The “Vocation” of Pastoral Councils

Consulting the Code of Canon Law helps to develop a sense of the “vocation” of parish pastoral councils. Several canons deal with the definition of a parish, the scope of the pastor’s responsibilities and the role of the parish council in addressing these responsibilities.

Canon 515 states that the parish is “a definite community of the Christian faithful established on a stable basis within a particular church.” As a general rule a parish is territorial. It embraces all the Christian faithful that live within certain geographic boundaries. But our understanding of the Gospel message calls us to embrace everyone within that territory, Christian or not.

When establishing pastoral councils, pastors are strongly advised to form them using the guidance given to dioceses under Canon 512. This canon requires “that the entire portion of the people of God which constitutes the [parish] is truly reflected, with due regard for the diverse regions, social conditions and professions of the [parish] as well as the role which they have in the apostolate, either as individuals or in conjunction with others” (emphasis mine). The reason for requiring attention to regional, socio-economic and professional diversity in the parish is to assure that the concerns of all will be brought before the council.

According to Canon 536 the role of the parish pastoral council is to “give their help in fostering pastoral activity.” In other words, their role is an extension of the pastor’s responsibility to care for the community. The two main duties of a pastor are defined in Canon 528. It states, first, that the pastor “is obliged to see to it that the word of God in its entirety is announced to those living in the parish.” Further, the pastor “is to see to it that the Most Holy Eucharist is the center of the parish assembly of the faithful; he is to work to see to it that the Christian faithful are nourished through a devout celebration of the sacraments.” That is, the pastor has to make the Eucharist central to the life of all of the parish’s people and to foster their participation. “In order to fulfill his office in earnest,” explains Canon 529, “the pastor should strive to come to know the faithful who have been entrusted to his care.” To know his people, a pastor must seek them out and discover their needs. Some faithful people are unable to attend Mass. They are not to be neglected.

If the parish is all the people living within certain geographic boundaries, the parish council cannot simply look at those people who attend Sunday Mass. It has to look further. If the council is to reflect truly the diversity of the people of the parish, information about the socio-economic make-up of the people is required. Good socio-economic information also insures that the ministries of the faith community meet the needs of those they are called to serve. If the pastoral council is to effectively assist the pastor in fostering pastoral activity, accurate demographic information is necessary. Without accurate information the council’s knowledge of the parish is limited. Accurate information, presented in both text and graphics, informs the council, reinforcing – and at times correcting – anecdotal impressions.