. We are one people, with one faith, one
baptism, and one God, the Father of us all.
"The body is one and has many members, but all the members, many
though they are, are one body; and so it is with Christ. It was in
one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were
baptized into one body." (1 Cor.12:12-13)
"The eye cannot say to the hand, `I do not need you,' anymore than
the head can say to the foot, 'I do not need you.'" (I Cor. 12:21)
"God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to the
lowly members that there may be no dissension in the body, but that
all the members may be concerned for one another. If one member
suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored,
all the members share its joy." (I Cor. 12:24-26)
As one body, we depend on each other. While we have differing roles
and responsibilities, we are all under one head, Christ Jesus, and
through Him we depend on each other as brothers and sisters.
"Just as each of us has one body with many members, and not all
the members have the same function, so we too, though many, are one
body in Christ and individually members of one another. We have
gifts that differ according to the favor bestowed on each of us."
THE RIGHT TO BE HEARD
As a young priest in a Chicago parish on my first assignment in 1959, my
pre-Vatican mind was always trying to create solutions to Church
problems. I find now in my notes of twenty-five years agothe
oils of ordination, as they say, still moist on my handsthat
I was convinced that the key to enlivening parish life was to find the
right structure to safeguard and promote "the right to be heard"of
associate pastors like myself!
I still have in my files a rather spirited plan I composed in 1960
that would have the bishop legislate a weekly staff meeting of the
pastor and his associates, thus assuring the associates' right to be
heard. My creativity, I see, even got to the details on how the meeting
was to be conducted, what the categories of agenda were to be, etc.
There was never a thought back in those days of the laity's "right to be
Then came Vatican Council II.
In 1964 I was asked by Chicago Studies (a theological journal
published by the seminary staff in Mundelein, Illinois) to write an
article describing what a diocesan synod is, since Cardinal Albert Meyer
of Chicago had announced that he intended to convene a diocesan synod,
once the Vatican Council ended. Canon Law (at that time) required every
diocese to hold a synod every ten years, and since Chicago had not held
one in over half a century, the completion of Vatican II seemed to
provide the natural setting.
In doing research on the subject, I came to the novel conclusion that
the real purpose of a diocesan synod was not (as the rest of the world
believed) to issue fresh statutes and regulations for the diocese. No,
the real purpose of holding a synod was to assure, at least every tenth
year, the people's right to be heard. This article, I could see, was
destined to be a real humdinger, the greatest new insight into the
Church's historic wisdom since the time of Pope Benedict XIV (who wrote
the classic treatise on diocesan synods back in the eighteenth century).
But Cardinal Meyer died prematurely, before the end of the Council, and
all plans for a diocesan synod evaporated. So did my vaunted article.
The new Code of Canon Law has a remarkable canon (n. 212). It
canonizes the right to be heard among all God's Peopleclergy,
religious, and laity alike.
Whatever the accuracy of my thesis on diocesan synods back in 1964,
the new Code of Canon Law makes it pretty clear that the real purpose of
a parish council is not to safeguard the laity's right to be heard, but
to counsel the pastor on pastoral programs and services in the parish.
How does a pastor promote and protect the laity's right to be heard
and take the pulse of his parish? A lot depends on the size of the
parish. Some pastors come across as "easily approachable" by their ready
availability outside church at the weekend Masses. Some remarkable
pastors make themselves singularly available by their home-visiting.
(Both Vatican II and the new Code of Canon Law call for home-visiting as
an effective way for the pastor to know and to consult his people.)
Another way I have found to "hear from the parish" and to collect
well-considered and useful advice from the total parish is through the
use of a town hall meeting. For about ten years I served on the Priests'
Personnel Board in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and it was our duty to
visit a parish whenever it had a change of pastorates, so that we might
conduct a parish-wide meeting of consultation on the needs, the desires,
the problems and hopes of the parish. The method we used, I thought,
rather efficiently collected very useful data, organized it, and made it
presentable to the incoming pastor. The new pastor always, it seemed,
was anxious to read every word that we presented to him. It was my
experience that the cross-section consultation of such a meeting gives a
far more balanced and "catholic" pulse of the parish than a consultation
limited to the members of the parish council.
Take one look at the Code of Canon Law and you know how strongly the
Church insists on consultation at every level of decision-making.
I think it is a truism to state that a pastor cannot perform his
responsibilities effectively as shepherd and as leader unless he is
supported by consultation, solid consultation, quality consultation.
