A Pastoral Letter on Consultation in the Parish

Author: Most Rev. John R. Keating

A Pastoral Letter on Consultation in the Parish

Most Rev. John R. Keating
Bishop of Arlington

September 17, 1984
Feast of St. Robert Bellarmine

My brothers and sisters in the Lord:

I was a priest but one month, back in 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convene the Second Vatican Council and to rewrite the basic laws of the Church—the Code of Canon Law.

How much has happened in these past twenty-five years!

I remember how thrilled I was to attend the opening ceremonies of the Council in St. Peter's Basilica in 1962. During the four sessions of the Council (1962-1965) "Catholic" news filled the newspapers. Catholics were on center stage, it seemed, and there was palpable excitement everywhere in the Church. Changes were gradually being introduced into our worship and practices. It was really an exhilarating time to be a young priest, to be part of a new era.

At the same time, it was quite a challenge to be a young priest during that period, to be part of the turmoil that ensued. Almost helplessly, we priests, more than others, suffered the pain of loss of many brothers, and witnessed the widening identity crisis that pitted the servanthood of our ordination against the quest for self-fulfillment that permeated the times.

Some were saying that the years following the Vatican Council should be called the era of the layman; others didn't know what to call an era when the priesthood that comes of baptism—and the responsibility that comes of confirmation—converged to throw the role and relationship of both layman and priest into confusion. To be sure, it was a period that saw many unsteady first steps, some rash, some timid, toward creating almost "out of nothing" various structures of consultation within the Church. . .parish councils, priests' councils, diocesan pastoral councils. . .strange new concoctions that had no precedent to guide the pioneer designers.

From 1981 to 1983 the Priests' Council of Arlington did extensive work on a document that sought to identify the structures and role of parish councils, to clarify the relationship of pastor and council in the decision-making process of parish leadership. After studying the document with the Diocesan Pastoral Council, I thought it best to share the draft of the priests' document with pastors and parish councils across the diocese in order to get a preliminary reaction and the considered opinion of many. This consultation resulted in the decision to devote this first pastoral letter to the subject of consultation in the parish.

To be perfectly frank, I was not at all sure how to approach the subject. One avenue of approach would be to develop a researched essay that might bring together the best in contemporary thinking and writing on the subject. Another approach would be to formulate a legislative document, stipulating how parish councils and pastors should collaborate hereafter.

However, after many, many hours of reflection—and not a little "consultation"—I have thought it best to approach the matter simply through personal reflections stemming from my experience in parish life, and through some observations of an "old canonist" on the new Code of Canon Law as it will guide Church life for many decades to come.


I wish to speak to you simply of fundamentals, nothing fancy, just some basic ideas that might cast some light—one might hope—in clear, positive, and pastoral terms.

It seems to me that most of the conflict arising in pastor/parish council relations in the period immediately after Vatican II stemmed from a confusion over the basic ideas of consultation, authority, decision-making, role of the pastor, role of the parish council, etc. It was immensely interesting to me to study the constitutions of various parish councils to find that the form and structure of a local council usually follow the patterns with which the writers of the constitution were familiar. Some constitutions cast parish consultation in the categories of American governmental systems, others in military structures or, more commonly, according to models of corporate management. Yet, the simple concept of ecclesial consultation, properly understood, should cut through all these categories and remove the usual pitfalls that inevitably accompany any attempt to construe ecclesial decision-making in the forms of the secular society we know so well.

The Lord so often would tell a parable to illustrate a point, to teach us something important, something never to be forgotten. Do you remember His story of the two men who set out to build homes? The foolish man builds his house on sand, so that when the rains and wind come and beat against it, it collapses because the sandy foundation simply washes out. With no solid foundation, his house has to collapse.

The other man, the wise man, builds his house on rock. Because of the strength of the foundation, his house withstands the elements and serves him well. (Matthew 7:24-27)

To design and utilize effective processes of consultation in decision-making, it is absolutely necessary to build on solid and fundamental ideas of, e.g., pastor, parish, parishioner, parish council, etc. To design a consultative process for the Church on popular conceptions—or misconceptions—of secular backgrounds and models, can often lead to a confusion of roles, misguided agendas, mutual resentment and distrust, or outright dissension.

