Parish councils require ‘connection to Holy Spirit’

Digital graphic illustration of Cross of Jesus Christ composed of textured oil painted background

Let’s consider how parish pastoral councils are, or surely can be, treasures for our parishes – precisely because of the people who are our parishes. As a backdrop, recall what Jesus said before his first visit back to his old neighborhood. Then, recall how that neighborhood welcomed Jesus:

“Then Jesus told them, ‘Every teacher of the Law who is schooled as a disciple in the Kingdom of heaven is like a homeowner who brings out treasures, both new and old, from the home’s storage room.’ After saying this, Jesus left that place and returned to his hometown. There, the townspeople rejected him.” (Mt 13:52-54,57)

The people of that town, like many others, were victims of religious charlatans — those frauds who talked like they owned both religion and God. They shamelessly claimed that, without them, the faithful were powerless to gain favor with God.

Jesus comes into that environment with a startling “new” message. He assures them that God’s favor is already abundantly gifted to all God’s people. While they dismiss Jesus’ message, the announcement of God’s free gift of the Holy Spirit to all believers quickly emerges as the heart of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus’ insistence that the Holy Spirit actively dwells in all God’s people is the foundation of the Church’s assertion that parish pastoral councils are valuable and necessary.

Jesus often refers to faith as the gift of the Holy Spirit, freely and equally active within every person of God. Jesus uses the declaration, “Your faith has saved you” (Lk 17:19), to recognize how the Spirit draws the needy close to him. A bond forms with the person, Jesus, and the one who sent Jesus. Within that communion, God heals, gives peace and brings new direction.

Lay councils provide vitality to parish

The Second Vatican Council echoes the energy of communion between the shepherd and the parishioners: “Many benefits for the Church are to be expected from the familiar relationship between the laity and their pastors” (Lumen Gentium, 37).

All of our recent popes have upheld the necessity of a service partnership of pastor with parishioners in the co-responsible leadership of a pastoral council:

“Pastoral planning with the lay faithful should be a normal feature of all parishes” (Pope Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Asia,” Nov. 6, 1999).

In an Aug. 10, 2012, address to the International Catholic Action Forum, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Co-responsibility requires a change in mentality, particularly regarding the role of the laity in the Church, who should not be considered ‘collaborators’ with the clergy, but as persons truly ‘co-responsible’ with them.”

During visits to parishes in Rome and elsewhere, Pope Francis has regularly stated: “The laity need to be involved in their parishes. Parishes do not belong to any person or collection of persons, they belong to the parishioners. Without councils of the laity, a parish lacks vitality.”

Connect with Holy Spirit

Because it might be unrealistic to expect blind trust in pastor-with-parishioner co-responsible leadership, I offer you this personal experience of risking to rely on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

During one of my pastorates, I visited a couple at their home. They had served together in youth ministry for all their marriage. Now, the wife was dying. The husband was her caregiver.

The woman told me that losing their shared ministry was worse than death itself. The man grieved that a terminal illness had shattered a spiritual bond between his wife and him.

After grasping for what to say or do, it struck me. We worked it out that the couple would be at our Masses the next weekend. I asked them to share with our parishioners what it’s like, as a couple of faith, to face so much dying.

They came forward at the end of the first Mass. She was in her wheelchair, he behind her, hands on her shoulders. Sharing a mic, they poured out their hearts — and the Spirit, too. As parishioners wept openly and applauded loudly, she looked up into her husband’s face and exclaimed, “Honey, listen, look … we are ministers again!”

A lot of teaching occurred at our three Masses that day. It was a living religious instruction. The couple taught with their life story and human emotions. The parishioners were teaching with tears and applause and, by going to the commons to circle that couple, with closeness, communion and love.

I learned from this and other experiences like it that assisting one another to connect with the Holy Spirit is a demanding task, but it doesn’t disappoint.

How to make it happen

If you hope to get things on course for a council in your parish or to adjust things for a better direction, here are some basic suggestions:

Start with parish-wide education. Emphasize that all parishioners are spiritually competent to assist the pastor with his duties toward the mission of the parish.

Communicate that the pastor develops plans and programs for ministry in study and consultation with the pastoral council. Explain how the pastor entrusts the mission to parish staff (paid and volunteer) so they can resource, empower and assist parishioners in implementing the mission within and in outreach from the parish.

Direct education to create excitement about the role of a pastoral council. Provide a process so parishioners can apply to serve, and assemble a group to assist the pastor to conscientiously discern a choice of council members from among the applicants.

Finally, consult and keep sharing ideas with other pastors and pastoral council members in other parishes!

For more ideas, read “Parish Councils: Pastoral and Finance” by James A. Coriden and Mark F. Fischer, Canon Law Society of America’s Pastoral Resources, 2016.

Fr. Apuzzo has been a priest of the Diocese of Richmond for 43 years. Before retiring, he served as a pastor for 24 years and as “priest-for” at several parishes who were without a local pastor. As director of communications, he organized with diocesan staff the publication of mission and action guidelines for parish ministries.

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