How do we cooperate across parishes and regions in our mission to serve Jesus Christ? How do we listen to one another, identify key priorities and make informed decisions to serve those in need and increase the faith and witness of our church?
About five years ago, consultations took place across our diocese, as lay people joined with clergy to consider what mattered in supporting our mission to follow Christ. Our resulting Diocesan Pastoral Plan, Faith in our Future, offers goals of growing our faith and sharing our faith to shape the life and structures of our diocese.
Of course, we are called not to live these goals in isolation but as the Body of Christ. And while our main plan to love, know and serve Jesus Christ never changes, our particular goals grow and change, because our communities change, along with the issues affecting our local region. So we need to continue to consult with our communities to ensure we are reading the signs of the times, and remaining attentive to what the church calls the sensus fidelium, in other words, the living voice of the whole people of God.
How do we ensure we are listening to the people of our diocese? Successive papal and Vatican documents as well as the Code of Canon Law offer strong encouragement for the formation of councils of the faithful, especially of lay people. Such councils express the laity’s rightful co-responsibility for the mission of the Church.
Our diocese has previously called upon each parish to establish a Parish Pastoral Council to support the pastoral priorities in each faith community. And now, Bishop Vincent Long, in his desire to enhance our communion and mission, has instituted Deanery Pastoral Councils and a Diocesan Pastoral Council. These bodies aim to strengthen the growing and sharing of faith in Christ within the diocese of Parramatta. They are also formed to assist our collaboration with the wider Church in Australia as we look forward to the 2020 national plenary.
We can be forgiven for being somewhat sceptical at the development of these councils. Why gather people to meet about things when we already have a plan? Why not just get on with it?
Councils offer several important roles.
The first is to broaden the thinking about and responsibility for important matters beyond the clergy. Lay people can offer advice from a range of perspectives. After all, there is no point in rolling out actions if the very parishes these actions are supposed to benefit do not see the relevance of what is on offer. As such, councils have a significant consultative role.
Secondly, councils enhance our diocese’s accountability for what we do. Diocesan agencies, works and clergy must consider many complex pastoral realities. While there are certain sensitivities surrounding many of these matters, there is also a need to ensure that key decisions are justifiable and transparent to the broader community being served. Councils offer a level of transparency and accountability to our leadership.
Thirdly, councils witness to the role of all the baptised in the building up of the church and the service of the mission. The church is constituted both of laity and clergy, and when we work together, we can offer a far more enriching result in the service of our God.
Bishop Vincent wants to hear the voices of everyday Catholics on the issues that matter to our church and world. The diocesan and deanery pastoral councils seek a cross-section of people from different places in the Diocese and from different ages, backgrounds and experiences. They will meet about four times a year.
Let us pray that these councils make a difference in our mission to grow our faith and share our faith in Jesus Christ.