Are there any basics which the Church has developed in its history, any clear and simple "primeval" ideas which can, and must, be the foundation for any solid ecclesial consultative process in a parish? Does the Church shed any light on, e.g., the fundamental role and function of a pastor—on the fundamental role and function of advisors to the pastor—on the agenda of a parish council?

The answer to these questions is "yes."

After studying twenty years' post-conciliar experience and experiments, the Church has recently promulgated some basic concepts and directions for those who must develop workable processes of consultation in the local church. The source?—the new Code of Canon Law, in effect now since November 27, 1983.


Even though the phenomenon of parish councils appeared in the wake of Vatican II, it should be noted that the documents of the Council do not speak of, much less mandate, the existence of parish councils. Although there is no explicit reference to them in the teaching of the Council, it would be unfair, however, to say that parish councils simply appeared on the scene "out of thin air."

There is a passage in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (n.26) which recommends that the bishop institute a diocesan council which would act as a sort of coordinator amongst the various diocesan organizations promoting the lay apostolate:

"While preserving the proper character and autonomy of each organization, these councils will be able to promote the mutual coordination of various lay associations and enterprises."

The document then suggests that this might also be implemented on a parochial, interparochial, and interdiocesan level, as well as in the national or international sphere. Commentators on Vatican II are agreed that this reference really does not speak of parish councils, but refers to an interorganizational board to promote coordination of effort.

Somewhat germane is a two-sentence paragraph in the Council's Decree on the Bishops' Pastoral Office in the Church (n.27):

"It is highly desirable that in each diocese a pastoral council be established over which the diocesan bishop himself will preside and in which specially chosen clergy, religious, and lay people will participate. The function of this council will be to investigate and to weigh matters which bear on pastoral activity, and to formulate practical conclusions regarding them."

More relevant to the creation of parish councils was the now famous reference in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (n.37), which stated:

"An individual layman, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which he may enjoy, is permitted and sometimes even obliged to express his opinion on things which concern the good of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the agencies set up by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage, and in prudence, with reverence and charity towards those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ."

This expression of a right and a duty of the qualified layman to assist and advise his pastor is enshrined now in canon 228 of the new Code of Canon Law. Beyond the right and duty merely to speak, there comes from Vatican Council II the theological basis for the layman's right and duty actively to participate with pastors in the threefold mission of Jesus and His Church: to proclaim God's word to others, to sanctify others by His gifts of sacrament and sacrifice, and to lead others actively to His promise of eternal life.

Virtually all commentators on Vatican Council II agree that one of the most important and enduring concepts to come out of the Council is the idea of all the faithful, ordained and unordained, as the People of God. Gone is the idea that the laity are merely passive recipients of pastoral service rendered by the ordained. One may no longer envision Church membership as composed of the ordained, who minister, and the unordained, who are ministered unto.

No, all of us, through our baptism, in becoming children of God and heirs of heaven, have received through the Holy Spirit a whole network of rights and obligations that involve us directly in the mission of Jesus Himself.

"Let sacred pastors recognize and promote the dignity as well as the responsibility of the layman in the Church. Let them willingly make use of his prudent advice. Let them confidently assign duties to him in the service of the Church, allowing him freedom and room for action. Further, let them encourage the layman so that he may undertake tasks on his own initiative. Attentively in Christ, let them consider with fatherly love the projects, suggestions, and desires proposed by the laity. Furthermore, let pastors respectfully acknowledge that just freedom which belongs to everyone in this earthly city." (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n.37)

And so, in the 1960's began many local attempts to organize parish councils. There was unbounded enthusiasm among the pioneers, confident that it was all "in the spirit" of Vatican II.

It was only natural that the early designers would borrow from what they knew best. Some parish councils took on the form of representative democratic government, as we know it here in the United States. Sometimes a council would envision itself as the legislative branch of parish government, with representatives elected from the various "districts," "wards," or "precincts." The pastor might be envisioned as the chief executive who could "veto" legislation of the council. In case of dispute between the legislative and executive branches in a particular instance, appeal might be made to the judicial branch, i.e., the bishop.

Another model commonly used in designing parish councils was borrowed from the business world, the corporate management model. The council would sit as the board of directors of the corporation, representing the interests of the parishioner "shareholders." The pastor might well be both chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors. Then again, he might be assigned only "non-voting" membership on the board.

