Q1. Does the descriptive name “Pastoral” alongside “Parish Council” actually specify something about the role of such a Council?
A. The term ‘pastoral’ is an important one, because the Parish Council that it describes is called to leadership specifically to foster pastoral action – action that is inspired by the Gospel as well as being centred on its proclamation; action that is intended to build warm human community in which members’ faith is nourished and they are enabled to celebrate their lives in liturgical worship as well as witnessing to their faith in daily life. To fulfil this role, which is a sharing in the role proper to the Pastor, the Council will listen to, and explore the hopes, needs and gifts of the community, reflect on them in the light of the Gospel, and come to appropriate pastoral action.
Q2. What about stewardship of Parish finances and other resources. Do Parish Pastoral Councils have responsibility for them?
A. Parish Pastoral Councils, as noted above, have overview of the pastoral activities of the Parish. Part of this overview is ensuring the appropriate use of physical and spiritual resources in the service of the pastoral mission. Spiritual resources such as discerning the gifts of the Spirit available in the Parish are the direct responsibility of the Parish Pastoral Council. Direct responsibility for physical resources through Finance and Administration belongs to the Parish Priest and the Canonically-required Finance Committee of the Parish. The overview responsibility of the Pastoral Council means that it must interface very closely with the Finance Committee to ensure that these resources are available to implement the pastoral decisions it makes on behalf of the community.
Q3. Do the members of Parish Pastoral Councils really participate in decision-making, or are they just “window-dressing” to give the impression of participation, while the real decisions continue to be made unilaterally by the Pastor?
A. This has been a ‘burning’ question ever since Parish Councils began to be established after Vatican II. It is true that from time to time Pastoral Councils have been demeaned in this way by being used simply as “rubber stamps”, but it is far from their true purpose, and far from the intent of the magisterial documents in which they are mentioned expressly or by implication. Several realities need to be kept in balance here.
- Canon 536, section 2 states that the Pastoral Council is a “Consultative” not a “Deliberative” body. In the spirit of the Code of Canon Law this simply means that the Council, without the Pastor who in integral to it, does not make decisions in its own right. However, with the Pastor’s concurrence and collaboration in Pastoral Council processes towards consensus, real decisions are actually made and implemented by the Council. The Pastor in Canon Law is responsible to the Bishop for all decisions made, but he is not required to make them on his own, and indeed is encouraged to take counsel from his people.
- Theologically, Parish Pastoral Council members exercise the gift of “Kingship” given with Baptism in sharing in the community leadership that is proper to their Pastor’s commission from the Bishop. This needs to be taken seriously.
- Many of God’s faithful people are not only gifted by the Spirit with the charism of leadership at Baptism, but through life experience, reflection and prayer have developed this gift to a very refined point, and many different expressions. The term “Consultative” in Canon Law is much stronger than many people suggest, i.e. simply giving advice which nobody has to follow. There is a real sense in Canon Law’s use of the term that supports the full participation of people in the decisions that affect them (an underlying principle in Canon Law since the Middle Ages) as well as supporting the understanding that ignoring the consultation of people with refined skills in various fields is foolish in the extreme, and indeed quite perilous to the wellbeing of the community.
- What must be avoided at all costs is any sense of ‘power’ attached to the decision-making in which Parish Pastoral Councils engage. This is not about power in the sense of “control over”, but about people bringing their diverse gifts to bear collaboratively on the pastoral needs of the Parish.
A. There are as the question implies, many ways of assembling a Parish Pastoral Council. Whichever method is used, there are several principles to be kept in mind.
- The call to share in Parish Leadership in a Pastoral Council is a call to share those gifts of the Spirit that are discerned as most appropriate for leadership of this community at this time and in these particular circumstances. While the people called to work in the various Parish Groups are usually very gifted, their gifts may or may not be those required for the Pastoral Council at this time. Simply to induct representatives from the Parish Groups in the Pastoral Council may result in a mismatch between the needs of the community and the gifts assembled, and reduce the effectiveness of the Parish Groups themselves by diverting some of their most gifted people’s time and energy into the Pastoral Council.
- Elsewhere on this website the Pastoral Council has been described as “a representative group, not a group of representatives”. To gather such a representative group is most often not as simple as gathering representatives from the Parish Groups and Services, nor as simple as holding a ‘democratic’ voting process following nominations. Neither of these methods of gathering representatives may finish up with a truly “Representative Group”. Each of those assembled may indeed represent their own group or interest, but not necessarily the hopes, dreams, needs and interests of the Parish Community as a whole at this particular time.
Processes may vary between communities, but those that combine broad consultation with the community about its situation and the gifts most appropriate to it, with discernment processes that are prayerful and reflective, open and transparent, to match the best people to the current situation of the community, are to be preferred. They often take more time and effort, but they are worth it.
Q5. Our Parish Council, when setting up its structures, decided that the Chair should rotate regularly among all the members. Is this a good idea?
A. Sometimes where multi-skilled people gather in council, rotating the Chair can be an excellent practical and developmental practice. However, the crucial gift of chairing meetings is not distributed evenly. It can be developed over time, but not all of us are gifted with it. Where it is absent it has the potential to render meetings long, boring and ineffective. It has even been known to cause frustration among members to the point where they resign. So mostly it is better to have a single regular chair, with at least one vice-chair to cover inevitable absence of one or the other from time to time.
By the same token, chairing is a natural, as well as a developed and developing skill, and it’s important to provide courses and experiences to grow the skills of the Chair and the Vice-Chairs, as well as to develop a succession plan for future Chairs.
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