Pastors know perhaps better than most that rarely is decision-making the
work of one person. Indeed, a special function of the pastor is to
promote consultation so that people may share to some extent in forming
those decisions which affect them.
Sometimes a pastor does more consulting than he realizes. He may
consult his brother pastors or individuals inside or outside the parish.
He might even consult the bishop on certain matters! And there is always
to be a special consultative relationship between the pastor and his
associate pastor(s). Canon 545 casts some valuable light on their
working relationship when it reminds us that associate pastors
"...render their services in pastoral ministry as coworkers with the
pastor, in common counsel and endeavor with him...." Moreover, the
associate pastor "is regularly to consult with the pastor on planned or
existing programs so that the pastor and the associate pastor(s) can
provide through their combined efforts for the pastoral care of the
parish for which they are responsible together." (Canon 548)
A pastor knows that there are among his people those who are clearly
more competent than he is in e.g., accounting, fundraising, public
speaking, organizing, coordinating, motivating, recruiting,
record-keeping, hospitality and entertaining, managing, planning, etc.
Yet, by the appointment of the bishop, he becomes the father of a
family, a spiritual father who brings to his parish family his strengths
and weaknesses, and embraces as his own the strengths and weaknesses of
his family. He may be surpassed by various parishioners in any and every
kind of skill that may be useful to a leader; but the pastor is to excel
in the depth of his faith and in his commitment to serve the whole
parish family. That depth of faith and that commitment to serve should
provide the basis for his openness and effort to consult:
"Many benefits for the Church are to be expected from this
familiar relationship between the laity and the pastors. The sense
of their own responsibility is strengthened in the laity; their zeal
is encouraged; they are more ready to unite their energies to the
work of their pastors. The latter, helped by the experience of the
laity, are in a position to judge more clearly and more
appropriately in spiritual as well as in temporal matters.
Strengthened by all her members, the Church can thus more
effectively fulfill her mission for the world." (Dogmatic
Constitution on the Church, n.37)
QUALITY OF PARISH LIFE
In 1982 Pope John Paul II, addressing the bishops of western France,
spoke with them about the quality of life within parishes and the role
of the laity:
"I encourage you to have as your aim the quality of the existing
Christian communities. This is undoubtedly more important than their
quantity. People need to find there, first of all, a high quality
spirit of welcome, thanks to the presence of likeable and competent
people whether they be priests, religious or lay people. They need
high quality liturgical ceremonies which are an aid to active
participation in a prayer which holds the Christian mystery in great
respect. Whether they are children, youth or adults, they need high
quality catechetical and doctrinal teaching."
There often is a correlation between the quality of pastoral activity
in a given parish and the quality of the consultation which preceded it.
A pastor, in virtue of his office, needs to have the ability to consult,
whether he has that ability by nature, by grace, or by hard-fought
acquisition. True, some people who have been given positions of
leadership in the Church are natural-born leaders. They have a God-given
talent for it. They communicate; they attract; they persuade. They seem
to have an inborn knack to perceive, to sense, to appreciate, to
prioritize. They are never lacking in courage to deal with others
candidly and kindly, at times firmly and decisively. They never turn
from a major problem that needs attention and solving. The tougher the
problem, the more the leader is motivated to step in and address it.
THE PARISH COUNCIL: WHAT IT IS NOT
The new Canon Law makes very clear what was not very clear before:
the parish council is not a legislative body. It is not a policy-making,
decree-issuing, statute-formulating council. It does not enact, decree,
authorize, or regulate; nor does it prohibit, enjoin, correct, or
enforce. It does not "pass bills" for the pastor to sign or veto.
I have heard recently that the study of Latin is making a great
Virginia. That is quite a consolation for one like me who, for ten solid
years, was taught his college and post-graduate courses through the
of Latin in the classroom, including the study of Hebrew!
Latin is sometimes richer than English in its shades of meaning. For
example, we speak of Vatican Council II and the Third Council
Here the English word council comes from the Latin concilium,
and indicates a
legislative body. But we also speak of St. Matthew's Parish Council
Arlington Priests' Council. Here the English council comes
from the Latin
consilium, which clearly indicates a non-legislative body, or a
...a meaning clearly lost in the English translation.
That literary loss has been the cause of some confusion in
role of a parish council. To obviate any such future "loss in
translation" the new
Code of Canon Law reminds us explicitly that a parish council (consilium)
is "consultative only." (Canon 536)
Secondly, the parish council is not a finance council. Church law now
requires that "each parish is to have a finance council which is
regulated by universal law as well as by norms issued by the diocesan
bishop; in this council the Christian faithful.. .aid the pastor in the
administration of parish goods...." (Canon 537)
One whole area, therefore, of the pastor's responsibilities lies
outside the scope and purview of the parish council, and is assigned
instead to a distinct consultative body, the finance council.
