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DPC LogoSmallThe Spirituality of Goal-Setting

Parish Pastoral Council Workshop, Archdiocese of San Francisco, at Mary, Star of the Sea Church, San Francisco, April 26, 2003, and at St. Mark Church, Belmont, April 27, 2003, by Mark F. Fischer, St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo

Today’s theme is about the Church “filling lives with hope.” In particular, it is about the parish pastoral council as a source of hope. But I bet that many in this room would not call their parish council a source of hope. Don’t be ashamed to admit it. At times, even the best parish councils fall flat. In a minute I will tell you a story about a council that fell flat over a question that never should have been on the council’s agenda. The councillors wasted an entire evening on it. As they went home afterwards, they were not exactly full of hope. They probably needed a stiff drink.

But councils that fall flat are the exception. Even the one that I am about to describe picked itself up and accomplished something important. Parish pastoral councils are one of the great success stories of Vatican II. Prior to Vatican II, no one ever heard of a pastoral council. But with the 1965 publication of the Decree on the Ministry of Bishops, the entire Catholic world was told that pastoral councils are “highly desirable.” Not “mandated,” but at least “highly desirable.” And now, almost forty years after Vatican II, they exist in the vast majority of parishes in the U.S. Year 2000 statistics from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate show that 82 percent of 19,181 parishes have parish pastoral councils. That means that councils exist in more than 15,000 U.S. parishes. As I said, the Vatican never mandated councils. It did allow bishops, however, to mandate them. And the fact that most U.S. bishops have mandated councils, and that so many councils exist, suggests that there must be something good about them. That is why I say that they are a sign of hope.

It is true that no one every heard of a pastoral council before 1965. But the idea behind such councils is ancient. It is as old as the search for wisdom. “Whoever walks with the wise,” we read in the Book of Proverbs (13:20), “becomes wise.” From ancient times, good leaders have consulted their wise people. In fact, we would not consider a leader good if he or she did not listen to us. The idea behind the parish council – the idea of a pastor who consults us because he wants to know his people and serve them better – goes back to Biblical times and even earlier.

But the rise of the parish pastoral council in the Catholic Church is fairly recent. And sometimes we are not very good at it. There are lots of reasons to explain this. But instead of explaining, let me tell you a story. I call it “The First Communion Fiasco.” It is a story about a pastoral council that wasted an entire evening on a question that never should have been on its agenda. After I tell you the story, I will ask you to name some topics that your council should never have addressed.

The First Communion Fiasco

First Communion apparel, in my view, should not be a topic of pastoral council deliberations. The question of whether seven-year-olds ought to wear all-white clothing for their First Communion is not high on my list of pastoral problems. But it utterly dominated a council meeting I attended two years ago at St. Louis Bertrand Church, where Father Tom McCarthy is pastor. The names in this story, let me assure you, have been changed.

The problem arose because the parents of First Communicants at St. Louis Bertrand could not agree on what their children should wear. One group of parents, in the name of tradition and good liturgy, advocated all-white apparel. They wanted the boys to wear white suits, white shirts, and white ties. They wanted the girls to wear white dresses, shoes, and stockings. White, they said, is a liturgical color. It should remind Christians of their Baptism.

Another group of parents, in the name of simplicity and economy, did not want to go that far. They said that white blouses and shirts were sufficient. The boys and girls could wear skirts and pants of any suitable dark color. These parents felt that families should not be obliged to purchase wholly new outfits for First Communion. The two sets of parents were at odds. They wanted the parish pastoral council to settle their dispute.

The Complication of Culture
Culture was a further complication, and it made strange allies. Marisa Rodríguez, whose daughter, Laura, was in the First Communion class, wanted her child in an all-white dress. That was what Marisa remembered from her girlhood in Guadalajara. Nothing less than a beautiful white dress and mantilla would do for Laura. Marisa joined forces with Jim Edwards, the council member who is also on the Liturgy Committee. Jim loves the liturgy. He wanted the children to wear white albs. He said it would be a sign of their Baptism. Jim was willing, however, to settle for all-white outfits, even if they weren’t albs. With this concession he supported Marisa.

Arrayed against Marisa and Jim was the husband and wife team of Marius and Betty Scatena. Betty is on the council. She and her husband are members of the Social Justice Committee. Although their children are grown, the Scatenas were appalled at the expense of new First Communion outfits. Marius even made an unfortunate comparison between the expense of new outfits and the expense of Quinceañeras, the coming of age celebrations for Mexican-American girls common at St. Louis Bertrand. The purchase of special garments for both First Communicants and for Quinceañeras, said Marius, was an extravagance. His opinion did not endear Marius to Marisa Rodriguez.

