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Parish Pastoral Councils: a framework for developing diocesan norms and parish guidelines

30 November, 1999

This little booklet presents a dynamic vision of how the parish community can be developed as an instrument of ministry and mission of the kingdom of God in Celtic Tiger Ireland.

47 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie



  1. Our Vision of Church Today
     1.1 Church as Communion
     1.2 The Parish Pastoral Council – living communion
  2. The Mission and Context of the Parish 
    2.2 Parish and Diocese
    2.3 Parish in Community and Society
    2.4 The Parish in Partnership
  3. The Parish Pastoral Council 
    3.1 Definition
    3.2 Canonical Basis of Parish Pastoral Councils 
    3.3 Ministry and Processes of the Parish  Pastoral Council 
    3.4 Setting up a Parish Pastoral Council 
    3.5 Roles
    3.6 Meetings
    3.7 The Consultative Process
    3.8 The Relationship of the Parish Pastoral Council with the Diocese and the Universal Church

Appendix 1: Learning from Experience: Parish Pastoral Councils in Practice
Appendix 2: Notes on Formation and Initial Training for Parish Pastoral Councils
Appendix 3: Elements of a Constitution for Parish Pastoral Councils
Appendix 4: Resources
Appendix 5: Members of the Task Group 



1.1 Church as Communion
The Church has its origin in the love shared among Jesus and his disciples. This love is alive and active in the community, of disciples throughout time, through the gift of the Holy Spirit: ‘Love one another, as I have loved you … by this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (Jn 13:34-35). In this community of love, Christians share life with Christ and with one another. ‘Jesus said: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5).

The fundamental meaning of communion lies in the union of Christians with God brought about by Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit (3). It has ‘the communion of God as Trinity, namely, the unity of the Son to the Father in the gift of the Holy Spirit, as its model and source’ (4). The life of communion between Christians reflects and is a participation in the mystery of God’s love as revealed by Jesus.

The Second Vatican Council did much to bring about a clearer understanding of the Church as communion, and how it may be lived. In this it retrieves a vision that was central in Scripture, in the early Church and also in the Oriental Churches (5). Vatican II emphasised how this communion is expressed and nourished in the Church through Word and Sacrament, beginning with Baptism and finding its summit and source in the celebration of the Eucharist.

John Paul II speaks of ‘a double, lifegiving participation: the incorporation of Christians into the life of Christ, and the communication of that life of charity to the entire body of the Faithful… (6). To help us grasp and live this mystery of communion, Vatican II invited us to contemplate the biblical images of the sheepfold (Jn 10:1-10), the field, ’tillage’ of God (1 Cor 3:9), the building of God (I Cor 3:9-11) and the body (1 Cor 12:1-11) (7).

The Church comes to life in local faith communities of dioceses and parishes when members support and care for one another, proclaim and live by the gospel, celebrate the sacred liturgy and work in charity and justice for the good of the whole world (8).

The Church is the pilgrim people of God on its journey through history. Its ‘sacred nature and organic structure’ (9) is an invitation to all members to participate in communion with Christ and one another according to their particular gifts and vocations and so make the Church a ‘light to the nations’.

1.2 The Parish Pastoral Council – living communion
Structures such as pastoral councils express the shared responsibility of all the baptised for the mission of Christ. However, without real community spirit, external structures will serve very little purpose. Pope John Paul II wrote:

A spirituality of communion … means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters …as those who are part of me’. This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship (10).

A spirituality of communion nourishes the different gifts of the Spirit to the members, both of the total parish community and of the parish pastoral council. All have something to contribute. None are so rich that they have nothing to receive, and none so poor that they have nothing to give.



2.1 Mission
The mission of the parish, a living cell of the communion that is the Church and a community of Christian disciples, is to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. It does this by the quality of the life of its members, its community life and worship, its involvement in the wider community and society of which it is part and especially its solidarity with the poor and needy (11).

The parish community comprises ordained priests, lay people and, in some places, members of religious congregations. When describing the relationship of trust and collaboration between priests and lay people, the Bishops of the Second Vatican Council assert:

Pastors should indeed recognise and promote the dignity and responsibility of the laity in the Church. They should willingly use their prudential advice and confidently assign duties to them in the service of the Church, leaving them freedom and scope for acting. Indeed they should encourage them to undertake works on their own initiative (12).

A later document of the same Vatican Council took this new way of thinking a step further. It called for the introduction of some institutions or agencies through which this new way of thinking might percolate through the community. The Decree on the Apostolate of the Lay People called for the setting up of ‘councils to assist in the apostolic work of the Church’ (13). Rather than simply participating in the ministry of the bishops and priests, lay people share in the mission of Christ in their own right as baptised members of the Church.

2.2 Parish and Diocese
In Ireland, parishes often trace their origins to localised tradition, for example, a monastic settlement. In our time, the parish is constituted as a community of the faithful within the structure of the diocese (14). The decision that parish pastoral councils are to be established as a means of fulfilling the mission of the parishes and the diocese rests with the Bishop.