How separate the spheres of finance council and parish council? Some
have suggested the distinction between "goods" and "services"; between
"administration" and "ministries"; between what used to be termed the
"temporalities" and the "spiritualities" of parish life. Some would
divide it into the areas of the pastor's responsibilities as manager and
In any case, it is clear from the new law of the Church that the
scope of the parish council does not extend into the administration of
the parish, but is restricted to what are called "pastoral" activities.
That is why the precise title of what we have come to know as parish
council or parish advisory board is the pastoral council of a
Thirdly, the parish council, or, let us hereafter refer to it as the
pastoral council, is not the grievance machinery of the parish. As we
described above, the pastoral council's primary function is not to
assure the faithful's right to be heard; nor is it the pastor's primary
vehicle to take the pulse of the parish.
THE PASTORAL COUNCIL OF A PARISH: WHAT IT IS
Deliberately to enhance the quality of parish life and pastoral activity
is the sole purpose of creating and utilizing a pastoral council. A
pastor establishes a council to expand and enhance the decision-making
process of 1) pastoral planning and goal-setting; 2) developing and
implementing pastoral programs; 3) improving pastoral services; 4)
evaluating pastoral effectiveness.
Father Bertram Griffin, in a recent article in Chicago Studies (April
1984), summed it up rather graphically:
"The purpose of the pastoral planning council is to study the
life and activity of the people of God; that is, to research the
needs, the ideas, the hopes of the people of God, their actions and
so on; secondly, to evaluate the parish in conformity with the
gospel; and thirdly, to recommend policies, procedures and programs.
The job of the parish council, therefore, is not to decide whether
the American flag will be in or out of the sanctuary, or whether
coleslaw will be served at the parish dinner. The job of the parish
council is to deal with the mission of the church, long-range and
short-range goals and objectives, and to design those procedures and
processes by which the pastoral work of the church is to be
accomplished. It does not coordinate the work of the church. You do
not have to attend a boring meeting once a month to hear what
everybody else is doing. That is not the idea of a parish council in
the revised Code." (pp. 58-59).
The purpose of the pastoral council is to counsel the pastor in the
areas of pastoral activities. This of course is more simply said than
done! The phrase "pastoral activities" seems to be one of those
all-embracing phrases that can extend to almost anything.
Here again I think that the new Code of Canon Law can help us focus
in on the proper agenda. More than ever before, the law of the Church
has spelled out the pastoral activities of the pastor (Canons 528-529).
These two canons speak of what the Church considers basic pastoral work
in a parish:
1. instruction in the full range of the faith and catechetical
2. programs promoting gospel values, including issues of social
3. Catholic education of children and young adults;
4. outreach to fallen-away Catholics;
5. ecumenism and evangelization;
6. programs of sacramental life and preparation;
7. promotion of Eucharistic devotion;
8. enhancement of programs for the sacraments of Penance and Holy
9. inculcation of prayer life, especially within families;
10. effective participation in the liturgy;
11. methods of acquaintance with parishioners, the welcoming of
newcomers, home-visiting, efforts at building community;
12. motivation of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy;
13. efforts of special care for the sick and dying;
14. tangible concern for the poor, the afflicted, the lonely, the
15. fostering of solid Christian family life;
16. promotion of the lay apostolate;
17. strengthening of extra-parochial relations with the bishop,
pastoral efforts, and a worldwide Catholic identity.
In a word, the role of the pastoral council is to help the pastor
identify pastoral needs in the parish, help him plan pastoral programs
and improve pastoral services, evaluate the effectiveness of existing
programs and services with a view to their improvement or, at times,
their substitution or termination.
SOME OBSERVATIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
1. Keep the procedural norms of the pastoral council as simple as
possible. The structure of an ecclesial advisory (i.e.,
consultative) body is very simple, while the structure of an ecclesial
legislative, executive or judicial body is tightly regulated.
Let me give an example from church structure. The local bishop must
have a board of consultors (an advisory body of six to twelve priests)
who counsel the bishop in various sectors of diocesan administration. In
this capacity they have no formal machinery, constitution, or by-laws to
regulate their advisory activity. The consultation of bishop and
consultors is pursued only by simple dialogue and exchange. However,
beyond its advisory duties, the board of consultors has the unique
prerogative of electing a temporary administrator of the diocese when,
for example, the bishop dies or is transferred. Church law, in this
case, has made careful and stringent statutes to govern the election and
concomitant duties of the consultors during the vacancy of the diocese.
