DPC LogoSmallThe Culturally Integrated Council

Mark F. Fischer and Maria Elena Uribe

Published in Mark F. Fischer and Mary Margaret Raley, Editors, Four Ways to Build More Effective Parish Councils: A Pastoral Approach (Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications – Bayard, 2002), pp. 182-193.

St. Lucy Church in Long Beach, California has had a “Vietnamese Pastoral Council” for many years. It conducts its discussions in Vietnamese. The council is separate from the Parish Pastoral Council, in which English is spoken. The pastor of St. Lucy’s, Father Michael Roebert, cannot participate in the Vietnamese Pastoral Council. He does not speak the language. He asked the elders to send a representative to the English-speaking council, which they did. But Father Roebert still wishes that he could participate in the Vietnamese council.

Father Roebert faces a problem that is increasingly common in U.S. Catholic parishes. He wants to consult his parishioners by means of a pastoral council. He knows that, unless he learns about their pastoral reality, he cannot serve them as well as he wants. But multiple languages make communication difficult. And even in a parish where councillors speak the same language, they often stem from different cultural traditions. These traditions make different assumptions about the way members understand the council and relate to the pastor. His solution is to maintain more than one pastoral council, even though Canon Law implies that parishes should have only one.

Almost every parish pastoral council in the U.S. is multicultural in at least one sense. Almost every council is composed of people with different cultural roots. If that is what “multicultural” means, then it is almost meaningless to speak of multicultural councils. We might as well speak of all councils.

In this chapter, we will narrow our focus. Here we will speak of the multicultural pastoral council as a council with a large percentage of immigrants. Then we are speaking of a distinctive kind of council. On it, the native language of many councillors (and even of the pastor) may not be English. This is increasingly common. According to a recent study, one in five U.S. parishes celebrates two Sunday Masses in a language other than English each week.#1 Such “immigrant councils,” especially when the immigrants are new or recently arrived present distinctive cultural challenges.

  1. One challenge is the monocultural council. That is the council in which the majority of members belong to a single culture different from that of the pastor. Indeed, the pastor may be the immigrant.
  2. A second challenge is the bi-cultural council. In this council, two cultures make up the majority of councillors. One culture may not be made up of immigrants and may dominate the other.
  3. A truly multi-cultural council is a third challenge. In this council, members include immigrants from a variety of countries.

The “multicultural council” is not necessarily the multilingual council. People from different cultures may speak a common language. The description of any pastoral reality can be translated. That is why we define the multicultural council in terms of immigration, not language. For our purposes, the multicultural council is one in which a large percentage of members are immigrants. They may have had no experience with structures of Church consultation in their native land. They may not have been in the U.S. long enough to be familiar with Church consultation as we practice it. And a pastor may not know the culture of his councillors well enough to enter into dialogue with them.

In this chapter we shall examine the meaning of the multicultural council and shall make an argument for cultural integration. Although such multicultural councils pose communicative challenges, their basic dynamic—the search for wisdom—remains the same. We shall look at the purposes of the culturally integrated council, at the meaning of consultation, and at the selection of members. But we do not advocate separate pastoral councils for each parish immigrant or ethnic group. That will become clear in the next section.

Separate Pastoral Councils?

To be sure, some parishes have established separate pastoral councils for each ethnic group. They claim that separate councils can better meet the needs of parishioners than a single PPC. But Canon Law makes no explicit provision for multiple pastoral councils in a single parish. Moreover, it is not clear that establishing separate pastoral councils for different ethnic, linguistic, or cultural groups is permissible or helpful. Indeed, well-meaning cultural sensitivity may backfire.

The following story illustrates the problem. A woman, born in Mexico but living in Los Angeles, said that her pastor’s efforts to be culturally inclusive almost divided the parish. “In the parish where I was married,” she said, “the congregation was once evenly balanced. One-third were Anglo, one-third African-American, one-third Hispanic. Then more Hispanics moved in and many Blacks and Anglos moved out. The pastor loved us Hispanics. He began to cater to us. He started to do most of the liturgies in Spanish and established a separate Spanish-speaking pastoral council. That drove many of the remaining Afro-Americans away and turned off the Anglos. Indeed, it alienated some Hispanics who were more comfortable in English than in Spanish. We had to tell the pastor to stop. If he celebrated in English, we told him, most of us could participate.”

