Abbaye de Scourmont

Armand Veilleux's Homepage


cistercian TOPICS




Structures at the service of life


by : Armand Veilleux




Proemium : This paper was written at the request of the Regional Conference of Central and Northern Europe (CNE) at its meeting in 2006, in view of the meeting to be held in 2007.  The request was formulated in the following votes:


We feel the need to further clarify the pastoral role of the mixed commissions and its mode of exercise (vote 1.1). We wish to study this question more in depth at the next regional conference, within the general context of the structures of the Order. (vote 1.2)


We wish to continue our reflection on the structures of the Order and more particularly the recent ones (Commissions of Aid for the Future, mixed commissions, regions) and on their relation with the traditional structures (filiation, Father Immediate, Abbot General). (vote 4)


      I was designated to write the working documents requested by votes 1.2 and 4. I have found fit to deal with both topics together in a single paper. -- AV


*   *   *


            Our post-Vatican II Constitutions, which reversed the pyramidal vision characteristic of the ecclesiology of the previous centuries, which was quite obvious in our 1924-1926 Constitutions, take as their starting point, rather than administrative structures, the call of God and the response of the monk or nun through his or her monastic consecration. Indeed, the local community is at the heart of the Order, the monk or nun is at the heart of the local community and Christ is at the heart of the monk or nun. Nothing in our life has meaning unless it fosters an intense communion between the monk or nun and God, and, in God and through God, with his or her brothers or sisters, with the Church and with society, as well as with the cosmos.


            This call to a life of communion with God is inscribed in human nature. It is not proper to Christians and even less so to monks or nuns. A Christian is called to it and missioned to that effect through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Once he or she has received that revelation, he or she cannot return to God except by following Christ.  In so doing, a monk adopts as a permanent state of life some of the radical calls made by Jesus to some persons in the Gospel: the call to celibacy, to poverty and to radical renunciation of one’s self-will. Most important of all, the monk adopts a rule of life which becomes a discipline for him and whose use by many others before him has shown its ability to foster the gift of self. Finally, if he is a cenobite like the disciples of Benedict, he lives this calling in a community of brethren who have made their commitment under a rule and an abbot.


            For the Cistercian today, the spiritual vision which guides him in his life of communion with God and his following of Christ is found in the Gospel. He finds in all of the great monastic tradition, but more especially in the Rule of saint Benedict, a practical interpretation of that Gospel. The particular vision according to which he lives the Gospel is expressed in the Cistercian tradition as it was succinctly expressed in our time by the Declaration on Cistercian life adopted by the General Chapter of 1969[1] and later in the Constitutions of the Order and all the Statutes subsequently passed by the Order.


            In this paper, we will first review the various structures of the Order and provide a brief description of their reason for being and role; then, in the second part, we will analyse their interaction.  A third part, in the form of an Excursus, will study the pastoral role of the Mixed commissions of the MGM (Mixed General Meeting).






            A)The autonomy of the local community


            Cistercian monks are essentially cenobites.  The most fundamental structure of Cistercian life is therefore the « local community »[2].  The term « local community » must be understood to mean not only the group of brother or sisters who concretely make up each local community, but the rule of life around which that community is gathered together and which it has given itself or has accepted, as well as the internal structures which govern the life of that community. This is what our Constitutions often refer to as the Cistercian conversatio.


            Cistercian monks live according to the Rule of saint Benedict.  It is obvious that that Rule was written for an autonomous community. Although Benedict of Nursia may have founded a certain number of communities, if we are to believe the second book of the treatise of biblical exegesis by saint Gregory, known as his « Dialogues », and even though Benedict no doubt foresaw that his Rule might be used by other communities, he did not provide for any relation of subordination or other relation between those communities.  The autonomy of each local community is an essential value for him, one that is self-evident. As a part of the broader community of the Church, that community was obviously subject, in Benedict’s time, to the diocesan bishop, although the latter’s intervention does not appear relevant, except in order to confer orders on monks or supply the priests needed for the liturgical life of the community.  The bishop may still intervene, together with the faithful in the area, if a community should choose an unworthy abbot with the aim of leading a reprehensible community life.


            In the course of Benedictine history, the great Cluniac reform, splendid as it was, soon found itself in an impasse precisely because, for the purpose of endowing many communities with the civil and ecclesiastical freedom (libertas) won by Cluny, it sacrificed the autonomy of the local community, thus depriving the latter of its vital dynamism and creativity.


            The autonomy of the local community was one of the most essential elements of the Cistercian reform, and the rapid and incredible rise of the Order was very largely due to the most delicate balance which the Cistercians were the first to discover between the autonomy of the local community and a large body of monasteries united among themselves by the bonds of charity and conceived of as a community of communities[3]. The centuries of decadence were, generally speaking, those during which that autonomy was no longer respected, just as, conversely, the great reforms always started from a  concrete community which first reformed itself in a fully autonomous manner before bringing other communities to commune freely in its spiritual experience. One of the finest examples is that of La Trappe and its reform under Armand-Jean Le Bouthillier de Rancé.


            In our present Constitutions, the local community has all it needs in order to manage itself without need for any outside intervention in its internal life. Each monk or nun finds his or her spiritual orientation in the Word of God, which is the subject of daily meditation, in the Rule of saint Benedict, as well as in the life and teaching of the Church. All this is recalled and commented upon by the abbot in his chapters. Add to this the common regulations which that community has given itself, just like all the other Communities of the Order (we will see further on how), and it has all it needs in order to function.


            The abbot’s primary mission is to see to the quality of the spiritual life of each of his brethren and of the community they form.  He does so, according to the manner of the prophets of the Old Testament, by reminding them that the search for God comes first, as well as by recalling to them the means they have freely chosen to that end and, if need be, by reminding them of their faults and by resorting to punishment in some cases. Whenever the community finds itself without a superior, either due to the latter’s death or resignation or simply because he has come to the end of his term of office if he was elected for a definite time, the community, then acting as a college and with full autonomy, chooses an abbot for itself.  Because the community belongs to an Order, this exercise of autonomy will be presided by a member of the Order (normally the Father Immediate), which does not by any means belong to the electoral college, and who has no right whatsoever to influence the latter’s decision, but who guarantees that the procedure followed was proper. The election will be confirmed, in the name of the Order, by the Abbot General, who shall not intervene either in the community’s autonomous choice of a superior[4].  If, for various reasons, the community is unable to elect an abbot for itself, then, as a very exceptional measure, a superior, known as a superior ad nutum, is appointed for it. Once appointed, he has the same responsibility as an elected superior, and the community has lost nothing of its autonomy[5].