It also indicated an underlying tension at St. Louis Bertrand. It was a tension between Mexican-American and U.S.-born parishioners. On the surface, it looked as if the two cultures got along well. Marisa Rodriguez, Jim Edwards, and Marius and Betty Scatena were all on the same First Communion planning team. St. Louis Bertrand appeared to be a well-integrated parish. But even the best parish has unresolved problems.

At the meeting where the First Communion garments were discussed, I watched Father Tom McCarthy listen to the arguments. He was clearly uncomfortable. Going into the pastoral council meeting, he had not anticipated an argument about clothing. He expected little more than a report from the First Communion team. The agenda item was simply called “First Communion Plans.” Father Tom had foreseen no problems. But as the temperature rose, he squirmed in his seat. Marisa and Jim felt obligated to remind the council that First Communion is not just a social event, but a sacrament of initiation, and white is the appropriate liturgical color. Marius and Betty countered that this was the United States, where the extravagant and even wasteful customs of Guadalajara do not apply. Finally, Father Tom intervened. He asked the planning team to poll the parents of the First Communicants and report back to him. After that, the meeting—painful and unproductive—limped to a conclusion.

Extraneous Items on the Council Agenda
What went wrong with this meeting? The first and most obvious problem is that the pastoral council allowed itself to be “used” by the First Communion team. That team should have resolved the First Communion apparel problem by itself. But because Marisa Rodriguez and Jim Edwards (the Guadalajara mother and the liturgist) could not see eye to eye with Marius and Betty Scatena (the social justice couple), they asked the pastoral council to mediate. And mediation is not the purpose of the pastoral council.

Pastoral councils were not recommended by the Church to be mediation boards. The threefold purpose of the pastoral council was clearly stated in the 1965 Decree on the Office of Bishops and in later Vatican documents. When the pastor consults the council, he asks it to investigate pastoral matters, to reflect on them, and to recommend its conclusions. Father Tom McCarthy had not asked the pastoral council to solve the problem about First Communion clothing. When the planning team gave its report, it was the first he had ever heard of the issue. The pastoral council was not prepared to solve it. And the problem dominated the rest of the meeting.

A few moments ago, I asked you to think about an issue that has come before your pastoral council that should never have been on the agenda. Have you ever faced an issue that did not fall within the council’s threefold purpose of investigating pastoral matters, reflecting on them, and recommending conclusions to the pastor? Have you ever faced an issue that certain members of the council were passionate about, but that the pastor had not asked you to consider, and that your council was unprepared to address?

These kinds of problems prevent our pastoral councils from being sources of hope. They prevent the council from doing what it is meant to do. We cannot accomplish the threefold task of the council – the task of studying pastoral problems, considering them fully, and reaching sound conclusions – without forethought. That means a well-defined issue, an issue about which the pastor wants advice. It means thorough preparation, so that members come to the meeting with the information they need. It means a well-prepared agenda. Councils that approach their work with forethought give the members hope. The experience of surprise, poor preparation, and a muddled agenda can be altogether hopeless.

Debriefing the Meeting
How can we prevent these kinds of problems? In order to answer this question, let me continue my story about St. Louis Bertrand. After the meeting I met with Father Tom McCarthy and with the pastoral council chairperson, Maria Elena Ugalde. Maria Elena is the president of a company that sells promotional items. Her parents were born in Mexico. Now she lives in one of the parish’s nicest neighborhoods. Father Tom and Maria Elena felt embarrassed that I had witnessed so much discord at the meeting. Fortunately, we were able to trust each other. We could say some things in private that we might not have said in front of the entire council.

They complained that the council often has no real focus. The agenda is usually determined the week before the meeting. Whatever immediate issue faces the parish becomes the council’s agenda. Sometimes it is a parish committee that wants to make a report, like the First Communion planning team. Sometimes Father Tom or Maria Elena put items on the agenda. In any case, there is not a great deal of preparation for the meeting. Issues come up and decisions are made. Normally, council members or parish committees implement the decisions.

This is common, but problematic. The Church teaches that councils are consultative, not deliberative. In other words, pastors consult councils because they want wise recommendations. They want councillors to research a matter thoroughly and reflect on it deeply. A good pastor does not turn to his council because he wants the members to legislate or make decisions for him.
Strictly speaking, the council’s job comes to an end after its recommendations are accepted. That is what it means to be a consultative body. Pastors consult and councils recommend. To be sure, council members themselves often implement what they propose. They advise something, and then carry out what they have advised. But when they do so, they go beyond their consultative role. They are then working as volunteers under the pastor’s direction. They are no longer acting in their consultative role as members of the pastoral council, but serving as unofficial parish staff members.