Much time and energy was often expended by the designers, trying to decide whether they should be policy-making boards or simply advisory boards. Should they be the decision-makers of parish policy, or merely counselors to the decision-makers? Often, the scope of the agenda was limitless, "whatever spiritual or temporal matter might come up for discussion or a decision."

In the early days, parish councils frequently stood out more by their differences from one another than by what they had in common. The history of some councils was one of reverse logic. First the group would come into being; then it began to wonder what it should do. Some councils had extravagant structure and devoted themselves mostly to procedure rather than to substance; other councils had no structure to be efficient at all.

In any case, one of the sadnesses in the post-Vatican Council era was the occasional conflict which arose within some parish councils. Looking back now, one might say that the confusion of that period was really inevitable, given the fact that there were very few absolutes by which to judge roles, responsibility, or competence.

"The problem, however, was that there were no adequate models to follow, and most parish councils became battlefields for power or were just plain boring. Most parish councils have adopted the model of corporate management, which often leads to frustration and unresolved conflict and tension. They did not have a clear purpose and were usually burdened with structure for the sake of structure and hampered by strict observance of Robert's Rules of Order. Meetings were often long, dull, nonproductive, and nothing more than an endless succession of committee reports." (Sofield/Hermann, Developing the Parish as a Community of Service [19841 p. 13)

In those pioneering days, there were so many obstacles and uncertainties to deal with that parish councils and pastors often succeeded in irritating, not only each other, but the parish at large. In my judgment, the greatest single weakness of some parish councils was the conviction that unless the council have real power to dictate policy and programs, it was useless in enhancing the quality of parish life. Some were truly persuaded by their experiences in secular life that a parish council is worthwhile only in so far as the collective votes of its individual members could indeed be the decision-maker. To say that a council is "only advisory" or "only consultative" to the pastor was to enervate its purpose and to reduce its usefulness to naught.


It would certainly be more exciting to devote this pastoral letter to the mission of the Church, the things to be accomplished in the name of Jesus, the people to be reached and touched, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to be generated in actual human situations, etc. But here we are talking about something prior to all that, something irritatingly fundamental in the very structure of planning how to accomplish such things. We are dealing here with the nuts and bolts of the process of getting those noble things into existence.

The real purpose and mission of a parish, of course, is outward in thrust, reaching out in service to people, ministering to them through the threefold mandate of teaching the word of God, sanctifying persons and leading them toward eternal life. So you must excuse us if we pause to undergo a bit of introspection, turning in on ourselves and our inner mechanics of operation. But this is basic to achieving success in our real mission outward to people... to proclaim the Gospel effectively, to recognize the signs of holiness all across the parish, to deepen that holiness throughout the parish by prayer, sacrament, and personal example, to help people worship God in the best way possible.


Most of the people whom a pastor serves in his parish have a primary identification with family and family life. They are naturally at home in an atmosphere of family life where they experience support, acceptance, intimacy, and availability. They naturally tend to seek these same traits in their parish community. Indeed this family characteristic of the laity profoundly influences and shapes the community life of Christians.

With a tinge of pride, a pastor will refer to "our parish family of St. Matthew's." The pastor is indeed the father of this parish faith community. The image of father is apt; the title "Father," so appropriate. He may not be the greatest organizer among his people, or the greatest accountant or public speaker. But he is the father. And that has a wealth more meaning than any worldly skills he may have. ..or not have. When the pastor senses that his people see him as their spiritual father, as their father in the faith, it helps him immensely to give the kind of overall leadership his office requires.


More than anyone else in the parish, the pastor publicly represents the credibility of the Gospel and the Church to the world:

"All pastors should remember too that by their daily conduct and concern, they are revealing the face of the Church to the world. Men will judge the power and truth of the Christian message thereby." (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n.43)

When a man accepts a pastorate, he becomes inescapably the appointed leader of the parish, the designated head, the adopted father in the faith to this community of believers. There is no getting away from that fact. It is simply the structure of the job, the office of pastor as designated by the Church. It is not too surprising that priests sometimes have a difficult time stepping into that leadership role, because, though called to be leaders in virtue of their ordination, they also are called to be servants of the people. Integrating the dual roles of leader and servant is not always an easy task.