            By electing an abbot, the community entrusts him with the care of guiding it and thus of taking all the decisions required for its proper running, both spiritual and material. Forms of government of a more collegial – some would say more democratic – nature are possible, even inside monastic life. But that is not our conversatio.  According to the Cistercian conversatio which we freely choose by making  profession in a community of our Order, the abbot must assume the ultimate  responsibility for all the decisions taken within the community during his term of office. The conventual chapter has no power of « decision » at all, except when it acts collegially in order to elect the abbot. This does not mean that the abbot must or may act as a despot. Quite the contrary, he is invited by the Rule and by the Constitutions as well as by common sense to take advice as often as possible. As the experience accumulated over the centuries has revealed the possibilities of going astray and in order to protect communities against possible abuses or mistakes on the part of superiors, the Constitutions (in the wake of the universal law of the Church) provide that there is a series of decisions which the local abbot may not make without the agreement of either the conventual chapter or of a more limited council (which he must have), to be given sometimes by an absolute majority and sometimes by a majority of two thirds.  There are a certain number of other decisions which he may not take validly without having at least consulted either the conventual chapter or the council. However, even though there are decisions which he cannot make without having first received the consent of the conventual chapter or of his council, or, in other cases, without consulting them, no other authority outside the community may make those decisions in his place.


            In more recent, juridically centralized religious institutes, the master or mistress of novices or the bursar may be appointed by the provincial authority and not be subject in the exercise of their duties to the authority of the superior in whose community they live. Such a thing is inconceivable in our tradition.  Even though it is appropriate that the abbot give the novice master and cellarer, as well as the infirmarian, etc., a great deal of freedom of action and trust them very broadly, it is always he who, in the final analysis, will have to bear the burden of all the most important decisions.


            As we said earlier, Cistercian communities are gathered together in an Order.  By being part of this great community of communities called the Order, the local communities do not give up their own autonomy, but commit themselves to exercising it according to common norms which they give themselves at meetings of the General Chapter, or which they receive from the Church either in the Constitutions (which have been «given» to us by the Holy See, even though we have written them) or in laws or  Regulations of a more universal nature[6]. 


            The only authority above the local community, within the Order, is the General Chapter.  The Chapter may, of course, sometimes act through individual persons to whom it entrusts various assignments.  These persons then act not by virtue of any personal authority, but of the authority delegated to them.


            While our Constitutions give the members of the Order a right of recourse (to the Father Immediate, to the Abbot General, to the General Chapter), that right of recourse is by no means a right of appeal.  The physical or legal person to whom recourse has been made must intervene pastorally, listen to the various parties and steer them towards the proper decisions, but may not substitute either for the local community or for the local abbot.


            Moreover, on account of the nature of the Order as just described, the superiors of all the communities of the Order have a collegial  responsibility toward the entire Order and toward each community.  They exercise it through various structures, both ancient and recent  which can be truly effective only to the extent that they respect and promote the autonomy of the local community.


            It is thus important to clarify the relationship between the General Chapter and the local communities before studying more in detail the role of all the other intermediate or ancillary structures, whether permanent or temporary, and especially their  interactions.


            B) The authority of the General Chapter – its extent and limits


            Our Constitutions state that  the General Chapter is the « supreme » authority within the Order (C. 77,1).  This means that inside the Order there is no authority above the General Chapter.  More than that, as the General Chapter is a « college » in the strict sense (see CIC 115,2), no capitulant has any authority properly so called over the other Capitulants within the college.  The president of a college is a primus inter pares responsible for convening the meeting and for its proper running. Moreover, the Chapter endows itself with Regulations in order to ensure its proper running and can, therefore, give various persons some authority in relation to the running of the Chapter, but never as regards the content of the decisions, which must always remain collegial.


            A notion that is rather widespread, even though it is rarely expressed explicitly, is that since the power of the General Chapter is  « supreme » it is also « absolute ». This is of course a serious mistake. The General Chapter cannot validly take any  decision, except in matters in which either the Constitutions of the Order or the universal law of the Church gives it explicit authority. Any decision in an area not provided for by law or which goes beyond the scope provided by law may or must even be deemed to be invalid.


            The authority or competence of the General Chapter is described in C. 79.  The General Chapter has no power beyond that conferred upon it in that Constitution and its statutes, except for that which may be granted to it by the universal law of the Church.



            C) Filiation and the service of the Father Immediate


            As soon as Cîteaux’s first daughter houses began making foundations of their own in the 12th century, a system of  filiation was set up in the Order. This, together with the General Chapter, is the oldest and most basic structure of the Order. Each house is linked to another house of the Order – normally its founding house, if it still exists – which is its mother house, and whose superior is known as the Father Immediate.


            Here the situation of the nuns differs somewhat from that of the monks. The history of the acceptance of nuns into the Order is a complex one and there is no need to retrace it or even summarize it here. Let it suffice to say that for several centuries the nuns' bond with the Order was established through the affiliation of each monastery of women with a monastery of men whose superior became the Father Immediate of the nuns. Today, the role of the Father Immediate of a monastery of nuns is the same, legally speaking, as that of the Father Immediate of a monastery of monks, even though in practice the lived reality is often quite different. In fact, even inside male fililations that relationship is also lived in various ways.


            On several occasions the idea of establishing a system of filiation within the feminine branch, parallel to that of the masculine branch, has been discussed in the Order. The question was explicitly raised during the writing of the Constitutions, and again, more recently, in the context of the possibility of a single General Chapter for monks and nuns.  This proposal has not awakened any enthusiasm thus far, whether among the nuns or among the monks.


            When a monastery of nuns acquires its autonomy, it ceases to have any legal bond whatsoever with its founding house. This does not mean, however, that all bonds are broken between the daughter house and the house that gave life to it. In general, a common spirit is maintained between mother and daughter (except in some cases where the second was founded more or less in reaction against the former), and that spirit is nourished by frequent contacts and by services of all kinds, especially when a monastery has several foundations.


            Bonds of filiation are essentially bonds between houses. (That is why it would make no sense for a community to change mother houses simply because at a given time the relationship with the Father Immediate is difficult.) This leads to a consequence concerning the very nature of the rôle of the Father Immediate, which renders any delegation of that role very problematic from a legal point of view.  In fact, there is no « office » (officium) of Father Immediate capable of being delegated. An abbot’s role as Father Immediate toward the daughter houses of his community is a dimension of his office as abbot. Even when he delegates the pastoral care of one of his daughter houses to someone else, he remains, strictly speaking, its « Father Immediate », since that is an essential dimension of his office as superior of his own community.  The expression « delegated Father Immediate » is therefore a very broad way of speaking, which is devoid of any legal value properly so called. And since delegated authority may be sub-delegated ad actum only, one can certainly not speak of a « sub-delegated Father Immediate ».  It may be said at the very most that a superior performs this or that act (such as making a Visitation or presiding an election) as a delegate  « for that act » of the « delegated Father Immediate ».


            There are no vicar superiors in our Order.  The possibility was considered at the General  Chapter  of 2002 (as a substitute for the superior ad nutum), but the idea was dropped. For someone to be appointed a vicar, we would first have to introduce the office of vicar into our law, as it does not exist there. Then someone could be appointed to such an office. In the present state of our law, those who are called « vicars » are not vicars in strictly legal terms, but rather persons to whom some form of authority has been delegated.


