Participation and Co-responsibility in the Local Church.

This focus group set out to look at the extent to which the Vatican II vision of participation and co-responsibility has become a reality at parish and diocesan levels in the Australian Church, and to examine some of the factors that have been helping and hindering the implementation of that vision. It was considered in three stages:

What was the Vision? What did Vatican II say about participation and co-responsibility?

What is the reality of participation and co-responsibility in the Australian Church? How far have we advanced in implementing the vision?

By way of open discussion: what factors are helping and hindering its implementation?

A. What did Vatican II say about Participation and Co-responsibility?

The Vatican II documents are very lengthy and not particularly easy to read, but let’s isolate just a few points they taught about participation and co-responsibility:

Every member of the Church by reason of baptism has the right and duty to participate in the life and mission of the Church.

The first time the Council mentioned the participation of all the faithful was in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the first of the sixteen Council documents, promulgated on December 4, 1963:

The Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Pt 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their Baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit. (SC14)

Clearly, then, the Council’s program of renewal and aggiornamento would involve an awareness on the part of ‘all the faithful’ that they had ‘a right and duty’ by reason of baptism to participate fully, consciously and actively in the liturgy as the source of the ‘true Christian spirit’, and therefore by implication, the right and duty to participate in the life and mission of the Church.

Participation and co-responsibility were integral to the Council’s Ecclesiology of Communio

The concept of communio has been described as the guiding idea of the Second Vatican Council and its fundamental meaning in the Council documents is participation in the divine life, fellowship with God. Thus, Lumen Gentium, in speaking about the ‘Mystery of the Church’, refers to God’s plan to raise all humankind to ‘participation in the divine life’ which was realised in a unique way in history in Jesus Christ. What took place in Jesus is continued by the Holy Spirit who dwells in the Church and in the hearts of believers (LG 4).

From this understanding of communion there arise other dimensions of meaning in the theology of communio

Church as a Sacrament of Communion. The Church, the People of God, the Body of Christ, is called to be a sacrament of communio, “a sign and instrument both of communion with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (LG 1). I don’t think we Catholics have begun to explore the full import of that powerful sentence, which represents a fundamental shift in thinking about what the Church is and why it exists. William Frazier wrote an article a few years after Vatican II in which he explained the significance of the model of Church as ‘sign’ by comparing it with the model of Church as sanctuary

Communion and Mission. Established by Christ as a ‘communion of life, charity and truth’, the Church is called by him to mission: to be an instrument for the redemption of all, sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth (c/f. Mt 5:13­16). (LG 9).

Communion and Equality. Our communion, as participation by the baptised in the life of God, precedes all distinctions of charism and office. The Church is a community of people who are equal in baptismal dignity and in the call to discipleship, while differing in charisms and ministries (c/f. LG 32)

Communion and EucharistOur communion in Christ is expressed most fully in the Eucharist. What are we to say, then, about the level of attendance at Sunday Eucharist which has declined dramatically to 16% and still on the way down!

The universal church is a communion of local churches. The Church exists in and out of local churches united by the bonds of communio in Christ.

It was in the context of this ecclesiology of communion, that the Council went on to stress that “the lay apostolate is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself” and that through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation “all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord himself” (LG 33). This was a radical departure from earlier Church statements about the involvement of the laity in the Church. In 1906, for example, Pope Pius X wrote in Vehementer Nos (1906) n.8:

The Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.

In the Council documents themselves there was tension between the two models of Church: the hierarchical model that had been operative for centuries, and the model of Church as Communio based upon biblical scholarship and early Church history and practice, with its emphasis on the collegiality of the bishops and the participation of all the faithful. That tension has made the interpretation of Vatican II and the implementation of its ‘plan for renewal’ complicated and even contentious, and as we know it continues in the Church at the present time.

