WHAT IS A PASTORAL COUNCIL?
In the first segment of this series, we discussed the "WHY" of a parish council, tracing its rationale back to the call of the Second Vatican Council. And we say why, with the recommendation of the revised Code of Canon law (1983), the council should be called "pastoral" rather than simply "parish." Now, let's take a look at "what" a pastoral council should be or should do.
Perhaps it may be helpful to start by dispelling some common misconceptions and by clarifying what a pastoral council is not. A pastoral council, first of all is not a lay pressure group. It is not simply a "democratization" of the parish. Furthermore, it is not an expansion of parish administration, nor a new linkage of existing parish organizations, And, finally, it is not the parish finance committee.
On the positive side, a pastoral council is a living model of the parish as a worshipping community, so the council members come together as workers who live the liturgy, build up the Church and serve the Gospel. They gather in a communion of shared responsibility in the work of the Church.
The pastoral council is a consultative body. Consultation is not a new word to us since we are used to asking doctors, dentists and other professional persons for "second opinions." In the Church, though, it is a concept which has only recently appeared on the scene, and in this context, requires some attention. A simple Webster's Dictionary definition would be: "asking the advice of." Rev. James Provost, Executive Coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America, provides the following explanation regarding the Church.
Consultation is the wisdom function in the Church. It is touching onto the Spirit within all of God's People and seeking to draw from that the wisdom of what is needed in the Church. But it is also reflective of the fact that we are not a democratic institution which is determined by vote of the majority. We are a Church which comes from Christ, which is commissioned by Christ to carry on a mission, and which is hierarchically constituted by Christ to assure that the mission gets done. We can't decide things by a totally democratic vote; nor can we decide things by a totally autocratic decision. We decide things together --- by the working together of those with the executive function and those with the Spirit, and they express that through the consultative processes in the Church.
Pastoral council members, as the chief consulters to the pastor, represent the needs of all of the people of the parish. The council reaches out to determine what are the issues that are impacting the lives of the parishioners. And then, through a process of prayer, study and dialogue, it recommends practical conclusions regarding these issues --- ways in which the parish can minister to the needs of the parishioners.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the pastor made all of the decisions regarding the faith community. Any process that he used in reaching his decision was an informal one. In fact, some would describe him as a "one-man band." Today, we recognize that by baptism, the laity also has the responsibility to continue the mission of Jesus and that they are "empowered --- indeed sometimes obliged --- to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church." (Lumen Gentium #37)
A pastor may depend upon his council to provide input on an issue about which he must make an immediate decision, and this will require prayerful consideration and in-depth dialogue on the part of all the council members. Probably more often, though, major issues will surface which will require more study before a recommendation can be made. A council will enter into an investigative process which will produce the material of an informed recommendation.
Thus, today, we are not talking so much about authority, but about how it is exercised and about proper roles. The pastor, as the delegate of the Bishop, has the authority and responsibility to make decisions regarding the running of the parish and the building up of the faith community. The laity, by virtue of their baptism, has the right and responsibility to participate in that decision-making process. Thus, the pastoral council is the structure provided by the Church which enables all to share the responsibility for making the parish alive in Christ.
This leads to the final aspect of council, namely, its internal relationships. The members relate to each other in one Gospel, one Spirit and one Bread. They love and serve one and the same Christ. So, in spite of differences of opinions, the councilors will remain in true communion. Many councils improve these internal relationships by educating themselves in leadership skills and group dynamics by attending special courses or formation programs. They are attentive to their own spiritual growth. Joined with their pastor and parish staff, they will become a strong spiritual force in the parish, enabling them to give Christian witness to one another and to the surrounding community, making credible the words of Jesus:
"By this love you have for one another,
Everyone will know that you are my disciples." (John 14:35)