            As stated at the beginning of this paper, the only « authority », strictly speaking, above the local community in Cistercian law is the General Chapter.  The Father Immediate is not, therefore, the « superior » of his  daughter houses. He may not, therefore, either give orders or grant permissions either to the members of his daughter houses or to their superiors. This does not mean that his role, whose nature is entirely pastoral, is not of paramount importance. He exercises this pastoral care in the name of the entire Order, and that is an exercise of the collegial responsibility which all the superiors of the Order, both monks and nuns, have toward all the monasteries of the Order.


            His role, which consists essentially in « vigilance » (in the most positive sense of the term), is very aptly expressed in Constitution 74.1:


The Father Immediate is to watch over the progress of his daughter houses. While respecting the autonomy of the daughter house he is to help and support the abbot in the exercise of his pastoral charge and to foster concord in the community. If he notices there a violation of a precept of the Rule or of the Order, he is to try with humility and charity and having consulted the local abbot, to remedy the situation.


            While the last phrase of this text implicitly grants the Father Immediate the power of remedying « violations of a precept of the Rule or of the Order », this Constitution does not give him any authority to intervene otherwise ex auctoritate in the internal life of the community.  Moreover, that same Constitution opens up for him a very broad scope of pastoral care, which must be exercised constantly and not only on the occasion of the Regular Visitation.



            D) The Regular Visitation


            The Regular Visitation is mentioned by C. 71.4, together with filiation, as one of the institutions by means of which the collegial pastoral care of all the superiors toward all the monasteries of the Order is exercised.


            According to the tradition of the Order, the Regular Visitation is a dimension of the exercise of the pastoral care of a superior toward the daughter houses of his community. In monasteries of monks, the Regular Visitation is normally made by the Father Immediate, although he may sometimes delegate it. He is never under any obligation to do so. In the case of the nuns, the situation is different.  Due to the fact that for a long time the nuns were removed from the authority of the General Chapter and placed under that of the bishops, their Visitor, for a long time thereafter, was the Abbot General.  The Abbot General, of course, almost always delegated another abbot for the Visitation, usually after consulting the abbess of the monastery to be visited.  A few years ago, the responsibility of making the Visitation was given back to the Father Immediate; but the nuns wrote in their Constitutions (C. 75.1) that the Father Immediate must delegate someone else once every six years (which is not necessarily synonymous with « one out of every three Visitations », because, while Visitations must be made at least every two years, they may take place more often, and we may consider that, under special circumstances, four or five Visitations -- rather than only three -- may take place within a period of six years).


            The Constitutions also give the Abbot General the power to make Visitations both in monasteries of monks and of nuns, even if a Visitation has just been made by the Father Immediate -- which does not, at least theoretically, deprive the Father Immediate of his right to make his own Visitation at the same time!  Even though this might, in theory, lead to some « competition » between the Abbot General and a Father Immediate, this does not seem ever to have happened, as everyone has the good of the communities in mind.


            Just like the Father Immediate, the Visitor, in his capacity as Visitor, is not the canonical « superior » of the house visited. The local superior retains all his authority as a superior during the Visitation[7], and he is of course called upon to act in close cooperation with the Visitor for the good of his community[8].  As we have seen earlier in the case of the Father Immediate, the Visitor may correct situations that call for  correction, but he may not intervene ex auctoritate in the running of the community[9].  The scope of his vigilance and of his pastoral care, as described in Constitution 75.2 and in much more detail in the Statute on the Regular Visitation, is nonetheless immense. As stated in C. 75.2:

The purpose of the regular visitation is to strengthen and supplement the pastoral action of the local abbot, to correct it where necessary, and to motivate the brothers to lead the Cistercian life with a renewed spiritual fervor. This requires the active co-operation of the community. The visitor is faithfully to observe the precepts of law, the spirit of the Charter of Charity and the norms of the General Chapter.



            E) The Abbot General[10]


            Throughout the history of Cîteaux, before the Order broke up into Observances, the role of the abbot of Cîteaux was very important as a moral authority, much more than as a juridical one. He presided the General  Chapters, but  had no power to intervene in the communities of the Order, aside from his role as Visitor in his daughter houses.


            At the General Chapter held in 1892 for the union of the Congregations originating from La Trappe, our Order chose to give itself an Abbot General.  The latter’s role, in both our present and former Constitutions, is essentially to work towards maintaining and developing communion between the communities and also between the two branches of the Order, especially since we have explicitly become a single Order with two distinct General Chapters.  This same role will of course remain just as important when we will have a common General Chapter. 


            The moral authority of the Abbot General is very great and manifests itself differently according to the personality of each Abbot General.  The breadth of scope of his pastoral care is aptly described in C. 82.1:

Because the Abbot General is a bond of unity within the Order he fosters good relations among the communities of both monks and nuns and is the watchful guardian of the Order's patrimony, ensuring its growth. Above all he is to be a pastor who promotes the spirit of renewal in communities. He visits the monasteries sufficiently often, as he judges best, to be aware of the state of the whole Order, and be able to provide valuable help to individual superiors and communities.

            As Dom Gabriel Sortais told the General Chapter of 1951, which elected him, that pastoral care can be exercised all the better because the juridical authority of the Abbot General is very limited[11].  It has nothing in common at that level with that of the superiors general of centralized religious congregations.  The Abbot General cannot intervene in the internal administration of the autonomous communities, and he is not a person whom monks and nuns can approach to secure permissions denied them by their own superior. During his regular Visitations, his authority is the same as that of any other Visitor, as described in the Constitutions and in the Statute on the Regular Visitation.


            Moreover, the figure of the Abbot General as defined in our present law includes quite a few other pastoral responsibilities.  As canon law does not devote a separate section to monastic Orders, the latter must fit as best they can into the structures provided in a general way for centralised Congregations.  And even though our Order carefully avoided describing itself as a « clerical order » in its Constitutions, a brief clause was added to C. 82,3 primarily in order to avoid subordination to the bishops. This clause states that « The Abbot General is understood in law (iure intellegitur) as Supreme Moderator of a clerical institute of pontifical right, according to the norm of the Constitutions.»[12]  This means that he does not necessarily have all the powers and rights that universal law may grant to « Superiors General », but rather those referred to in our Constitutions.  Thus, to give only one example, he may grant an indult of exclaustration.


            Since the General Chapters are no longer held yearly and since life must go on nevertheless, the Constitutions provided that the Abbot General, either after obtaining the consent of his Council or after consulting it, may grant quite a number of authorizations, even though, on account of their nature, these pertain to the General Chapter.  They are listed in ST 84.1C and 1D.


            It is the Abbot General who convenes and presides the General Chapter, while taking into account the fact that the Chapter is a college and thus operates collegially.  The General Chapter may entrust him with assignments which he will then carry out as a delegate of the Chapter.  As the General Chapter is the sole legislative  authority within the Order, the Abbot General cannot issue any laws, that is, he could not enact any rules affecting all the monasteries or all the members of the Order. He has no authority over the persons and property of the communities; however, if measures in their regard prove necessary, he may take temporary measures (and therefore measures that are not irreversible), which the next Chapter may or may not ratify.


