"The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter – it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning".

- Letter to George Bainton from Mark Twain, 10/15/1888


Armed with this maxim let's turn to local affairs in the Diocese of Springfield (Mass.), and the closing of around 25% of our parishes over the last few years. 

One of the few letters to the editor about the closing program from church officials (actually, the only letter that I know of, come to think of it) was from Msgr. Bonzagni.  It was sent to the North Adams Transcript.  Bonzagni said he knew very well what lay people wanted.  They wanted “...a sense of fairness, some transparency and some kind of input..."  into parish alterations. Elsewhere (Catholic Observer, 3/2/07, p.6.) he said that as he went around the diocese, "...I heard people say they want to...have some degree of transparency..."

I think his qualifiers "a sense of", "some degree", and "some kind of", are excellent examples of the "almost right words".  The right words are "fairness", "transparency" and "input".  However, none of them describe the process that we've been through.

In particular, the Catholic people do not want "some" transparency.  Some may have been enough for a previous generation, but now some information, some truth-telling, some laying-the-cards-on-the-table will not work.

The meek acceptance by the laity of only some transparency sets the wrong tone. Settling for some of the truth would invite the mistaken notion that the clergy are the sole custodians of the truth. This appropriation of the whole Truth – when only some is in play – results in managed news and massaged statistics. But, because the truth is indivisible, creating different versions of it results in two churches – one for clergy, and one for laity. 

This separation into two camps is not only against church doctrines about equality between clergy and laity and the need to respect each others gifts. It also cripples the ideals of collaboration and deliberation that are the foundation of the parish councils. 

A glance at definitions confirms that "collaboration" and "deliberation" are serious indeed.  Collaboration is a process in which groups work toward a common goal. It is creative (no one knows where it is heading), and works by sharing knowledge and building consensus.

It's interesting that one well-known but negative sense of "collaboration" is used to describe the relationship between an army of occupation and the subjected people of the occupied country.  This relationship fails the test of a true collaboration because it is unequal. Collaboration demands equality.

For deliberation, most all definitions stress the slowness of the process.  Deliberations are planned, thought out, hashed over, discussed.  Deliberations can flirt with impertinence if they're dragged out.  A genuine deliberation consists in a measured approach, but one that leads to decisive action.

In our last installment we talked about why collaboration and deliberation are key values for parish councils. These are active virtues that require commitment from the laity, no doubt. However,  in the recent past local parish councilors have been ignored when diocesan officials found it convenient to ignore them in order to get to a result. The parish-closing program is the most dramatic example, but there are many more instances suggesting that many pastors run the show, and use the parish council as a sideshow. From this we gather that collaboration and deliberation in the church are found only on a two-way street. To become more than cardboard cut-outs, parish councils require support from the clergy.

This is not the place to delve into why the ideals of Vatican II calling for increased lay involvement have been undermined by less than worthy agendas.  Let's just point out that since the church is all of us, clergy and laity cannot help but influence each other.  One can help the other.  One can also be destructive to the other.

It’s not hard to find "how-to's" for parish councils.  Two that I am aware of are "Keeping the Covenant: Taking Parish to the Next Level" by Thomas P. Sweetser, SJ, and "Revisioning the Parish Pastoral Council" by Gubish and others.

Once you get to Amazon's web site you notice no lack of books about parish planning. All seem strongly rooted in the church doctrine of increased lay involvement.

In particular PEP (the Parish Evaluation Project) and Fr. Sweetser have done interesting work.  They've developed a sort of SWAT team approach whereby they descend on a parish community for a number of weeks and help to transform the parish culture — bringing life back to formerly sick bodies.  It's interesting that there are a minimum number of weeks required.  They've found that changing parish culture is not a quick fix and that the dynamics demand the care of say, a garden type of growth, rather than a quick series of seminars and Power Point presentations.

Another good web site about parish councils is found here. (