DPC LogoSmallWhere Faith Flourishes: The Pastoral Council’s Role in Parish Planning
Regional Workshop for Parish Pastoral Councils, Sponsored by the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, “Renewing Parishes: Becoming Places Where Faith Flourishes,” March 31, 2001, Archbishop Carroll High School, Radnor, Pennsylvania
By Mark F. Fischer, St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California


On November 19-20, 1983, parishioners at St. Joseph Church in Berkeley, California cast 441 ballots, and elected three new members to the parish council. I was one of the new members. A friend had nominated me. When I accepted nomination, he asked me to write a 100-word statement about myself, which was ultimately published in the parish bulletin. At each of the Masses on that weekend, parishioners were asked to vote. Council members collected and counted the ballots. On that basis, we new members were elected to a three-year term.

Knowledge about Councils
I knew almost nothing about parish pastoral councils. Although the revised Code of Canon Law was published in 1983, I did not own a copy of the new translation. I could not have told you what the job of pastoral councils entails or what the Code envisions for them. I do remember, however, that the official title of our local council chairwoman was “president” (even though canon law says that it is the pastor’s job to “preside”). I also remember that our agendas, distributed when we arrived at the meeting, were individually handwritten (because our “president” did not have convenient access to a photocopier). 1983 was a different age, and I was a complete newcomer.

So it is more than a little daunting to come to Philadelphia 17 years later, to this regional workshop for pastoral councils, into the company of my colleagues from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and from the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development, the CPPCD. They are real experts in the field of councils and Church consultation. Today you will be able to hear about pastoral planning from Rick Krivanka of Cleveland, the 1995 winner of the CPPCD’s Lumen Gentium award for excellence in consultation. Sister Kathleen Turley of Albany, the 1996-97 chairwoman of the CPPCD, will speak to you about the relationship between councillor spirituality and the practical work of the council. Eileen Tabert of Metuchen, the 1996 winner of the CPPCD’s Yves Congar award for planners and council advocates, will share her enthusiasm for parish volunteerism. These are my colleagues and friends, and I am honored to be with them and with you.

In my talk, however, I will not treat the specifics of pastoral planning, or spirituality, or reaching out. My topic is more general and theological. It follows the theme of today’s workshop. I want to speak about pastoral councils and planning as opportunities to renew parishes and make faith flourish. My thesis is that we renew our parishes when we exercise the role that the Church intends for us. So I will speak first about the meaning of the word “pastoral” in parish pastoral councils. My second theme is the relationship between us and our pastors. They are looking for a specific kind of help from us, and I’ll tell you about the pastor of my first council, Father Bill O’Donnell. Third, I will describe the kind of help that pastors seek. My word for it (and Aristotle’s word) is practical wisdom. And finally, I will address the connection between our faith and councils with a story about Vietnamese Martyrs Parish. So I thank you for this opportunity to speak with you on the topic, “Where Faith Flourishes: the Pastoral Council’s Role in Pastoral Planning.”

1. The Word “Pastoral” in Parish Pastoral Councils

All of us are or have been members of parish pastoral councils. What does the word “pastoral” mean? For some, the word “pastoral” refers to a style of council operation or to a particular subject matter. A pastoral style, we often say, means that we are collaborators, not adversaries. Or we say that pastoral refers to a particular scope of operations. Articulating the parish mission is the proper scope of the council, we say, and not coordinating ministries. These are popular meanings of the word pastoral. They are based on experience of the last thirty years. They have taught us that councils should build consensus and enhance the parish mission. When we say that pastoral refers to a style of council meeting or to a more modest scope, we are expressing a popular insight.

It is worth noting, however, that no Vatican documents use the word “pastoral” to describe a style of meeting or to limit the council’s scope to the mission statement. And it may be unwise to insist that councils always seek consensus or to exclude coordination from council operations, especially when there is no official warrant for this exclusion. We want to stand on firm ground. To discover the official meaning of the word “pastoral” in parish pastoral councils, we must go back to the Second Vatican Council. This gets us into a bit of a technical discussion, and I ask you to bear with me.