            At the Chapter of 1892, the Holy See insisted that the Abbot General must have a Council, as it does not want any authority in the Church to act in a totally autonomous fashion without being assisted by advisors.  The Council is not truly a  structure of the Order, but simply what its name implies: the Abbot General’s Council.  The Council in itself has no authority whatsoever. Its role consists in assisting the Abbot General. The latter must not only request the consent or advice of his Councillors (of both genders) regarding the matters provided by the Constitutions, but may also resort to their assistance for the exercise of all the aspects of his pastoral office.  He may, for instance, delegate them to make regular Visitations in his name.


            At the Chapter of 1993, the idea of having a limited number of « permanent » councillors in Rome and, simultaneously, a larger number of councillors who would normally reside in their respective communities, but could be called to Rome a few times a year, was put forward. This proposal was not accepted by the General Chapter.  It did, however, accept another proposal, allowing the Abbot General to appoint « special councillors » under specific circumstances[13].  This possibility has been used on various occasions over the last few years.



            F) The Central Commission[14]


The Central Commission has had a complex and very interesting history. After creating it for the purpose of preparing the General Chapter, the Order converted it for some time into a council of the Abbot General, referring to it as the « principal council »; the term « permanent council » was then invented to refer to the councillors residing in Rome, who up until then had been called « definitors ». That experiment proved far from conclusive.  There was also in the Order, at the time that its structures were being revised in view of our new Constitutions, a current aiming at making that Central Commission (then known as the Consilium generale) into a kind of mini-chapter, between the plenary Chapters, with real powers.  That idea never awakened a great deal of interest.  Our present Constitutions therefore reverted to simply giving the Central Commission the role of preparing the next General Chapter. Fearing a sort of  « takeover » of the Central Commission by the Regions, the Chapter has always – up to this day – reserved the right to elect the members of the Central Commissions and their substitutes, even though it does so upon presentation of names by the regions. Although the representation of all the regions is important, the Central Commission truly remains a commission elected by the General Chapter  for the purpose of preparing the next General Chapter. That is why, if a region presents its president to the Chapter as a candidate for the Central Commission and that person is elected by the Chapter, he will remain the representative of the region on the Central Commission, even if in the meantime he has been replaced as president.


            The Central Commissions, when convened, may also act as the « Plenary Council » of the Abbot General. This role of the Central Commission, set forth in a Statute (ST 80.J), is quite secondary compared with its reason for being as described in Constitution 80, which is primarily to prepare the General Chapter.  We will come back to this in the second part of this paper.



            G) The Regions[15]


            The Regions have become an important structure of the Order, even though for a long time, while their existence was accepted, it was stressed that they were not a « structure » of the Order. They began as free, informal and spontaneous meetings of superiors of both genders in various parts of the Order, first tolerated and then increasingly encouraged.


            For a long time, no superior was under the obligation of taking part in a regional conference. At the time of the final writing of the Constitutions at the first MGM, held in Rome in 1987, it was found that in fact all the communities belonged to a region.  It was thus stated in C. 81 that


The communities of the Order are grouped in Regions approved by the General Chapter. These regional conferences foster communion and fraternal co-operation within each geographical area and in the Order as a whole.


            A distinction must now be made between « regions » and « regional conferences ».  Starting from meetings of superiors, we witnessed the birth of « regions » made up not of superiors but of communities.  These regions are permanent realities. At the rate of once a year or every three years, according to their geographical situation, they hold meetings known as « regional conferences », which are usually meetings of the superiors of the region with the participation of community delegates who are not superiors, in numerical proportions that vary from one region to the next. As the Order has never ruled on the functioning of the regions, they were able to develop freely and very differently from one region to the next.


            The regional conferences are, first and foremost, places of pastoral sharing and mutual support within the region.  It was soon noticed that they are also, especially through their reports sent to all the houses of the Order, a channel of dialogue and communion between monks and nuns of all countries and all cultures (see ST 81.C).


            The regions came into being shortly before the Central Commission; but since the membership of that Central Commission was connected from the very start to the regional representation of the members, there has always been a close connection between the existence of those two structures. Some – myself included – believe that the time has come to rethink this representative structure.[16]


            The birth of the regions also coincided with the period during which we were working intensely on various drafts of the new Constitutions.  The regions thus played a very important part in the writing of those Constitutions and thereby in the development within the Order of a certain common vision of our charism. Today the Central Commission continues to prepare the next General Chapter on the basis of the work done by the Regions.


            Finally, let us mention – but without developing the point, since they are not structures of the Order – the existence of sub-regions and of other  informal meetings of superiors (which sometimes include Carmelites and Benedictines).



            H) Various commissions


            We are not dealing here with Commissions of the General Chapter, whose existence is coextensive with the Chapter, and which cease to exist as Commissions as soon as the Chapter comes to an end.  Rather, this discussion concerns Commissions which exist permanently at the service of the other structures and persons of the Order.


            a) We might mention the Law Commission, whose Statute was revised by the General Chapter of 1993 and whose mandate, as described in its statute, is to  « to assist the Government of the Order, the local superiors and the other members of the Order in all matters concerning law. » 


            It may be important to point out that at each General Chapter there is, according to the established procedure, a Law Commission of the Chapter.  It consists of the members of the Law Commission of the Order who are present at the Chapter, to whom other persons may be added as needed.  It may not be sufficiently noted that, even though this Law Commission of the Chapter consists of the same members as the Law Commission of the Order, it is a distinct entity.


            b) There is also in the Order a Finance Commission whose assignment is to manage the Order’s (relatively limited) funds and to use them to help the communities who may need assistance.[17]  It is appointed by the Abbot General.


            In parallel with this Finance Commission, the General Chapter of 2002 set up a Commission which is responsible for analysing the needs and requests of the communities of the Order.[18]  As that same MGM decided to create a mutual assistance fund within the Order, the management of that fund and the distribution of aid from that fund were entrusted to the same commission.[19]


            c) For a long time the Order had a Liturgy Commission.  It was very  active while the post-conciliar liturgical reform was getting under way. Its members were elected by the General Chapter, to which it gave an account of its activities.  The General Chapter of 1977 judged that the work of reform was advanced enough at the level of the Order and that, since most of the regions had their own Liturgy Commission, a Central Secretary for the liturgy would henceforth suffice.[20]  The role of that Secretary was defined rather vaguely[21] and his term of office was not specified.  Since the person who was elected (Dom Marie-Gérard Dubois) and who has held that office from 1977 to this day has always done so to everyone’s great satisfaction, we may only congratulate ourselves on that decision.  It remains that when a successor will have to be appointed we will have to define the office and set the duration of the term.


            d) The Order has a General Secretary for formation.  His or her role is defined as follows in the Statute on Formation : « The Central Secretary's function is to facilitate communication between the Regions and to ensure the dissemination of relevant information about all aspects of monastic formation.[22] ».  He or she is elected for a term of three years by the two Central Commissions of abbots and abbesses.


            e) For a long time, the Order had an Architectural commission.  Its mandate consisted in reviewing all building or restoration projects.  When foundations began to multiply in different countries and cultures outside Europe, that role became more difficult, and the commission ceased to exist[23].  We may wonder whether it would not be wise to bring it back to life, no doubt in a very different form, in order to help communities, superiors and Fathers Immediate to evaluate the advisability of certain projects.