Eventually this pastor restructured the “Hispanic pastoral council” as a Spanish-speaking “Comite Pastoral” and created a single multicultural council with European-American, Afro-American, and Hispanic members. But it took some years for people to get over the tensions caused by the well-meaning pastor. The story illustrates some of the problems with separate ethnic pastoral councils. From them, the pastor may receive different and conflicting advice. The establishment of multiple councils needlessly complicates the parish search for practical wisdom. It can impede pastoral planning. A culturally integrated council is better, we believe, for in it all cultural groups have a voice.

The only Vatican text devoted entirely to pastoral councils states that pastoral council members should be representative, but not in a juridical sense.#2 Council members “represent” in that they offer a witness or sign of the entire People of God. Some diocesan guidelines even call for pastoral councils to reflect the parish population in terms of gender, age and economic and educational background. More important than mirroring a demographic profile, however, is making present the community’s wisdom. The primary duty of councils is to make present the wisdom and common sense of the People of God. We believe that a single council can do this. For two reasons the establishment of separate pastoral councils for the various ethnic groups in a parish is not necessary or desirable.

First of all, no official document makes provision for separate pastoral councils within a single parish. Second, the existence of separate councils may aggravate cultural divisions already existing in the parish. Different groups may give the pastor conflicting advice. When there are many councils, there is no one forum in which to iron out differences. For that reason, we recommend a single parish pastoral council. We believe that a single council can represent the parish and accomplish the planning task, even in multicultural parishes. “If a pastor needs an ethnic advisory board, let him establish one,” said one Filipino man. “But don’t call it a pastoral council.”

The Threefold Purpose

A pastor should undoubtedly consult his people, even when he does not speak their native language. In that case he must seek parishioners who can translate. We will discuss this below in connection with member recruitment. For the present, let us say only that pastors need not speak the native language of every councillor. More important is the ability to draw them into the work of the pastoral council.

Every pastoral council has the same basic purpose. “It is to investigate under the authority of the bishop all those things which pertain to pastoral works, to ponder them and to propose practical conclusions about them.”#3 This is the way that Vatican documents generally speak about pastoral councils. They were first envisioned at the diocesan level, and then promoted at the parish level. The threefold task of councils may be described as pastoral planning. It is to study a pastoral issue, reflect on it deeply, and recommend conclusions. Within this threefold task, councillors exercise leadership.

At times, however, we confuse councillors by calling them leaders. In the Spanish language, the word “leadership” (“liderazgo”) may have a different connotation than it does in English. For some Mexicans, Central and South Americans “el líder” is an individual who takes control, who bears the brunt of responsibility, and who tells people what to do. “In my culture, the term ‘leader’ can have a negative meaning,” one Mexican man told us. “The leader is the one with power, the one who commands others, the one who gets things done.” Leadership exercised in the council is different. It means service. U.S Catholics are proud to call themselves leaders, for the English word lacks the negative connotations of the Spanish. When English speakers tell new council members from Mexico that they are “leaders,” the immigrants may feel that the term is unrealistic, presumptuous, or incompatible with Church service.

In that case, the pastor needs to show what leadership on the council really means. It does not mean that the laity take over and sideline the pastor. It means that everyone contributes to the pastoral-planning task. One lay person may chair the group. Another may establish an ad hoc committee. A third may serve as secretary. Over all these activities, the pastor presides. He is doing the consulting.

Some pastors find it difficult, however, to define what they are consulting about. In years gone by, they would form councils without any clear plan in mind except to increase the participation of parish members. In light of Canon Law, however, they now have definite expectations of the council. What pastors expect is helpful investigation, thorough pondering, and sound conclusions. In short: pastoral planning.

Yet even those pastors who understand planning, occasionally find it hard to communicate with their councillors. Misunderstandings of the PPC’s threefold task are common. Some councillors wrongly believe that the “investigation” done by a pastoral council requires advanced technical training. They think that one must be a professional planner to be on the council. This is not true. Pastors can help them see that the word investigation can also mean visiting, learning, studying, and seeing for oneself.