3. All the baptised are called to participate in the Church’s mission in the world and in the Church.

The Council had a great deal to say about the Church’s mission and about the world in which it seeks to further that mission – for example in Gaudium et Spes, Ad Gentes (Decree on Missionary Activities), Gravissimum educationis (The Declaration on Catholic Education) and Unitatis redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism) and it placed a lot of emphasis on the role of the laity in that mission:

The faithful are by Baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetic and kingly functions of Christ, and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world. (LG31)

The lay faithful are “called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth”, and as well, they can be “called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy” (LG 33). See also AA 33

There has been an ‘explosion of lay ministries’ in the Church. A question we might take up later is: has this been at the expense of participation in the Church’s mission in the world?

There is a passage in Karl Rahner’s book Grace in Freedom where he compares the Church to a chess club. He said that in a chess club, the main thing is that chess be played well, and that the master of the game be trained there. Everything else, the functionaries, the cash registers, the president, the club meetings and statutes, are necessary but their true meaning and purpose is to serve chess. In the same way the whole organisation of the Church – all presiding ministers of the Church, from the Pope down, all sermons, all papal decrees, all canon law – exists only to assist the true Christian life in the hearts of people. And the true champions of the Church are those who possess and radiate most faith, hope and love, most humility and unselfishness, most fortitude in carrying the cross, most happiness and confidence. If a Pope does that, for example, the way Pope John XXIII did, then for once the president of the club is a champion player!.

4. Appropriate structures and attitudes are needed to ensure the full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful.

The Council proposed various structures for participation:

Synods of Bishops (LG 22)

Episcopal conferences (LG23)

Council of Priests (LG28)

Diocesan Pastoral Councils (CD 27)

Councils – parochial, interparochial, interdiocesan, national, international to assist the apostolic work of the Church (AA 26)

Parish/Regional Pastoral Councils were not mentioned in the Council documents but discussed later in a 1973 Curial circular Omnes Christifideles; and formalised in the Code of Canon Law. Like the diocesan pastoral council, they investigate and consider matters relating to pastoral activity and formulating practical conclusions concerning them (CD 27)

From the Council documents themselves and especially in the writing of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II we can identify attitudes that are needed if the proposed structures are to empower God’s People to participate fully and effectively in the life and mission of the Church, eg.

A willingness on the part of pastors to “recognise and promote the dignity as well as the responsibility of the laity in the Church, to employ their prudent advice, to assign duties to them in the service of the Church, to allow them freedom and room for action, and to encourage them to undertake tasks on their own initiative”. (LG­37)

An openness on the part of the lay faithful to “make known their needs and desires with freedom and confidence.” They are “not only permitted but sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church”. (LG 37)

A willingness to read the signs of the times, to recognise the evolutionary nature of human life, to gain from the talents and industry of individuals and groups within society (GS 40), and to learn from the human sciences (GS 4, 44), an openness to dialogue and collaboration.

A willingness to recognise that the lay faithful have a special responsibility for the Church’s mission within the “vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media”, as well as the everyday realities such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, and suffering.

The more Gospel-inspired lay people there are engaged in these realities, clearly involved in them, competent to promote them, and conscious that they must exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often repressed and buried, the more these realities will be at the service of the Kingdom of God and therefore at the service of salvation in Jesus Christ (EN,70)

A spirituality of communion, best developed by Pope John Paul II in his January 2000 Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte:

A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us. … means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as “those who are a part of me” … 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. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: … Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, “masks” of communion rather than its means of expression and growth. A Spirituality of Communion supplies the institutional reality with a soul

B. What is the reality of participation and co-responsibility in the Australian Church?

As one of numerous examples that could be given: the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese to which I belong has put enormous emphasis on trying to implement the Vatican II vision of participation and co-responsibility at the local level. In 1992-93 a Diocesan Synod was held that had as its stated purpose:

To hear God’s People and empower them to participate fully in Christ’s mission

The Synod involved a huge commitment of time and energy on the part of clergy, religious and laity in years of preparation, in the actual Synod itself and in its implementation. The outcome of the Synod was a Diocesan Pastoral Plan that called for the establishment of the Council-Assembly-Team model of pastoral planning, at parish, regional and diocesan levels.