Moreover, the pastor is to be the animator (a favorite word of Pope John Paul II); he is to motivate his people to work together towards eternal life. Yet, at the same time, he is expected to be the healer, the one who, though perhaps suffering himself, is called upon to reduce and neutralize tensions, to defuse antagonistic emotions, to bring peace and unity to his people.

It is no wonder that pastors are a rather rare breed. One of my pastors recently reminded me that, among the People of God, pastors are really a tiny minority. "Here in the Diocese of Arlington," he said, "we have 58 pastors among 188,000 Catholics. Within the People of God, we're outnumbered better than 3,000 to 1!"


The new Code of Canon Law goes into great detail describing the rights and duties of pastors. The local bishop may not take away those rights and duties (nor may his parishioners), but we can and must develop processes and procedures to help the pastor fulfill his responsibilities.

Some have said, however, that successful pastoring is more a matter of personality than process. There is an old Latin disjunction, id quod/modus quo (substance/manner), enshrined by usage through the centuries (especially by priests who came up through the Latin route) which was often invoked to say: What you do is not as important as the manner in which you do it; a person's style of leadership is more important than his credentials as leader; your decisions are not as important as the manner in which you arrive at them, announce them, implement them. The substance of decisions sometimes does not affect people's openness and acceptance half as much as the manner in which the decision was arrived at and implemented. It is not so much the authority that a pastor represents, but the manner in which he exercises that authority that really counts with people.

Modus quo means a lot for a leader. The manner, the way, the style, the timing, the wording, the setting—all these things mean much to the people's perception of the decision itself. I don't think it's too far off the mark to surmise that most conflict in parish councils has arisen, not because of the substance of a decision, but because of the manner in which it was made.


It is basic to our Catholic faith that Jesus, in instituting the Church, conveyed His authority to it as a working principle within the Church until the end of time. He transmitted that authority sacramentally so that it is entrusted to publicly discernible persons. It is so important that we not consider authority in the Church in the manner that we see and know authority in secular societies.

Pastors participate in that divine authority. Like their parishioners pastors have certain responsibilities which are theirs alone. They have duties which must be exercised personally in virtue of the mission they have from Christ in ordination and from the bishop through their appointment to the pastorate. While retaining all the responsibilities which belong to the baptized in common, a pastor holds an additional office which aims at the good of the whole body. Pope John Paul II, in speaking to the bishops of central France during their ad limina visit of March 23, 1982, said:

"It is quite clear that the priest must retain among the laity his role as animator, trainer, and coordinator, not to mention those activities which are peculiar to his ministerial priesthood and ought to be the essence of his life: the authorized teaching of the truths of the faith, the formation of consciences, training in prayer, the gift of God's grace through the sacraments, particularly the eucharist and penance."

Those who are called to the ordained leadership in the Church are, to be sure, especially accountable. Theirs is a commitment to service beyond the commitment of baptism. The ordained are especially bound to God's divine revelation, to the fundamental traditions and structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the teaching of the magisterium of the Church. This leadership, carried out in interdependence with the total church community, provides the parish community with unity in doctrine, in worship, in moral guidance, and in church life and achievement.

To carry out effectively their heavy responsibility pastors really need the encouragement of their people, and people really need the encouragement of their pastors. The clergy need to learn from their people, and the people need to learn from their clergy. They absolutely need to appreciate each other, to trust one another, to communicate openly with one another, to know one another in truth and in faith.

If we truly understand the magnitude of a pastor's responsibility, we can appreciate easily that a pastor needs all the help he can get from whatever quarter. Someone once asked me the question: What does an associate pastor have in common with a bishop? The answer, of course, is: They both have the task of helping the pastor do his job more effectively.


The parish has only one purpose for its existence—to continue the mission of Jesus. Its primary goal is to help every member grow to the fullness of his or her christian vocation.

One of the many pleasant discoveries in the new Code of Canon Law is the definition which it gives for a diocese and for a parish, both along the same lines: a) a portion of God's people, whose pastoral care is entrusted to—b) a single public servant (bishop or priest). A parish is not a place where, but a people who. Understanding the Church as "the people of God" has awakened the laity to a crucial role: the responsibility of all the baptized—clergy, religious, and laity together—to continue the mission of Jesus here on earth. Baptism confers inalienable rights and duties to this end. We are one people, with one faith, one baptism, and one God, the Father of us all.

