Widespread confusion on role of pastoral councils

A review of the parish based initiative has revealed uncertainty about how to face challenges, writes Cathal Barry

A major review of parish pastoral councils across the Dublin archdiocese has revealed widespread confusion about how to tackle some of the most challenging issues facing the Church.

The survey exposed extensive uncertainty among most pastoral councils about how to counter falling Mass attendances, implement evangelisation and engage young people in the life of the Church.

Parish pastoral councils were established in the Archdiocese of Dublin by decree of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in 2004.

Today, each of the 199 parishes in Dublin has a pastoral council, through which priests and people pray and work together as partners, responsible for furthering the mission of the Church in their own local parish.  

When he first called on people to take part more than a decade ago, Archbishop Martin envisaged the councils as “fruitful instruments for a renewal of evangelisation, mission and service in parish communities”.

Almost 10 years later, in April 2013, parish pastoral councils were invited by the Office for Evangelisation and Ecumenism to take part in a review, which had two aims:

  • To help parish pastoral councils to monitor their own progress.
  • To gather an overall picture of the development of parish pastoral councils over the past 10 years.

With 50% of the parish pastoral councils in the archdiocese responding to the invitation, the report of that review has now been released.


The review itself consisted of a facilitated conversation, using a guidance leaflet, entitled ‘How are you?’

The report notes that those who facilitated the review experienced a “huge amount of goodwill, faithfulness to the task and desire to serve”. 

Most pastoral councils “want to grow and develop so that they can make a real difference in their parish communities,” it states.

The report warns, however, that such enthusiasm “is not to minimise the concerns, frustrations and challenges” faced by parish pastoral councils “in their efforts to understand their role”.

With regard to outreach, the report notes that in “almost every” parish pastoral council “concern was expressed about falling Mass attendance, and about evangelisation”.

Furthermore, it states that “everyone was unsure about what action to take in response to these challenges”.

“While there is a great desire among [parish pastoral councils] to be agents of evangelisation, this concept is understood in a different way by each pastoral council; and very few have any idea how to go about it,” the report states.

In the ‘Connecting with Young People’ section, reviewers note that while every council “expressed concern and sadness” over the absence of young people in Church, most members “admit they do not know where to begin to connect” with the youth.

Pastoral councils, according to the reviewers, are “beginning to realise that ministry to young people involves intense, skilled and committed accompaniment”.

Likewise, with regard to recruitment, many councils also spoke of “unsuccessful attempts” to recruit younger members, with reviewers noting that members typically tend to be in the “50 plus” age group.

In this section too it was noted that there is often a “lack of clarity around the task” of the parish councils and a reluctance from potential members to commit to meetings “because of busy lifestyles”.

It is also reported that parishioners in many places “seem to have very little or no involvement” in selecting new council members but personal invitation, which typically comes from the priest, “does seem to yield results”. 

On the subject of training, the reviewers state that almost every council “mentioned the difficulty of trying to work out what was expected of them when they joined”.

“Information and training are crucial for new members, but these are often lacking,” the report notes, adding that without “some basic faith development or knowledge of theology, members often feel inadequate”.

Reviews reported positively on the place of prayer at pastoral council meetings, with some respondents noting it gives the group and sense of purpose and “grounds” the meetings.

There was positive feedback too on relationships within most pastoral councils, with many reporting a supportive and encouraging environment at meetings.

It is noted, however, that where relationships do breakdown, especially between a priest and another member, “there is uncertainty about how to move forward towards a resolution of the conflict”.

With regard to planning, a tendency towards ‘doing’ short-term projects “in an attempt to feel productive and to be seen by the parish to be effective” was highlighted.

“Most pastoral councils now recognise their focus should be pastoral. However, the concept of being a reflective planning group has not yet taken root,” the review states.

Feedback from councils to their Mission Statement revealed that a “large number” were unaware of an existence of a Mission Statement that each parish was initially asked to include in their guidelines.

Good communication was viewed as “essential” by most of the councils that responded to the survey. However, reviewers noted it was “an area with which they all struggle”. 

Some strategies used to raise the profile of pastoral councils include:

  • Being visible by fronting activities.
  • Use of parish newsletter.
  • Use of social media.
  • Speaking at Masses.

With regard to working within parish groupings, the review report noted that the majority of councils are still in the “very early stages” of working together with their neighbours.

The report also states that the “idea of coming together seems to bring with it a certain amount of concern and speculation about what is going to happen in the future”.

It was noted, however, that anxiety “seems to dissipate” once contact has been made and relationships have been established with other councils in a parish grouping.

In response to what was heard from parish pastoral councils across the Dublin archdiocese, the review facilitators recommend that the “role, function and status” of councils be reviewed by the archbishop to “ensure they are equipped to serve the Church of the future”.


The facilitators also recommend that the councils be “supported” with training and in-service with each of the five pastoral areas of the diocese to provide “ongoing support and guidance” for councils, including an annual induction day for new members.

It was suggested too that each council review its “communication strategy” and consider appointing a communications officer. 

Parish pastoral councils were also advised to “prioritise” adult faith development and the faith formation of young people.

Reviewers recommended too that every council member should “familiarise” themselves with Pope Francis’ programmatic document Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) as well as Share the Good News, the national catechetical directory. 

Finally, reviewers ensured pastoral councils that “support is always available” and directing them to their area team or the Office for Evangelisation & Ecumenism.

A worthy, honest and intriguing review.