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Religious Life IN GENERAL




The role of the General Chapter

in the processus of the re-foundation of a Religious Institute

    [This is an English translation of an article first published in Spanish in Vida Religiosa, 82 (1997) 303-312. It was part of a special issue on the topic: "Would the founders re-found their Institutes?". A revised version is soon to appear in Cistercian Studies Quarterly]

Each religious institute lives the Gospel according to a determined charism. First, this charism was, in general, that of a founder or foundress, and has been received and taken up by a group of disciples who formed the first community of this institute. It has then been unceasingly reinterpreted throughout the years, or even the centuries, according to the new needs of the Church and society and new cultural situations. This initial charism is the foundation on which the whole institute rests, and every effort at renewal can only be a return to this foundation, and thus a re-foundation.

In calling all religious institutes to undertake an effort of renewal, Vatican ll designated the century-old institution of the General Chapter as the privileged instrument for carrying out this task. In the course of a General Chapter an institute assumes its charism anew, re-reads it in the ecclesial and cultural context of today, and makes the necessary decisions for its renewed insertion in the contemporary and ecclesial dough.

l - General Chapter as ecclesial event

A charism is not given, it is entrusted. It does not belong to the person or group that receives it, but to the Church. Thus it is with the charism of a religious institute. Though it may be proper to it, it is not, however, its exclusive property. This charism by its very nature belongs to the whole people of God, and not to the few hundreds or even thousands of members who form the institute at this moment. These latter are its guardians; they are not its owners. The entire people of God have therefore a right and a duty to watch over this part of its patrimony - a right and duty exercised by the hierarchy of the Church in the name of the people of God, especially through the approval of the Constitutions of each institute.(1)

The chapter of an institute, therefore, is not a private affair which concerns only the members of this institute. It is an ecclesial event which is of interest to the christian community as a whole. It is normal that this should take an interest in it and be concerned about its orientations. For an institute, it is the occasion par excellence to become newly aware of its links with the Church in whose mission it plays a part, and with the world to whom it has been sent by Christ.

A group of people may unite to live their christian life together in full liberty, without asking for any juridical recognition. However, from the moment that they wish to be recognised by the Church as a religious institute, they accept to see themselves as guardians of an ecclesial charism. If this group consists not only of one single local community but of a community or communities united in one Congregation or Order, it is this body which henceforth has the responsibility of discerning collegially the will of God for it. The General Chapter is an important time for such discernment.

The consecrated life belongs in fact to the very structure of the Church. It is as old as the Church. Although there is a certain agreement that it came to birth toward the second century of our era with the appearance of organized monasticism, this is hardly more than an agreement of historians. This institutionalized monasticism of the epoch of an Antony and a Pachomius is in full continuity with the entire christian asceticism of the first two centuries. In reality, the religious life can trace its origins back to the first generation of Christians and even to the Pentecost event.

When Christians from the first generation felt called to adopt as a permanent way of life certain radical renunciations demanded by Jesus of those who wished to follow him, they found in the surrounding culture a religious current of ascetical and mystical orientation, in which Jesus himself was inserted by having himself baptized by John, and that he had adopted in his way of life with his disciples. When after some centuries of fertilization of this current by the Gospel message, and of the gradual purification of its exterior manifestations, the structured phenomenon of monasticism appears, we have reached the full realization of a successful processus of inculturation. A processus always to be continued and taken up again.

There is a strong link between renewal, evangelization and inculturation. These are, in this context, three words describing the same reality, seen from slightly different angles. Evangelization takes place in the encounter of the Gospel with a culture. From this encounter comes a transformation of the culture and the Gospel finds in it a new form of expression. This phenomenon is called in our days inculturation. Every culture being in constant evolution and being subject in some periods to a more radical and rapid transformation, must in its new forms of existence, be constantly confronted anew, and fertilized anew by the Gospel. This is the processus which nowadays is called new evangelization, which is forever necessary, not because the previous evangelization was not successful or has lost its vitality (which could happen), but simply because the reality that has been "evangelized" has now become something other, and has to be confronted anew, in its new form, with the challenges of the Gospel.

If all true inculturation is a new evangelization, all renewal - which is not an act performed once and for all, but an uninterrupted processus - is a re-foundation, since it consists in finding again the solid foundations of the Gospel under the thick layer of humanity, of history and of tradition accumulated in the course of two thousand years of Christianity and of a few (or many) centuries of the history of the institute.

ll - The institute in the situation of listening

At the time of a general chapter - and this applies also at various levels to provincial and local chapters - an institute places itself in a situation of listening. Listening, first of all, to the Word of God. This Word comes to it through its own tradition, and also through what its members are experiencing, perceiving and saying. It comes to it also through what the Spirit is saying to the Church today as well as through the signs of the times, that is, the contemporary social and cultural context.

