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 Parish: Overview

Manual for Parish Pastoral Councils
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What is a Parish Pastoral Council?

Parish pastoral councils help in fostering pastoral activity (Canon 536), distinct from parish finance councils, which aid the pastor in the administration of parish goods. (Canon 537)

The experience of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles  over the past thirty years has clarified the answers to the following questions: What do pastors stand to gain by having a council? and What do parishioners accomplish by serving in one?

Pastors establish councils because they seek practical advice on pastoral matters.  They believe that God's Spirit speaks through their people.  They consult their councils because they want to know what is wise and prudent.  Outside experts cannot judge what is best for a particular parish, because they are not part of it. Councils offer what no expert can offer: a judgment about what is right for a particular parish.  That is the pastor's primary motive for having a council.

Parishioners want to serve on councils, we believe, in order to advise the pastor wisely and prudently.  Every leader needs good counsel.  Recommendations developed by a pastoral council will be good to the degree that the council reaches its goal.  That goal is to investigate pastoral matters and to reflect on them thoroughly, so as to draw sound conclusions.  Council members believe that God's Spirit is present in their community.  They study the pastoral situation so as to help the parish see it more clearly.  They have the satisfaction of doing an important task, which contributes to the well being of the Church.  

The Pastoral Council as a Planning Body

The foundations of pastoral councils rest in the Church's official documents and in the teachings from Christian antiquity about communion, participation, gifts, and consultation.  However, what do pastoral councils actually do?    The answer, in a phrase, is pastoral planning.  Councils help pastors plan the parish's pastoral program. Next, we will look at the purpose of councils, their particular functions, and how pastoral planning builds consensus and helps the parish discern the future, which God offers.  

The Purpose of a Pastoral Council 

Pope Paul VI stated that the pastoral council is "to examine and consider all that relates to pastoral work and to offer practical conclusions on these matters, so that the life and activity of the People of God be brought into greater conformity with the Gospel. When we look at this definition, we see that it has three parts. 

The first part of the definition states that councils examine pastoral matters.  The term "pastoral matters" is very broad. In short, it means, whatever pertains to the work of the pastor, including the well being of the community, the needs of the parish and concerns that will need attention in the future.  The pastoral council identifies these issues and studies them thoroughly.

The next part of the definition states that the council "considers" the issues it has examined.  Its aim is to get a deeper understanding of the concerns.  No council will be satisfied with a dry recitation of facts and figures about the parish.  It wants to understand their meaning:  

  • What do facts and figures say about the faith of the parish? 
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses in the parish?
  • What problems loom on the horizon? 

When the council "considers" pastoral matters, it seeks to discern how God is present in the situation.  It prays to discover how God invites the parish community to act.

The final part of the definition has to do with practical conclusions.  The council has investigated a situation and reviewed it.  It now has to make a judgment.  It has to recommend to pastors what the council believes they should do.  It has to judge, not what is right for parishes in general, but what is right for this particular parish.  The goal is to bring the parish more into conformity with the Gospel. 

The three aspects of Pope Paul's definition express the purposes of the council: to examine, to consider, and to draw conclusions.   The role of the parish pastoral council is, through ongoing pastoral planning, to maintain the integrity of the parish mission and the goals and objectives related to it.  Within this model, programs and events continue to take place in the parish through the efforts of many dedicated parishioners, always in the context of the parish mission and its pastoral plan.

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