The functioning of these structures was to be according to a set of ten principles, based on the ecclesiology of Communio that constituted a most important dimension of the Diocesan Pastoral Plan.

The model has been implemented and used for the past ten years for parish pastoral planning. Every parish would have a parish pastoral council that in an ongoing way develops parish plans and conducts regular parish assemblies.

The Clergy and two representatives of parish pastoral councils attend the regional pastoral council, and one representative from each of the regional pastoral council attends the diocesan pastoral council. This network of pastoral councils has been used for several major diocesan consultations associated with diocesan assemblies:

The development of a diocesan policy regarding the Sacraments of Initiation

A four-year consultation preparing parishes for the time when there will be fewer priests. This involved what we called cluster planning.

A consultation on whether to introduce the permanent Diaconate into the diocese.

Several other projects like responding to the Woman and Man report, the question of Young People and the Church, Evangelisation and the reality of declining Mass attendance.

Through my association with the National Pastoral Planning Network I am aware that similar pastoral planning structures and processes have been used in other dioceses throughout Australia

Knowing something of the work that goes on in these dioceses, one has to agree with Walter Kasper, who wrote that “Lay interest, and the preparedness of lay people to take a share of responsibility, is perhaps the most valuable and most important contribution of the post-conciliar period”.

C. Discussion: Some factors helping or hindering participation and co­responsibility?

Some of the obvious factors influencing the way Catholics participate in the life and mission of the Church and the extent to which they participate, would be:

The continued existence of differing ecclesiologies, both in Church teaching and in the minds and hearts of people

Lack of ongoing Adult Faith Development resulting in people not understanding and acting out of the ecclesiology of communion

The Leadership of the Clergy

Declining Mass attendance with only 16% of Catholics attending regularly

People: their different gifts, experiences, motivation,

Influence of our culture on people’s time, attitudes, values

In some cases, lack of structures and processes for participation

History of the Church vis-à-vis lay involvement

The following points were raised in the discussion that followed the presentation:

The Vatican II Documents

Comparison between the everyday reality and the words/ideals expressed in Vatican II documents including those used in the presentation. Are priests well read and educated in them? Some obviously are well trained.

Great need for education of parishioners in knowing and understanding Church documents, not only those of Vatican II but also encyclicals of Paul VI and John Paul II, which quote extensively from Vatican II. Publications from The Story Source can help.

The Vatican II documents can sound very condescending towards the laity. People are called to be ‘adult’, but not treated as such. The Church still works out of a paternalistic model. Sadly, those who can’t accept this simply do not go to Church any more.


Quote from an American Vietnamese speaker at a recent conference: “Mission should define the Church, not Church the mission”. Structures can be ‘top down’ unless animated by appropriate spirituality.

The development of structures and spirituality can go hand in hand. Maitland-Newcastle diocese recognised the need for this at its Synod and as a result

One of the principles written into the Diocesan Pastoral Plan was that every meeting should include a period of prayer and shared reflection (at least 15 minutes) on the Scriptures and their application to the lives of people and the matters at hand

A Diocesan Team of three people (a religious and two lay people) was employed to work with parishes in promoting the diocesan pastoral plan and especially the ecclesiology on which it is based.

What of the “Call to Holiness” approach to participation and decision-making (c/f. Mary Benet McKinney’s book, Sharing Wisdom)? This was very influential in Maitland-Newcastle and the principles of decision-making by discernment are written into the Diocesan Pastoral Plan.

Ideally, major decisions are not taken unless the community has arrived at what everyone can “accept gracefully and support wholeheartedly” (c/f. Acts Ch. 15). This was the case at the diocesan assembly that considered the introduction of the permanent diaconate. There was energetic debate but no clear consensus was reached. In the spirit of the Synod principles, the matter was not decided by a majority vote because the community had not adequately discerned.