            I) Commissions of Aid for the Future :


            A new phenomenon is emerging in the Order, that is, the multiplication of « Commissions of Aid for the Future ».  These are small groups of persons, usually  superiors but also other monks or nuns, including persons from outside the Order, whose purpose is either to assist a superior in the exercise of his or her pastoral office, or to help a community as a whole to deal either with a situation of great frailty or with a special problem of another nature.


            Since no legislation concerning them has been enacted by the Order, we cannot speak of a new « structure ».  Nevertheless, their role in relation to some communities is very useful and their increase in number is a significant phenomenon.  The first of them were created about ten years ago, but they have multiplied especially since the last General Chapter.


            Some of them were created by the Abbot General, others by the Father Immediate, others still at the request of one of the Mixed commissions of the last MGM. Their modes of operation also differ widely.  This great variety is certainly positive. In principle, these Commissions have no juridical authority and no mandate allowing them to intervene in the running of the communities.  Moreover, the areas in which they may provide assistance are many and varied.


            A question that seems to have come up more than once in relation to them is the nature of their interaction with the responsibility of the local superior, with that of the Father Immediate (who is usually a member) and with the other existing structures of the Order, such as the Regional conference, the General Chapter, the Abbot General, etc.


            It is thus important to go on now to the second part of this study, which concerns the (hopefully !) harmonious interaction between all the structures and other organes of service mentioned thus far.




II – Interaction BETWEEN THE VARIOUS structures of the Order


            We have reviewed all the structures of the Order.  All of these structures are at the service of life, that is, of the concrete life of each monk or nun within their local community.  They have no other reason for being.  We must now examine the interaction of these structures, the ways in which they can all contribute to spiritual growth.  We cannot, however, avoid considering their possible dysfunction, in view of the complexity of the whole and of the recent evolution of several of these structures.  We will see that the time has perhaps come to revise the nature and operation of some of them.


            I will use two « parables » to show the various ways in which this interaction can take place.



1) An ideal situation


            Let us first imagine an ideal situation.  Let us think of the way in which all these structures intervene in the life of Brother Paphnutius, who is an ideal monk in the community of Our Lady of Perfection, the best community in our Order, without any doubt, which is part of the Region of High Places.


            After coming regularly to the guest house for a number of years and following several stays inside the community, Onesiphorus finally entered as a postulant.  He became a novice under the name of brother Paphnutius and made his solemn profession a good ten years ago.  He is a fulfilled man, happy in his vocation, who has a good relationship with his abbot and all his brethren.  He is very assiduous at manual work, lectio and the Divine Office.


            Brother Paphnutius receives all of his spiritual orientation (his « spiritual direction », to speak in Ignatian, non-monastic terms) from his community and from the balance between the various elements of monastic life which he finds there.  The abbot’s chapters, his homilies and those of the other priests of the community provide light for his spiritual seeking. From time to time he consults a senior.  He does not see his abbot very often, not in any case with any mathematical frequency, but he is very open with him and knows that he can go to see him to speak either of his spiritual life or of his community relations whenever he feels the need to do so.  He joyfully carries out various tasks in the community.


            The quick occasional visits of the Father Immediate and the Regular Visitations make him aware of belonging to a reality which is broader than his local community, that is, to a community of communities called an Order.  He appreciates the way in which the Father Immediate, and occasionally another Visitor (of either gender) help his community not to fall asleep on its laurels, or again to identify problems in time as they begin to surface and to find solutions for them before they become more serious.  The experience of other communities, shared by these Visitors, helps him and his brethren to periodically re-evaluate their own way of living the monastic experience.


            Twice since he entered, the Abbot General visited his community.  On each of these occasions it was a joy and an encouragement for him to hear him speak of  the Order, with its graces and problems.  He also remembers that during one of these visits his community was going through a difficult period which it had trouble dealing with, and that the advice that the Abbot General was able to give them thanks to his experience and knowledge of the Order had been very enlightening.


            For Paphnutius, the General Chapter is a faraway reality, but he perceives its importance.  He is aware of having contributed somewhat to the preparation of the last General Chapters through the community dialogues held prior to the meetings of the Regional Conference. Moreover, a meeting of the Central Commission which took place in his monastery allowed him to grasp the magnitude of the efforts made at the level of all the regions of the Order for the preparation of a Chapter.  Finally, he remembers that the problem mentioned above, for which the Abbot General provided good advice, was also mentioned in the report of the Community to the last General Chapter and that, when his abbot returned from the General Chapter, he explained to the community how the attentive and sympathetic study of that situation in the Mixed Commission that studied their report helped him to get a clearer view of the various options facing the community.


            This brief example, perfectly imaginary though it is, shows quite well how all the structures of the Order can intervene actively and positively in order to foster the life of a monk and of his community, without it ever being necessary for anyone to call on its « authority » to intervene through its decisions in the life of the community or of its monks.  It is always a matter of searching for light, in a context of dialogue.


            In real life, situations are never as idyllic. Both the life of a monk or nun and that of his or her community come up sooner or later against situations that are problematic,         and that may be so in varying degrees. Let us now look at another, also fictitious example, which will show us how these various structures can intervene in either a positive or a negative way.



2) A not at all ideal situation


            The community of Our Lady of Distress has experienced considerable difficulties over the past few years. The community went through quite a long period without any vocations and then once more received a goodly number of them a few years ago.  As a result, it presently consists of a block of seniors and of a block of relatively young monks.  There are tensions between these two blocks.  In fact, within each group opinions often differ each time something « new » is put before the community.  The abbot, who for a long time had been able to maintain unity and harmony in  the community, no longer knows how to handle the present situation.  In addition to this, rather strong tensions have developed between him and some of his main assistants, particularly the prior and especially the novice master, who is attempting to form « his » novices according to a conception of monastic life which is not that of the abbot.


            Some monks then call on the Father Immediate to come and correct the situation.  They are doubtless right to call on him, since the situation would not have deteriorated to such a point if he had intervened earlier.  The Father Immediate now realizes that when he perceived that a serious problem was developing he chose to stay out of it and not to get involved.  That was a serious mistake on his part.  The situation had in fact been mentioned to him at the last Regular Visitation, but he had preferred not to refer to it in the Visitation Card to avoid discouraging the community.  He had touched a word of it to the abbot, but as the latter was rather defensive he had not insisted in order to avoid harming their relationship.  Afterwards everything had grown worse.


