THE 1987 MIXED GENERAL MEETING
When the Capitulants left
Agenda and Procedure
The agenda was packed. Establishing the final version of our Constitutions, for both the monks and the nuns, was obviously the main task; but there were also various Statutes to be discussed. Other important matters like the incorporation of the Congregation of Las Huelgas into our Order were added to the list of the usual business to which every General Chapter has to attend as, for example, the reading of some House Reports.
Like any piece of heavy equipment, the Mixed General Meeting was slow to put in gear. More or less five days were needed to polish up the procedure. The Commission for the Constitutions (CoCoRo) was elected on the fourth day of the Meeting, with the mandate to present to the Assembly the Criteria according to which it intended to work. Those criteria were presented to the Assembly on the following day and voted on the29th, sixth day of the Chapter. One quarter of the working days of the Meeting had already passed.
Revision of the Constitutions
The Constitutions voted at
All the new or amended texts had to be voted at the Mixed
General Meeting in
Out of respect for the texts of H/E, MMP II designed a procedure according to which there would be a vote to confirm (or not) the H/E text before any vote on a modified or new text. The intention was excellent. In practice, due to the fact that many Constitutions and Statutes were very long and complex, and the changes proposed were numerous, that procedure caused the voting sheets and the voting sessions to be exceedingly complicated and time consuming.
The great number of Commissions (17 of them) could have make the work much more burdensome than it was. At the very beginning of the Meeting, after the Commissions had made a first study of the question of the Unity of the Order, the Coordinating Commission asked all the Commissions to give a mini-report composed of at most five statements. That proved to be an excellent procedure that saved a lot of time and that was used later on by the CoCoRo.
Improvement or loss?
What was the final result of that general revision of our
Constitutions? At the end of the Mixed General Meeting an European
abbot told me that when people unearth our Constitutions, in a
few centuries from now, everyone will be convinced that the text
voted at the Rome Meeting was the first one, and that the
There is no doubt that some of the changes were improvements. For example the section on the consultation of the brothers (sisters), the council of the abbot (abbess) and the conventual chapter has been rearranged by the Law Commission in a more logical and more harmonious manner. The section on ordinary and extraordinary administration is now also clearer and canonically more accurate. Other changes harmonized the two texts, inserting into the monks' text some of the theological or spiritual ameliorations made by the abbesses at El Escorial.
On the other hand, several of the amendments proposed and
accepted did not take enough into account the overall structure
of the whole book of Constitutions, and some represent a mentality
different from the one that presided at
Some of the changes seem also to betray a mentality less open to pluralism and more concerned about "control" than the H/E version was. A good example is the statute about the right of the abbot/abbess to visit the cells of the brothers/sisters! To some articles or statutes mentioning the responsibility of the community, a caveat has been added reminding that the superior has the final word. Surprisingly enough, an example this comes at the end of a constitution on the active participation of the brethren, even if the principle of the abbot's/abbess' having the final word is clearly expressed elsewhere. From this point of view the mentality revealed by some of the new amendments is a return to the mentality of some years ago. It might be an exaggeration to say that it is a return to «before 1969"; but we can certainly say that 1987 was to 1984 and 1985what 1971 was to 1969. (The Chapter of 1971 was the one at which, after voting the principle of pluralism two years before, it was felt necessary to render somewhat "uniform" the application the applications of that "pluralism".).
Unity of the Order
In spite of the inevitable complex procedure, the final revision of our Constitutions would have been a reasonably simple task, had it not been for the need to find a formula for maintaining the Unity of the Order while respecting the autonomy of the two "Branches". With perhaps a very few exceptions, nobody wanted to separate the Order into two juridically separate Orders without any form of interdependence. All wanted to maintain the unity; but the problem was to find out how to articulate it juridically.