Others mistakenly expect the pastoral council to be as efficient as a Fortune 500 company. They do not realize that “pondering” (the work of reflection) takes time. A Filipino woman remarked, “In the USA, we have a culture of efficiency—instant soup, instant coffee, even instant babies.” She rejected this assumption in the pastoral council. “In the pastoral council we discover that we have to slow down and ‘ponder’ things.” The prudent pastor reaches important decisions slowly, after weighing all the facts.

Still others may be confused about the authority of councils. They may think that a council possesses deliberative vote or legal power. But strictly speaking, councillors are to recommend practical conclusions to the pastor. They do not legislate. The Meaning of Consultation

Vatican documents state that the council enjoys a consultative vote only. But consultation can mean different things, depending on the culture of the councillors. Consider, for example, the following story about St. Anne Church (the name has been changed) in Orange County, California. This church has had a sizable Vietnamese congregation since the fall of Saigon and the exodus of Vietnamese to America.

A Vietnamese-American seminarian, anticipating his ordination this year, recently began to plan his first Mass. He approached St. Anne Church, his parents’ parish. The pastor, a U.S.-born priest, referred him to the “Vietnamese pastoral council.” The council was used to operating with autonomy in the parish’s Vietnamese affairs. The council “president” (he was not a “chairman”) insisted:

  • that because a bishop was to be present at the first Mass, all liturgical plans had to meet the pastoral council’s approval;
  • that only the parish’s own Vietnamese choir could sing; and
  • that the council president, as the community elder, would be expected to address the congregation at the conclusion of the newly ordained priest’s first Mass.

The restrictions placed by the council offended the seminarian. He consulted his parents. With their approval, he decided to celebrate his first Mass in another parish.

Reflecting on the “pastoral council” of St. Anne Church, we can say this: the distinction between consultation and implementation was by no means clear. The U.S.-born pastor had presumably found the Vietnamese council trustworthy. He had consulted it in the past, and had valued its recommendations. Over time, he had invited the council members to organize Vietnamese community events in the parish. This may be legitimate. But it is not the way Catholics usually understand consultation. In a consultation, there is give and take between the pastor who consults and the people whom he consults. The pastor must accept the council’s recommendations before they are implemented.

We believe that the distinction between consultation and implementation is fundamental. When a pastor consults the council, he seeks wisdom. The search for wisdom is different from wise action. It comes first. After a decision has been made, it is time to implement it. To be sure, the same group may do both. The pastor may make the decision in concert with the council and then ask the council members to carry it out. But strictly speaking, the search for wisdom (consultation) differs from the resulting action (implementation). When councillors implement a decision, they do so as volunteers under the direction of the pastor—and not as the pastoral council.

The distinction can also prevent embarrassment and bad feelings. Consider the following story. In a large California diocese, the number of Korean Catholics has grown enormously. The community was assigned a U.S.-born priest, who developed a pastoral council. When the pastor was reassigned, the council continued to meet in the priest’s absence and make decisions for the Korean Catholic community—something for which Canon Law makes no provision. Community leaders even invited a bishop from Seoul to visit and confirm their children. When the local diocesan bishop heard about the invitation, he had to explain to the Koreans that the bishop from Seoul did not have permission to administer Confirmation in his diocese. It was an embarrassing moment. Councils have a consultative vote. They cannot make decisions on behalf of the parish or ethnic community.

The Meaning of “Pastoral”

Councils investigate, ponder, and propose conclusions about “pastoral” matters. In this way they “foster pastoral activity.” But what are these pastoral matters? In Spanish, the word “pastoral” has a distinctive meaning. Spanish speakers talk about “pastoral de litúrgica” and “pastoral de evangelizadora.” “Pastoral” is a noun that connotes ministry, catechesis, religious service, spirituality, and coordination of parish events. For that reason, many people think that “pastoral” councils should have nothing to do with the business of parish administration.

