Parish Pastoral Councils In The Life Of The Church

Parish Pastoral Councils give concrete expression to a rediscovered sense of the Church as the People of God

The Historical Background to Parish Pastoral Councils
From the middle ages right up to the meeting of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, ministry in the Church was highly clericalised; that is to say, ministry was seen as something that those who were ordained did for and on behalf of the community. Those who were ordained served the needs of all the baptised and leadership and authority rested with them. Ordination was seen as the sacrament that allowed one to share in the mission of Christ. The responsibility of parishioners was simply to pray, pay and obey.

Vatican II: A Renewed Vision of Church
This began to change in the 1960’s when the Church from all around the world gathered as one to address key questions, like:

What is the Church?
What is the Church about?
What is the Church called to?
These meetings are known as the Second Vatican Council and from them emerged a renewed vision of Church. It spoke of the Church not primarily as the institution, not as the hierarchy, not as an organization but rather as the ‘People of God’ – a term that had been used frequently in the first centuries of the Church but which had gradually disappeared from use.A Renewed Recognition of the Role of the Laity
Within this new self-understanding, Vatican II strongly affirmed that all the baptized share in the mission of the Church. The Council’s Decree on the Laity Apostolicum Actuositatem stated that:

The laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world.In other words it is baptism, not ordination, that gives us a share in the mission of Christ. This reflects a move away from a clerical view of ministry to one where all the baptized are invited to use their gifts in the service of the reign of God.

In recent times Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of “the need for a change in mindset , particularly concerning lay people, They must no longer be viewed as “collaborators” of the clergy but truly recognised as ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action.”

Thus the last fifty years have marked a shift away from thinking of the parish as a place where individuals and families are ministered to by their priests, towards thinking of the parish as a community of disciples, priests and people, working together and using their gifts to serve the needs of the community and the world. It is against this background that we can begin to understand the gradual emergence and development of leadership structures in parishes such as parish pastoral councils and parish pastoral assemblies.

Canon Law and Parish Pastoral Councils

In light of this new understanding of Church as the ‘People of God,’ the revised Code of Canon Law (1983) which shapes the life of the Church, urged that pastoral councils be established in every parish. Canon 536 states:

§1 If, after consulting the council of priests, the diocesan bishop considers it opportune, a pastoral council is to be established in each parish. In this council, which is presided over by the parish priest, Christ’s faithful, together with those who by virtue of their office are engaged in the pastoral care of the parish, give their help in fostering pastoral action.§ 2 The parish council has only a consultative vote, and it is regulated by the norms laid down by the diocesan bishop.

From this we can establish certain characteristics of a parish assembly. It is:

  • an approved structure recommended by the church
  • a group that includes both priests and people
  • a group that is representative of the parish community
  • a group whose role is to help in fostering pastoral action
  • a group that is consultative by nature.

The fact that Canon Law describes the Parish Pastoral Council or Parish Assembly as having ‘only a consultative vote’, does not mean that the parish priest is free to do his own thing: rather it means that he is called to listen carefully and consider seriously what the assembly is saying and comes to a mature decision based on what he has heard. While it is true that a parish pastoral council is a consultative group and that the parish priest bears the ultimate responsibility and authority for decisions within the parish community, Vatican II emphasises that the parish priest has a clear duty to respect and value the wisdom and insights of all the baptized. In its Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, known as Lumen Gentium, the council exhorts priests and bishops to respect the role the dignity, the rights and the responsibilities of the faithful.

Let the spiritual shepherds recognize and promote the dignity as well as the responsibility of the laity in the Church. Let them willingly employ their prudent advice. Let them confidently assign duties to them in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action. Further, let them encourage lay people so that they may undertake tasks on their own initiative. Attentively in Christ, let them consider with fatherly love the projects, suggestions and desires proposed by the laity.A great many wonderful things are to be hoped for from this familiar dialogue between the laity and their spiritual leaders: in the laity a strengthened sense of personal responsibility; a renewed enthusiasm; a more ready application of their talents to the projects of their spiritual leaders. The latter, on the other hand, aided by the experience of the laity, can more clearly and more incisively come to decisions regarding both spiritual and temporal matters. In this way, the whole Church, strengthened by each one of its members, may more effectively fulfil its mission for the life of the world.

PDF Resources

Insights from the Irish Context
Continuing the Mission of Christ