Every day in this great archdiocese, literally thousands of Catholic men and women work closely with parish pastors through pastoral and financial councils and committees. In today’s world, the operation of a parish is a very complex undertaking.
Pastors are fortunate when they can rely upon the advice and support of experienced laypeople who bring to the service of the Church the skills they use in the world within which Jesus has called us to minister.
As outlined in canons 536 and 537 of Canon Law (the law of the Church), the role of such councils is consultative. When Catholics accept an appointment to a council, they are asked to bring to the table their expertise in a particular area to assist the pastor in his responsibility to run the parish and its ministries, and thus further the mission of Christ through that particular parish.
I learned the value of councils and committees-and of the expert advice of the people who serve on them-very early in my priestly life in my very first parish assignments in the Illinois towns of Peoria and Champaign. Not only were these faithful parishioners who served in these roles instrumental in helping the priests run the parishes and meet the spiritual and physical needs of the people, they brought with them ideas and concerns that I often used for homilies or as springboards for parish programs and initiatives.
I have also learned that it is important to make sure that parish priests should use the talents of parishioners in appropriate ways that can best benefit the parish. People with financial backgrounds, for example, always have been the obvious choice for serving on finance councils. People with education backgrounds and knowledge of religious education provide power to the parish or co-sponsored school’s advisory council.
Such "specialization" allows both the priests and the people to channel their efforts more efficiently and effectively. It also allows parish councils, and the people who serve on them, to convene to work on issues when there is a need, rather than meet just for the sake of meeting.
My one insistence and expectation has only and always been that those who seek to participate in the life of the Church in this way be earnest in living their own lives of faith, in communion with the Church. Love for Jesus Christ and His Church is not lived out in anger or disrespect for our traditions and teachings.
When I first became a bishop, I examined the role of the diocesan pastoral council within the context of my experiences with local parish councils and committees. Through the years, I have expanded on the model of pastoral council from that of a single, generic group into a model that relies upon a number of different, specific groups addressing single issues with more scope, depth, and completeness. I sometimes call it a "big umbrella " model: people come under the big umbrella when it rains (when there is a problem or issue to address). They go back out into the sun after the rain is over.
Today in the Archdiocese of Newark for example (above and beyond the thousands assisting at the parish level), several hundred people are involved in advisory capacities on numerous archdiocesan councils and commissions, advising and assisting me in fulfilling my mission as shepherd of this local Church. They work on specific issues: meeting the needs of women in the Church; charting a course for our Catholic schools; reaching out to our diverse populations; examining how parishes can work together in partnership through the New Energies Initiative; developing and conducting forums for adult catechesis; fostering and strengthening the stewardship way of life in parishes; charting longterm financial stability for the archdiocese; and even fleshing out with me ideas for pastoral letters and initiatives.
My pastoral letters ("If God Is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?"; "A Time for Honesty"; "Whether in Life or Death, We are the Lord’s") as well as the role that I and this archdiocese have taken in the national effort to stop the illegal trafficking of humans into this country, have all been shaped by small groups of experts gathered together specifically to consult on these issues.
I have learned much from these faithful and dedicated men and women in my years as Archbishop of Newark. They are making my mission an easier and more productive one because of their efforts. I am grateful for their contributions. Their example has shown me very plainly the depth of faith and commitment that the people of Newark have for the Church and Her teachings.
They have also shown me very plainly that there are many, many more people in this archdiocese just like them, who stand ready to bring their expertise to the Church on specific projects. For example, we notified pastors recently that we are accepting nominations for the Archdiocesan School Council-the advisory group that works with our Schools Office to shape our education ministry.
I urge you to participate in those particular areas of need that may arise at either the parish or archdiocesan level in which you have a specific background, talent, and expertise. Your assistance is needed and valued. We want to make good use of your talents while appreciating and respecting your time and other commitments. This creatively different, more numerous, more specific, model of advisory councils provides the best opportunity to accomplish that, while giving greater numbers of faithful people the opportunity to serve the Lord through this local Church in Newark.
I look forward to continuing to rely on faithful Catholic men and women to serve on future such councils under this "big umbrella" model. After all, there is always a chance of rain. Thank you for being a part of the sunshine!