The same Spirit who spoke to the founders continues to speak to the heart of each of the present members of the institute and to challenge them in their concrete and varied situations. It is therefore important that a general chapter find means, during its preparation as well as during its sessions, to allow all that is lived within the institute to find a voice. We must listen to the voice of those who struggle under the burden and heat of the day in the traditional pastoral activities of the institute as well as of those who are ploughing new furrows in unknown territories. We must set free the cries of anguish of the unsatisfied as well as the melody of the satisfied. We must let ourselves be guided by the successes in human initiatives and taught by the failures.

In this attitude of listening to the Word of God, it is normal that the institute, during a general chapter, should re-read the foundation texts of its Tradition, as well as the lived experience of the founder and the first community. At the origin of each religious charism, in fact, there is in general, not only one or several charismatic persons, but also a fundamental writing, such as, for example, the Rule of St. Augustine, or that of St. Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi. Like the Bible and every other writing, these texts are pregnant with almost unlimited meanings, and this richness of meanings only manifests itself through an ever renewed dialogue between the text and the persons who read them in different contexts. Only persons - or groups - profoundly in contact with the culture of their time and with what the Spirit is saying to the Church at that moment can allow the richness of meaning contained in the ancient texts to continue to manifest itself.

As we know, once a text has left the hand of its author, it acquires an autonomous existence and assumes a new meaning each time it is read - each reading being an interpretation, which is the revelation of one of the almost infinite possibilities contained in the text. These writings and the events with which they are associated constantly take on a new meaning each time they are read.

General chapters in the period before Vatican ll were often, in many institutes, hardly more than chapters for election. Since Vatican ll designed the general chapter as one of the principal means of renewal,(2) the general chapters that followed the Council were devoted to the revision of Constitutions and, generally, to the renewal of the institutes. Perhaps these then went on for too long a time to center their full attention on their own interior life and their own organization?

A truly ecclesial renewal demands that the institutes of consecrated life exercise their ecclesial function even during their general chapters. For this, it is good that they should hear the needs, the aspirations, the problems and the experiences of the whole People of God. A diocesan community, or one limited to the dioceses of one country can make a reading, in the light of the Gospel, of what the Church of this diocese or this country is experiencing. A large Congregation or Order extended throughout the world is in a privileged position to make a reading of the situation of the universal Church. Such a reading is surely a service it can offer the people of God, and which no one else can carry out in the same way and in the same perspective.

In times of profound and rapid cultural change such as these which we are experiencing in our day, religious institutes can, through their general chapters, bring to society their reading of human situations such as, for example, the massive displacement of peoples, the ever widening gap between rich and poor, the massive encounters of cultures and religions.

The institute should also be able to hear what lay people might have to say to them of their aspirations and what they expect of them. Not only have many religious foundations begun as lay movements, officially recognised later by the Church as religious institutes, but certain reforms of religious life -- the great monastic reforms of the twelfth century, for example, and that of Cîteaux in particular -- were the response to the aspirations, the expectations and the requests of lay movements within the Church during the preceding century.

A phenomenon to which all institutes should pay most particular attention in our day is the fact that a great number of lay people in all parts of the world, feel in our day called to share not only in the activity and mission of some religious institute, but also in its spirituality, while retaining their obligations and their position in the world. Perhaps many institutes should have the humility to recognize that the Spirit of God, the ultimate "owner" of their charism, is giving this very charism new forms of expression of which they would never have dared to think.

lll - From hearing to the word

The word listened to, assimilated, and by that very fact interpreted, should not be jealously guarded. It burns within us and should be transformed into the word passed on. The word of the chapter will obviously be addressed to the whole institute, of which the capitulants are the delegates, but it should also, at least in certain circumstances, have the courage to address itself to the People of God and to civil society. There are things that, once heard, have no longer the right not to be shouted from the roof-tops. Obviously, the word will only fulfil its function if it can be understood by those to whom it is addressed. It seems unnecessary, if not impertinent, to say it; unfortunately, too many texts coming from general chapters - as from so many other ecclesial organizations - use language only very few can understand.

The new interpretation of foundation texts should not, however, necessarily be expressed in new texts, commentaries or circulars, but rather in actions, gestures, orientations, in a life of holiness transformed by this dialogue with the text. The tradition will then be transmitted to future generations not through the writings of the General Chapter, but through the very life of the institute, transformed by this contact...