Canon Law establishes the Parish Priest with a significant autonomy in his parish. At the same time, the need for diocesan policies which are confirmed by the Bishop e.g. by means of a pastoral plan, is becoming increasingly obvious. When a pastoral council structure has been established in a parish in line with diocesan policy it is to be expected that this will be continued beyond the death or transfer of the Parish Priest.

Diocesan norms are required, specifying the term of office of parish pastoral councils. These should be such that, within a reasonable time after the appointment of a new Parish Priest, the council will be coming up for renewal as a matter of course. In the ideal scenario, a parish pastoral council can be of immense value to a newly appointed Parish Priest, in introducing him to the history and culture of the parish.

In practice, it is now evident that the tasks of establishing and maintaining effective parish pastoral councils require training and support. For this, many parish personnel are looking to their diocese. Moreover, in parishes that do not have a resident Parish Priest, the role of the pastoral council can be pivotal. From all of this, it is clear that resources for training and support and also structures for review and accountability at diocesan level are becoming increasingly important.

2.3 Parish in Community and Society
Vatican II recognises that if the Church is to be truly local the congregation of the faithful must be `… rooted in the social life of the people and to some extent conformed to its culture’ (15).

Some of the important values and characteristics of the present-day social/cultural context on the island of Ireland are as follows:

  • In spite of all the progress that has taken place in our financial and social situations, there continues to be a hunger in our hearts for the spiritual to give a sense of purpose to our lives. The parish needs to be at the service of this hunger as a real witness to the presence of Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
  • The vast majority of people have completed second-level education. Many have completed third-level education and have degrees in various disciplines, including Theology and Scripture. This calls on a parish to respond accordingly.
  • People are accustomed to making their own choices in life in almost every sphere. This carries through to their living of the Christian faith and needs to be addressed as part of today’s world.
  • People legitimately expect to participate actively in anything that impacts on their lives. The parish needs to be shaped by this if it is to enable its members to fulfil their Christian mission.
  • There is in our context a widespread and growing awareness of the equality of women and men. This fact needs to have a great impact on the life of the Church in a parish. As Christians we need to be at the forefront of this development.
  • Almost every parish has people who have come from other countries and other cultures. A parish needs to welcome this diversity, and be enriched by it.
  • In a time of increased affluence, Christians are called to be aware of their social responsibility, aware of injustice and the reality of poverty and deprivation. This call needs to be taken account of in the parish community.
  • Even though there are more time-saving devices now than ever, some people talk about having less time for the important things of life like marriage and family relationships, faith relationships, community etc. The parish is one of the places where they can hear the call to constantly look at their priorities and find the fullness of life.
  • People have access to up-to-date information on most events around the world and yet often don’t know what is happening in their own parish. They are constantly put in touch with the stories of the lives of others. Their outlook and values are seriously influenced by the media and yet there is little formal adult faith development. The parish has a real responsibility to help people to develop attitudes to life in the light of their faith. This does not mean fighting crusades against the world but rather promoting reflection on the Word of God.
  • Western civilisation is seriously threatened by rising levels of violence; injustice is rife in business and social life; the poor are getting poorer while the rich are getting richer; marriage and family life as we have known them are under strain; many of the traditional sources of authority through which people order their lives are now contested. The parish needs to be a community that provides hope for people in times of such uncertainty.
  • Global warming and the destruction of earth’s resources, as issues of vital importance, must feature in the reflections, plans and programmes through which parish communities live their mission in the present day.

2.4 The Parish in Partnership
The witness of the parish lies, primarily, in the quality of the Christian lives of its members in family, community and society. There is, however, a need for visible, public participation by the parish in the organised activities of the local community. Not so long ago the priests of the parish fulfilled this public function, by and large, through their personal involvement. It is no longer possible, nor even to be recommended, that this should continue to be exclusively the case.

The parish as a Christian community is called to work in partnership with all others who are serving the needs and interests of the community. In this the parish should be guided by the values of the Kingdom of God — values of truth, justice, love and peace. The pastoral council is well placed to establish formal connections with local groups and associations. In this way representatives of the parish can have a base community from which they ‘go out’ and to which they return to reflect on what they are doing, in the name of the parish, to help build up their community and society. This is one way in which the pastoral council enables the parish to live out the vision of Church as communion.



3 John Paul II, The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World, 1988, 18.
4 Ibid., 18.
5 Ibid., 19.
6 Ibid., 19.
7 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in A. Flannery, (ed.), Vatican Council II.- The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Dublin, Dominican Publications, 1975, p. 6.
8 ‘.. Adhering thus to its pastor and gathered together by him in the Holy Spirit through the gospel and the Eucharist, this portion constitutes a particular church in which the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is truly present and operative.’ Vatican II, Decree on the Pastoral Of face of Bishops in the Church, Dublin, Dominican Publications, 1975, p. 11. 
9.Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 11.
10 John Paul II, At the Beginning of the New Millennium, 45.
11 Cf. Benedict XVI, God is Love, Dublin, Veritas, 2005.
12 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 37.
13 Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, 1965, 26.
14 Code of Canon Law, 1983, 515.
15 Vatican II, Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, 1966, 19.

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