While Parish Pastoral Councils emerged after the Second Vatican Council as a response to a desire that Priests and laity work together, the work and the purpose of the Council has its origins in the early Church.
The earliest example the whole Christian community working together is evident in the writings of the Acts of the Apostle and of the early Church. The writings provide examples of many small communities of Christians sharing their gifts and talents in the service of their community by supporting one another through prayer and the sharing of resources.
Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. [1 Peter 4:10]
The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (1965) called for the laity to have an active part to play in the life of the Church. It called for the formation of Parish Pastoral Councils in which the laity were to serve as advisory bodies to the pastor and together exercise their role of leadership in sharing their gifts, talents and resources for the good of all in the community
The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity states, ‘In dioceses, insofar as possible, there should be Councils which assist the apostolic work of the Church either in the field of evangelisation and sanctification or in the charitable, social, or other spheres, and here it is fitting that the clergy and Religious should cooperate with the laity. While preserving the proper character and autonomy of each organisation, these Councils will be able to promote the mutual coordination of various lay associations and enterprises.’
Second Vatican Council. Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People. Apostolicam Actuositatem, (AA). Pope Paul VI. November 18,1965. (26).
The Code of Canon Law, revised and promulgated in 1983, reinforced the recommendation the Second Vatican Council to establish Parish Pastoral Councils. It emphasised even more strongly the pastoral role of the Council. It once again reaffirmed that by virtue of baptism, the laity are empowered to participate in the mission of the Church and in the pastoral activity of the parish.
The term ‘pastoral’ is an important one, because the Parish Council that it describes is called to leadership specifically to foster pastoral action – action that is inspired by the Gospel as well as being centred on its proclamation; action that is intended to build warm human community in which members’ faith is nourished and they are enabled to celebrate their lives in liturgical worship as well as witnessing to their faith in daily life. To fulfil this role, which is a sharing in the role proper to the Pastor, the Council will listen to, and explore the hopes, needs and gifts of the community, reflect on them in the light of the Gospel, and come to appropriate pastoral action.
Parish Pastoral Councils, as noted above, have overview of the pastoral activities of the Parish. Part of this overview is ensuring the appropriate use of physical and spiritual resources in the service of the pastoral mission. Spiritual resources such as discerning the gifts of the Spirit available in the Parish are the direct responsibility of the Parish Pastoral Council. Direct responsibility for physical resources through Finance and Administration belongs to the Parish Priest and the Canonically-required Finance Committee of the Parish. The overview responsibility of the Pastoral Council means that it must interface very closely with the Finance Committee to ensure that these resources are available to implement the pastoral decisions it makes on behalf of the community.
This has been a ‘burning’ question ever since Parish Councils began to be established after Vatican II. It is true that from time to time Pastoral Councils have been demeaned in this way by being used simply as “rubber stamps”, but it is far from their true purpose, and far from the intent of the magisterial documents in which they are mentioned expressly or by implication. Several realities need to be kept in balance here.
Sometimes where multi-skilled people gather in council, rotating the Chair can be an excellent practical and developmental practice. However, the crucial gift of chairing meetings is not distributed evenly. It can be developed over time, but not all of us are gifted with it. Where it is absent it has the potential to render meetings long, boring and ineffective. It has even been known to cause frustration among members to the point where they resign. So mostly it is better to have a single regular chair, with at least one vice-chair to cover inevitable absence of one or the other from time to time.
By the same token, chairing is a natural, as well as a developed and developing skill, and it’s important to provide courses and experiences to grow the skills of the Chair and the Vice-Chairs, as well as to develop a succession plan for future Chairs.