After I had discussed this with Father Tom and Maria Elena, I raised a question. “What is the most important issue that St. Louis Bertrand faces?” In a few moments, I want to ask you the same question. But first let me tell you what they said to me. Both agreed that their most important issue was not what color clothing First Communicants ought to wear. Neither of them was sure how to solve that mess, but they both felt it was relatively minor. The clothing controversy was a symptom of something deeper, namely, the integration of U.S.-born and Mexican-born parishioners in a single parish family.

Giving the Council a Yearlong Focus

Then we brainstormed about what a pastoral council could do to foster real parish integration. Father Tom said he would like to know in greater detail how the two cultures work together. He knew that his staff was having trouble recruiting Spanish-speaking catechists. Could the pastoral council determine, he asked, whether Mexican-born parishioners are integrated into St. Louis Bertrand? Maria Elena focused on the issue of volunteerism. She felt that Mexican-Americans do not participate at St. Louis Bertrand to the same extent as U.S.-born parishioners. Even though she is busy with her business, she said, she volunteers many hours at the parish. The pastoral council, she said, could study volunteerism and recommend ways to strengthen it.

After listening to them, I made a suggestion. The integration of the two cultures is the most important issue at St. Louis Bertrand, I said. So why not give it the attention it deserves? Why not make it the main council focus for the next year? The goal would be for the council to study how parishioners of the two cultures are already integrated at St. Louis Bertrand and to recommend ways to promote a deeper unity. Father Tom and Maria Elena liked the idea. She even came up with a slogan for the year. It was “The Parish Family – La Familia Parroquial.” We agreed to think about this yearlong focus and discuss it later. Maria Elena was already anticipating how her business might be able to supply the parish with pens, notepads, and posters, all imprinted with the new slogan.

When we met the next time, Father Tom and Maria Elena were still enthusiastic about the yearlong focus, but they had some questions. They wanted to know whether the council could still deal with issues that might arise unexpectedly, issues that might not fit within the yearlong goal. Did a yearlong focus prevent the pastoral council from addressing issues apart from its main agenda?

I replied that a pastor can consult the council about virtually any practical issue. The only limits to its scope are what the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy (in the one Vatican document devoted entirely to pastoral councils) called “general questions bearing on faith, orthodoxy, moral principles or laws of the universal Church.” These alone are off-limits. A yearlong focus, I said, does not tie the council down. Pastors and councillors, in my experience, will never ignore pressing parish business. But a yearlong focus does give the council a goal. And it offers a criterion by which the pastor and the chairwoman can judge whether to put something on the agenda – for example, a question about what color clothing First Communicants should wear – or whether to leave it off.

That is how the slogan “The Parish Family – La Familia Parroquial” became the year’s focus of the pastoral council agenda at St. Louis Bertrand. To tell the truth, I had no doubt that Maria Elena would support it, since she had come up with the slogan. But I could tell that Father Tom still had doubts about how the pastoral council and staff would accept the idea. But before we get to those doubts, let me ask you the question that I posed earlier to my friends at St. Louis Bertrand. What are some of the important issues that your parishes confront? Is your pastoral council dealing with them? What fundamental issues, issues with practical consequences that require study and consideration, do you face?

Pastors ought to invite their councils to address important issues. Such an invitation expresses the spirituality of the good pastor. He recognizes that he cannot serve his parishioners well unless he really knows them and sympathizes with them. That is fundamental to priestly spirituality. Parish priests want to know their people in the same way as Christ the High Priest, who “in every respect has been tempted as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). We share with our priests a common humanity. We face common problems. And if a pastor refuses to consult, or consults in bad faith, councillors are not without recourse. In 1992, Father Richard Cunningham, a Boston canon lawyer, expressed the moral power of the laity in this way: “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.” A pastor who refuses to consult his council is not honoring the Church’s intentions. The good pastor, by contrast, turns to his council when he faces important problems. He knows they are insoluble without the people’s wisdom.

How did Father Tom McCarthy consult his council in the aftermath of the First Communion fiasco? He was committed, I said, to “The Parish Family – La Familia Parroquial.” But he still had doubts about how the parish staff and the pastoral council would accept the idea. Let me tell you how he won them over.

