WHY A PASTORAL COUNCIL?
Under the impetus of the Second Vatican Council's call to the People of God to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit and participate more fully in the life of the Church, "parish councils" mushroomed all over the world. This was especially true in the United States, where people were already used to some form of participation in government.
The bishops of the Second Vatican Council declared that pastors should promote the dignity and responsibility of the laity in the Church. They further advised that priests listen to the laity so that with them they would be able to read the signs of the times. What's more, they reminded the laity that they belong to the "priesthood of the faithful." By baptism and confirmation, the laity shares in the priestly mission of Christ and is to participate in the apostolate of the church, contributing even to its decision-making process.
Parish councils can act as the "wisdom community" of the parish where people learn to be stewards of the gifts of God and to listen to the needs of all. Through the process of consultation, the parish council contributes to the building up of the faith community and can be an adventure in shared responsibility, like the communities of the first Christians that took action as a body.
As much as the Second Vatican Council wished the laity to become more participatory in parish life, it did not mandate the establishment of parish councils, nor did it even offer guidelines for structuring them. The rapid growth of councils in the 1970s was more or less spontaneous. Although there were general patterns from diocese to diocese, no two councils were exactly alike in structure and function. Some councils were informal appointees of the pastor; some were formed through a tightly organized, and sometimes competitive, election process. Some councils were loosely organized, met infrequently or rubber-stamped decisions already made; others were highly organized, became legislative bodies, administrative bureaucracies or glorified grievance committees. The level of success of parish councils has run the gamut from wonderful to disastrous. Selection, structure, goals and personalities have all been factors.
In 1983, the new and revised Code of Canon Law was published. It went beyond Vatican II by mandating parish councils on the diocesan level and highly recommending them on the parish level. But the Code has given these councils a more specific purpose and direction. They are clearly pastoral in nature, and should be called such.
Historically, parish councils appear to be at a transitional stage. The former concept of council, based on a corporate board of management model, is evolving into a model: a pastoral council that focuses explicitly on the pastoral needs of the people.
In our next segment, we will examine the "What" and the "What Not" of parish pastoral councils.
*This section is based on material presented in workshops by Susan Stromatt, Diocese of Galveston/Houston, and revised by Reverend Gilbert Barth, TOR.