DPC LogoSmallThe Spirituality of Councils in a Time of Change
2nd Keynote Presentation at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Leadership Event, “Vibrant Parishes in the New Millennium”
Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center, 3501 S. Lake Drive, Milwaukee
By Mark F. Fischer, April 9, 2005

Twenty years ago I flew to Baltimore for a joint convention of National Pastoral Planning Conference and PADICON, the Parish and Diocesan Council Network. John Paul II had been the pontiff for seven years. At the time, I had been working just one year as the Director of Oakland’s Diocesan Pastoral Council office. It was the first national Catholic convention I had ever attended, and it was exciting to cross the continent to Maryland, my birthplace, which I had not seen since my family moved west in 1963.

On the opening day of that 1985 convention, I received an “orientation” to PADICON, the Parish and Diocesan Council Network, from Marliss Rogers and Father Mike Hammer of the Milwaukee archdiocese. Marliss Rogers was coordinator of the parish councils office and had begun collaborating with William Rademacher on The New Practical Guide for Parish Councils, which came out in 1988. Mike Hammer was a dynamic presenter and experienced pastor.

In their presentation, Marliss and Mike described the common features of the parish “pastoral” council. Until the 1983 publication of the Code of Canon Law, few people referred to parish councils as “pastoral.” But in their 1985 orientation, the two Milwaukeeans had already identified the pastoral council’s key features. It was a planning body, first of all, a body concerned about the parish’s future. Second, it treated “pastoral” matters, which Marliss and Mike said were things such as evangelization and mission. Pastoral councils, they added, would avoid the temporal affairs of daily administration. (Today, I would not define “pastoral” matters in that way; but back in 1985, I took Marliss and Mike at their word.)

Third, the pastoral council, they said, had a prayerful style. Marliss and Mike taught that one-third of a council meeting should be devoted to prayer. In their focus on planning, on pastoral matters, and on prayerful discernment, they sketched the popular hallmarks of the parish “pastoral” council.

I was impressed by Marliss Rogers and Fr. Mike Hammer, and in the years that followed, I would occasionally hear in my home Diocese of Oakland about the strength of parish councils in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In 1992, Don Lozier of the Office for Parish Stewardship and Lay Leadership Development sent me the new editions of Living the Spirit and Parish Committee Ministry, which fit into the Rogers-Hammer tradition. And in 1999, Noreen Welte told me about a yet newer edition of the parish council manual. Priests often served two or more parishes, she said, and Milwaukee was establishing “common” pastoral councils. Once again, Milwaukee was leading the way and innovating.

So I am grateful that Noreen and Maureen Habetler have invited me to come and share some of my insights with you on today’s topic, “The Spirituality of Councils in a Time of Change.” In my remarks, I would like to gently criticize of some of our common understandings of the pastoral council. In place of those common understandings, I propose a more precise understanding of the council, based on the documents of Vatican II and later official publications about pastoral councils. The events of the past week remind us that we belong to a worldwide Church, and we honor the memory of Pope John Paul by focusing on the worldwide dimension of our ministry. And finally I want to define the spirituality of the councillor, a spirituality that is not limited to pious practices, discernment techniques, or a narrow list of appropriately “pastoral” topics. The spirituality of the councillor, I want to say, is about assimilating – as a councillor within the Church – the mission of Christ. But I will get to that in a few moments. Let me begin with a story that illustrates my theme of spirituality.

Father Arturo Gomez and Youth Ministry

The story concerns Father Arturo Gomez, a graduate of St. John’s Seminary, and pastor of St. Aelred Church in Los Angeles. (I have changed the names in this story.) Father Art was born in LA, and as a teen he played basketball in the Catholic Youth Organization. He was once an all-league center. As a young priest, he had been a youth minister. He had established a basketball club at his former parish whose teams competed with teams throughout the city. He was a firm believer in youth ministry.

When he arrived at St. Aelred’s, a relatively poor and aging parish, there was no youth ministry, just religious education. So Father Art began to reflect on what it would take to establish a youth ministry. His first step was to boost the income of the parish. After several years, the parish collections rose to the point at which Father Art felt he could afford a new staff position.

So at a monthly pastoral council meeting not too long ago, he explained why he felt youth ministry was important, and how he believed that the parish could now afford a youth minister. He then invited the council to help him look into the matter. He wanted the council to study the needs of parish youth, to see what a parish youth ministry would look like, and to develop a job description for a youth minister.

