Formation Manual

Parish Pastoral Councils: A Formation Manual
By Debra Snoddy, Jim Campbell, and Andrew McNally

(Dublin: Veritas Publications, 2010), ISBN 1847302416, $25.95.  213 pages plus a CD-ROM with slides for use in conducting reflection, formation, and planning sessions.

Review by Mark F. Fischer

This “formation manual” offers a vision of parish pastoral councils that reflects a desire for aggiornamento and sound group process more than it does the church’s teaching about PPCs.  The authors begin with a wide-ranging assessment of society and its consequences for the Catholic Church. Using Thomas Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm shift, they argue that PPCs can help local parishes respond to new societal paradigms of governance, sustenance, and meaning.

In terms of governance, the authors accept the contention of Patricia McLagan and Christo Nel in their 1995 book The Age of Participation, namely, that participation is essential to good governance. In Catholic parishes, this means that people expect to share in community decisions. The authors of A Formation Manual state that parishioners “expect to be part of the decision-making processes that determine the future of their communities and the institutions in those communities.” This certainly reflects the Church’s own teaching about participation via councils (e.g., in 2001’s Novo millennio ineunte and in 2004’s Apostolorum successores).

Consequences for Authority
In a challenging way, the new paradigm of governance has consequences for authority. The paradigm assumes, the authors say, that authority “is given to an institution and its office holders by those who are sovereign – the people.” This viewpoint reflects the authors’ view that, in Ireland at least, the Catholic Church has experienced a “collapse of trust” and “the resulting withdrawal of authority.” In the wake of such a collapse and withdrawal, say the authors, “the governed, who are sovereign, withdraw their trust of the institution and its office holders.” This assertion about the sovereignty of the people may create problems in pastoral councils, which by canon law possess a consultative vote only and cannot legislate.

Turning from the paradigm of governance to that of sustenance, the authors suggest the relevance of Marxist theory to the understanding of the parish. At one time, they say, society was controlled by those with great wealth. Everyone else served the interests of those who controlled society. Today, by contrast, there is a greater appreciation for labor. The authors imply that, in today’s Catholic parish, pastors have a greater appreciation for the labor of parishioners who sustain the parish’s well-being.

The final paradigm shift has to do with meaning. The authors speak about a new “common sense” that has emerged as a result of Einstein’s physics. According to this new common sense, people no longer view the world as a “giant clock moving in a pre-determined path,” but rather as “a relativistic universe where probability rules.” The authors conclude that Catholics are in the midst of a “Secular Revolution” in which traditional piety is outmoded and people seek a new way to speak about the spiritual life.

From Paradigm to Pastoral Council
This analysis of modern paradigm shifts sets the stage for a treatment of the parish pastoral council. The authors pose the following question: “So what are we to do if we want to form and sustain a group of people who will work with the parish priest in transforming the ministry of the parish?” That is how the authors understand the nature and task of the council. By nature, it works with the parish priest. Its task is to transform the parish’s ministry. In the first chapter, however, the question of how councillors are to work with the parish priest – and more importantly, whether he wants the council’s help in “transforming” the parish’s ministry (or has another topic about which he wants to consult) – are not answered.

The first and foremost task in creating a parish council, the authors say, is to build commitment to it among the members. “Instilling this sense of ownership is possible, by engaging the members of the council in the process of creating the council and in planning and carrying out its work.” This is the principal theme of the Formation Manual, because most of the 16 chapters show how solid formation can build good morale and commitment to the council.

The authors lament the fact that “most people who lead meetings and take responsibility for the work of a group have little or no knowledge of group processes, especially of participatory processes.” The Formation Manual aims to redress this shortcoming by introducing the reader to participative group processes. In particular, the book applies to the pastoral council a “technology of participation.” The technology is a set of group processes developed by “The Institute of Cultural Affairs,” described as an “international non-governmental organisation.” One of the book’s authors, Jim Campbell, has been an ICA member since it began in 1972.

The Technology of Participation
The “technology of participation” consists of four different group processes designed to help a group move toward a goal. The four have to do with discussion, solving problems, planning for action, and strategic (or longer-term) planning. Each process emphasizes the participation of members.  Pastors are to consult key parish leaders at the outset of establishing the council (chap. 3), and parishioners as a whole are are gathered to learn about the plan (chap. 4).