Issues with permanent diaconate? Mainly the exclusion of women; laws of celibacy (If unmarried a deacon must remain celibate)

Adult Faith Development (AFD)

AFD is crucial because unless people understand the teachings of Vatican II, and in particular the ecclesiology of communio, there will be little development of the Council’s vision of shared responsibility

The continued existence of differing ecclesiologies – the hierarchical model side by side with the communio model can be a source of tension and can prevent appropriate participation and co-responsibility.

What was done about this in Maitland-Newcastle? A Diocesan Adult Faith Development Commission was formed to promote and coordinate AFD; the Tenison Woods Education Centre was established to provide courses throughout the dioceses especially for rural areas.

Generally greater opportunities available in city areas than in rural areas, but not all parishioners are motivated to participate.

An excellent resource recommended by one participant is a set of four videos by John Maxwell, Developing the Leaders around You, available from The Word Bookstore, President Ave Sutherland.

The Leadership of the Ordained

In practice the leadership of the Clergy remains the major influence in today’s parishes: the determining factor if the majority of parishioners are to be encouraged to participate.

Disenchantment on the part of some when they move from an active to an inactive parish. It should not depend only on the leadership of the Parish Priest. An attitude of “This is our parish. Its life depends on us” is needed.

Parish Priest can make or break! Example of parish that was alive with many Bible study groups, Lenten groups, etc, but with change of PP, now has nothing but a Finance Council

Problem for young people who cannot relate to older mentality. There are few young priests for young people to relate to.

Structures for Participation

It was noted that in some parishes there are neither pastoral councils nor teams – only finance councils!

Same people on pastoral councils and teams? Ideally no. Discernment of people’s gifts should see those with planning, visioning skills on councils and those with organisational skills on teams. In small parishes there are often insufficient numbers to have two groups.

An assembly is a meeting to which all parishioners are invited. They are meant to give everyone in the parish the opportunity to participate and be co-responsible for decision-making about the life of the parish. Not everyone is motivated to attend!

Structures reach only a limited number of people: 16% of Catholics attend Mass regularly; of those only a small percentage actually participate in parish life beyond Mass.

Experience of pastoral councils in a multi-cultural parish? At Kensington the Kids Church program has had good results, involving parents in sacramental preparation. Marrickville also has a good multiculturally based sacramental program.

Parish Councils in ‘priest-less’ parishes? Sometimes work very well especially with good regional and diocesan support.

Do parish pastoral councils set the agenda for the Diocesan Pastoral Council or vice versa? Both. In Maitland-Newcastle some of the major projects were initiated because of grass roots submissions to the Diocesan Pastoral Council.

How successful are regional pastoral councils? Depends on the personnel involved, their understanding of and commitment to the ecclesiology of communio.

Diocesan assemblies: how often? Every two years or so. Have a different constitution from the more formal ‘Diocesan Synod’ (c/f. Code of Canon Law 460-468)

Brisbane Archdiocese currently preparing for a Diocesan Synod. Lot of work involved. Canberra Goulburn’s Diocesan Synod in 1989 was a significant event, involved widespread participation, build up a strong sense of diocesan community.

Some optimism about participation – both a right and a duty. Stories shared of success in participation.

Small Church Communities

Conviction that the future lies with small Church communities rather than parish structures. However, some organisation, formation, coordination is needed, if these are to be ‘ecclesial’ and more than groups of like-minded people getting together to nurture their own faith.

Examples given of belonging to groups such as Paulian Small Communities for 25 years and the benefits these have been to individuals and the parish communities concerned.

Overall optimistic comment from one participant:

There have been huge changes in a relatively short time. Don’t underestimate the good that has been done and can be done in local parishes. We need recognise and acknowledge the achievements even if it is years before ‘success’ is obvious.

This is what we are about:

We plant the seeds that will one day grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it well.

It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,

but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers not master builders, ministers not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

(Attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero)

(Patricia Egan, a Sister of St Joseph of Lochinvar, is Chancellor of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, and has been leader of the Diocesan Pastoral Planning Team for the past 12 years.)