Published in The Catholic Times UK   16-12-16

What has happened to the local parish council which used to be found in many churches? They don’t seem to be around anymore, but I think every parish should have one.

We know that the Pope wants a more synodal Church. He wants the bishops to consult with the church at large. He denounces clericalism as ‘a gross deformation’ and states that by receiving the Holy Spirit in baptism we all have the right to be involved in the decision-making processes of the Church. We can do this through parish councils. Canon Law allows for and encourages parish councils.

Canon Law 519 explains that the parish priest is the person in charge, being responsible for governing the parish under the authority of the bishop, but “with the assistance of lay members of the Christian faithful..’’ Better still Canon Law 536 #1 states “If the diocesan bishop judges it opportune after he has heard the presbyteral council (priests), a pastoral council is to be established in each parish, over which the pastor presides and in which the Christian faithful, together with those who share in pastoral care by virtue of their office in the parish, assist in fostering pastoral activity’’.

Decisions concerning the parish should not be based on the peculiarities or whims of individual priests. Priests can permit or ban things without giving any justification and without accountability, and parishioners have to accept all decisions the priest makes. It is true that people can complain to the bishop if they feel hard done by, but people don’t do that. What they do is change parish. Excessive deference to priests has been conditioned into the laity, and this can cause problems; not just in holding back participation of the laity in contributing to the running of the parish, but also in that abuses of all sorts may be disregarded.

Surely there are good arguments for parishioners to administer the parish through parish councils, along with the priest, under the bishop. The members of the council would be representing the parish faithful in general, so could be voted for. But that’s not necessary. People should be encouraged to take a turn on the council, for a temporary period. Others could be voted in for a longer period. Whatever. The important thing is that a strong and thriving consultative process is started up in each parish and in each diocese.

People should be able to easily communicate with each other. But I have found that in many parishes the notice-board at the back of the church, if it exists, is full up with old notices so that there is no space to put up a new poster. And the display is usually so bland that no-one would want to look at the posters anyway. The eye just gives up and slides off them. If there is a table or shelf at the back ot the church, there is usually little or no space for adding a leaflet. So communicating by leaflet or poster is usually a problem. And why do we need permission to put out a leaflet, or put up a poster, or ask our fellow parishioners to sign a petition?  The parish is our spiritual home, and we should be able to communicate with each other as with our spiritual family. There can also be a problem with putting items into the Sunday newsletter, because items have to vie with each other instead of extra space being provided, and the item may not be approved for spurious reasons.

These matters can be viewed as petty, and people, me especially, don’t like to complain to the priest. But if nothing is said nothing is done. If parish councillors made themselves known and approachable, I’m sure that people (me especially!) would bring little problems to their attention, for them to deal with or to take to the council for discussion.

Parish councils would also be a great way for the faithful to discuss matters that any individual wants to discuss. If administration matters are particularly time consuming, extra meetings could be arranged for discussions, and parishioners could be informed of the topic for discussion and encouraged to attend. I would like to discuss many things with my fellow Catholics:- theology, the Bible, homosexuality, animal rights, the environment, the family, the parish, ethical shopping, how we can bring the Gospel into our place of work, and many other things. I have great faith that by discussing things, I will be able to enlighten some people, and some people will be able to enlighten me, and all participants will be enriched.

There are guides available to setting up a parish pastoral council, for instance Clifton Diocese’s “Called to be a People of Hope’’, and various other books, though I think things should be kept simple so as to attract as many people as possible to participating in their parish council.

As I said, it seems to me that the parishioners should be responsible for governing the parish, under the bishop. And the bishop should share the managing of the diocese with the Christian faithful. Which takes us to diocesan pastoral councils.

Chapter 5 of the Canon Law enables bishops to set up diocesan pastoral councils. Until recently I had never heard of these. They seem to be a really good idea.

Canon law 511 states “In every diocese and to the extent that pastoral circumstances suggest it, a pastoral council is to be constituted which under the authority of the bishop investigates, considers, and proposes practical conclusions about those things which pertain to pastoral works in the diocese.’’

I would love to be a part of this consultative process. I should think many people would, given the right encouragement.

Canon Law 512 #2 states “The Christian faithful who are designated to a pastoral council are to be selected in such a way that they truly reflect the entire portion of the people of God which constitutes the diocese, with consideration given to the different areas of the diocese, social conditions and professions, and the role which they have in the apostolate whether individually or joined with others’’.

The purpose of the diocesan pastoral council is to advise the bishop, enabling him to consult with fellow Christians within the diocese on whatever he wishes advice about. The diocesan bishop remains in control. The council is to be ‘convoked’ at least once a year.

Again, this sounds good, but I don’t think that many people are aware of this process, and I wonder how much it’s taken advantage of, by bishop or laity. I don’t think it’s adequately publicised. It should be brought to the attention of the laity, especially during Mass, so that people are aware of it. Back to parish pastoral councils.

As with the diocesan pastoral council, Canon Law 536 #2 makes it clear that the parochial pastoral council  “possesses a consultative vote only and is governed by …the diocesan bishop’’.

It is not easy to find out how many parish pastoral councils there are in England and Wales. The Catholic organisation ACTA ( A Call To Action ) has tried to find out, in a survey published last year, but without great success. However, in its summing up, it notes “This survey only reinforces the need for national and diocesan synods in order to provide the most comprehensive interaction of Church members for collective discernment about the identity and mission of the Church and specific areas of concern that need attention for the good of the community. ‘’ And “..what information was received and gathered together in the reporting areas, has highlighted the already suspected fact that there has been very little progress in furthering the practice of genuine consultation for decision-making.’’ Also “There is still much evidence of the “I’m in charge!” mentality of parish priests which prevents genuine dialogue…At the same time, there is considerable evidence of apathy and passivity among the majority of parishioners because of past and present authoritarian attitudes of pastors at all levels.’’

What is heartening is that “.. there are a minority of pastoral councils which are trying to change the rules and practices which have been and are continuing to be used to justify and protect the status quo. These stand out as ‘beacons of light’, of examples of good practice for others to follow.

A National synod on ‘The Parish will’, I am sure, bring forth a fountain of wonderful ideas and comments that will result in many more ‘beacons of light’.

Virginia Bell, Catholic Action for Animals