Elizabeth Driscoll from St. Mary Magdalen Church in South Carolina wrote on May 8, 2010:

What are some sources you would recommend for Spiritual Exercises to use to open Pastoral Council Meetings?

Mark F. Fischer replied:

Spirituality is a complicated subject. For us Christians, it refers to the way that we assimilate the mission of Christ in our particular circumstances. In the pastoral council, we assimilate Christ’s mission by doing what the Church expects councils to do. The purpose of PPCs in general is to help pastors fulfill their mission of leading the parish. PPCs do this in a threefold way. They investigate some aspect of parish life, they reflect on it, and they recommend to the pastor their conclusions. We call this pastoral planning.

At one time, many writers said that what made a council “pastoral” was that it incorporated prayer. I remember my first CPPCD convention, at which I heard two presenters from Milwaukee say that one-third of a council meeting should be spent in prayer. It appeared that they wanted to turn the council into a prayer group. Today I don’t quite see things that way, and I would interpret the word “pastoral” differently. Today I would say that the prayer that begins a council meeting should reflect the purpose of the PPC in general and the specific task of the particular meeting. Let me explain what I mean.

The general task of the council, I said a moment ago, is to help the pastor fulfill his mission. That is why the pastoral council is “pastoral.”  Pastors consult councils because they want their help. They want the council to help them make wise decisions on the parish’s behalf. So it is appropriate for the pastor to lead the council in prayer. Other council members may doubtless lead the prayer as well as the pastor, but let’s remember that the pastor has spent years learning how to be a prayer leader, and that leading the parish in prayer is part of his vocation as pastor. In the prayer, he (or a council member) will want to give thanks for the councillors, who are generously contributing their services to the parish.

In his prayer, the leader will also want to raise the council’s minds and hearts to the spiritual significance of the question it faces. If the question is about, for example, how to make the parish more hospitable, then the prayer should echo the Biblical theme of hospitality to strangers. If the question is about how to improve the parish youth group, the prayer should refer to the importance of youth and the parish’s future. If the question is about raising money, the prayer should invoke Biblical teaching about stewardship. If the question is about some aspect of liturgical life, the prayer should recall the importance of common worship as part of the glue that holds the parish together.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not opposed to traditional prayers, such as the Our Father, the Magnificat, or the Benedictus. But councils face particular challenges, and their prayer should make the particular challenge faced by the council its theme. In prayer, the pastor and the council should be reflecting theologically about their work. They should be asking God to help them understand and for wisdom.

This theological reflection can happen, for example, if the prayer includes a reading from Scripture. The passage can be from the Lectionary reading of the day or from the liturgy of the hours, or it can be specially chosen to fit the situation. After the reading, the pastor or prayer leader can invite the councillors to briefly comment on the relevance of the Scripture to the work they face. After listening to the comments, the leader can offer a concluding prayer of thanksgiving for God’s presence in the council and a prayer of petition for the council’s intentions.

In sum, any spiritual practice of the pastoral council should reflect its threefold mission — namely, to study, reflect, and reach a conclusion about some issue faced by the parish. The council is “pastoral” because it has to do with the pastor’s job of leading the parish. Since he is consulting the council, it is appropriate that he lead the prayer, including a reflection on how the council’s work furthers the Church’s mission. For further information, see the following resources:

  • Fischer, Mark F.  A Prayerbook for Pastoral Councillors.  Part of the “Our Parish at Prayer” series.  New London, CT: 23rd Publications – Bayard, 2010.
  • Sofield, Loughlan. “A Spirituality for Councils.” In Mark F. Fischer and Mary M. Raley, Editors, Four Ways to Build More Effective Parish Councils: a Pastoral Approach (Mystic, CT: 23rd Publications – Bayard, 2002), pp. 23-39.
  • Tighe, Marie Kevin. “Council Spirituality: Foundation for Mission.” In Deegan, Developing a Vibrant Parish Pastoral Council, pp. 88-99.
  • Turley, Kathleen. “The Parish Pastoral Council and Prayer.” In Arthur X. Deegan, Editor, Developing a Vibrant Parish Pastoral Council (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1995), pp. 100-106.

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