Wooing the Pastoral Staff
To do that, I need to introduce you to Sister Maripaz Lopez. She is a key person on Father Tom’s pastoral staff. A native Spanish speaker and a veteran catechist, Sister Maripaz has been Director of Religious Education for eleven years. When she began at St. Louis Bertrand, there were so few Spanish-speaking children that she did all the Spanish-language catechesis herself. But as the immigrant population swelled, Sister Maripaz found that she had to recruit Spanish speakers as well as English-speaking catechists. This proved difficult. Immigrants typically have less free time than more established parishioners. Long-time parishioners volunteer when they have leisure. Immigrants with less free time find that volunteering is a sacrifice.

Before this time, Sister Maripaz had had little contact with the pastoral council. She was aware that it held monthly meetings, and she knew Maria Elena Ugalde, the chairwoman. But most of the time she had nothing to do with the council. My hunch is that most parish staff members prefer it that way. They do not relish the prospect of lay council members advising the pastor and potentially interfering with their jobs. Sister Maripaz had not been involved with the council, and the council had not been involved with her. And that suited her just fine. But it is something that council members need to think about.

Staff members constitute an important part of most parishes. In recent years lay pastoral staffs have grown at a rapid pace. Between 1992 and 1999, the number of laypersons (including vowed religious) working full- or part-time in formal pastoral roles rose 35 percent. These 29,000 lay ministers now outnumber the 27,000 religious and diocesan priests who are active in U.S. parishes. Relations between the pastoral staff and the pastoral council can be easily misunderstood. It is easy for the two groups to distrust one another. Many pastoral council members see themselves as representatives of the parish. They believe that the staff exists to serve them, the parishioners. Staff members, for their part, regard themselves as professionals. They are more knowledgeable than the typical lay council member. Some pastors even wonder why they need a pastoral council if they employ a professional staff.

The best answer to this question has to do with the type of knowledge that the lay staff and the pastoral council provide. Staff members are usually experts. They have training in such fields as religious education, liturgy, or accounting. These are technical fields, and pastors pay them for their expertise. But technical expertise is not the only kind of knowledge. It needs to be augmented by practical wisdom or prudence. This is the kind of knowledge that comes from living in a community and knowing its character. You cannot learn it from a book. Practical wisdom or prudence emerges in dialogue among those who know the parish community. They can help pastors apply to the parish the recommendations of experts.

Sister Maripaz, as I said, did not have many dealings with the pastoral council. That changed, however, when Father Tom announced the yearlong focus. Sister Maripaz immediately saw that she might have an important role to play in developing the concept of “The Parish Family – La Familia Parroquial.” Father Tom soon established an ad hoc committee of the pastoral council to assess the need for expanded Spanish-language catechesis. He asked Sister Maripaz to be committee chairwoman. She recruited a number of her veteran catechists and religious educators, including some council members who had taken opposing sides in the First Communion fiasco. By drawing Sister Maripaz into the work of the pastoral council, Father Tom benefited from her expertise and defused any fear that the new council might interfere with her ministry.

Attracting New Council Members
Father Tom was not just concerned, however, with how his staff would accept the yearlong focus. He also worried that some of the pastoral council might not like it. Pastors commonly believe that they should not be too directive with their councils. They think that, by allowing the council to direct itself, they promote lay leadership. Father Tom feared that, if he insisted too strongly on the yearlong focus, council members might find him too dictatorial.

In my mind, however, Father Tom’s fears were based on a couple of misconceptions. One misconception is that pastoral councils exist to foster lay leadership. This may be true in many cases, but promoting lay leadership is not the main purpose of councils. The main purpose is to study and reflect on the pastoral situation to recommend wise conclusions to the pastor. Research shows that the satisfaction of pastoral council members does not depend on how often they pastor accepts their recommendations. It depends rather on the depth at which the pastor consults the council. Even when a pastor does not take the council’s advice, councillors express satisfaction if they believe that he is taking their work seriously.

So much for the first misconception about councils and lay leadership. The second misconception is about the word “pastoral.” Some people have argued that pastoral refers to a style of meeting. A “pastoral” council, they say, is more prayerful or discerning than a merely “parish” council. Other people say that pastoral refers to a subject matter. Pastoral councils, they say, deal with spiritual matters, in contrast to merely administrative matters. But pastoral does not mean a style or subject matter. Strictly speaking, it pertains to the ministry of the pastor. A council is pastoral because it deals with issues that face the pastor and the parish. Pastors may consult the council about virtually any practical matter.

