DPC LogoSmallThe Vocation of the Pastoral Planner and Council Developer

By Mark F. Fischer
Acceptance Speech on the Occasion of the Lumen Gentium Award at the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development’s
32nd Annual Convention, Wyndham City Center Hotel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 12, 2005


The Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development honors Mark Fischer as the 2005 recipient of the Lumen Gentium Award in recognition of distinguished pastoral leadership in the utilization of planning and broad consultation processes, influencing a significant number of people, structures and programs and showing initiative and creativity while raising awareness of the principles of the document Lumen Gentium.


Thank you for this high honor. I am grateful for your support, the support of colleagues and friends. The CPPCD and its two predecessor organizations – what I like to call our ancestors in the faith – pointed me in the direction of planning and council, enabled me to make a contribution to the Church, and in that way steered the course of my life. It gives me joy to stand before you this evening.

I started my professional career working with councils in the Diocese of Oakland. Jesuit Father Joe Carroll took me to Baltimore in 1985 for what (I did not realize until much later) was a momentous event. It was the first joint convention of PADICON (the Parish and Diocesan Council Network) and the NPPC (the National Pastoral Planning Conference). These two organizations, which later became CPPCD, brought together hard-headed planners and community-building council facilitators. They helped me to see that I might have a lifelong vocation to this work.

At that time, not only was I unclear about my vocation, but the vocation of planning and councils itself was unclear. Father Bill Harms, one of the leaders of the NPPC, wrote a book in 1981 that clearly proposed a comprehensive planning role for councils. Bill was farseeing. But when I became a part of the movement in 1985, Bill’s view – namely, that planning is the main work of councils – had not yet won the day. There was a tension between the planners, who were the intellectual wing of our party, and council proponents, whose forte was dialogue and community building. So my own vocation, namely, to write about the work of councils, developed as our organization developed. The union of NPPC and PADICON, accomplished under Art Deegan’s steady hand, clarified my thinking. I resolved to try to find words to describe ecclesial consultation. In my own life, you could say, I rode the CPPCD’s coattails.

Allow me to take this opportunity – while we share this delicious dinner, among friends and colleagues, in a setting that Maria Rogers O’Rourke, Noreen Welte and the hotel staff have so beautifully provided – to reflect for a few moments about our common vocation, that of serving councils and planning in the Church.

What complicates our vocation is that most of us are not pastors. Not unless we are a Bishop Howard Hubbard, or aJoseph Bernardin, or a Kenneth Untener, or a William Borders (just to name a few of the exemplary pastors connected with our organization), we are not the primary decision-makers. Rather, we serve those decision-makers by helping them make wise decisions. And it is very, very gratifying when they take our advice.
But they don’t always. And when they don’t, ours can be a frustrating, even a maddening task. There has to be a heavy dose of asceticism in pastoral planning and council development. When a bishop closes a planning office, the unlucky planners feel like unwilling martyrs.

Yet even when pastors do not take our advice, there is still satisfaction in our work. That is because our work is to tell the truth. It is to create opportunities for truth-telling. It is to allow the Spirit of truth to emerge in conversation, conversation based on a genuine encounter with the pastoral reality. CPPCD has some great truth-tellers in its ranks. I think especially of Dominican Sister Mary Kay Bailey, who led both PADICON and CPPCD. Even though Mary Kay speaks in that West Pecos drawl, and sound less like a Dominican nun than a cowboy poet, she was and continues to be a truth-teller and a prophet.

The connection between dialogue and truth is as old as Greek philosophy. Like Socrates, we believe that the truth emerges in dialogue. But unlike Socrates, most of us do not view ourselves as gadflies, stinging the slumbering Church into wakefulness. I make an exception for the late Father Robert Howes, who did view himself that way. A gadfly in unpopular but serves the truth. Apart from the honors this organization bestowed on Bob Howes, we had to swat him a few times.

The truth we tell is not a theoretical truth that you can read in a textbook. It is a practical truth. It aims at action, action for a particular community. The word for the kind of knowledge that ought to guide action is prudence. Of the many things we possibly could do, prudence tells us what we should do. My fellow awardee, Dominican Sister Mary Montgomery, along with Bob Burke and Mercy Sister Kathleen Turley, all have prudence. So did Father Phil Murnion. These prudent people know the official Church better than most of us. They helped our organization choose wise initiatives that would be persuasive to the U.S. bishops. And the bishops are not an easy group to persuade.

CPPCD has given more thought than any other organization I know to the question of how to create the conditions for dialogue. When I began in 1985, I did not appreciate as I do now the delicacy of crafting a group process. I did not understand that a worthy question needs to be properly posed. Among us are scholar-researchers – Mike Cieslak, Dave DeLambo, John Flaherty, Jeff Rexhausen, and Siobhan Verbeek come to mind – who have helped us frame our questions. They know that real dialogue is different from casual conversation. They have helped us achieve the kind of dialogue that emerges from the reflection of informed people. Without them, we could never be persuasive advisors.

Another way to think about dialogue is to say that it attempts to capture, in finite and concrete language, the limitless fluidity of thought. Dialogue can give words to the Spirit of God, blowing in perfect freedom. Our organization is dedicated to the proposition that our Church can foster, inform, speed, refine, and nurture such a Spirit-laden dialogue.

We are (in a way that only someone from the land of Hollywood can say), like dialogue coaches. Coaching a dialogue was the gift of the irrepressible Eileen Tabert. It is also the gift that Rick Krivanka – the original appreciative inquirer – brings with his enthusiasm and energy. These colleagues serve the truth by grasping its spirit. They see it as a manifestation of Holy Spirit, the Spirit that leads us to the truth, the truth that promises to set us free.

So let me conclude with profound thanks to CPPCD, a union of intellectual planners and community-oriented dialogue coaches, who helped define the shape of my life. I am grateful for the honor you have bestowed on me. To be sure, I occasionally get discouraged. We all do when those we aim to advise do not make use of our gifts as we hoped they would – when they regard our efforts as merely consultative, not truly consultative.

But when I get discouraged, I like to recall the words of Notre Dame sister Rosalie Murphy, one of our veteran members. Speaking about the discouragement we occasionally feel, Rosalie once said, “You can’t turn back the clock.” She meant that, once Catholics have experienced what it means to be consulted seriously, they will never be satisfied with anything less than a serious consultation. Members of our organization have helped hundreds of thousands of U.S. Catholics to experience authentic consultation. We have committed our best efforts to helping one another to speak the truth.

Speaking the truth makes Christ-the-truth present. In our words, the Word Incarnate shines forth. Supporting that is our vocation, and I thank God that we persevere in it.