The councillors agreed and began dividing the workload. Some volunteered to find about the archdiocese’s youth ministry policies. Others set out to visit neighboring parishes whose youth ministries were highly respected. Still others volunteered to acquire and read some of the latest books and articles on youth ministry. All of these seemed appropriate tasks for a parish pastoral council. But not everyone agreed.

To hear Father Art tell the story, he knew he was in trouble when he received a visit a week later from Helen Whelan, a senior citizen at the parish. Helen is the chairperson of the social justice committee. Her daughter, Eileen, is on the pastoral council. Eileen’s teenage son works at a pharmacy in the evening to make payments on his prize car, a modified Honda Civic. (If you’ve ever seen “The Fast and the Furious,” you know what I’m talking about.) In other words, the Whelan family members are respected parishioners. In 1995 Helen was even voted “Volunteer of the Year.” With her encyclopedic knowledge of parish history and contacts on every parish committee, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Helen became upset when her daughter Eileen said that the parish council was planning to establish a youth ministry and hire a youth minister. Helen visited the rectory and told Father Art that his proposal overlooked the parish’s foremost pastoral need, namely, care of the elderly. To back up her point, she quoted the 2000 Census. 16.5% of people in the parish boundary, Helen said, are over 65. The parish has a mission, she said, a mission to seniors. It ought to coordinate activities for them, she argued, activities for the able-bodied, as well as hot meals and visits for the homebound.

Helen left and, true to her word, mail and telephone calls began to arrive at the parish office. Helen’s constituents were pleading with Father Art to establish a ministry to the elderly. Father Art now found himself between a rock and a hard place. He had thought that, by asking the council to study the possibility of a youth ministry, he was doing a prudent thing. But instead he had lit a firestorm amid the parish’s senior citizens. During a sleepless night, Father Art went on the internet. He confirmed the census figures that Helen had presented. He began to wonder if his commitment to youth ministry was one sided, and whether he was ignoring the elderly.

Critical Comments about the Word “Pastoral”

Let me interrupt my story to reflect for a moment about the proper task of pastoral councils and the spirituality that is proper to them. Father Art had asked his pastoral council to study youth ministry and to develop a job description for a youth minister. This, he felt, was an appropriate task for the parish pastoral council, and I agree with him.

I notice that Milwaukee archdiocesan publications speak of “parish” councils, not “parish pastoral” councils. That is a little unusual. After the 1983 publication of the Code of Canon Law, with its recommendation of parish pastoral councils, dioceses throughout the US had to grapple with a new terminology. What does the word “pastoral” mean?

Different people came up with different hypotheses. Some, like Marliss Rogers and Fr. Mike Hammer, suggested that seven essential characteristics distinguish the “pastoral” council. The first and foremost of these is its prayerfulness. Prayer and spiritual exercises such as retreats, they suggested, make the parish pastoral council truly pastoral. But today I am not sure that I agree. Every Christian is supposed to pray, and Vatican documents say nothing about prayer in the pastoral council. So I would argue that, while prayer is important, it is not the defining feature of the “pastoral” council.

Other people suggested that “pastoral” refers to a style of decision-making. For example, Milwaukee’s Living the Spirit manual “strongly discourages” (p. 56) the use of parliamentary procedure, such as Robert’s Rules of Order. Instead, the archdiocese recommends the use of consensus decision-making. But once again, Vatican documents do not specify any particular decision-making process. Indeed, Loughlan Sofield (1998, p. 113) has written that the time-consuming search for consensus can sometimes hinder effective ministry. Consensus is necessary only when a decision affects everybody and when the support of everyone is essential to the decision’s success. So consensus, I believe, is not what makes the pastoral council “pastoral.”

Still others have suggested that “pastoral” refers to a specific subject matter. The pastoral council, they say, deals with pastoral matters. The finance council, by contrast, deals with administrative matters. This was the argument of the late Bishop John Keating of Arlington, Virginia, who wanted to limit the scope of the pastoral council by excluding administration from its purview. But Vatican II said that councils may consider “all that relates to pastoral work” (Ecclesiae Sanctae I, no. 16). This covers virtually any practical matter. So “pastoral” cannot mean, “having nothing to do with administration.”

These efforts to define the “pastoral” nature of the council impose limits on it. They suggest that the pastoral nature of the council consists in pious practices, discernment techniques, or topics unrelated to administration. People want to limit councils in these ways, I suggest, because councils can be difficult. They are the place of occasional disagreements – disagreements between council and pastor, disagreements among councillors, disagreements between councillors and parishioners. I suspect that many attempts to define the pastoral nature of councils by limiting them are really attempts to avoid disagreements. Some people believe that if the council is praying, discerning, dreaming, and visioning, then it will not be argumentative. But arguments, if intelligent and respectful, can clarify thinking. Councils are not pastoral because they refrain from arguing.

