Regarding Omnes Christifideles 7, Father Michael Fones, OP wrote on September 5, 2010:
I’ve been studying your book “Pastoral Councils in Today’s Catholic Church” in preparation for a presentation I have to give next month. I have a question regarding what exactly is meant in Omnes Christifideles, 7, when the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy wrote, “although the members of the council cannot in a juridical sense be called representatives of the total diocesan community, …”

Is it simply saying that the members of the council in no way legally represent the diocese? Is that, in a way, indemnifying all the members of the council against litigation (even though their contribution is limited to consultation)? Or is more being said that I’m not catching?

By the way, I’ve recommended this book to my superior who is planning on beginning a pastoral council at the campus ministry he directs. I think it will help him avoid all kinds of problems!

I also agree that a discernment process is the best way to get excellent, committed, gifted members of the parish involved in pastoral planning. I “stole” a process from a Dominican friend of mine in Australia. It was a three-night process and used an outside facilitator, and I was very pleased with the process (which engaged a good number of people in the campus ministry) and the results. After a large group discussion of the mission of the campus ministry parish and the needs of the community (including the secular community), we heard parishioners speak about the gifts and skills of potential councillors (I only listened), and then heard the nominees describe their hopes for the parish community. Finally, all of the community that gathered for those first two sessions got into groups of three and had to come to a consensus of 7-8 names out of the 15 or so nominees (the council was to be seven people, at least initially). So people didn’t vote individually, but as triads, and then the votes were tallied. Even those that weren’t selected were affirmed by the comments of their fellow parishioners on the second night, so I never heard of any hurt feelings. Plus, everyone involved learned a bit about listening, affirming, consensus building and the scope of pastoral planning.

Mark F. Fischer replied:
You asked about the passage from Omnes Christifideles 7, which states that councillors cannot be called “representatives” in a juridical sense. I think your interpretation is correct: Members of the council do not legally represent the diocese. Your sense of the passage can be corroborated by two more recent documents.

In the 2002 document of the SC for the Clergy entitled “The Priest, Pastor and Leader” (no. 26), we read that only the priest can legally “represent” the parish and that the pastoral council cannot “materially constrain” the pastor.

The 2004 “Directory on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops” by the SC for Bishops reaffirms canon 512. It states (in no. 184) that the DPC does not “represent” the people of God but “reflects” them.

Both of these passages support your reading. The council does not legally represent the diocese. Only the pastor can do that. At the same time, the council is “representative” in the sense that it “makes present” the wisdom of God which resides in the faithful.

Congratulations on the discernment process that you describe. I really like it. It is an open process (and so avoids any whispers that the council is a clique). At the same time, the group work ensures that the final choices are well-considered.

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