Pastoral Councils and their Vital Role in the Church Today

By Patricia McNally

Addressing the clergy and consecrated people in Assisi on October 7th 2013, Pope Francis said ‘How necessary the Pastoral Councils are! A Bishop cannot lead a diocese without the Pastoral Councils. A parish priest cannot lead a parish without the Pastoral Councils.This is fundamental!’

The concept of Pastoral Councils stemmed from Vatican II in 1965 and, since then ‘the Church has repeatedly recommended the development of pastoral councils as a means of encouraging the shared responsibility of all the baptized in the life and mission of the church’. When Pope John Paul II spoke to over 100 bishops in Asia, in New Delhi, he proposed that they ‘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’. In 1988 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger addressed the bishops of Chile and he spoke of Vatican II as a ‘pastoral council with a modest intent and not as a rupture with tradition’.

Today, this fresh vision for the Church is becoming a reality, as pastoral councils are being embraced by more and more parishes as a means of moving forward towards the new evangelization.  I will discuss what a Pastoral Council is, its role in a parish and diocese, and how vital these councils are, not only to the growth of a parish community, but to the future growth of the Church. I will share my own experience as a member of a pastoral council and put forward my own thoughts and suggestions as to how we can nurture the councils that are already in place,and how we can plant more seeds that will grow into fruitful pastoral councils of the future.

What is a Parish Pastoral Council?

‘Parish Pastoral councils are at the service of mission and evangelization. They are not debating societies or places for honorary membership. They should facilitate the co-ordination of parish services. They must also provide leadership in reaching out to young people and engaging them in their questioning of their faith. We have to find the right path together, bishops, priests, religious, and lay women and men. We have to launch out into the deep, even if it gets us at times out of our depth, and even into deep water.’ – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

A pastoral council is made up of members of the laity, the parish priest or his delegate, parish staff and maybe some religious members of the community. The Pastoral Council provides support to the priest/s in the nurturing, fostering and growing of the faith of the community, whilst at the same time evangelizing and being a group of mission. Its main focus is on the issues that affect the day to day lives of the parishioners of the parish.

What is the role of a Pastoral Council? 

A pastoral council provides the space for the Holy Spirit to become alive and active in a parish community through the members of the pastoral council. The aim of a pastoral council is to bring the church closer to the people and the people closer to the church. They are the vital bridges which can enable us as a church to reach out to those who are on the outskirts or the fringes of our communities. The main purposes of a pastoral council include:

1. Investigating and fostering pastoral activity.

2. Guided by teaching and tradition, review ways of growing the faith through apostolic initiatives, catechesis, liturgy, involving the laity in the church, Sacramental preparation, evangelization, outreach to youth, the elderly and families.

3. Open up lines of communication with Parish groups, the wider community and the diocese.

4. Assess the needs of the parish, set goals and objectives and bring projects to fruition.

5. Consultative body & support to the priest/s.

6. Reflecting evaluating, discerning and planning ahead.

My own experience as a Pastoral Council Member

I am a member of the Pastoral Council in St. Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy,Co Wexford,and have been for the past 10 years since it was set up. A few years prior to this I had just began to re-connect with my own faith and had moved from Dublin to Enniscorthy. I felt quite isolated in a town where I didn’t know anybody. I was going to Mass, but not that regularly. I made some friends through a baby group that was on in the area, and one day, myself and a friend went into the Cathedral and got speaking to the parish priest. He asked us if we would be interested in joining a Gospel Choir if he set one up in the parish. We both said that we would be interested, as we felt that it would be a good way for us to get to know some people in the area. I became involved with the Gospel choir which I loved, and from there, I got involved in a First Holy Communion preparation Committee. Then following on from that – a parish mission planning Committee.It was out of this Committee that the Pastoral Council was born. 