So what does pastoral mean? I believe that it means “pertaining to the role of the pastor.” In other words, the pastoral council defines itself in relation to his role. The pastor consults the council to achieve a specific threefold purpose. It is the purpose first defined at Vatican II, namely, “to investigate and consider matters relating to pastoral activity and to formulate practical conclusions concerning them” (Vatican II Decree on Bishops, no. 27). The main work of pastoral councils is to investigate, consider, and draw conclusions about pastoral activity. This definition of the council’s threefold task is the foundation, I believe, for councillor spirituality. But spirituality does not prevent arguments. It certainly did not stop Helen Whelan. She was willing to tell anyone who would listen why Father Art’s proposal for youth ministry was the wrong way for Saint Aelred’s to go.

Father Art’s Crisis

St. Aelred Church, Father Art reflected, has limited resources. It could afford to hire a youth minister or to hire a minister to the elderly, but it could not afford both. No one doubted that youth ministry and eldercare would be valuable to the parish, but which should it be? Different parishioners proposed different solutions. Some said that the matter should be decided on general principles. One general principle was that “Youth are the future of the Church.” This principle seemed persuasive until opponents came up with a different and opposite principle, namely, “Care for the weakest in your midst.” Neither side satisfied Father Art. He did not want to simply endorse general principles, but to move from general principles to their application.

Some parishioners suggested that the easiest way to settle the matter would be to hold a parish referendum and let the majority rule. Still others urged Father Art to make the decision based on a demographic analysis. He should compare the number of people over 65 to the number of teenagers, they said, and serve the greater number. But Father Art was not happy with any of these proposals. He did not want a vote, because he feared it would divide the parish. He did not want to rely solely on census figures, because figures can be manipulated.

Father Art understood that a prudent decision to commit limited parish resources is contingent upon a number of factors, such as the number of youth and elderly, the kind of care each needs, and the parish’s ability to provide it. The campaign Helen orchestrated made him question his prior assumptions. He had not anticipated the reaction of elderly parishioners to the youth ministry proposal. He realized he needed to know more about the situation.

So Father Art told his pastoral council that he was in a quandary. He may have underestimated the concerns of the elderly, he said. Those concerns were as important as those of youth. He asked the council to help him weigh these competing alternatives.

Father Art knew that his goal was effective ministry, ministry to all members of the parish. His question, however, concerned the means. How was the parish, with its limited resources, to meet the needs of both youth and the elderly? The purpose of the task force was not just to find the means to a pre-ordained end. The end itself, namely youth ministry or eldercare, was an open question. Father Art wanted to know what was the right thing to do. Given limited resources, what was the highest good the parish could aim for—youth ministry or eldercare?

The councillors recommended that Father Art consult more widely. They suggested that he draw other parishioners into the conversation. With the council’s help, Father Art held a parish assembly to air the question. The assembly was not a referendum, but aimed at helping parishioners understand the parish’s needs and wants. Not many parishioners knew about youth ministry and eldercare. The parish assembly supplied that knowledge. It was part education and part discussion. It helped parishioners understand the two ministries, to see how the parish could implement them, and to estimate their cost.

During the assembly, a number of parishioners spoke up. They showed a deep interest and a willingness to listen. Father Art paid close attention to them. He was looking for people with a special gift for prudence. He wanted those who could deliberate well, take counsel, inquire, and judge shrewdly. He invited some of them to join a task force. Its purpose was to continue the discussion and try to reach consensus. He began to meet with the task force and to apply the assembly’s insights.

One of the task force members was Helen Whelan. Father Art had asked her to join the task force, but he did so with considerable trepidation. Although he knew that she was intelligent and reflective, he was afraid that she might try to dominate the conversation. He worried that she might not be open to the viewpoints of others. He worried, in short, that she lacked the spirituality appropriate to the counselor. So one afternoon, before he invited Helen to join the task force, he visited her at home. He laid out his concerns. He asked whether she could really respect the opinions of those who were in favor of the youth ministry. Helen appreciated his visit. And she replied that she would “undertake the mission” to which she was called, and would try to keep her mind open – even though, as she reminded Father Art, the 2000 Census did state that 16.5% of people in the parish boundary are over 65.

The Spirituality of Councillors

The story of Helen and Father Art brings me to the question of councillor spirituality. I have said that the pastoral nature of the parish council is not restricted to certain pious practices. It cannot be limited to specific decision-making techniques. And it will not suffice to define it in terms of whatever is not administrative or financial.