"The body is one and has many members, but all the members, many though they are, are one body; and so it is with Christ. It was in one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body." (1 Cor.12:12-13)

"The eye cannot say to the hand, `I do not need you,' anymore than the head can say to the foot, 'I do not need you.'" (I Cor. 12:21)

"God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to the lowly members that there may be no dissension in the body, but that all the members may be concerned for one another. If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members share its joy." (I Cor. 12:24-26)

As one body, we depend on each other. While we have differing roles and responsibilities, we are all under one head, Christ Jesus, and through Him we depend on each other as brothers and sisters.

"Just as each of us has one body with many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we too, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the favor bestowed on each of us." (Rom. 12:4-6)


As a young priest in a Chicago parish on my first assignment in 1959, my pre-Vatican mind was always trying to create solutions to Church problems. I find now in my notes of twenty-five years ago—the oils of ordination, as they say, still moist on my hands—that I was convinced that the key to enlivening parish life was to find the right structure to safeguard and promote "the right to be heard"—of associate pastors like myself!

I still have in my files a rather spirited plan I composed in 1960 that would have the bishop legislate a weekly staff meeting of the pastor and his associates, thus assuring the associates' right to be heard. My creativity, I see, even got to the details on how the meeting was to be conducted, what the categories of agenda were to be, etc. There was never a thought back in those days of the laity's "right to be heard."

Then came Vatican Council II.

In 1964 I was asked by Chicago Studies (a theological journal published by the seminary staff in Mundelein, Illinois) to write an article describing what a diocesan synod is, since Cardinal Albert Meyer of Chicago had announced that he intended to convene a diocesan synod, once the Vatican Council ended. Canon Law (at that time) required every diocese to hold a synod every ten years, and since Chicago had not held one in over half a century, the completion of Vatican II seemed to provide the natural setting.

In doing research on the subject, I came to the novel conclusion that the real purpose of a diocesan synod was not (as the rest of the world believed) to issue fresh statutes and regulations for the diocese. No, the real purpose of holding a synod was to assure, at least every tenth year, the people's right to be heard. This article, I could see, was destined to be a real humdinger, the greatest new insight into the Church's historic wisdom since the time of Pope Benedict XIV (who wrote the classic treatise on diocesan synods back in the eighteenth century). But Cardinal Meyer died prematurely, before the end of the Council, and all plans for a diocesan synod evaporated. So did my vaunted article.

The new Code of Canon Law has a remarkable canon (n. 212). It canonizes the right to be heard among all God's People—clergy, religious, and laity alike.

Whatever the accuracy of my thesis on diocesan synods back in 1964, the new Code of Canon Law makes it pretty clear that the real purpose of a parish council is not to safeguard the laity's right to be heard, but to counsel the pastor on pastoral programs and services in the parish.

How does a pastor promote and protect the laity's right to be heard and take the pulse of his parish? A lot depends on the size of the parish. Some pastors come across as "easily approachable" by their ready availability outside church at the weekend Masses. Some remarkable pastors make themselves singularly available by their home-visiting. (Both Vatican II and the new Code of Canon Law call for home-visiting as an effective way for the pastor to know and to consult his people.) Another way I have found to "hear from the parish" and to collect well-considered and useful advice from the total parish is through the use of a town hall meeting. For about ten years I served on the Priests' Personnel Board in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and it was our duty to visit a parish whenever it had a change of pastorates, so that we might conduct a parish-wide meeting of consultation on the needs, the desires, the problems and hopes of the parish. The method we used, I thought, rather efficiently collected very useful data, organized it, and made it presentable to the incoming pastor. The new pastor always, it seemed, was anxious to read every word that we presented to him. It was my experience that the cross-section consultation of such a meeting gives a far more balanced and "catholic" pulse of the parish than a consultation limited to the members of the parish council.


Take one look at the Code of Canon Law and you know how strongly the Church insists on consultation at every level of decision-making.

I think it is a truism to state that a pastor cannot perform his responsibilities effectively as shepherd and as leader unless he is supported by consultation, solid consultation, quality consultation. Pastors know perhaps better than most that rarely is decision-making the work of one person. Indeed, a special function of the pastor is to promote consultation so that people may share to some extent in forming those decisions which affect them.