            He is thus coming to make a further Regular Visitation, even though he made one the previous year, and he explains to the community, which is rather surprised at this fresh Visitation, that there is nothing abnormal about this, since the Constitutions require that there be a Regular Visitation at least once every two years, which implies that the frequency can be greater.  During the Visitation he is asked to make many changes himself in the running of the community.  He is forced to explain that he is the Visitor and not the superior of the community and that his role is not to solve the problems, but to help the community to do so together with its abbot.  It is suggested to him that he change the prior and the novice master.  He answers that he has no authority to do so.  At the very most, he could remove this or that officer, if there was a serious reason for doing so, but it would not be up to him to appoint their replacements.  He knows that it is preferable to convince the abbot to make these changes immediately after the Visitation, if it has not succeeded in bringing the two persons concerned to modify their attitude.  During the Visitation, it is suggested that he convene the Council of the community.  He answers that he is willing to conduct dialogues with the « members of the council », but that as the council is the « abbot’s council » the latter alone may convene it.  Once this clarification has been made, a few meetings with the abbot and his council help to clarify quite a few things and to see ways to the solution of various problems.


            Tired of this rather burdensome community situation, a monk, doubtless a true man of God, had suddenly discovered that he had an eremitical vocation and had asked the abbot for permission to go off and live as a hermit in a very isolated spot far from the monastery.  The father abbot, after hearing his request and discussing the matter with his council, had denied him permission, judging that he was dealing with a temptation of escape.  The monk therefore wrote to the Father Immediate to ask him for the permission denied by his abbot.  The Father Immediate answered that he did not have the necessary authority to grant him such permission and that he would have to resolve the matter with his abbot. 


            Our aspiring hermit, convinced of his vocation, then wrote the Abbot General asking for his permission to live as a hermit, taking care to specify that he was doing so on the basis of ST 77.2.B which allowed him to « have recourse » to the Abbot General. In his answer, the latter first explained the difference between « appeal » and « recourse » (an appeal being a request to a higher court to reverse the judgment given by a court of first instance).  Our Constitutions do not refer to a right of appeal, but to a right of recourse. The use of this right confers on the person to whom recourse is made an obligation of taking care of the matter and, if necessary, after making all the necessary inquiries, of asking the person who made the decision to be so good as to revise it.  In this case, the fact that the monk called on the Abbot General conferred on the latter the duty of examining the situation and, if he judged that the decision made was not justified, of asking the abbot to reconsider his decision. It did not entitle him to intervene in the abbot’s place by giving the permission that the latter had refused.


            Some time later the Regional conference took place, and the abbot took advantage of it to explain to the other superiors, in the course of a pastoral exchange, the situation that he and his community were experiencing. Their advice and reactions were a great help to him personally, and indeed the interventions of the Father Immediate – which had unfortunately been belated -- had helped pacify the situation, but the basic problem remained unchanged.  A few monks then decided to have recourse to the Abbot General in order to have him come to make a special Visitation.  The Abbot General contacted the Father Immediate to make sure that the latter had done all he could do.  He even recommended that the Father Immediate make a further Visitation and gave him all sorts of advice as to the way of proceeding.  He would be able to make a Visitation himself later if needed.


            In the meantime, the time for the General Chapter arrived.  The community, in its house report, had given an honest description of its situation.  In the Mixed Commission that studied that report, the Father Immediate was asked to come in order to give his opinion, and other abbots and abbesses who knew the community well were also consulted.  A few younger and more fiery members of the Commission, conscious as they were of their responsibility of acting on behalf of the entire General Chapter, were inclined to force the abbot to resign, since the situation seemed to be increasingly beyond him.  A member of the Commission, who was a good canonist, explained to them that one can never force someone to resign.  A resignation is, by its very nature, a free act (even though it may not necessarily be spontaneous).  Even the General Chapter does not have the authority to force someone to resign.  In very serious cases it could depose someone, but that is a very rare thing which can happen only when there is scandal or very serious causes.  If it is judged that a resignation would be indicated for the good of the community, there are many ways of pastorally bringing someone to make that decision serenely at the right time.


            In the situation we are discussing, the abbot realized that the time seemed to have come to pass on the pastoral office to a successor, but he did not want to do so abruptly.  He asked for time.  The Mixed Commission recommended the creation of a Commission of Aid to assist both the Father Immediate and the abbot in managing that delicate transition.


            A Commission of Aid was in fact set up.  It assigned itself the task of being a kind of external « council » with a threefold assignment : a) making the entire  community aware of the responsibility of each person and of its collective responsibility in searching for a way to evolve;  b) helping the abbot to continue to exercise his pastoral office fully while preparing his resignation; c) helping the Father Immediate to manifest his pastoral care more actively than he had done in the past, both toward the abbot and toward the community.  Everything developed in the direction of greater serenity.   Six months later the abbot handed in his resignation, which was experienced without any trauma, whether on his part or on that of the community.  A very capable successor, who had had nothing to do with the tensions of the past few years, was easily elected.  Aware as he was that by accepting his election he was assuming the pastoral care of all the members of his community, including his predecessor, he asked the latter to remain in the monastery after taking a brief time of rest.  He did so.  The community recovered its full serenity and was the stronger for having gone through a difficult period with the respectful, coordinated help of all the pastoral instances of the Order, each of which carefully avoided going beyond its powers and short-circuiting the others.



3) Lessons to be derived from these two examples 


            The first principle I have attempted to express in these two parables is that of respect for subsidiarity.  Pastoral care is expressed through constant and respectful attention and through a daily readiness to encourage, support, advise and sometimes warn and criticise if need be.  This pastoral care is always required at all levels, even when things are or seem to be for the best in a community, without any problems,.


            When problems or difficult situations do come up, a healthy community is normally able to deal with them and to overcome them on its own, especially if it benefits from the pastoral care of its Father Immediate.  If it cannot, or if, more serious still, it is blind to the problem, the Father Immediate is the first person who should do everything possible to improve the situation.  If he does not succeed in doing so, he may ask the Abbot General to contribute his charism and skills; but he must resist the temptation of being too quick to ask the Abbot General to assume a responsibility which belongs first and foremost to the Father Immediate.  Such a reaction on his part may be due either to laziness or to lack of self-confidence, unless it is due to ignorance as to his responsibilities. Likewise, the members of the community, who believe that the situation is beyond their Abbot’s ability to deal with it, must call first of all on the Father Immediate before having recourse to the Abbot General.


            When the Central Commissions, meeting in Latrun in 1998, decided to suggest to the General Chapters that the Pastoral Commission be abolished, the idea was that to the extent that the Fathers Immediate would do their job and that the Regions, not being as busy as before analysing legal texts, would be able to devote more time and energy to mutual help of a pastoral nature, far fewer problematic situations would come as far as the General Chapter.  Perhaps we were too optimistic at the time, or perhaps the Mixed Commissions singled out too many situations as requiring special treatment.


