By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY | Published March 3, 2011
Canon 511 from the 1983 Code of Canon Law may not be one of the more recognized of the Church’s canons, perhaps because it addresses the issue of the optional establishment of a diocesan pastoral council. In many respects, I continue to find it to be one of the most beneficial of all of the canons governing my service as a diocesan bishop. For more than 15 years, I have been graced with the wisdom, recommendations and observations of the members of the diocesan pastoral councils in both the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., and now here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. This forum provides me with an irreplaceable insight into the heart of the local Church. It also affords me the opportunity to hear candidly and to respond to the voices of the people of God entrusted to my pastoral care.
The agenda for our Archdiocesan Pastoral Council has always been set by the members of the council themselves, and I have never declined to include any topic or issue that a member has proposed for consideration. Within that free-ranging conversation, we have raised delicate and sensitive concerns as well as many ordinary business matters.
In a community like the Archdiocese of Atlanta that is spread out over a vast territory, there are concerns that smaller parishes face that our large urban parishes might not fully appreciate. The education of our children remains a primary interest for all of our people, and the cost and the availability of Catholic school education piques the attention of all of the members of the Pastoral Council. We have also challenged ourselves to attempt to extend educational opportunities to more of our children who have special needs in our schools. We have considered the importance of strengthening our pro-life efforts within our state, our pastoral outreach to those in prison, the significance and the price tag of our annual Eucharistic Congress, the parity of our Scouting programs for boys and girls who engage in Scouting, the increasing plight of our immigrant communities, and many other contemporary matters that we face here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
As you might imagine, there is not always uniformity of opinion on these issues—but there is always respect, candor and civility in the way that they are addressed even by people who differ on these concerns.
Our last meeting introduced a truly unifying and deeply moving topic. We heard from a wonderful woman who told us of the painful episodes that she and her husband faced when they lost children during their pregnancy. She was eloquent beyond words in describing the sense of sorrow and the painful reality that they felt after they first heard the joyful news of their pregnancy and then suffered the loss of those children for which they so longed. She turned to our Church for consolation and comfort, and unfortunately she did not find the solace she and her husband had deeply deserved. The pastoral words that were offered at the time rang hollow even as they were intended to reassure this young couple. She said that this same type of grief visits many couples who lose their children during pregnancy, or who experience difficulty becoming pregnant, or who simply find the inability to bear children a burden that brings an unresolved sorrow to their lives. She said that the Church’s response to such couples simply does not fit conveniently within any of our existing ministries or programs. She asked for help in addressing this lack of pastoral attention for a considerable number of couples who face this painful situation.
The people in attendance at this Pastoral Council meeting were deeply touched by her witness, and some of them nodded visibly in agreement with her story because they themselves or other members of their families or friends had faced this sorrow in their own lives. We all agreed that we need to find a way to bring some healing and support to the lives of these couples in our diocese and to better educate our clergy as to how to reach out in effective, compassionate ways when confronted with this pastoral situation.
Over the next several months, I will be in dialogue with members of our clergy—most especially some of our deacons and their wives who may have personal experience with this difficulty—to find ways of educating our clergy in responding to this sensitive situation and to offer some ritual opportunities for any couple who might seek the Church’s support at a very painful episode in their lives.
I ask all of us to keep these wonderful people in our prayers as they bear the burden of the loss of a child that was waiting to be born or who long to become parents and face the challenges that nature places before them.
The Pastoral Council’s conversation has once again helped me to hear the voices of our people and to know of a condition that we should keep in prayer and find a way in which to answer as Christ would have us respond.