Rather, it is my conviction that the council is pastoral because the pastor consults it. He consults it because he loves his people and wants to know and serve them better. It is pastoral because it helps him be a good pastor, that is, a good shepherd. And parishioners want to serve on the council because there they fulfill a specific ministerial task. It is the threefold task of investigating and considering pastoral matters, and then reaching conclusions for recommendation to the pastor.

For our purposes today, I am going to make two broad assumptions. One is that we accept the Church’s judgment that councils are consultative only. Not everyone agrees about this, but it is the law of the Church. Further, I’m going to assume that everyone accepts the distinction between the role proper to councils – the role of research and planning—and the role of implementation. Implementing council recommendations as official parish initiatives belongs to the pastor and his staff, who supervise volunteers. Council members can help to identify volunteers and develop job descriptions. But when they get involved in implementation, they do so as volunteers under the pastor’s direction, not as councillors. The proper role of the council is not implementation, I will assume, but rather the threefold role of investigating, reflecting, and recommending.

What does this threefold task have to do with spirituality? To answer this question, let us consider what spirituality means. The term spirituality has a broad range of meanings. Some say it means being related to the Church and the Holy Spirit. Others call it a sensitivity or attachment to religious values. I would like to propose a more subtle definition, taken from the 1975 Encyclopedia of Theology edited by Karl Rahner. In that Encyclopedia, the Jesuit Josef Sudbrack wrote that spirituality means:

the personal assimilation of the salvific mission of Christ by each Christian which is always in the framework of new forms of Christian conduct and is comprised within the fundamental answer of the Church to the word of salvation (p. 1624).

This is a complicated definition, so let me dwell on it for a few minutes. Sudbrack defines spirituality as, first and foremost, “the personal assimilation of the salvific mission of Christ.” Assimilation is a unique word. It suggests that pastoral councillors become missionaries themselves by becoming similar to Christ.

Next, Sudbrack writes that spirituality is “always in the framework of new forms of Christian conduct.” It is in a framework, that is, a known context, a specifically Christian context. But at the same time it is always new. The novel aspect of spirituality is due to the fact that the parish situation is always changing. Councillors must understand that ever-changing situation. They must freely assimilate the mission of Christ in ever-new ways. We will return in a few moments to the topic of freedom. For now, it is enough to say that the thinking of councillors must freely evolve in response to the parish reality.

Third, Sudbrack states that spirituality “is comprised within the fundamental answer of the Church to the word of salvation.” The Church is its proper context. Pastoral councillors find their task within the Church’s fundamental answer to God’s Word. The Church has recommended councils because they can help pastors understand the parish reality and respond to it. The Church gives councillors this specific mission. It is the intellectual and spiritual mission of drawing practical conclusions from a thorough knowledge and understanding of the parish.

So the spirituality of councils, I conclude, is not about limiting their scope in the hope of preventing disagreements. Rather, it is about mission and ministry. The spirituality of the pastoral council is the way that members become like Christ by taking on the mission of Christ.

A Representative Council

So did Helen Whelan have the spirituality appropriate for a pastoral council member? To tell the truth, she came to the first meeting of the task force armed with facts and figures about the needs of the elderly. That is not to say that she was close-minded about youth ministry. She listened with sincere sympathy to the stories about youth gangs in the neighborhoods around St. Aelred’s. About eldercare, however, she was unmistakably tough-minded. She felt (as she said) that she had undertaken a mission. She wanted a new ministry at the parish. And she was advocating eldercare within a well-defined parochial context. All of that testified to Helen’s spirituality.

Helen’s tough-mindedness might have brought he task force to an impasse, except for an unforeseen event. Do you remember Dan Whelan, Helen’s grandson, who worked at the pharmacy to pay for his customized Honda Civic? One night the car was vandalized in the pharmacy parking lot. Somebody spray-painted a gang slogan on the car and slashed its tires. When Dan got off work, he had to telephone the police and awaken his mother to get a ride home. Dan and his mother were upset. So was Helen. The vandalism made her realize the gravity of the gang problem near St. Aelred’s.

When Father Art established the task force, he wanted it to be representative. He wanted it to represent the parish. That was, in fact, why he invited Helen to join it. Father Art felt that she would make the task force more representative. Many official Church publications about pastoral councils say that they are to be representative. But they do not explain what this means.