            Of all the entities involved, it is doubtless the Commission of Aid whose role presently requires special attention. Some of them have shown themselves to be very useful. But as they came into being in very different ways and also operate very differently from one another, their relationship with the other pastoral organisms of the Order is not always clear. Some clarifications are no doubt called for in this respect, although it is not yet advisable to write a  « Statute » for them. The important point is that, whether the creation or the operation of these Commissions is involved, all must be aware that they are called upon to support, encourage and sometimes enlighten the pastoral efforts of the abbot and of the Father Immediate, and not to substitute for either of them. It must also be quite clear that we are dealing with a service which is offered and that no one, not even the General Chapter (and even less a mere Commission of the CG) can impose it.



d) Preparation and running of the General Chapters


            It is doubtless in connection with the preparation of the General Chapters that the largest number of new structures of the Order come into play, besides the older structures, and that greater attention is needed in order to ensure their coordination.


            The idea underlying all the reforms of the central structures of the Order during the last forty years was that the General Chapter is essentially an organ of communion rather than control[24].  The entire mechanism set up consists in promoting feedback from the local communities to the General Chapter as regards the life of those communities. 


            The local communities are all invited to prepare a house report in view of the next Chapter.  Often they are also invited by the General Chapter to reflect on this or that point to be dealt with at the next Chapter.  The regional conferences gather echoes of the lived experience of the communities and make a certain number of proposals which will then be studied by the Central Commissions.  Even though there may not be any legislation concerning the matter, for a long time now the custom has been that the Central Commissions place on the agenda of the General Chapter any  suggestion made even by a single region, if it  has been passed by a majority vote.


            The mandate of the Central Commissions is to prepare the agenda of the General Chapter on the basis of the work done by the regions.  The contribution of all the regions is already guaranteed by the very fact that the agenda is prepared on the basis of their work. The continued insistence on having all the regions represented within the Central Commission is really not justified.  This insistence leads to the Central Commissions’ being too large a body to do a really efficient job in only a few days. (The number will be smaller if we have a single Chapter, but it will still be too large.)  Indeed, the Central Commissions are a study group, whose assignment is to finalize an agenda, and not a decisional body. A limited group of persons, chosen for their skills and representing various parts of the Order, could do the job more quickly and especially more efficiently than a group of forty people. This is connected with the question raised earlier concerning the relationship between the Central Commissions and the Regional Conferences[25].


            It is true that the Central Commissions, when they are in session, can act as the plenary Council of the Abbot General.  But that is a secondary role, which is by no means necessary, since experience has shown that they deal in that capacity only with a few matters which the Abbot General usually handles with his Council.


            But it is especially regarding what we experience during the General Chapter that some very important and urgent thinking would be needed in order to ensure better coordination between the General Chapter and the other pastoral instances of the Order. An important point to be taken into consideration is that none of the instances we have discussed exists as such within the Chapter.  In order to make myself clear, let me relate a very illuminating explanation given to me by Father Jesús Torres, then under-secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, when I asked him a question on a point of detail connected with the running of the Chapter.  « At the General Chapter », he said, « there are only Capitulants – a college of Capitulants.  Canon law leaves it up to each religious institute to determine how the Capitulants are chosen.  In accordance with your  tradition, you have determined in your Constitutions that all your superiors, together with the members of the Abbot General’s Council, are by right Capitulants.  But once the Chapter has begun, they are not there as abbots or superiors ad nutum, or councillors, etc.  They are there, all in the same capacity, as Capitulants, designated for that Chapter ».  Then, answering the specific question I had asked him, he added: « A person who came to the Chapter as a capitulant remains one until the end of the Chapter.  Thus, an abbot who arrived at the Chapter as a capitulant and who resigns as abbot after the first day of the Chapter remains a capitulant by right until the end of the Chapter. » On the contrary, if someone is elected abbot in his community on the second day of the General Chapter, he does not on that account become a member of the General Chapter... even though the latter may invite him and give him the right to vote (C 78).


            In that light, we may make the following remarks.  Understandably enough, at certain times during the Chapter the « members belonging to the various  regional conferences » may be asked for their opinion; but entrusting a job  « to the regional conferences » as such does not make any sense, legally speaking, since the Regional conferences do not exist within the Chapter.  Likewise, we may understand that at certain times the Capitulants who are members of the Council of the Abbot General may be believed to be just the right people to deal with this or that matter thanks to their knowledge of the Order, and that they be invited to do so.  But to entrust a role within the Chapter to the « Abbot General’s Council » makes no legal sense, since that Council is not a structure of the capitular college.


            The work of the General Chapter is now well-oiled.  A procedure set up in 1971 and constantly revised since according to new circumstances, Chapter after Chapter, guides its work.  Several Commissions exist, in addition to the many ad hoc commissions created in view of specific needs.  They are all commissions of the Chapter, which no longer exist as such once the Chapter is ended.  Especially, there is the Coordinating Commission and the 15 Mixed Commissions, to which the Pastoral Commission used to be added.  We may also mention the Law Commission of the Chapter, whose membership was explained above.  Until the last Chapter, no decision was considered to be a decision of the Chapter unless passed by a vote of the plenary Assembly, even if the entire study prior to that decision had been carried out by a Commission or an ad hoc group.  At the last Chapter, we departed from this centuries-old wisdom.  I will explain below the problems this raises.


            A delicate question that cannot be evaded is the fact that some Capitulants call very frequently on the Abbot General, during the Chapter, to  have him solve problems either in their communities or between them and their Father Immediate or another abbot.  It is of course perfectly normal and legitimate for superiors who are not usually able to meet with the Abbot General outside of the General Chapter to wish to do so at that time.  It is doubtless just as normal for the Abbot General to call on a few Capitulants and even to create a small commission to find a solution to a complex situation.  But if decisions are then arrived at, and especially if those decisions are not communicated to the plenary Assembly, we may wonder whether we are not dealing with decisions that should be considered extra-capitular even though they were taken during the Chapter, while rejoicing in their results.


            The Chapter is doubtless also the occasion for quite a number of extra-capitular activities – not to mention those deep pastoral dialogues at the corner bar.  The important point is to distinguish carefully between activities of the Chapter, for which the latter assumes full responsibility, and activities – which may be necessary and very useful – carried out during the Chapter.


            However, a point which requires an even more attentive study is the activity of the Mixed Commissions (and of the many sub-commissions and special commissions created by them) and the coordination of their work with the various structures of the Order.  There is the matter of coordination during the Chapter; but, more important still, if they make decisions that affect the life of the communities after the Chapter, there is the question of coordination with the responsibility of the Father Immediate and possibly with the pastoral attention which a region may have brought to a situation for a number of years.