To put it "ecclesially," to advise does not require structures; but to
elect or to govern does indeed require clear statutes. The same could be
said of the college of cardinals, in their dual capacity of advising the
Holy Father and of electing a new Pontiff.
2. Narrow the scope, competence, and agenda of the pastoral
council. Since quality of advice is far more important than
quantity, it is eminently advisable that a council take on only a
limited number of issues which are really significant. Quality of advice
is all-important, often requiring plenty of homework. When the quality
of advice is high, it is usually compelling, and determines the final
choice. The quality of pastoral activity in a parish, or across a
diocese, depends heavily on the quality of the consultative process in
planning and decision-making. It is difficult to overestimate the value
of good consultation.
"With the introduction of the new law, the people in parish
council ministry will, hopefully, have an opportunity to reflect on
past experience. It may well be that we will see emerging a true
pastoral council on the parish level, leaving the development and
coordination of ministerial committees and apostolic lay
organizations to parish staff, thereby avoiding the growing sense of
boredom on parish super councils where the only action month after
month is hearing reports from committees, commissions and
organizations, each having a reserved seat on the board." (Griffin,
Code, Community, Ministry  pp. 61-62)
3. The pastor is the primary selector of the council's agenda.
While council members should have full freedom to add to the agenda, the
work of the council should be determined mainly by the person to whom
the body is advisory. It is clearly part of the pastor's leadership role
to select pastoral topics and projects, programs and services, which
really need consideration. There's some truth in the old adage: "A
leader is not one who does things well, but rather one who finds the
right things to do."
4. The pastor is not a member of the pastoral council. This is
typical of the structure of an ecclesial advisory body. For example, the
Holy Father is not a member of the college of cardinals, nor is the
bishop a member of the diocesan board of consultors or of the diocesan
pastoral council. It would be off target to debate whether the pastor is
a voting or a non-voting member of the pastoral council.
5. The ability to listen outweighs the ability to speak. I
have long been convinced that for both pastor and pastoral council
members the ability to listen is far more valuable in the creation of
good ideas than the ability to speak, and that the ability to "feel with
the Church" (sentire cum ecclesia) is far more productive to good
pastoral activity than the ability to be eminently logical in one's
6. No pastor, no council. When a parish loses its pastor
(through death, retirement, transfer, etc.) all activity of the pastoral
council has to cease until the new pastor reconvenes the council.
AND SO, IN CONCLUSION
I pray that what I have written here will be perceived as more than a
short course in the new Canon Law on the subject of consultation in the
Church (though knowledge of the law is not at all to be disparaged). I
pray that these few thoughts may help to prompt far greater consultation
in parishes and a deeper unity within the People of God and their
sharing in Jesus' mission here on earth.
It was in high school religion class that I learned of the four marks
of the Church, the four features that Jesus gave His Church to allow it
to be recognized as His Church, the four "notes" that we profess every
Sunday in reciting the Creed that comes down to us from the fourth
holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.
It was a pleasant theological reminder to find the new law saying so
plainly that a diocese (like Arlington) "constitutes a particular church
in which the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly
present and operative." (Canon 369)
But if the four marks are present and operative in a diocese, they
must also be present and operative in the individual parishes that
comprise the diocese. If the pastoral council of a parish can achieve
one supreme value, it is to work actively with the pastor to make their
parish truly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Together they are
called to promote and enliven the God-given characteristics of:
1. Unity: by fostering among the total parish community a
unity of liturgy and worship, of goals and leadership.
2. Holiness: by presenting clearly the image of the parish as
genuinely dedicated to the santification of all its people.
3. Catholicity: by helping the parish to reach out to everyoneto
the elderly, the young, the unborn, the handicapped, to families, to
4. Apostolicity: by cultivating the parish's ties to the Holy
Father, the bishop, the worldwide efforts of the Church, aware of its
historic identity with the church of the Apostles.
The pastoral council is called to be the core group that supports the
pastor in his leadership role, expands his awareness of needs and
achievements, counsels him on pastoral outreach, while affirming his
indispensable office as the people's mediator with the Father and as
their tangible link with the bishop and the universal church.
That's quite a calling. But God's grace is there to make it a
Devotedly yours in Christ,
John R. Keating
Bishop of Arlington
With permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald, Arlington