Pastoral Councils Are a Work in Progress

Article excerpt

Diocesan and parish pastoral councils have recently been in the news. First, the beleaguered Philadelphia archdiocese announced the formation of its first "archdiocesan pastoral council," as Archbishop Charles Chaput tries to create almost from scratch a well-functioning enterprise.

Then there's the case of Florian Stangl, a 26-year-old gay Austrian man in a registered domestic partnership, whose pastor had prohibited him from serving on the parish council to which he had been elected by a wide margin. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna overrode the pastor and allowed Stangl to serve on the council.

Today, half of the 195 U.S. dioceses have diocesan pastoral councils, while three-fourths of the 18,000 parishes have parish pastoral councils, according to a 2003 survey by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But what exactly is a parish pastoral council? Where do they come from? What is their mission? And how do they operate?

"The pastoral council is a type of council first recommended in the Vatican II decree on bishops [Christus Dominus], with a threefold function: to investigate, under the pastor's direction, some aspect of the practical church reality; to ponder or reflect on it; and to reach a conclusion that can be recommended to the pastor," said Mark Fischer, professor of theology and director of admissions at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif. The decree directed that such councils be formed at the diocesan level.

According to Fischer, the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), which mentions parochial councils, was intended for lay associations, not precisely parish pastoral councils.

In 1973, the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy recommended extending pastoral councils to the parish level through a private or circular letter to bishops around the world (Omnes Christzfuleles).

The 1983 Code of Canon Law recommends, but does not require, that a diocesan pastoral council be established (Canon 511), and that each parish establish a pastoral council (Canon 536). Importantly, the pastoral councils are consultative only, with no legal authority under canon or civil law. Conversely, canon law requires that dioceses and parishes establish finance councils (Canons 492 and 537, respectively).

"The [parish pastoral council] is relevant because we Catholics believe that God's Word became flesh," Fischer said. "We are now Christ's body. So the wise pastor consults his people because he believes that God's wisdom dwells in them.

"If he is to make decisions on the parish's behalf that will build up and unify the body, he must consult its members," said Fischer, who wrote Pastoral Councils in Today's Catholic Parishes (Twenty-Third Publications, 2001) and Making Parish Councils Pas-toral (Paulist Press, 2010), and hosts a website on the subject.

During a recent conference call with NCR, Sr. Brenda Hermann, a Mission-ary Servant of the Most Blessed Trini-ty, and Msgr. James Gaston, a Pitts-burgh diocesan priest, offered a differ-ent understanding of parish pastoral councils. Hermann and Gaston coauthored Build a Life-giving Parish: The Gift of Counsel in the Modern World (Liguori, 2010).

"Our starting point is both decrees on bishops and on the laity; however, the primary role of the laity is to the world and it's essential for parishes to prepare and support the laity," Hermann said.

"There is a whole understanding in the life of the people of God and no place to bring it [into the church]," she said. "Parish pastoral councils are the place where the mission fields of the laity and the ordained intersect and interact."

"The daily life concerns of the laity are the primary pastoral concerns of the church and pastoral councils," said Gaston, who is also pastor at St. Margaret Mary Church in Lower Burrell, Pa. …