So I told Father Tom McCarthy not to worry about a yearlong focus on the integration of foreign-born and native-born parishioners. His existing council members will be delighted, I said, to have a serious subject matter and a long-range goal.
And in fact, when it came time to elect new council members, the yearlong focus really paid off. When Father Tom announced to the parish that the next year’s pastoral council would be devoting its attention to “The Parish Family – La Familia Parroquial,” people got interested. He held a serious of three parish convocations to discuss the yearlong theme. At the last of these meetings, participants elected four new people to serve on the council. This was an important innovation. In too many parishes, the only people who put their names forward for council membership are those with time on their hands. But at St. Louis Bertrand, the announced yearlong focus and the convocations attracted people who were passionate about the integration of new parishioners and willing to investigate the pastoral situation in depth. At the final convocation, participants nominated, discussed, prayed over, and elected four new members for the pastoral council. The yearlong focus on cultural integration had reinvigorated the council.

An Improved Meeting
Last fall I attended a meeting of the reinvigorated council. At the meeting, Sister Maripaz and the ad hoc Catechetical Committee made their report. The council, including her committee, had worked most of the previous year on integration issues. Although some of the council members can speak some Spanish, the meeting was conducted in English. I recognized several of the council members from the time of the First Communion fiasco, but this meeting was entirely different. Maria Elena Ugalde, the chairwoman, adhered closely to the agenda, and devoted ample time to the catechetical report.

The report was a model of its kind. Sister Maripaz distinguished between the apparent problem (a shortage of volunteer Spanish-speaking catechists) and its underlying cause (the low awareness among Latino parishioners about the parish’s catechetical needs). The report also made a number of recommendations for solving the problem. One was to inform Spanish-speaking parishioners about the catechetical needs of their children. Another was to create interest in religious education and recruit new catechists. A third was to generate resources for training new catechists. The report’s observations about volunteerism were applicable to every parish ministry.

After the report summary by Sister Maripaz, the council members had a forty-minute discussion. I was intrigued by the comments of council member Jim Edwards, who loved the liturgy and wanted First Communicants to wear albs. He talked about the liturgy committee’s efforts to integrate Spanish-language petitions and acclamations into parish liturgies. His committee has been able to attract bi-lingual lectors, Jim said, by identifying people who read both languages well and extending to them a special invitation to become lectors.

Betty Scatena also had good comments to make. Betty and her husband, you will recall, were opposed to unnecessary expenses, including the expenses of Quinceañeras. She talked about the success of the social justice committee in recruiting Spanish-speaking parishioners. The key to successful recruitment, said Betty, was the development of the prayer life of the committee. In the past, she said, the committee often resembled a social service agency under parish auspices, without any explicit devotional life. The committee members ran a food bank, for example, but never met as a committee to socialize or for prayer. Once the committee started to create time for its members to relax with one another, sharing meals and prayer, it began to attract more people, including Spanish-speakers.

The council meeting at St. Louis Bertrand really impressed me. It was thoughtful and practical. When its minutes were distributed, the comments about volunteerism gave parish committees a lot of food for thought.


What made the meeting so much better? By scrutinizing proposed agenda items in light of the theme of “Parish Family – Familia Parroquial,” Father Tom and Maria Elena could be more selective. They could exclude agenda items that did not contribute to the theme, like the apparel affair – which I will return to in a moment.

The establishment of an overarching theme not only enabled the council to be more selective about agenda items, but also improved the committees. Reports such as the one from Sister Maripaz became occasions for doing the council’s real work. That work was not to serve merely as a clearinghouse for information, but to reflect on pastoral matters and make wise recommendations. Today is a time when many people are impatient with dialogue, and when some leaders want to make decisions without gaining a consensus among their followers. In this time, the work of groups like the pastoral council, groups that seek to understand their reality and respond to it prudently and with Christian charity, are very important.

Good leadership at St. Louis Bertrand brought the council’s conversation to a deeper level. By examining parish volunteerism, especially the differences in volunteerism between English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners, the council enhanced its understanding (as well as Father Tom’s) of “The Parish Family – La Familia Parroquial.” A yearlong theme, a well-planned agenda, and thoughtful facilitation can improve your council’s meetings too. They can help to make your council a sign of hope.
What about the First Communion apparel? Everyone wants to know about that. Did the children wear all-white outfits or just white shirts and blouses? That matter was settled amicably too. The First Communion planners eventually followed the Scatenas’ advice. They recommended white shirts and blouses. But I heard afterwards that Laura Rodriguez wore a beautiful white dress and her mother’s mantilla. And First Communion apparel never came up again on the pastoral council agenda.