Four “reflections sessions” follow at regular intervals, to which all parishioners are invited.  The sessions are dedicated to teaching about the role and mission of the council and eventually to forming one (chaps. 5-8).  This is followed by a commissioning ceremony (chap. 9) and then by three formation meetings for the newly-elected council (chaps. 10-12).  The processes outlined in these chapters go a long way toward ensuring that councillors will be chosen in an intelligent and thoughtful fashion.

Chapters 13-16 describe how councils are to establish a three-year strategic plan for the parish.  Councillors are invited to look at four areas of parish life: its worship, community life, Christian formation, and outreach to inactive parishioners and to those in need of care.  These chapters comprise a relatively brief 35 pages.  The goal of the book to form the council, not to prescribe its duties.  The treatment of council formation is the book’s greatest contribution to the literature on councils.

Form and Content
The authors of the Formation Manual state that the technology of participation is “contentless” and “applicable across the world.” (p. 15). In other words, it is as applicable to parish pastoral councils as it is to any other group endeavor.

This may be the book’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. It is a strength, because the parish pastoral council offers parishioners the opportunity to participate in the pastor’s ministry of governance. The council participates, according to the Church’s documents (primarily the Decree on Bishops, par. 27), by its threefold task of investigation, reflection, and the recommendation of its conclusions. The technology of participation offers a variety of ways for people to undertake that threefold task.

This key Vatican II text for the identity of pastoral councils, however, is mentioned only once (at p. 57) and then paraphrased (p.  84).  There is hardly any amplification of the basic statement that pastoral councils are consultative bodies with a threefold task.  We only read that the parish priest makes decisions after consulting the council (pp. 101-2 and p. 136).  The reader looks in vain for a discussion of the priest’s motivation, what it means for him to consult, and how he ratifies and implements the council’s recommendations.  The Formation Manual treats consultation as merely the beginning step in forming a council (p. 31).  It is not presented as fundamental to the council’s very identity.

For this reason, the claim that the technology of participation is “contentless” may also be the book’s greatest weakness. It is a weakness because the pastoral council has an implicit content as well as a form. Its content is the basic dynamic of consultation. Pastors consult councils. Councils are not, as the authors state, sovereign in the parish. No, they are participants in the ministry of the pastor. Participation is not just an empty form but must reflect the basic nature of the Church, a nature with its own content.  The Manual states at one point that “priest(s) of the parish are automatically elected” to the council (p. 103), as if the priest were a member — and then states that the pastor is the “president” of the council (p. 133), as if he had primacy of place.  There is no discussion of what this presidency means and how the presider consults his councillors.

Consultative Councils
At the installation of a newly-formed council, the authors (p. 114) envision the diocesan bishop presenting the members with a copy of a document by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.  The document, entitled Parish Pastoral Councils: A Framework for Developing Diocesan Norms and Parish Guidelines (2007), is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it defines the pastoral council as a “leadership group” (p. 18) and underplays its nature as a consultative body.  Secondly, the document does not refer to paragraph no. 27 of the Vatican II Decree on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, where pastoral councils were first recommended.  In only two places (pp. 28 & 41) does the document of the Irish bishops acknowledge  the council’s consultative nature.  Given their scant attention to the consultative nature of the council, one can understand why the Formation Manual devotes little space to the meaning of consultation.

The authors of the Formation Manual describe the “larger task” of the pastoral council in their first chapter. Its task, they say, is to respond to the challenges posed by paradigm shifts in society. To this end, the authors describe the pastoral council as a “vehicle” to meet challenges, as a “demonstration” of  living the parish life, and as a “a step towards inventing the practical form of the local Christian community in our age.” All of this is certainly a way of bringing the Church up to date.

But it does not precisely reflect the threefold task of the pastoral council as defined in the Church’s documents. Yes, those documents certainly view the council as a vehicle of participation. But councillors do not participate as sovereigns or even as elected representatives. They participate in the pastor’s ministry by investigating, reflecting, and recommending conclusions.

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