David DeLambo of the Diocese of Cleveland asked on June 1, 2010:

“Do official church documents directly equate the work of pastoral councils with pastoral planning?”

Mark F. Fischer replied:

It is common today to speak of pastoral planning as the work of the pastoral council.  But is “pastoral planning” the way the Church describes the work of councils?

Clearly, the Church lauds the work of pastoral planning.  Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter of 2001, Novo millennio ineunte, had this to say:

“It is in the local churches that the specific features of a detailed pastoral plan can be identified — goals and methods, formation and enrichment of the people involved, the search for the necessary resources — which will enable the proclamation of Christ to reach people, mould communities, and have a deep and incisive influence in bringing Gospel values to bear in society and culture.” (no. 29)

Elsewhere in his letter, Pope John Paul lauded the pastoral council as an instrument of communion.  He wrote:

“To this end [the achievement of communion], the structures of participation envisaged by Canon Law, such as the Council of Priests and the Pastoral Council, must be ever more highly valued.” (no. 45)

But the Apostolic Letter does not say that the pastoral planning is the work of the pastoral council.  Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of Bishops first recommended pastoral councils.  It said that they are to “investigate and consider matters relating to pastoral activity and to formulate practical conclusions concerning them” (no. 27).  This threefold task – investigating, considering, and formulating conclusions – can be considered a synonym for pastoral planning, but the actual term “pastoral planning” is not used.

A More Direct Connection

In his Apostolic Exhortation of 1999 to the Bishops of Asia, entitled Ecclesia in Asia, Pope John Paul II made a direct connection between pastoral planning and pastoral councils.  The Holy Father said:

In particular there is a need to foster greater involvement of the laity and consecrated men and women in pastoral planning and decision making through such participatory structures as pastoral councils and parish assemblies. (no. 25)

Pope John Paul here makes an unambiguous connection between pastoral councils and planning.  It is worth remembering, however, that the pope’s letter is to merely a segment of the Church – the Church in Asia.  Since it is not directed to the USA, we cannot say that the pope’s words were directed to us.  Ecclesia in Asia states an important principle, but it did not exhort Americans to equate pastoral planning with councils.

The Clearest Examples

The clearest examples of Church teaching about councils and planning come from the Congregation for Bishops.  In its “Directory on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops” (Ecclesiae imago, May 31, 1973), the congregation had this to say about the pastoral council:

By its study and reflection, the council furnishes the judgments necessary to enable the diocesan community to plan its pastoral program systematically and to fulfill it effectively. (no. 204).

The 1973 Directory for Bishops is almost forty years old and no longer has canonical force, because it was replaced by the 2004 Directory for Bishops (Apostolorum successores, Feb. 22, 2004).  In the new Directory, the congregation had this to say about pastoral councils and planning:

The Bishop may propose themes for the council to discuss in connection with the pastoral activity of the diocese: these include the pastoral plan, various catechetical, missionary and apostolic initiatives, ways of improving the doctrinal formation and sacramental life of the faithful, assistance for the pastoral ministry of the clergy, and various means of raising public awareness regarding concerns of the Church. (no. 184)

The 1973 Directory is useful, however, because it shows a continuity with the 2004 Directory.  That is significant.  The link between pastoral councils and planning was forged in 1973, and it remained strong in 2004.


Official church documents do not directly equate the work of pastoral councils with pastoral planning.  They state, however, that councils have a role to play in such planning.  Councils are not simply planning bodies.  They can do much more than plan.  Their task is to participate in the pastor’s mission of shepherding the flock.  They do so in a threefold way, that is, by investigating, reflecting, and recommending their conclusions.  This is a broad definition.  It is broader than pastoral planning, but certainly may include it.

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