Sometimes a pastor does more consulting than he realizes. He may consult his brother pastors or individuals inside or outside the parish. He might even consult the bishop on certain matters! And there is always to be a special consultative relationship between the pastor and his associate pastor(s). Canon 545 casts some valuable light on their working relationship when it reminds us that associate pastors "...render their services in pastoral ministry as coworkers with the pastor, in common counsel and endeavor with him...." Moreover, the associate pastor "is regularly to consult with the pastor on planned or existing programs so that the pastor and the associate pastor(s) can provide through their combined efforts for the pastoral care of the parish for which they are responsible together." (Canon 548)

A pastor knows that there are among his people those who are clearly more competent than he is in e.g., accounting, fundraising, public speaking, organizing, coordinating, motivating, recruiting, record-keeping, hospitality and entertaining, managing, planning, etc. Yet, by the appointment of the bishop, he becomes the father of a family, a spiritual father who brings to his parish family his strengths and weaknesses, and embraces as his own the strengths and weaknesses of his family. He may be surpassed by various parishioners in any and every kind of skill that may be useful to a leader; but the pastor is to excel in the depth of his faith and in his commitment to serve the whole parish family. That depth of faith and that commitment to serve should provide the basis for his openness and effort to consult:

"Many benefits for the Church are to be expected from this familiar relationship between the laity and the pastors. The sense of their own responsibility is strengthened in the laity; their zeal is encouraged; they are more ready to unite their energies to the work of their pastors. The latter, helped by the experience of the laity, are in a position to judge more clearly and more appropriately in spiritual as well as in temporal matters. Strengthened by all her members, the Church can thus more effectively fulfill her mission for the world." (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n.37)


In 1982 Pope John Paul II, addressing the bishops of western France, spoke with them about the quality of life within parishes and the role of the laity:

"I encourage you to have as your aim the quality of the existing Christian communities. This is undoubtedly more important than their quantity. People need to find there, first of all, a high quality spirit of welcome, thanks to the presence of likeable and competent people whether they be priests, religious or lay people. They need high quality liturgical ceremonies which are an aid to active participation in a prayer which holds the Christian mystery in great respect. Whether they are children, youth or adults, they need high quality catechetical and doctrinal teaching."

There often is a correlation between the quality of pastoral activity in a given parish and the quality of the consultation which preceded it. A pastor, in virtue of his office, needs to have the ability to consult, whether he has that ability by nature, by grace, or by hard-fought acquisition. True, some people who have been given positions of leadership in the Church are natural-born leaders. They have a God-given talent for it. They communicate; they attract; they persuade. They seem to have an inborn knack to perceive, to sense, to appreciate, to prioritize. They are never lacking in courage to deal with others candidly and kindly, at times firmly and decisively. They never turn from a major problem that needs attention and solving. The tougher the problem, the more the leader is motivated to step in and address it.


The new Canon Law makes very clear what was not very clear before: the parish council is not a legislative body. It is not a policy-making, decree-issuing, statute-formulating council. It does not enact, decree, authorize, or regulate; nor does it prohibit, enjoin, correct, or enforce. It does not "pass bills" for the pastor to sign or veto.

I have heard recently that the study of Latin is making a great comeback in
Virginia. That is quite a consolation for one like me who, for ten solid but trying
years, was taught his college and post-graduate courses through the medium
of Latin in the classroom, including the study of Hebrew!

Latin is sometimes richer than English in its shades of meaning. For
example, we speak of Vatican Council II and the Third Council of Baltimore.
Here the English word council comes from the Latin concilium, and indicates a
legislative body. But we also speak of St. Matthew's Parish Council and the
Arlington Priests' Council. Here the English council comes from the Latin
consilium, which clearly indicates a non-legislative body, or a consultative body
...a meaning clearly lost in the English translation.

That literary loss has been the cause of some confusion in understanding the
role of a parish council. To obviate any such future "loss in translation" the new
Code of Canon Law reminds us explicitly that a parish council (consilium) is "consultative only." (Canon 536)

Secondly, the parish council is not a finance council. Church law now requires that "each parish is to have a finance council which is regulated by universal law as well as by norms issued by the diocesan bishop; in this council the Christian faithful.. .aid the pastor in the administration of parish goods...." (Canon 537)

One whole area, therefore, of the pastor's responsibilities lies outside the scope and purview of the parish council, and is assigned instead to a distinct consultative body, the finance council.

