The nature of the Church and the importance of lay action
In the next few months, at my request, The Catholic Standard and Times will publish a report on the financial condition of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, including its offices, ministry programs and many of its related agencies and non-profit corporations.
Too often we think of the Church as an institution, and institutions are hard to love. The structures of Catholic life are required by canon and civil law, and they’re important. But they’re also secondary. At her heart, the Church is a family, a community of believers.
Like any family, her members have mutual obligations of respect and accountability. This has practical consequences. We ask our people to be generous. As a result, they have a right to know that their resources, which the Church holds in trust for them, are used properly.
To put it another way: We can’t be confident about the future, we can’t even begin to solve our problems, unless we’re well informed. Much of this year’s financial information will be new. Some of it will be quite sobering. Nonetheless, beginning this year and every year in the future, we will provide to our people as full a picture of our financial life as a Church as we reasonably can.
Part of my accountability as a bishop involves seeking the advice of skilled, prudent people. In the life of the Church, advisory bodies exist for a purpose. They have a duty to be faithful to the Church and her teachings, but if they simply say what they think the pastor or bishop wants to hear, they fail in their mission. They have a responsibility to offer honest counsel based on their experience and on proper access to good information.
The Archdiocesan Priests’ Council (along with the College of Consultors) brings together experienced priests from around our local Church to share in the bishop’s decision-making. These men share in the priesthood with their bishop, they lead our local parishes and they have uniquely important experience of the problems and opportunities in Catholic life at the grassroots level.
Likewise the Archdiocesan Finance Council should gather together the best Catholic professionals in business and finance from the Philadelphia region to help the Church steward her people’s resources. Again, the resources of the Church belong to her people, not to the clergy and not to some impersonal monolith. They come from the sweat and sacrifices of generations of Catholics who came before us. The Church holds these resources in trust for the whole Catholic community to carry out the ministries and apostolic works that the Gospel calls all of us to pursue.
The Church requires that every diocese must have a council of priests, a College of Consultors and a finance council. But she also recommends another key advisory body: a diocese-wide pastoral council composed mainly of laypeople and focused on the pastoral issues facing the Catholic community.
Philadelphia’s Archdiocesan Pastoral Council (APC) has been planned for some years, with important groundwork done by Dr. Robert Miller of our archdiocesan research staff and Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre. Last month, on February 25, their work bore fruit in the first ever meeting of the Pastoral Council of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The meeting began with Mass, and work continued throughout the day. Council sessions included briefings on the legal and financial issues facing the archdiocese; the future of Catholic education in the Philadelphia region; and an overview of our efforts to deal with issues of sexual abuse and to preclude such incidents in the future.
Going forward, APC meetings will occur quarterly. Remaining 2012 dates include May 5, September 8 and December 15. In practice, the council should be a local snapshot of the whole People of God. In Philadelphia, that means it will always include at least one priest, one permanent deacon and one religious. But the rest of the roughly 30 members are laypeople from every walk of life and region in the archdiocese.
This makes sense, since the Church is overwhelmingly lay in her membership, and – especially today — laypeople must play a vital role in advancing the work of the Gospel. I select APC members from candidates nominated by their pastors through the local deaneries. I also reserve a number of at-large appointments to myself to ensure a balance in gender, age, ethnicity and experience.
Service on the council follows four simple rules: fidelity to Catholic teaching; charity; mutual respect; and candor. Members do not “represent” any constituency but themselves. Their great value to the bishop lies in bringing their personal life experience to the honest discussion of pastoral issues facing our Church.
Over the past six months, I’ve written several times about the hard challenges that lie ahead for our Church. But it won’t always be so. To borrow a thought from Francis of Assisi, God has given us too many good people in our archdiocese — clergy, laypersons and religious — to fail if we work together to “repair [God’s] house.”
Things like a financial report and an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council are a beginning. More will come.