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The Priestly Spirituality of Consultation

Acknowledging we do not have all the answers expresses a distinctly pastoral faith

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I recently led a two-day workshop on parish consultation for 20 seminarians. They had just completed their parish internships and were beginning their third year in theology. Although ordination to the priesthood is still two years away (and a pastorate some years beyond that), the seminarians were learning how to consult pastoral and finance councils.

Many were anxious at the prospect. During their internships, they had attended council meetings. They had watched as parishioners confidently posed questions to pastors. The seminarians wondered how they might respond to such questions had they been sitting in the pastor’s seat.

One seminarian recalled how a council member had questioned his pastor. The parishioner had asked the pastor whether he was going to implement a policy that the council had discussed. “When the pastor said he hadn’t made up his mind,” said the seminarian, “it was embarrassing.” The seminarian felt embarrassed because, in his mind, the pastor should have reached a decision. When the pastor indicated that he was still mulling things over, the seminarian believed that it made him look weak.

Many pastors, I suspect, feel as the seminarian did. The prospect of consulting makes them anxious. They want to appear confident and decisive. This is perfectly understandable. All of us want to appear knowledgeable. But the very act of consultation demands that we avoid the appearance of being all-knowing. To consult is an admission that we do not have all the answers.

Such an admission is healthy. Nobody has all the answers. To acknowledge that fact is not a weakness but faith in God and in the parish community. When a pastor consults his people, he expresses a distinctly pastoral spirituality. By consulting, he implies something about himself, about what he expects from his people and about the nature of the priesthood. Let me say a few words about each.

Pastoral Spirituality

When I speak about spirituality, I mean the way that Christians assimilate the mission of Jesus Christ. They do so according to their situation and state of life. The spirituality of the pastor is his assimilation of Jesus’ mission in a particular situation — that of being a good shepherd to a parish flock. Today’s pastor consults his people so that he can know them and serve them.

Since the Second Vatican Council, consultation by means of pastoral and finance councils has become the norm. Pope John XXIII set the consultative standard. We know more about his motives today thanks to the lifelong research of Giuseppe Alberigo. In “A Brief History of Vatican II” (Orbis Books, $26), Alberigo describes the consternation of the world’s bishops when they realized that the pope genuinely sought their advice: “The Catholic bishops were shocked by the invitation to assume an active role at the level of the Universal Church, and it would take some effort to create an atmosphere of inquiry after the long period of passivity experienced during the preceding pontificates” (p. 12).

Pope John wanted the world’s bishops to help determine the future direction of the Church. Some of the fathers were surprised when the pope asked them to set the council’s agenda. Many had assumed that the pontiff knew what he wanted and that he had assigned the Roman Curia to draft the official documents. Many assumed that the bishops would do no more than refine what the Curia had already written.

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CONSULTATION PROCESS

A sound consultation process usually includes five steps:

• Gathering the facts and the pertinent information
• Evaluating the possibilities that arise
• Making the decision
• Implementing the decision
• Evaluating the results after an appropriate period of time and, if necessary, making adjustments

— Father Francis G. Morrisey, OMI, “Canon Law — Dialogue and Consultation a Part of Church Law,” Catholic Health Association of the United States website

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But John XXIII had not made up his mind. He wanted the bishops to help him see what the Church needed. He was consulting in earnest. That did not make him appear weak in the eyes of the bishops. On the contrary, it showed him to be a genuine pastor. He treated the bishops like an episcopal college whose wisdom he valued.

The example of Pope John proves that a good pastor need not have all the answers. By consulting, by posing a question, by receiving various answers, and by synthesizing a conclusion that will build up and unify the Church, the pope redefined pastoral leadership after the centuries-long concentration of ecclesial decision-making in Vatican hands. The consultative pastor does not have to have all the answers. By consulting, he implies that he has confidence in his people. He can make better decisions with their help.

The Example of Socrates

Every seminarian studies Plato in the first year of pre-theology and learns that Socrates was deemed “wisest” because he knew that he did not know everything. The study of Plato is part of the seminary curriculum because it inculcates a realistic humility. It is wise to know that our knowledge is limited.

Throughout the course of the M.Div. program, however, many seminarians forget the lesson of Socrates. They internalize the false expectation that they should know everything — or at least enough to not appear foolish as an intern or young priest. Too often, Socratic wisdom is seen as merely an amusing philosophical anecdote. One needs it to pass the pre-theology exams, perhaps, but it is no more than a propaedeutic to theology. In the real world of ministry, a priest is expected to be knowledgeable. How can Socrates, who recognized his limited knowledge, become a role model?

Being truly knowledgeable, however, is not the opposite of Socratic humility. The openness of the consultative pastor — the one who asks his councils to study and reflect on an issue so as to recommend a wise course of action — hardly shows a deficiency in knowledge. Indeed, the pastor who consults because he knows the limits of his knowledge has a more profound self-insight than the novice who pretends to be authoritative on every issue.

The wise pastor engages with his councils in a search for truth, just as Socrates engaged the people of ancient Athens. By saying that, I am not suggesting that pastors employ the kind of Socratic irony for which Plato was famous. No, I am holding up Socrates as a model for disciplined inquiry. The Socratic pastor assumes that he can learn from prudent people. He has pressing problems and wants to make wise decisions on the parish’s behalf. For that reason he takes the initiative with his council members, posing questions, explaining the issues and helping them see the pastoral situation. When the pastor accepts and implements the council’s advice, the council succeeds.

Priestly Sacrifice

Good pastors know that, by consulting their people, they show strength rather than weakness. They are like John XXIII, who was willing to consult the bishops of the world. Such pastors also believe, like Socrates, in the value of dialogue. They understand consultation as a disciplined inquiry. On top of that, good pastors realize that consultative leadership is part of priestly spirituality. It has a direct connection to sacrifice and to facilitating the spiritual sacrifice of a priestly people. This point deserves our attention.

Sacrifice is at the heart of a priest’s vocation. The priest does not sacrifice things, but presents his own spiritual sacrifice and that of his people. He enables them to see that their lives are a gift from God. Their rightful response is to offer themselves to God. By their lives, people define themselves and choose their ultimate destiny.

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Difficult Council Members

Occasionally, pastors will meet obstinate council members with a narrow viewpoint. Some are incapable of doing what the Church asks of them: to investigate a matter, reflect thoroughly, and reach a conclusion that the pastor can accept. Some may even try to bully the pastor and insist on getting their own way. Such sophists are the exception, however, and will disappear when their terms expire. Most council members are prudent people able to understand the pastor’s office. They can study, reflect and recommend a wise conclusion. The consultative pastor is right to expect that of them.

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The vocation of the priest is to remind them of their true identity. In every dimension of ministry, the priest aims to place human activity in relation to God. What is the Mass if not the moment in which believers recall the events of Jesus’ passion and join themselves with him in a holy communion, turning their lives into a spiritual sacrifice?

In order to help people make this offering to God, the priest (and above all, the pastor) needs to know his people. He consults his community, using institutions that the Church provides such as pastoral and finance councils. To be sure, he seeks practical knowledge: financial, demographic, administrative, social.

At a more profound level, however, he seeks spiritual knowledge. True unity in the spirit, the pastor realizes, is oneness in the Lord Jesus Christ. Consultation promotes this. Pastors who consult not only place their confidence in the prudent people with whom they seek practical wisdom, they help all their people see that their lives are a spiritual sacrifice.

Pastors offer to councils a share in their ministry. Council members put their gifts at the service of the community. In this, the priest helps his people to be genuinely priestly.

MARK F. FISCHER, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.

 
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