Pastoral Councils at Vatican II
In Vatican II’s Decree on Bishops, we have the first reference to “pastoral” councils. The Bishops’ Decree recommended diocesan pastoral councils “to investigate and consider matters relating to pastoral activity and to formulate practical conclusions concerning them” (no. 27). This threefold definition—investigate, consider, and conclude—is our Rosetta Stone. It unlocks the meaning of pastoral councils, parish pastoral councils included. Almost every Roman document uses this threefold description to describe pastoral councils.

But Vatican II never recommended “pastoral” councils at the parish level. This concept came into prominence only after the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The Code stated that bishops may mandate parish pastoral councils, just as Cardinal Bevilacqua has done. Through such councils (and I quote), “the Christian faithful along with those who share in the pastoral care of the parish in virtue of their office give their help in fostering pastoral activity” (ca. 536). “Fostering pastoral activity”—that is how canon law describes the parish council’s task. But it does not give us the clarity we want. Why not? Because every Christian is supposed to foster pastoral activity. What is unique to the parish council? What makes it different from any other parish group? The main work of the parish pastoral council, I answer, is the threefold task of pastoral councils in general. The parish council fosters pastoral activity by investigating and reflecting on pastoral matters, and drawing wise conclusions. In short, it does pastoral planning.

Council and Pastor
So what are “pastoral” matters? The best answer—that is, the answer most in accord with the Church’s official teaching—is that “pastoral” matters pertain to the work of the pastor. The scope of the pastor’s work is wide open. His job description includes teaching the Word of God, leading worship, building up the community, maintaining parish facilities, evangelizing, and promoting the common good of society. Pastoral matters, in short, include all things pertaining to the pastor. He is free to consult the council about any practical matter, the Vatican teaches, “other than faith, orthodoxy, moral principles or laws of the universal Church.”

We will discuss, in a few moments, whether it is correct to exclude matters of faith from the scope of the pastoral council. For now it is enough to conclude that the word “pastoral” refers to a kind of council and to the work of the pastor. Every pastoral council has the threefold task of investigating, reflecting, and drawing conclusions. Pastoral matters are the practical questions about which the pastor chooses to consult the council. And with that, I come to the end of my technical discussion of the official documents. Now that we are done with it, let us apply those documents by looking at the role of the pastor, the second part of our presentation.

2. The Role of the Pastor

Pastors who consult their councils have to make a choice. They may consult them about almost any practical matter. But a council that meets a couple of hours a month cannot discuss everything. How is it to choose what to discuss? How is it to narrow its focus? I believe it is better to treat an important thing in a thorough way, rather than to treat many things superficially. It takes time to investigate and ponder pastoral matters. Let me give you an example.

Father Bill O’Donnell
I said at the outset that in 1983, the members of St. Joseph the Worker Church elected me to the parish council. The pastor at that time was Father William J. O’Donnell. I had known him since I was 14, and he presided at my wedding. He was a hard-working, strongly committed priest, straight talking and known for his commitment to the poor.

Not long after I joined the council, Father O’Donnell invited us members to begin thinking of ways that the parish could promote lay leadership. Lay leadership had emerged as a goal at the 1985 convention of the Diocese of Oakland, a convention that resembled in some ways the synod that Cardinal Bevilacqua has planned for you. Father O’Donnell asked us councillors to come up with ways to support the parish’s lay leaders.

We took this seriously, and formed a lay leadership committee. Our first step was to create a list of every one of our parish organizations. This included the School Board, the Social Justice Committee, the Adult Choir, the Mission Society, the Korean Truth Society, the Legion of Mary, the Building and Grounds Committee, and so on. After we had listed the organizations, we identified their chairperson, president, or coordinator. This became our list of lay leaders.

What could St. Joseph Church do to support them? We felt that the organizations already were already doing a fine job with their ministries. The parochial school was successfully educating kids, the choir was singing well, and the Mission Society was earning money to support a parish in Chiapas. Ministerially speaking, our parish organizations were a success.
But something was lacking, we felt, in the organizations’ spiritual life.

