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2/9/2017 9:00:00 AM
REACHING RURAL PARISHES
Technology sent parish talk to locations across Diocese
DR. FISCHER TAKES A QUESTION from a participant at St. Edward's parish in Clifton Park during the “Making Parish Councils Pastoral” presentation. This year's Autumn Diocesan Gathering in October (date to be announced) is likely to also be broadcast from a central location to remote sites around the Albany Diocese. Organizers hope to have one presenter lead an entire day of presentations and small-group discussions at the satellite sites.
DR. FISCHER TAKES A QUESTION from a participant at St. Edward's parish in Clifton Park during the “Making Parish Councils Pastoral” presentation. This year's Autumn Diocesan Gathering in October (date to be announced) is likely to also be broadcast from a central location to remote sites around the Albany Diocese. Organizers hope to have one presenter lead an entire day of presentations and small-group discussions at the satellite sites.
In late January, Dr. Mark Fischer gave a presentation at St. Edward's parish in Clifton Park on "Making Parish Councils Pastoral."

It was a significant event, noted Deacon Frank Berning, director of pastoral planning for the Albany Diocese, for two reasons:

•  Dr. Fischer is a nationally-recognized speaker who teaches at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., and has written a book on parish pastoral councils;

•  and, through videoconferencing, more than 300 area Catholics attended the talk at four satellite locations around the Diocese.

Only half the participants in the day-long session were actually at St. Edward's. The rest were split between St. Mary's parish in Oneonta, St. Patrick's in Catskill, St. Francis de Sales in Herkimer and Our Lady of the Annunciation in Queensbury.

Rather than having to drive to one central location, Catholics from parishes all around the remote sites came to the parish nearest them. Each satellite location now has large screens and speakers to broadcast events.

Members of the Diocesan Pastoral Council served as facilitators at the satellite locations; technical assistance was handled by the Diocese's Information Technology Office.

Two-way talk
The conversation went both ways: Attendees could interact with Dr. Fischer during question-and-answer periods.

"Seventy of our 126 parishes are rural, and we have always really struggled to be inclusive," said Deacon Berning, who also heads the Diocese's graduate school for theology, St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry. Now, far-flung parishes "can not only receive, but can broadcast from their sites. This is a virtual classroom."

Participants at the remote locations broke into small groups for discussions during the day, then reconvened to ask questions of Dr. Fischer.

Afterward, "the evaluations were amazing," reported Deacon Berning, who saw the event as a fulfillment of Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger's request for parishes near one another to be more collaborative.

Dr. Fischer spent a good portion of the day discussing the creation and role of parish pastoral councils. The concept of a pastoral council came about during the Second Vatican Council in 1965, he explained. In the early 1980s, parishes began looking at how to make "parish councils" into "pastoral councils."

Councils' role
When a bishop entrusts a parish to a pastor or parish life director, the speaker said, that leader has to govern with "wisdom, prudence and good common sense. That's what a parish pastoral council can supply."

Simply put, such councils are groups of parishioners who meet regularly to discuss parish issues brought to their attention, consider them and make practical decisions, then present recommendations to the pastor or parish life director.

Dr. Fischer told attendees at the session that there are still many misconceptions about the role of a parish pastoral council. For one thing, pastoral councils aren't meant to be like a board of directors or govern a parish; nor should they be in charge of organizing parish ministries. Councils don't implement the recommendations they make, either. That's up to committees the parish forms for that purpose.

Instead, said Dr. Fischer, pastoral councils must serve as consultants for pastors and parish life directors. Their purpose is threefold: to study a matter, reflect on it and bring their conclusions to the pastor, "with the goal of achieving the truth."

Tact is key. "You've got to tell the truth, even if it hurts, but you've got to be diplomatic, too," the speaker cautioned.

Good advice
"Success is when the pastoral council's recommendations to the pastor are so wise that he puts them into practice, either with the parish staff or with volunteers," Dr. Fischer continued. "That means you've succeeded."

However, he added later in the session, "the council is not responsible for the well-being of those parishes."

Bishop Scharfenberger, who attended the talk, remarked on his own years in parish life.

"In my experience, the biggest frustration I've had as a pastor is feeling the gulf between the wonderful experience of faith, in struggle and in redemption, that we just don't share," he said. "The whole purpose of having a parish pastoral council is to make 'Church' be what Church should be. Parish pastoral councils can be so effective at bringing together resources to assist and advise parish leadership, to harmonize, to plan together how we can work together as a parish family."

Reactions
Participants at the presentation, including many at the remote sites, peppered Dr. Fischer with questions and many comments about general practices and specific situations at their parishes: how to best serve senior citizens, immigrants and youth; how to deal with different dynamics at linked parishes; how to create cooperation when merging parishes are concerned about losing their identity.

All the concerns of parishioners, Dr. Fischer said, are shared by pastors and parish life directors: "That's the essence of being a good shepherd."

Parish pastoral councils' role is to consider the realities of what the parish is dealing with, he said, particularly in assessing a challenging situation like a merger. Leaders need help to make wise decisions.

"If you have faith, you believe that God is going to bring good even out of a difficult situation," he added. "You believe that there is hope."

(Segments of the presentation are expected to be posted soon on the diocesan website, www.rcda.org, under "Offices: Pastoral Planning.")





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