For U.S. Catholics, however, “pastoral” is an adjective. It means “pertaining to the pastor”—something different and arguably broader than the Spanish “pastoral.” To be sure, pastoral matters include traditionally “spiritual” matters, such as catechesis and liturgy. But it is not limited to spiritual matters. It can also mean temporal affairs, fund-raising, and the technical skills of the trained planner. The documents of the Church do not assign spiritual matters to one council (the pastoral council) and administrative matters to another (the finance council). Indeed, the matter of the pastoral council includes anything the pastor sees fit to consult about except matters of faith, orthodoxy, moral principles or laws of the universal Church.

Today, many North Americans speak of the “pastoral” council as a planning body. It plans along the lines of canon 511, that is, by “investigating,” “pondering,” and “making recommendations” about pastoral matters. Indeed, many pastors are so committed to the planning paradigm that they ask councillors to express their advice in terms of goals and objectives. About this North American “pastoral” council, the Latin American may be puzzled. To him or her, a “consejo de pastoral” is relational and ministerial, not a matter of goals and objectives. Goals and objectives—the search for them may seem formal, technical, and artificial.

Here the possibility of cultural misunderstanding is great. Every pastoral council seeks practical wisdom. But not every council investigates and ponders the same matters. Not every council forms its conclusions in the same way. In order to prevent misunderstandings, pastors should clarify what they seek. If they want the council to express its conclusions in terms of goals and objectives, they should say so. If they want the council not only to plan, but actually to coordinate a parish event, then they should explain. The basic rule of thumb is this: pastors do the consulting. They have to tell their councillors what they seek.

Selection of Members

Not every parishioner, however, is able to understand the pastor’s search for wisdom. Not every parishioner can understand the work of investigation, pondering, and drawing conclusions. Pastors who encourage parishioners to join the pastoral council merely because they can “represent” a particular ethnic group may do the parishioner a great disservice.

Indeed, the very notion of a pastoral council may be incomprehensible to the immigrant. Poor immigrants may believe that they are incapable of advising a priest. They may feel that they not only lack the education, but also are unworthy. They are reluctant to offer advice to one who, in their native village, directs them spiritually, politically and economically. “Many of my poor countrymen are like the laborer I hired to help with construction work,” said a Mexican-American woman who was a pastoral council chairwoman. “He hung his head and would not meet my eyes.”

The fundamental criterion for potential councillors is this: are they able to accomplish the council’s work? In other words, are they able to seek the truth together, reflect on and discuss it, and draw sound conclusions? If they can do this, they may be good council members. But discovering this talent takes time. Potential councillors have to learn about councils. They have to understand what being a councillor entails.

For that reason, we advocate a process of sharing wisdom#4 about member selection. According to this process, the selection of council members requires accurate information and sound discernment. In choosing persons for the pastoral council, parishes should invite all who are interested to a series of meetings. The meetings are designed to educate people about the purpose of the council. They also enable parishioners to discern together who is suited for the work of the council. Parishioners work together as equals, for all share in the wisdom of the community.

Cultural misunderstanding, however, may cripple the shared wisdom process. Good intentions about sharing wisdom do not suffice, especially in a bi-cultural situation where one culture is more powerful than another. This was the case at St. Julie Church, where Father Sean O’Rourke wanted to establish a council. He taught the parishioners about the principle of shared wisdom. Prominent leaders at St. Julie’s, born in the U.S., wholeheartedly affirmed the principle. In order to select councillors, they advertised open meetings. They invited the participation of all by means of announcements in the bulletin. They assumed that they were being fair and inclusive.

But without intending to do so, the U.S.-born leaders at St. Julie (the name has been changed) overpowered the Mexican-born immigrant parishioners. The Mexicans did not rely on the bulletin for information. They were not familiar with the concept of open meetings. They did not know how to participate in them effectively. The very process of the meetings favored the U.S.-born and suppressed the wisdom of the immigrants. When the council members were elected in the last of three open meetings, all but two were born in the U.S. And the two Mexican-born councillors were invariably quieter than their U.S.-born counterparts. Many Mexican parishioners were resentful.