At El Escorial, the Abbesses adopted the same principle but went a step forward, stating that the matters affecting both monks and nuns together were referred to the pastoral care and authority of the abbots and abbesses gathered in General Chapter either jointly or separately. They cast that vote after long and difficult discussions, during which all the arguments pro and contra were expressed. Therefore the meaning of that vote and its consequences were quite clear for the abbesses who were at El Escorial.
Between El Escorial and the MGM in
The whole Mixed General Meeting revolved around that question, and the growth towards a consensus was beautiful to watch, although it was amore painful growth than the similar process realized at Holyoke and even at El Escorial (where it was already more difficult).
During the five days spent on Procedure, the Commissions had sometime to make a first study on that question and were asked to give a mini-report on the 27th of Nov. After presenting a synthesis of those reports on the 28th, the CoCoRo was able to offer, two days later, a Preliminary Declaration on the Unity of the Order (based on those mini-reports), that was confirmed by a quasi unanimous vote on the following day (132 yes, 6 no, 3 abs, 2 jm).
A first straw vote, taken on December 1st, showed that, concretely, the two options of either "One Mixed General Chapter" or "One General Chapter of abbots and one General Assembly of Abbesses" were not very popular. The great majority of the votes were divided among the two possibilities of "One Mixed General Chapter with two Assemblies/Chapters» and "Two interdependent General Chapters".
After the Commissions had made a first study of most of the Constitutions of the Third Part, we moved to study the Second Part, letting the consensus simmer on the back burner. When a second straw vote was taken on Dec. 7th., the consensus was very clear and strong. The large majority of both Chapters saw the possibility of building a consensus at this Mixed General Meeting around the formula of "two interdependent Chapters". There was an atmosphere of hope. Even those who would have desired something else (including those who would have wanted One Mixed General Chapter) felt that we had made significant progress towards a practical solution.
There was some form of backlash on December 10. A fortuitous series of events shook up the consensus.
Earlier in the Chapter, a small Canonical Commission was created in order to avoid technical discussions in the Plenary Assembly. That Canonists' Group presented to the Plenary Assembly, on the morning of Dec. 10, a set of reflections on the Unity of the Order that at least implicitly questioned the wisdom of the former straw vote on that question. The exchange that followed, especially two well structured interventions, stressed the danger of our becoming two Congregations if we had two interdependent General Chapters. By another coincidence, the Mother Federal of the Federation of Las Huelgas unexpectedly presented, that same afternoon, after the coffee break, the request of the Nuns of the Federation of Las Huelgas to be incorporated in the Order as a Congregation. Definitely the specter of the "congregations" brooded over the whole day. All this brought on the Assembly, on the Commissions, and on the work of the MGM in general a cloud of gloom that took many days before disappearing (and probably never completely disappeared).
The consensus seriously shaken up on that day was slowly rebuilt and could be expressed on Dec. 14th. in a long series of straw votes concerning all the main structures of the Order treated in the Third Part of the Constitutions, and giving to the CoCoRo some much needed indications on how to prepare the texts to be voted. In the end, most of the final votes, including the one concerning the two interdependent General Chapters were passed with a very high majority, often close to unanimity.
All during the elaboration of that consensus, work was being done on the long Second Part of the Constitutions and also on the First One. The long, painful and boring sessions of vote on innumerable little details should not make us forget that some important questions were treated smoothly and with very satisfactory results at the same time: for example the new Cst. 19 replacing fortunately, and without much discussion, the Cst.19-20-21 of H/E, and the new Cst. 29 (replacing 31) on the separation from the world, fruit of several successive redactions in a beautiful atmosphere of dialogue.
Statute of Foundations
The manner in which the Statute on Foundations was treated was also very interesting. After a first study in Commissions and a fruitful discussion in Plenary session, it was felt that a small Commission was better adapted for such technical matters as those that had still to be clarified. A special commission representing various Regions of the Order and various fields of expertise was created and produced a text that was well accepted by the Assembly at the end of the Meeting.