A general chapter is the time for an institute to redefine its identity. However, here we need to avoid a pitfall. This definition should not be abstract, and should not be the fruit of a scientific analysis of primitive writings and of the history of the institute carried out by specialists. The identity of a community is not defined by means of a formula, but by means of concrete decisions which imply the renewed significance of a vocation, the recognition of a specific mission, and, in many cases, the admission of a need for conversion and the commitment to bring this about in everyday life.

Our identity is not, in fact, something we can determine for ourselves. It comes to us from the response to a perceived call, and this call is always new. Our identity is not, therefore, something we can discover simply by studying our past. We realize it in responding to the appeals of the Spirit to us today. But above all, what we have to proclaim to the world is not what we are. It is Jesus Christ. We do not have to tell either ourselves or anyone else who we are. We have to tell who God is. And we have to tell it through our life as much as through our words. Perhaps in certain countries where it is not allowed to preach the Gospel in words, and where religious can only live the Gospel values - which are the human and most fundamental values - in their workplace and in their human relations, it is there that christian "witness" (martyrdom) is present in its purest state.

However, perhaps we need to be on our guard against the multiplication of texts called "spiritual" and not underestimate the importance of legislative texts. The drawing up by a general chapter of good statutes, for example on initial and permanent formation, or on the canonical visitation, or again, on putting into practice the option for the poor, can be a more pastoral and spiritual activity than the publication of beautiful texts on the spirituality of the institute. The general chapter has not only to be concerned with the quality of the religious life of its present members, but also with the quality of the institute itself, which has as its mission to keep alive its charism and hand it down to future generations, through a well-knit complex of doctrine, traditions, observances and rites.

Through the general chapter, an institute is called to cast a look of love and compassion on the world around it, in which it lives and to whom it is sent in mission.

How many empty words in our days, in writings called "religious", where the modern world is judged out of hand as evil and corrupt and where the religious present themselves as a counter-culture, or as an evangelical substitute for the surrounding culture ! The history of religious institutes, and especially of christian monasticism for almost two thousand years, shows that each time there has been a moment of great creativity or of renewal of a particular quality, it has been when a group of men or women were particularly present to the culture of their time, and were able to give in their life a response to the deepest aspirations of the men and women of their time, which had become their own aspirations.

It is not uncommon that religious, in a simplistic rejection of modernity, let themselves become enchanted by a philosophical movement which is self-styled "post-modernity" and which is immensely more contrary to the christian faith than "modernity" could have been under any of its expressions.

Just like all Christians, but in a particular way, religious are called to evangelize, thus to inculturate the Gospel or to transform the surrounding culture from the inside, placing the leaven of the Gospel there, and not proclaiming the death or decline of their own culture. Counter-culture has never given birth to anything. A "counter-cultural" religious life would be anti-evangelical. There are obviously in every culture seeds of death and elements on the way to decomposition which serve to fertilize the seeds of new life which never fail to break through. The task of religious is to be able to cast a contemplative look, full of compassion, on this culture, and to discern in it the signs of new life and make them grow. The prophets of doom who have already perceived the signs of death are sufficiently numerous.

If the general chapter is held, for example, at the time when some important or even tragic events happen in a particular country or in a local Church where the institute is present, a message from the institute to this Church or this society, coming from its own particular evangelical experience, could be not simply a legitimate gesture, but, in certain cases, the response to a moral obligation. Without, however, falling into verbal inflation which the Church seems to suffer from in our day. Above all, chapters should not feel obliged to publish long documents where every aspect of a problem would be analyzed, and where concern for the nuance would impede every powerful and disturbing word. A brief appeal of a few lines to a certain type of commitment in a given concrete situation, or an unequivocal denunciation in lapidary style, of this abuse of power or that lack of elementary human rights, certainly carries more weight and has more effect.

lV - A word given and received in dialogue

A general chapter cannot be simply the affair of a group of people chosen for this task. It is the affair of all the members of the institute. The capitulants are the "delegates" who exercise their function in the name of all the members of the institute. A chapter is a collegial and community act. Collegial in its functioning, which means that the decisions taken in the chapter are taken by the college of participants legally designated. Community, since it is the expression of the life of the whole community of communities which is the institute.

An institute begins to disintegrate when those who are most attentive to the needs of the church and the mission and most in tune with the charism of the founder see themselves driven to develop personal projects, benevolently blessed by superiors, without being able to insert them into a community project. The general chapter has therefore the responsibility of informing itself of these individual projects, of objectively evaluating their worth and authenticity, and of taking them on, if appropriate, in the name of the whole institute. This is often the road to renewal.