Father O’Rourke wanted to share wisdom successfully in his bi-cultural situation. He and the council questioned their assumptions about how councillors should be selected and about how to include others in decision-making. They realized that they had to fit the process of selecting councillors to their situation. They had to ensure the participation of all, especially the Mexican parishioners. So the next time they had to choose council members, they adapted the shared wisdom process. Father O’Rourke and his team:

  • planned the parish meetings with Mexican parishioners, helping them to identify parishioners with the appropriate gifts for the council ministry;
  • created opportunities for faith-sharing with all those present;
  • invited parishioners by means of a phone tree, in addition to the bulletin;
  • made the meetings hospitable, incorporating Mexican foods and styles of prayer;
  • created opportunities at the meetings for Mexican parishioners to meet separately and as part of the whole;
  • found ways to express to each cultural group the conclusions of the other; and
  • established a climate in which almost half of the chosen councillors were of Mexican descent.

In this way, the council at St. Julie overcame the resentment of those Mexican parishioners who felt they had been excluded. It became a truly bi-cultural council. St. Julie’s parishioners did not choose councillors merely for their cultural background. They chose them rather for their ability to do the council’s threefold work. We applaud this. We believe that the best way to choose councillors is to invite parishioners into the selection process so that they can share their wisdom.


Our heightened awareness of multiculturalism in today’s Church has important consequences for pastoral councils. Such councils have a well-defined purpose. It is to make present the wisdom and common sense of the community. Every cultural group goes about this work of pastoral planning in its own way.

We looked, for example, at the distinctive dynamic of the monocultural council whose pastor belongs to a different culture. Sometimes the pastor puts such trust in the council that the council enjoys (even inappropriately) great authority, as in the Vietnamese council of St. Anne Church. Sometimes problems arise, as in the case of the Korean council that continued to meet after its American pastor was reassigned. These examples underscore the importance of good communication, especially about the nature of Church consultation.

We also looked at the bi-cultural situation at St. Julie Church. There the U.S.-born parishioners learned how to adapt the shared wisdom process. The result was a single council composed of members of two cultural groups. More importantly, its members were chosen at an open meeting for their ability to do the work of the council, the work of pastoral planning.

A truly multicultural council was reflected in the Mexican woman’s story about her Los Angeles parish. There the well-meaning pastor, in an effort to meet the needs of the Spanish-speaking parishioners, established a separate Hispanic “pastoral council.” This separate council proved divisive. Although the pastor eventually fused the Hispanic pastoral council members into a new, multicultural council, it was a difficult process. In order to avoid these difficulties, and to be faithful to the spirit of Canon Law, we do not recommend separate ethnic councils.

We believe that the Church has defined parish pastoral councils in a way that can be translated from one culture to another. Every culture understands the concept of the search for wisdom. Our challenge is not to establish separate ethnic councils that “represent” in a manner foreign to the Church’s understanding of this word. It is rather to establish well-integrated pastoral councils, councils that pastors who seek wise guidance can successfully consult.


1. Bryan T. Froehle and Mary L. Gautier, National Parish Inventory Project Report (Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, October, 1999), p. 12.

2. Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, “Private Letter on ‘Pastoral Councils’” (Omnes Christifideles, 1/25/73), par. 7, reprinted in James I. O’Connor, editor, The Canon Law Digest, Vol. VIII: Officially Published Documents Affecting the Code of Canon Law 1973-1977 (Chicago: Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus, 1978), pp. 280-288. Also published as “Patterns in Local Pastoral Councils,” Origins 3:12 (Sept. 13, 1973): 186-190.

3. John Paul II, Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition, Translation prepared under the auspices of the Canon Law Society of America (Washington, D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1983), canon 511. This canon pertains to diocesan pastoral councils. Canon 536 describes the purpose of parish pastoral councils, but does so in very brief terms. Through the council, states canon 536, “the Christian faithful along with those who share in the pastoral care of the parish in virtue of their office give their help in fostering pastoral activity.” We believe that the language of canon 536 (about PPCs) should be understood in terms of canon 511 (about DPCs). Canon 511 echoes the original language about pastoral councils in the Vatican II Decree on Bishops (at par. 27).

4. Mary Benet McKinney, Sharing Wisdom: A Process for Group Decision Making, reprint edition (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1998). For an example of how this process works, see Michael Parise, “Forming Your Parish Pastoral Council,” The Priest 51:7 (July 1995): 43-47.