One of the most enjoyable projects I was involved in,with the Pastoral Council,was helping with the organising of a Faith Festival/Eucharistic Gathering in 2013. Organising this event required us as a pastoral council, to take a leap of faith and to pull together to make it a success. It was amazing to watch the whole project grow in front of our eyes, and, to see the impact it had, on not only our own parish, but also on the diocese and also further afield. People were moved by the many witness talks that took place. It was a wonderful celebration of our faith, not only on a local and diocesan level,but also on a universal level as we celebrated the Year of Faith.

Looking back now I can see how the Holy Spirit worked through us all, and showed us just what faith can do!.

Our pastoral council meets once a month and we open our meetings with a prayer. Each month a different member prepares a prayer and opens the meeting. Over the past ten years we have placed a focus on outreach, and these are some of the projects that the pastoral council has undertaken:

Area House Blessings

Community Mass for unemployed

Annual Mass for immigrants

Eucharistic Gathering/Faith Festival

Outreach to Exam Students

Development of a Family Mass

Annual Parish Walk

Annual Blessing of Pets

Welcome Home for Christmas campaign 

Come back to Confession for Easter campaign 

  What can Diocesan Pastoral Councils do to grow and assist existing pastoral councils?

1.Place more structure on pastoral councils that are in place so that all pastoral councils  in the diocese are working off the same ‘ hymn sheet’ – do this by putting together a hand-book for parishes.

2.Look at structures in existing pastoral councils that are working and re-produce that. 

3. Have retreat/ reflection days for Pastoral  Council members.

4. Organise an Annual meeting for all pastoral council members in the Diocese to meet up,connect with one another and have a look at what is working and what is not working in our councils. We need to learn from one another.

5.Look at the possibility of setting up a Diocesan pastoral council website where all parishes with pastoral councils can link up with one another.

6.Promote and encourage all pastoral council members across the diocese to attend a Pastoral Theology/ Catechesis Course. 

Building Bridges – A Vision for the Future 

‘Your main task isn’t to build walls, but bridges’ – Pope Francis

Pope Francis is truly a Pope who inspires. His words are so profound and so life-giving. Pastoral Councils need look no further than his document ‘ Evangelii Gaudium’ (The Joy of the Gospel) for the path forward. What he says in here, if applied to pastoral councils in particular, will ensure their success, and contribute to their growth across the world.

Here is a summary of the new paths laid out by Pope Francis in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’. I believe these paths will not only take pastoral councils to a different level but they will take the whole church to a new level as well if they are embraced by all of us, and in particular by Pastoral Council Members, who I feel have an added responsibility to move the Church forward in the area of Evangelization.

1. Being Welcoming and encouraging. 

2. Giving witness to our faith.

3. Sharing Faith, Hope and Love.

4. By living in a way that embraces the Resurrection of Christ.

5. Standing up for what we believe in as Catholics, the unborn, family and marriage.

6. Making connections and working towards unity.

7. Building bridges not walls.

8. Embracing Vatican II.

9. Refusing to water down the faith.

10. Taking risks, being bold and creative in finding new ways of evangelizing.

11. Reaching out to the outskirts and those on the fringes of our communities.

12. Assessing the dire needs of the people.

13. Collaborating not isolating

14. Having a renewed focus on mission.

By Promoting the growth of Local Pastoral Councils, this could contribute to the growth of a National Pastoral Council where representatives from each diocese would meet e.g, Annually. 

The establishment of a National Pastoral Council Website as resource for pastoral council members.

I would like to see this leading to the growth of an International Pastoral Council,where representatives from each country would meet up and work in unity with one another to grow the faith,to evangelize and to be a church of mission.

 Bishop Brendan Leahy,Bishop of Limerick, points Pastoral Councils to the Trinity when he says ‘Perhaps Rublev’s well-known fifteenth century icon, can, therefore, be something of a visual aid to help us reflect upon the Christian dynamics that should characterise a parish council characterised by such a spirituality of communion’.

    ‘I dream of a missionary option that is a    missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation’ – Pope Francis