The chapter, being a time of listening, should be a time of dialogue; for it is through the words of others that the word of God is transmitted to us. Dialogue is from then on an exercise of docility to God. In order to respond to God we must first listen to other people. To hear the voice of God, we have to dialogue with our brothers and sisters. This dialogue can take on a thousand and one forms, from Gospel sharing to responding to a questionnaire or enquiry, including study meetings, work in commissions, the formulation of votes, sharings, etc. This attitude of listening is essential during the chapter itself; it is just as essential during the preparatory phase.

A general chapter can only be a success in the measure in which it has been well prepared. And this does not refer simply to good technical preparation - which certainly is important - but to a long preparation of minds and hearts, for which all the members of the institutes should feel responsible. In reality, the period of preparation for a chapter begins the day the previous chapter ends. In fact, from this moment there begins a work of conversion, of commitment and of putting into practice the orientations of the chapter. And it is this effort that allows the institute, at the following chapter, to make a new reading of its tradition and its cultural and ecclesial context with eyes and hearts renewed to draw from it a new significance and to perceive in it new calls.

If it is a chapter for election, we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit to choose, not the person we like best or who will be the best administrator, but the one who seems capable of directing the institute in the pursuit of its mission and in the continual reading of the will of God. Such elections are generally accompanied by solemn masses of the Holy Spirit and prayer to receive his light There is nothing more praiseworthy. But perhaps we renounce too easily our responsibility for discernment, thinking that the one who will be elected is the Holy Spirit's candidate.

In reality, the Holy Spirit offers all the necessary lights; the only problem is knowing if we are making use of them. To ask light from the Holy Spirit before an election is in fact to ask for purity of heart - which only God can give - so that we might be open to the lights he is always offering us for our discernment. God has no candidate. He leaves the capitulants the full responsibility for their choice; and he binds himself to this choice. This choice will be fortunate or unfortunate for the institute in the measure in which the capitulants will have made a good discernment, using all the human means through which the Holy Spirit works. And whatever the aptitude or lack of it of the one chosen, God will always offer him his grace, which he too will be able to use or not use according to his own degree of purity of heart.

From the point of view of the atmosphere of the sessions, a chapter ought without doubt to have a "human" rhythm, with a horarium that allows each one not only the necessary time for sleep, but also time for common and personal prayer and intervals for reflection and sharing. It would be false, however, to wish to transform a general chapter into a spiritual retreat. The hearing of the word of God proper to a chapter comes about first of all through the serious, responsible and demanding effort of an analysis of the tradition and the contemporary context, which neglects none of the instruments offered by science and modern techniques, and above all does not neglect long hours of listening to one another which can become an authentic ascesis, especially if this listening has to be done through a system of simultaneous translations and the constant effort at cultural decodification which each one must make in order to understand fully the message of the other.

It is entirely normal that sometimes in the course of a chapter tensions between different tendencies become manifest. Capitulants coming from Asia have not necessarily the same perspectives as those coming from Europe; Africans may find artificial the "problems of religious life" perceived by Americans. A capitulant serving as chancellor in the cathedral church, for example, will perhaps not have the same reading of local situations and of the ecclesiastical needs as his confrere who shares the life of the poor in a shanty town in the same diocese. But this diversity and this complementarity of readings is precisely the richness of such an assembly. As in all similar situations, the challenge is not to make tensions disappear, but to experience them in charity in a way which gives birth to light and energy.

A chapter will have no effect if it is not received by the institute. It can be received, generally speaking, in the measure in which all have been able to participate in its preparation in an active way, have been able to contribute to the development of a common renewed awareness of the vocation proper to the institute. The norms that can be published by the general chapter will only be put into practice and bear fruit insofar as they correspond with the aspirations already existing at the grass root level, where they will enable the realization of a mission already perceived, or set in motion a processus of conversion responding to a collective examination of conscience.

From such a general chapter, an institute cannot but emerge re-evangelized, inculturated and thus re-founded, since it is established in a new way on its own foundations, and therefore on the cornerstone which is Christ.

Armand VEILLEUX, o.c.s.o.

1. 1 It is interesting to find this idea already in S. Benedict (RB, ch. 64), who makes provision in his Rule that if an entire community should elect an unworthy abbot, the local bishop, the abbots and Christians of the place must decide to set up in this community someone worthy to be abbot.

2. 2 This is taken up again in Canon Law (c.631): "Its foremost duty is this: to protect the patrimony of the institute..., and promote suitable renewal in accord with this patrimony...".