The Prayer Workshop
This conviction developed in this way. Our Associate Pastor, Father Tom McMahon, had given us councillors a workshop on prayer. He had introduced us to the practice of faith sharing. He had shown us how we could begin our meetings, not with a hurried Our Father, but with a scripture reading. Then he had invited us to share with one another our reflections about what the reading meant. He taught us to apply the Scriptures to our own lives.

We benefited from his workshop. It had opened up to us a new dimension of prayer. We felt that the other lay leaders could benefit from it as well. Lay leadership in the Church, we wanted to say, is not just about getting a job done. It is about faith. It is about an ever-deeper participation in the mystery of God.

So our committee developed a proposal about supporting lay leaders in the parish by offering them a series of workshops about prayer. The workshops would show the various heads of ministries and organizations how they could become better prayer leaders. The aim was to teach them to deepen the spiritual lives of their members by leading them in prayer, the kind of faith-sharing prayer that Father McMahon had taught us. So our Lay Leadership Committee typed up a report (complete with a list of parish groups and lay leaders) along with the proposal for the prayer workshops, and submitted it to Father O’Donnell.

The Pastor’s Challenge
We had assumed that Father O’Donnell would simply accept the report and put it into action. But he surprised us. Instead of accepting the report, he posed a question. “Are you sure that the leaders want this kind of training?” he asked. “Do they agree that this will help them be better leaders?” The question brought us up short. We had simply assumed that the leaders would welcome the opportunity to lead their followers in faith-sharing prayer. Now this assumption was in doubt. Father O’Donnell was asking us to consider whether the leaders might instead see our proposal as a form of interference. We had thought we were coordinating. He implied we might be meddling.

In the weeks that followed, we contacted each and every one of the parish organization leaders. We had a chance to explain to them our original purpose (namely, promoting lay leadership) and our conclusion (that faith sharing would make them more effective leaders). One of my duties was to contact Agnes Yi, the president of the Korean Truth Society, a Catholic organization of Korean immigrants in the parish. Agnes was a chemist at a nearby factory and the mother of two grown sons. She and her husband had been parishioners for more than ten years. I visited them one evening at her house. They were very gracious, and listened calmly to the council proposal. Agnes asked whether the workshop would be in English, and it suddenly hit me that our English-speaking council was going to advise Korean-speaking Catholics how to pray. But what I remember most was her last comment. Thanking me, she said that my visit was the first time that any councillor had ever asked her about the Korean Truth Society.

Motivating the Council
The conclusion of this story is short and sweet. Father O’Donnell’s challenge, namely, that we inquire among the parish leaders, was an eye-opener. It taught us that, however well-intentioned our efforts to “coordinate” parish organizations, we would be meddling unless we put the needs of the organizations first. Incidentally, our parish priests did implement the prayer workshops. They invited the leaders to attend, but did not insist on their participation. It was my first experience of the concept of the parish as a community of communities. This is the concept endorsed by the Holy Father in Ecclesia in America as a means of renewing parish life. It recognizes that a parish is made up of many groups, each of which has its own life. The renewal of the parish depends on the renewal of the groups that constitute it.

My experience with Father O’Donnell also taught me about the proper role of the pastor in the pastoral council. The good pastor consults the council by posing a question and giving it a focus. For us, it was Father O’Donnell’s question about lay leadership. He wanted to know how the parish could promote and support it. We were happy with the ministry performed by lay groups in the parish. We saw, however, that they could be better leaders in general if they were better leaders of prayer. This first proposal did not satisfy Father O’Donnell. He challenged us to go deeper, inquiring with the lay leaders themselves. That was the breakthrough. Personal contact with lay leaders brought realism to our proposal. Father O’Donnell accepted and implemented the proposal because it was realistic. It was good advice.

Pastoral Is Not Clerical
Some might protest that the story of Father O’Donnell, indeed the entire Canon Law approach to councils, reinforce a kind of clericalism. They put the pastor in the driver’s seat. The pastor consults. The council is “consultative only.” Pastors are not obliged to take the council’s recommendations. Is this fair? Does it acknowledge the equality of the baptized?
I’d like answer in three ways. First, bishops make pastors responsible for parishes. Bishops believe that pastors can distinguish between good advice and bad. The Church teaches, and we would all agree, that pastors should not be obliged to take bad advice.

