Life-Giving Parish

Reviewed by Mark F. Fischer

Build a Life-Giving Parish, a new book by council veterans Sr. Brenda Hermann and Msgr. James Gaston, promises a return to fundamentals. The pastoral council, they say, is about providing “counsel.” Its purpose is “taking counsel in council” (3), defined as “the deliberate process of listening, dialogue, deciding, and implementing pastoral responses for God’s people” (4). The book holds out the promise of making the parish pastoral council the place of “the pastoral reflection and the strategic thinking that must precede planning” (38).

Daily concerns of the laity should be the council's primary focus.

The authors’ teaching about pastoral planning is the most controversial part of the book. Msgr. Gaston, the book’s co-author, “oversaw and participated in the development of pastoral council guidelines for the Diocese of Greensburg” (102). The guidelines were published by the Paulist Press in 2001 as Revisioning the Parish Pastoral Council: A Workbook. The Greensburg guidelines confidently asserted, “The primary responsibility of the parish pastoral council is pastoral planning” (Revisioning, p. 97). However the new book puts this thesis in question. “Is planning the fundamental purpose of the council?”  Hermann and Gaston answer: “Our experiences suggest that it is not” (p. 2).

Mind-Changing Experiences?

What are the experiences that changed their minds? The authors neither point to any one series of events nor argue their case systematically. But in the book’s “Appendix B,” Msgr. Gaston provides an insight. He says that there is something more important than planning, namely, giving due reflection to Church and society. He writes:

We no longer view pastoral councils as the primary planning body in a parish. Planning is not an essential council function; it can be delegated to a staff or to another parish group. In addition, the planning model focuses primarily on the parish, its programs and its activities. Too often this is done while neglecting to ponder the massive changes occurring in the lives of the people, churched and unchurched. (p. 103)

In Msgr. Gaston’s mind, planning is not something that the pastoral council needs to do. Planning or coordinating programs can be left to others. The pastoral council’s proper role is giving counsel about wider issues, such as the “massive changes” in society. Hermann and Gaston are convinced that the PPC should focus on broader matters than the parish or its activities and programs.

The council can supply this broader focus the book states, when the pastor and the lay councillors together seek God’s will for the community. “The daily life concerns of the laity are indeed the primary pastoral concerns of the Church,” the authors write. “As such, these concerns must be the subject of the work of pastoral councils” (4). When councillors are less concerned about parish activities and programs than about the “daily life concerns of the laity,” the book suggests, there we find real “counsel in council.” The laity’s concerns – the lay apostolate of being a Christian in the world – are the essential field (the authors suggest) of the pastoral council. By contrast, the pastor’s apostolate (the apostolate of leading the parish), is – considered by itself – less important.

Implicit Critique

Build a Life-Giving Parish illustrates “counsel in council” by means of the book’s Foreword, written by Jean Vanier, the Canadian pioneer of “L’Arche” communities for disabled people. When he began in 1964, writes Vanier, he discovered that he needed help:

I was astonished [he writes] to find out all that was going wrong in my community . . . . So we had to reorganize things. We created a community council which would meet every Thursday. I could not run things on my own; I needed counsel from others. (page x).

Vanier’s text illustrates what Hermann and Gaston hope to achieve in parish pastoral councils. The community leader – Vanier, or any genuine pastor – has important questions. He should call upon the members of the community to help him find answers.

Ironically, the testimony of Vanier undermines or implicitly critiques two of the claims of Hermann and Gaston. First of all, it undermines the claim that the primary responsibility of the pastoral council is not pastoral planning. Hermann and Gaston appear to reduce pastoral planning to minor concerns about parish programs and activities. Yet it is precisely the programs and activities of the L’Arche communities that Vanier was seeking counsel about. The Vatican II Decree on Bishops (no. 27) defines the role of the “pastoral” council as investigating some aspect of the Church’s reality, pondering it, and recommending to the pastor its conclusions. That is pastoral planning – and L’Arche was and is deeply engaged in something that closely resembles it.

Vanier’s Foreword also undermines indirectly a second claim that the proper field of the pastoral council is “the daily life concerns of the laity” (in contrast to the pastor’s concerns with parish life). Vanier, as the “pastor” of L’Arche, was consulting his council precisely so that he could be a better pastor or community leader. “Pastoral” does not mean “having to do with minor parish matters, as opposed to the real concerns of the laity.” No, the Church’s documents suggest that it means pertaining to the pastor’s apostolate of community leadership. The good pastor cannot help parishioners to achieve their lay apostolate if his own mission of leading the parish is unsuccessful and ill-informed.

What “Planning” Means

Build a Life-Giving Parish advances our understanding of pastoral councils by critically reflecting on the concept of “pastoral planning.” To my mind, that phrase is the American translation of the threefold task of pastoral councils as expressed in the Decree on Bishops. They investigate and reflect on church matters and recommend conclusions to their pastors.  This differs from what Hermann and Gaston call pastoral planning, an apparently less important work.

Councils may attempt pastoral planning, say the authors, but it “is not their unique competency or role” (38) and may be unsuccessful.  Their true role is “pastoral reflection.”  This role is far more limited than what the Greensburg guidelines prescribed.   “Planning, decision making, and implementation are necessary steps in a process,” state Hermann and Gaston, “but they are not the work of council” (38).

Experienced councillors will welcome the authors’ efforts to clearly focus pastoral councils by trying to describe their purpose with precision. These efforts would be more successful, however, if they retraced the steps of the Vatican II Decree on Bishops with its threefold definition of the council’s role, and recognized that the pastoral council serves the pastor’s apostolate, not the laity’s.

May 18, 2010

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