How separate the spheres of finance council and parish council? Some have suggested the distinction between "goods" and "services"; between "administration" and "ministries"; between what used to be termed the "temporalities" and the "spiritualities" of parish life. Some would divide it into the areas of the pastor's responsibilities as manager and as shepherd.

In any case, it is clear from the new law of the Church that the scope of the parish council does not extend into the administration of the parish, but is restricted to what are called "pastoral" activities. That is why the precise title of what we have come to know as parish council or parish advisory board is the pastoral council of a parish.

Thirdly, the parish council, or, let us hereafter refer to it as the pastoral council, is not the grievance machinery of the parish. As we described above, the pastoral council's primary function is not to assure the faithful's right to be heard; nor is it the pastor's primary vehicle to take the pulse of the parish.


Deliberately to enhance the quality of parish life and pastoral activity is the sole purpose of creating and utilizing a pastoral council. A pastor establishes a council to expand and enhance the decision-making process of 1) pastoral planning and goal-setting; 2) developing and implementing pastoral programs; 3) improving pastoral services; 4) evaluating pastoral effectiveness.

Father Bertram Griffin, in a recent article in Chicago Studies (April 1984), summed it up rather graphically:

"The purpose of the pastoral planning council is to study the life and activity of the people of God; that is, to research the needs, the ideas, the hopes of the people of God, their actions and so on; secondly, to evaluate the parish in conformity with the gospel; and thirdly, to recommend policies, procedures and programs. The job of the parish council, therefore, is not to decide whether the American flag will be in or out of the sanctuary, or whether coleslaw will be served at the parish dinner. The job of the parish council is to deal with the mission of the church, long-range and short-range goals and objectives, and to design those procedures and processes by which the pastoral work of the church is to be accomplished. It does not coordinate the work of the church. You do not have to attend a boring meeting once a month to hear what everybody else is doing. That is not the idea of a parish council in the revised Code." (pp. 58-59).

The purpose of the pastoral council is to counsel the pastor in the areas of pastoral activities. This of course is more simply said than done! The phrase "pastoral activities" seems to be one of those all-embracing phrases that can extend to almost anything.

Here again I think that the new Code of Canon Law can help us focus in on the proper agenda. More than ever before, the law of the Church has spelled out the pastoral activities of the pastor (Canons 528-529). These two canons speak of what the Church considers basic pastoral work in a parish:

1. instruction in the full range of the faith and catechetical formation;
2. programs promoting gospel values, including issues of social justice;
3. Catholic education of children and young adults;
4. outreach to fallen-away Catholics;
5. ecumenism and evangelization;
6. programs of sacramental life and preparation;
7. promotion of Eucharistic devotion;
8. enhancement of programs for the sacraments of Penance and Holy
9. inculcation of prayer life, especially within families;
10. effective participation in the liturgy;
11. methods of acquaintance with parishioners, the welcoming of
newcomers, home-visiting, efforts at building community;
12. motivation of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy;
13. efforts of special care for the sick and dying;
14. tangible concern for the poor, the afflicted, the lonely, the exiled;
15. fostering of solid Christian family life;
16. promotion of the lay apostolate;
17. strengthening of extra-parochial relations with the bishop, diocesan
pastoral efforts, and a worldwide Catholic identity.

In a word, the role of the pastoral council is to help the pastor identify pastoral needs in the parish, help him plan pastoral programs and improve pastoral services, evaluate the effectiveness of existing programs and services with a view to their improvement or, at times, their substitution or termination.


1. Keep the procedural norms of the pastoral council as simple as possible. The structure of an ecclesial advisory (i.e., consultative) body is very simple, while the structure of an ecclesial legislative, executive or judicial body is tightly regulated.

Let me give an example from church structure. The local bishop must have a board of consultors (an advisory body of six to twelve priests) who counsel the bishop in various sectors of diocesan administration. In this capacity they have no formal machinery, constitution, or by-laws to regulate their advisory activity. The consultation of bishop and consultors is pursued only by simple dialogue and exchange. However, beyond its advisory duties, the board of consultors has the unique prerogative of electing a temporary administrator of the diocese when, for example, the bishop dies or is transferred. Church law, in this case, has made careful and stringent statutes to govern the election and concomitant duties of the consultors during the vacancy of the diocese. To put it "ecclesially," to advise does not require structures; but to elect or to govern does indeed require clear statutes. The same could be said of the college of cardinals, in their dual capacity of advising the Holy Father and of electing a new Pontiff.