Second, the Church has given pastoral councils a threefold function. It is to investigate, ponder, and make recommendations about pastoral matters. Councillors have a right to do this job. If a pastor is not asking the pastoral council to exercise its proper function, then the situation is dysfunctional. Parishioners should seek to remedy it. If their efforts are unsuccessful, they are not without recourse. As Father Richard C. Cunningham has written, “Ultimately they still possess the power of numbers, of finances, of public opinion, of sensus fidelium, of conscience, and the radical power of shaking the dust from their feet as they exit.”

Finally, dysfunctional pastors are the exception. The Church envisions pastors who love their people and want to serve them. The good pastor consults his people because he knows that practical wisdom resides with them. What is this thing, practical wisdom? That brings us to the third part of our presentation.

3. Practical Wisdom

Pastoral councils investigate a given matter, ponder it, and reach a conclusion. We have already discussed what “investigation” means. Now I would like to focus on the word “ponder,” starting with a general observation from Aristotle. He distinguishes in the Nicomachean Ethics between two kinds of knowledge. One is the scientific knowledge of experts. The other is the prudent knowledge of the community. We councillors do not ponder or deliberate about matters that cannot be other than what they are. When we have a question about the building code, or employment law, or educational standards, we consult a builder, a lawyer, or an educator. They have expert opinion, and we defer to them in their area of expertise. But there is another realm of knowledge, says Aristotle, the realm of human affairs. Human affairs hinge upon particulars, that is, upon contingent matters. They are not always and everywhere true. Their truth depends on a changeable situation. These are the matters about which we deliberate and ponder.

Practical Wisdom and Expert Opinion
This distinction between practical wisdom and expert opinion is important to councils. It helps us understand, for example, the relationship between the pastoral councils and the finance council. The finance council is concerned about bookkeeping, budgeting, and financial reporting. In these matters we normally defer to accountants. The realm of the pastoral council is not fiscal science but action. We council members do not discuss how to track parish funds or report about them. Instead, we deliberate about what to do with them. We reflect on what the parish is to do, and whether it can afford to do it.

The difference between practical wisdom and expert opinion also helps us distinguish between the roles of the parish staff and the pastoral council. Pastors hire Business Managers, Directors of Religious Education, and Principals because of their expertise. We councillors generally respect their general knowledge of management, catechesis, or school leadership. But expert knowledge has its limits. There are matters about which the expert can suggest possibilities without knowing whether they are practical in our situation. Experts may not know how the community will receive their theoretical proposals. Practical wisdom is the art of reasoning about the highest good it is possible for us to attain. Some proposals, good in theory, are not wise in practice. Pastoral councils seek the wisdom that emerges from study, reflection, and the integration of a variety of opinions, all with a practical end.

Healing Racism
On January 6, 1998, Cardinal Bevilacqua published a 15-page pastoral letter entitled “Healing Racism through Faith and Truth.” A brief glance at the chapter headings and the footnotes, as well as the study guide that was published with it, indicates that this pastoral letter was written with the help of experts, experts on race, moral theology, and the Church. The letter focuses on racism in Philadelphia, but it enunciates universal Catholic principles. These principles are valid for every diocese in the United States.

The last two chapters of the pastoral letter are entitled “Faith Must Lead to Action” and “Love in Truth and Deed.” They pertain specifically to us councillors as people concerned about practical wisdom. The cardinal invites us to apply the general principles of the Church to the situation of the parish. Most of us are not experts in race or moral theology. But all of us know people in our own parishes who have been injured by racism. The cardinal’s request that we “find innovative and visible ways of insuring that African-Americans and people of all races are welcome” is a request for practical wisdom. No expert can tell our parishes what to do about racism. But we councillors can study and reflect on it, and make recommendations to the pastor worthy of our vocation in Jesus Christ.