Statute of Formation
There was no time left to study the important Statute on Formation. But that may be just as well. A long and important text received at the Chapter itself could not have been studied seriously right away. A large part of the next Chapter may be reserved for that, the question being of the utmost importance for the future of the Order
The question of Collegiality is a mysterious one. More than a decade ago some superiors and canonists
in the Order thought that the canonical concept of collegiality
could be used to give a harmonious juridical expression to the
structures that the Order has been giving itself since Vatican
II. The idea generated
some fears and the image of a Trojan Horse was often used. At
Another painful experience was that concerning the request from Las Huelgas. We were obviously not ready to make a decision on that question. But, as the Abbot General told us, expressing clearly his sadness about the whole issue, it was difficult to understand why most of us came to the Chapter unprepared to treat that question, while it had been on the agenda for several years. Dom Ambrose could easily show, for example, that some people were scared at the prospect of things that has been in fact the situation of the last thirty years (like our Permanent Council taking care of their ordinary business with the Holy See). Few Regions have made a serious study of the question.
There was a real fear that to accept Las Huelgas at this time would complicate our dealing with the Holy See concerning the approval of our Constitutions. It is not certain at all that such a fear is founded. It any case, it is to be hoped that, at the next General Chapter(s), after(hopefully) the approval of our Constitutions, it will be possible to study the request of our sisters of Las Huelgas with full objectivity and open minds as well as open hearts. It was certainly unfortunate (although perhaps unavoidable) that such an important question came up for voting on the very last evening of the Meeting. The fact that the vote of the Abbots and that of the Abbesses differed considerably on that question created some disappointment that certainly influenced the following vote on whether we should have in 1990a Mixed General Meeting with the possibility of meeting in separate Chapters or Separate Chapters with the possibility of mixed meetings. The desire has already been expressed by some Capitulants for that question to be reconsidered by the Central Commissions, the argument being that the agenda of the Chapters should be established before we can decide how much work we will do separately and how much together.
In any case, the painful experience of the last voting session should not make us forget that, as a whole, this large mixed meeting has functioned surprisingly well. After the slow beginning due to the large number of participants rather than to the mixed character of the group, it has functioned much more smoothly than most people had expected, and it has achieved a lot of work. If this has been possible at the first try, and working on extremely complicated matters, a Mixed General Meeting on Formation and other similar basic issues will be the most pleasant and fruitful experience.
Preparation for 1990
Some uncertainties remain concerning the preparation of the two General Chapters of 1990. According to the Constitutions, it is the task of the two Central Commissions to prepare the two General Chapters, coordinating the initiatives coming from the Regional Conferences. But no mechanism has been established for that work of coordination. For example the Regions are entirely free to determine the time and the frequency of their meetings.
If the Central Commission met twice between two Chapters, it could establish an agenda for the next Chapter at its first meeting, then the Regional Conferences could work on that agenda, and the Central Commission could bring their results together and finalize the agenda of the Chapter at its second meeting.
If the Central Commission meets only once between two Chapters, as is the present situation, it can coordinate the initiatives of the Regions in two ways. It may establish the agenda of the next Chapter on the basis of the work of the various Regional Conferences. For this process to be fair, the date of the meeting of the Central Commission should be announced well in advance, and care should be taken that all the Regions meet before the meeting of the Central Commission and that there is enough time for their reports to be communicated to all the members of the Central Commission. Nothing of that is assured presently. Some Regions do not plan to meet before 1989, and although the date of the Central Commission(s) meeting has not been decided, it seems it could be in January 1989. If the agenda of the Chapter is established on the basis of the meetings of only some of the Regions, it is unfair towards the other Regions.
On the other hand the Central Commission could establish the agenda on the basis of its own evaluation of the needs of the Order. Then its meeting should be very early in the three-year period between two Chapters, in order to allow enough time for all the Regions to have a meeting on that agenda and to communicate their results and suggestions to the whole Order long before the Chapter.
Some clarifications of that process seem to be needed in the statutes concerning the Central Commission(s) and the Regional Conferences.
Conyers, March 17, 1988
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