Published November 16, 2006
David R. Spotanski, who served as vice chancellor for the Diocese of Belleville during then-Bishop Wilton D. Gregory’s tenure, worked with the Diocesan Pastoral Council for a number of years. Now chancellor for administration and pastoral services in that diocese, he shared in a recent interview some of the history and insights of the DPC, emphasizing the many positive aspects of the group.
Were you involved in getting the diocesan council set up? How did that process go and how long did it take?
Though I regularly attended our Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) meetings as a member of then-Bishop Gregory’s staff, I was not technically a member. That distinction was reserved for the 20 or so people of God from across our diocese who gave up the better part of a weekend four times a year to share honestly and candidly their wisdom and unique experiences with a bishop who really came to rely on them, just as I’m confident he will in Atlanta.
Our council was designed by an ad hoc committee that met for nearly a year, studying models that had been successful elsewhere and models that hadn’t, adjusting the best practices they identified to accommodate the particular geographic and demographic idiosyncrasies of our diocese. … The work of the ad hoc committee could certainly have been completed much more quickly than it was, but … we saw the design process as an opportunity to educate the people of southern Illinois about this great new opportunity to assist their bishop in the governance of the diocese. … From the very first meeting, I think both the bishop and the members of the council were stunned at the value of the interaction and the ease with which that interaction came about.
How many people participated on this council?
There were typically between 18 and 22 members on the council—two from each of our six deaneries plus a man or woman Religious, a parish life coordinator, a permanent deacon, a priest, and two to six discretionary members invited by the bishop to represent specific cohorts of people who might otherwise not have a voice there—young adults, our Hispanic community, and the disabled, for example. During the 10 years our council was active under Bishop Gregory, approximately 58 people served thereon, with another five of us staffing it over time. As the only person besides the bishop to have been involved for the duration, I can’t imagine a single one of those 60 plus people describing their involvement on the council as not worthwhile.
How often did the council meet?
The council met quarterly, typically three times a year at a central location and once in another part of the diocese where we attended regular Sunday Mass with the local parish community. Of the 34 meetings scheduled, only two were canceled because of a lack of sufficient agenda (although we always allowed for that contingency—we never met simply because it was on the books. People had to travel as much as three hours just to be there!).
What topics/questions did the council consider?
The council considered anything and everything. Some of the most noteworthy early deliberations centered around a perceived fundamental lack of pastoral sensitivity and timeliness in the annulment process in the diocese and the development of a diocesan planning process called “Into the Future,” which tackled delicate issues of parish viability and clustering. And, of course, our Diocesan Pastoral Council was the primary lay advisory body to the local Ordinary who happened to be president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when the news broke of revelations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and the heinous mishandling of some of those allegations by brother bishops. Nearly five years later I can still recall the puzzled, angry and heartsick looks on the faces of both the members of the council and their bishop during some of the gut-wrenching discussions we had about what had happened, how it could have happened, and what had to be done to restore the decimated moral authority of our leadership. Without a doubt the most important work of our DPC was to help shape their bishop’s—your archbishop’s—response to a crisis of faith I pray your new council never has to revisit.
What do you think the overall value of the council was for the diocese? For the bishop? Any drawbacks?
Properly assembled and appreciated, there is no drawback to having a pastoral council. In those rare instances when Bishop Gregory had to choose between, say, a recommendation from the DPC and one from his priests’ council, he understood that he had a responsibility to explain to both groups how he’d arrived at his decision. Knowing he was under this self-prescribed commitment to accountability, he knew he had to present a well thought out rationale for the things he did, even though both groups tacitly understood their roles to be advisory and not decision-making.
The overall value of an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council runs the gamut from bringing about simple, practical, necessary changes in the pastoral life of a local Church to introducing some of the most promising leaders in all of Catholicism to the notion that, if they’re willing to avail themselves to and trust in the incredible wisdom of the people around them who love the Church just as much as they do, success as a shepherd of those souls becomes a far less daunting endeavor.