Councillor Selection
If the threefold task of pastoral councils in general defines the task of “parish” pastoral councils in particular, then that should have consequences for the way we select councillors. Too often, we apply relatively superficial criteria to council member selection. We say that we are looking for councillors who are baptized and confirmed, as if the reception of sacraments automatically makes someone a good council member. We say that a council member must belong to this ministry or that, as if mere membership gives one the ability to deliberate well. We say that we are looking for representative councillors, as if a council roster that mirrors the parish demographic profile automatically ensures practical wisdom.

This is where the official description of pastoral councils clarifies our thinking. For if the hallmark of the pastoral council is its ability to investigate, ponder, and reach sound conclusions, then that tells us what to look for in the individual councillor. We want a person with practical wisdom, a person with experience, a person who can deliberate well. Pastors attract such people when they invite councils to focus on topics of importance. Parishioners can help discern who has these gifts. Parish assemblies give us an opportunity to learn about consultation and the parish’s needs. It was Benedictine Sister Mary Benet McKinney whose 1987 book Sharing Wisdom taught us to see this fundamental role of the pastoral council. Our business is the search for wisdom. We are representatives in that we make practical wisdom truly present.

4. Flourishing Faith

Let’s summarize what we have said so far. My first point was about the nature of the pastoral council. I said that the main thing about a pastoral council is not that it has a “pastoral” style or a “pastoral” subject matter. No, the main thing about a pastoral council, I said, is that it pertains to the pastor. The pastoral council helps him primarily by investigating and reflecting on practical matters of importance to him and the parish and recommending wise conclusions.

My second point was that, when the Church speaks of “pastoral” matters as pertaining to the pastor, it presupposes something. It presupposes that matters of importance to the pastor are of importance to the entire parish. Pastors consult councils because they desire the wisdom and common sense of parishioners.

Third, I said what this practical wisdom is. It is knowledge that aims at determining the best our parishes can do. This is not a question of theology, doctrine, morality, or canon law. It is about what is wise, prudent, and Christlike, here and now, in our own parish community.

The Question of Faith
When the Church teaches that pastors do not consult their people about faith, it can only mean one thing. Pastors do not ask councils to re-write the catechism. Pastoral councils do not deliberate Church doctrine. No council can change what the Church believes and professes. In that sense only, councils have nothing to do with faith. They have nothing to do with defining the propositions of faith.

Faith, however, is at the very foundation of parish pastoral councils. I am not speaking of propositional faith. I am speaking of faith in the good things that God has done, faith in the words and works of God. Councils seek practical wisdom because wisdom is linked to faith. We have faith that wisdom exists, that it comes from God, and that it is present in the community. Councils stand or fall on whether they can discern this wisdom and express it. Our faith is that God shares the divine life with us, including the divine wisdom incarnate in Jesus. That wisdom lives in our Church, in the resurrected body of Christ. “If Christ has not been raised,” says St. Paul, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). If councils cannot discern wisdom, there is no reason for pastors to consult them. We should throw in the towel. But if councils are able to discern wisdom, as our faith teaches, then failing to consult them is foolhardy. Let me give an example.

Father Bui Nguyen
Father Bui Nguyen is a friend of mine, a Vietnamese-born priest in Southern California, and one of the cleverest graduates of St. John’s Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Vietnamese Martyrs Parish (I have changed the names in this story). Father Bui worked with his council for several years before he saw the need to shake things up. The old council comprised the pillars of the parish. They happily spent their time renting the parish hall, preparing the annual festival, and scheduling devotions. But Father Bui saw a more profound problem: the problem of youth gangs in parish neighborhoods. He asked the pastoral council to help the parish understand these gangs and respond to them.

When Father Bui first raised the issue of Asian gangs with his seven-member council, the councillors were indeed concerned. They deplored gangs, expressed sympathy for the victims, and worried about the effect of gangs on neighborhood safety and property values. Two of the council members were especially sympathetic. One was Mr. Lee. He was the head of the high school counseling department and understood the problem of gangs first hand. Another council member, Mr. Tran, was also sympathetic. He had a teenage daughter. Mr. Tran feared that the daughter’s boyfriend was a gang member. Mr. Lee and Mr. Tran supported Father Bui. Whatever the parish can do to solve the gang problem, they said, they would support it.