In the absence of clear definition, people have tried to define the representative nature of pastoral councils in various ways. For some, representation is a demographic term. A representative council, according to this definition, mirrors the demographic profile of the parish – with so many people of this or that race, so many youth and so many elderly, and so many of this or that language group. Other people understand the representative nature of councils in geographic terms, with so many from this or neighborhood, and with so many from the poor side and so many from the wealthy side of town. Still others understand representation in ideological terms. A representative council, according to this view, includes so many liberals and so many conservatives, with so many youth advocates, and so many senior advocates.

The Church, however, does not understand representation as majority rule. Nor is it a matter of simply selecting a council that mirrors a demographic profile. Representation does not force councillors to advocate for this ministry or that in a desperate competition for parish income. Instead, representation aims to make something present. It aims to make present the practical wisdom that resides in the People of God.

This is how I understand the pastoral council as a representative body. It represents the parish by making present the wisdom of parishioners. Councillors are not necessarily representative because they belong to this or that group or class. No, they represent the parish when they accomplish the council’s rightful task, namely, understanding the reality of the parish and recommending ways to achieve its mission.

That wisdom emerges in dialogue. It emerges in the knowledge and common sense of fair-minded people. When Helen Whelan began her efforts on behalf of eldercare, she understood herself as a partisan. She “represented” the advocates of eldercare. But during her service on the Task Force, Helen changed her approach. She was no longer just a representative of her “constituents.” Instead she tried to make present the community’s wisdom. She was not fixed on one opinion, but was able to enter into the give and take of dialogue. In this way she became truly a representative.

The Spirituality of Freedom

Ultimately, Helen embraced what I call a spirituality of freedom. This is the final theme of today’s presentation. Freedom is the ability to hear God’s Word and respond to it. When I speak of the spirituality of freedom, I do not mean that councillors can do anything they want, or stubbornly and selfishly persist in a viewpoint that isolates them from the parish or the council. To do that is to refuse the encounter with reality. No, by freedom I mean liberty from everything that impedes our ability to respond to the Word of God, the Word that speaks to us and invites us to listen and obey.

The spirituality of freedom liberates us to do what God, through the Church, asks of every council member – namely, to accomplish our specific threefold task. First of all, we are to thoroughly investigate the pastoral reality. Thorough investigation requires attention to detail. We need to keep accurate minutes and send out agendas that clearly state how councillors should prepare for the next meeting.

Helen Whelan provides a good example. She acquainted herself with issues, encouraged parishioners to communicate with the pastor, and studiously researched her topic. Helen was courteous, but she was not afraid to speak her mind or, as she would say, to undertake the mission.

Helen not only investigated her topic – she also reflected on it. This is also part of the spirituality of freedom. She spoke to parishioners, attended task force meetings, met privately with the pastor, and thought long and hard about what was best for the parish. In other words, she was willing to let her thinking evolve. The vandalism of Dan’s car was especially thought provoking.

And finally, spirituality means that councillors freely acknowledge the authority of truth. When councillors reach a conclusion and recommend it to the pastor, they let the truth of the recommendation persuade him. He can, of course, freely refuse to accept the recommendation. That is his right. The Church guarantees it, because the Church does not want to force pastors to accept poor advice. But the best measure of a council’s success is the truth or wisdom of its recommendations. A successful council is one whose conclusions are so wise, so thorough, so well considered, that a pastor would be a fool to refuse them. The spirituality of freedom honors the liberty of councillors and pastors to do what the Church asks them to do.


Eventually, the St. Aelred Task Force completed its work. It reached a conclusion about the relative merits of youth ministry and eldercare. Its conclusion was that the establishment of a youth ministry was more immediately important to the parish than hiring a staff member to coordinate ministry to the elderly. Even Helen Whelan agreed. Her grandson’s experience of car vandalism helped Helen appreciate the extent to the gang problem at St. Aelred.

The task force presented its findings to the pastoral council, and the council recommended them to Father Art. He was delighted, of course, that the parish saw the wisdom of starting a youth ministry. Visions happily danced through his head of himself, the one-time all-league center, shooting occasional baskets with the parish’s youth.

Helen felt some twinges of regret about her vote in favor of youth ministry. If the tires of Dan’s Honda Civic had not been slashed, she would not have yielded to the youth ministry faction. But Helen is wise enough to know that the Spirit can work in many ways, even through youth gangs. And with that observation, strange as it is, I would like to conclude. The spirituality of councils is not just about piety, narrowly religious themes, or discernment techniques. It is about hearing the Word of God, responding to a new situation, and doing so in intellectually creative ways. That spirituality is the Church’s gift to us, and we should rise to it.