2. Narrow the scope, competence, and agenda of the pastoral council. Since quality of advice is far more important than quantity, it is eminently advisable that a council take on only a limited number of issues which are really significant. Quality of advice is all-important, often requiring plenty of homework. When the quality of advice is high, it is usually compelling, and determines the final choice. The quality of pastoral activity in a parish, or across a diocese, depends heavily on the quality of the consultative process in planning and decision-making. It is difficult to overestimate the value of good consultation.

"With the introduction of the new law, the people in parish council ministry will, hopefully, have an opportunity to reflect on past experience. It may well be that we will see emerging a true pastoral council on the parish level, leaving the development and coordination of ministerial committees and apostolic lay organizations to parish staff, thereby avoiding the growing sense of boredom on parish super councils where the only action month after month is hearing reports from committees, commissions and organizations, each having a reserved seat on the board." (Griffin, Code, Community, Ministry [1983] pp. 61-62)

3. The pastor is the primary selector of the council's agenda. While council members should have full freedom to add to the agenda, the work of the council should be determined mainly by the person to whom the body is advisory. It is clearly part of the pastor's leadership role to select pastoral topics and projects, programs and services, which really need consideration. There's some truth in the old adage: "A leader is not one who does things well, but rather one who finds the right things to do."

4. The pastor is not a member of the pastoral council. This is typical of the structure of an ecclesial advisory body. For example, the Holy Father is not a member of the college of cardinals, nor is the bishop a member of the diocesan board of consultors or of the diocesan pastoral council. It would be off target to debate whether the pastor is a voting or a non-voting member of the pastoral council.

5. The ability to listen outweighs the ability to speak. I have long been convinced that for both pastor and pastoral council members the ability to listen is far more valuable in the creation of good ideas than the ability to speak, and that the ability to "feel with the Church" (sentire cum ecclesia) is far more productive to good pastoral activity than the ability to be eminently logical in one's reasoning.

6. No pastor, no council. When a parish loses its pastor (through death, retirement, transfer, etc.) all activity of the pastoral council has to cease until the new pastor reconvenes the council.


I pray that what I have written here will be perceived as more than a short course in the new Canon Law on the subject of consultation in the Church (though knowledge of the law is not at all to be disparaged). I pray that these few thoughts may help to prompt far greater consultation in parishes and a deeper unity within the People of God and their sharing in Jesus' mission here on earth.

It was in high school religion class that I learned of the four marks of the Church, the four features that Jesus gave His Church to allow it to be recognized as His Church, the four "notes" that we profess every Sunday in reciting the Creed that comes down to us from the fourth century—unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.

It was a pleasant theological reminder to find the new law saying so plainly that a diocese (like Arlington) "constitutes a particular church in which the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative." (Canon 369)

But if the four marks are present and operative in a diocese, they must also be present and operative in the individual parishes that comprise the diocese. If the pastoral council of a parish can achieve one supreme value, it is to work actively with the pastor to make their parish truly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Together they are called to promote and enliven the God-given characteristics of:

1. Unity: by fostering among the total parish community a unity of liturgy and worship, of goals and leadership.

2. Holiness: by presenting clearly the image of the parish as genuinely dedicated to the santification of all its people.

3. Catholicity: by helping the parish to reach out to everyone—to the elderly, the young, the unborn, the handicapped, to families, to non-Catholics—to everyone!

4. Apostolicity: by cultivating the parish's ties to the Holy Father, the bishop, the worldwide efforts of the Church, aware of its historic identity with the church of the Apostles.

The pastoral council is called to be the core group that supports the pastor in his leadership role, expands his awareness of needs and achievements, counsels him on pastoral outreach, while affirming his indispensable office as the people's mediator with the Father and as their tangible link with the bishop and the universal church.

That's quite a calling. But God's grace is there to make it a reality.

Devotedly yours in Christ,

John R. Keating
Bishop of Arlington

With permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald, Arlington Virginia