Apart from these two men, however, Father Bui’s council was not enthusiastic about any project related to gangs. Some councillors were frightened. Some were apathetic. They felt there was nothing they could do about the gangs. So they tried to steer Father Bui back to the meeting’s main agenda item. It was listed under the heading of “Old Business.” The main item was the Tet, the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year, the Year of the Monkey, 1992. The councillors were excellent organizers. They knew a lot about hospitality, especially Mrs. Mai, head of the hospitality committee. The Tet celebration was their bread and butter. Or better, their rice and egg rolls.

Father Bui was unhappy about the council’s reluctance to deal with gangs. “My council is supposed to advise me, but I don’t need advice about the Tet,” he complained. “If I needed egg rolls, I would call Mrs. Mai.” Father Bui was not opposed to the festival, but the topic of gangs was more important.

Parish Meetings
So he told the council that he wanted to educate parishioners about gangs. He asked the council’s help in holding a series of three parish meetings. They would take place after the celebration of the Year of the Monkey. The purpose of the meetings was to raise awareness of the gang problem and to brainstorm solutions to it. Father Bui announced the meetings at the Tet celebration. He even advertized them with the slogan, “Let’s Not Monkey Around with Gangs.” He cleverly asked his allies, Mr. Lee and Mr. Tran, to chair the organizing committee.

The meetings were a success. More than 200 parishioners attended on each of the three nights. In addition to the regular coffee and cookies, the hospitality committee made sure that attendees enjoyed Mrs. Mai’s egg rolls. The high school district superintendent gave at talk at Mr. Lee’s invitation—a move that he hoped might translate into a budget increase for his counseling department. Mr. Tran successfully invited the police chief to give a presentation (and he made sure that it was on a night his teenage daughter could attend). Parishioners learned about community-based policing and the high school’s program for “at-risk” students. They developed plans for increasing the security of the parish parking lot during evening meetings.

To Father Bui, the meetings were a success because they enabled the council to achieve its primary purpose. That purpose was not to carry out a parish festival. It was to help him study a matter, think it through, and draw wise conclusions. The parish meetings helped him do precisely that. The majority of the council members did not feel confident about being pastoral planners. But Father Bui, who capitalized on their organizational abilities, helped them be what councils are meant to be.

5. Conclusion

We pastoral council members help renew our parishes when we do what the Church intends for us to do. Examining pastoral matters, understanding them, and recommending how the parish can improve them—we call this pastoral planning. It can renew our parishes. It can renew them because pastoral planning is the invitation to see with Christian eyes the reality of the parish. I say “with Christian eyes” because the work of the pastoral councillor is the work of faith. Our participation in councils builds upon faith and expresses it.

When I speak of faith, I mean (first of all) the intuition that God is inviting us to respond to the Word incarnate. This was the intuition that prompted Father Bill O’Donnell, the pastor of St. Joseph Church, to give us council members a specific task. When he invited us to plan how the Church could promote lay leadership, we responded with our own insight. It was the insight that leadership is more than getting a job done. It is helping our fellow parishioners to articulate their rootedness in Christ.

When I speak of faith, I also mean the conviction that we meet God in our parishes. Cardinal Bevilacqua and his expert advisors have spoken the universal truths of the Church, such as its abhorrence of racism. It is up to us councillors, the people of practical wisdom, to reflect on how to apply these truths. We must recommend how to put them into action in our parishes.

And when I speak of faith, I mean (third of all) the motive for our commitment to councils. Faith is the impetus to persevere in the demanding, patient, intellectual work of pastoral planning and dialogue. It is the motive that prompted Father Bui Nguyen’s council to hold parish meetings about gang activity. Such faith in the God who calls us is a powerful motive. And God calls to all of us, including high school counselors, the makers of egg rolls, and the parents of teenage daughters.

“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” If Christ has not been raised—if the death of Jesus of Nazareth was not lifted up by God who validates each one of our acts of self-sacrificing love—then our preaching is in vain. If Christ has not been raised—if God’s Word is not spoken, the word of truth, of community, and of justice, the word about ourselves and our parishes—then our faith is in vain. But I believe our faith is not in vain.