Excursus : The Power of decision GIVEN TO THE Mixed commissions


            According to the Charter of Charity, the abbots of the daughter houses of Cîteaux met to speak of the salvation of their souls and occasionally also to assist one another with their temporal needs.  The main concern was essentially pastoral in nature.  As soon as the Order began to spread and each of the filiations developed its own spirit, concern for the unity of the Order manifested itself more strongly.  Since uniformity of observance was long considered to be the best way of maintaining the unity of the Order, the General Chapters were soon called upon to legislate in matters of observance.  As a result, their Acta gave the impression of an increasingly juridical orientation.  However, we may believe that pastoral concern for the spiritual and material good of the communities remained very much alive for a long time, even though it was not the subject of « decisions » destined to appear in the Acta.  



            a) a brief historical overview of the pastoral dimension of the Chapter


            Up to the time of the post-conciliar (post-Vatican II) reform, the essential part of each General Chapter was the reading of the Visitation Cards written by the Fathers Immediate. Beginning in 1977, that reading was replaced by that of the «House reports » drawn up by the Communities themselves (with some intervention on the part of the Father Immediate).  In both cases, the concern was a pastoral one.  As early as the end of the 1960s, when the General Chapters were reflecting on the identity of the General Chapter, there was a widespread desire to go from a  notion of the General Chapter viewed as an « organ of control » (that is how the reading of the Visitation Cards was sometimes understood) to a notion of the Chapter viewed as an « organ of communion » (this is the purpose that the house reports aimed at serving).


            Beginning in 1969, the Order was increasingly involved, both at the level of the General Chapter and at that of the regions (only just born) in the revision of the Order’s Constitutions and juridical structures.  In particular, all the length and breadth of the thorny questions of « collegiality » and of the relationship between the two « branches » of the Order had to be dealt with at the Chapter.  At a certain number of Chapters, in fact, only a limited number of Visitation Cards were read.  Some complained that the Chapters had become too « juridical » and no longer « pastoral » enough, even though others answered – rightly so, to my mind, since I was one of them... -- that putting together good legislation is also a highly pastoral job.


            Be that as it may, once the work on the Constitutions came to an end at the (first) Mixed General Meeting in 1987 and they were published by the Holy See at Pentecost of 1990, the occasion of reviewing the dynamics of the General Chapters arose.  From then on, even though a few important « Statutes » remained to be finalized (Formation, 1990; Law Commission, 1993; Regular Visitation, 1996; Temporal Administration, 1999) the General Chapters’ legislative activity properly so called became more limited and they could go back to reading all of the House Reports.  This was decided by the  MGM of 1990 (vote 48). All believed that, in any case, this would give the Chapter a more « pastoral » atmosphere (even though it is probable that everyone did not give that word the same meaning).


            Several regions hesitated, however, at the idea of having to listen to over 150 reports in plenary session.  As a result, the Central Commissions, meeting at Gethsemani in 1992, suggested a new procedure which was accepted by the MGM of 1993 and which has remained our practice ever since: all the reports are read at the MGM... but they are distributed between the Mixed Commissions instead of being read in plenary session.


            The MGM of 1993 not only accepted that proposal, but by its vote nº 97 it decided that the same procedure would be used at the following meeting.  As a result, the Central Commissions of 1995, meeting at Orval, developed a detailed procedure for dealing with the house reports, under the title « Pastoral treatment of the house reports ». That procedure, with some slight adaptations decided by the CC meeting at Latrun in 1998, by the meeting at La Trappe in 2001 and the one at Scourmont in 2004, is still in effect.


            As there had been some dissatisfaction with the functioning of the two joint Pastoral Commissions at the 1996 MGM, at the CC meeting held at Latrun in 1998 it was suggested that those two Pastoral Commissions be done away with and that the Mixed Commissions be allowed to deal with all the questions, even those which, on account of their confidential or complex nature, had until then been entrusted to the  Pastoral Commission of each of the two General Chapters.  A special Mixed Commission, i.e. Commission 15 (made up of the members elected to the  Pastoral Commissions at the previous MGM), to which the most difficult cases would be entrusted, was, however, maintained.


            After the 1999 MGM, the Pastoral Commissions (temporarily renamed « Commission 15 ») ceased to exist.  The CC meeting at La Trappe in 2003 once more adapted the procedure for the « Pastoral treatment of the house reports », clarifying in particular the way in which the most difficult situations requiring a decision by the General Chapters would go back up to the Plenary Assembly.


Until then, the members of the various Mixed Commissions were quite convinced that they were exercising a highly pastoral role. Each Commission could dwell more at length on the situation of each of those communities, learning from the experience lived by each of them, bringing in the superior and in some cases also the Father Immediate in order to hear them so as to get a better grasp of the situation of each house. When difficulties or problems existed, the Commission’s pastoral activity could usually be limited to advice and recommendations.  Provision was made for cases in which certain measures which might seem important or essential to the Mixed Commission would not be accepted by the local superior or by the Father Immediate.  In such cases, the matter had to be referred for decision to the General Assembly, in accordance with this or that procedure.  It was taken for granted until then that a « decision » in the strict sense of the term could be taken only by the General Chapter (either of abbots or abbesses, as the case might be). That is how the « Pastoral Commission » had operated.  The cases in which a « decision » had to be taken by the General Assembly remained, as always in the past, relatively rare.


            And then, between the General Chapter of 2003 and that of 2005, some regions expressed the wish to give the Mixed Commissions the power to make decisions concerning the communities « in the name of the General Chapter », without having to refer the matter to the Plenary Assembly of the MGM or of the Chapters involved – a power which the Pastoral Commission, whose job they had henceforth taken over, had not had.


            Before going further, let us briefly consider the operation of the Pastoral Commission -- whose history, however, we will not retrace here – in order to see what portion of its legacy was passed on to the Mixed Commissions.



            b) The Pastoral Commission


            The Pastoral Commission (which had previously gone by various other names reflecting the mentality of each period) was a special commission of each of the two General Chapters, to which was entrusted the study of situations which were either especially difficult or required greater confidentiality.  Its members were elected at the end of each General Chapter for the next Chapter (the method of election was slightly different in the case of the nuns), with a certain representation of the regions. The commission, made up of persons elected on account of their experience and knowledge of the Order, often worked late into the night during most of the Chapter.  Some of the presidents of the Commission left their mark on it (Dom Alexandre of Désert and later Dom John Eudes of Genesee).  A large part of the « pastoral » work of the Commission consisted of making recommendations, analysing situations, etc.  Toward the end of the General Chapter, the president gave an account of its work to the General Chapter.  When decisions had to be taken, such as sending special Visitors to a house, with special powers, those decisions were submitted to the Chapter concerned – monks or nuns -- which then had to decide by a vote in Plenary Assembly. The decisions were compiled in a « confidential report » which was then communicated to all the Capitulants.


            At a certain Chapter, the Commission felt that it was not morally authorised to disclose all the details of certain situations, whereas some Capitulants felt that they had to be acquainted with those details in order to take an enlightened decision.  It was then decided that if such cases were to occur again, the Commission, instead of asking the Capitulants to vote on a situation whereas they were not acquainted with essential elements of it, would be able to make the decision in the name of the General Chapter by delegation from the latter.  It does not seem that this was ever done.


            Moreover, the Statute of that Commission was in hand for several years.  It seemed essential to the president of the time that the Commission be able to begin its work before the Chapter (in order to gather the necessary information) and pursue it after the General Chapter.  But the General Chapter always rejected that request.  The capitulants held that the Commission must remain a commission « of the Chapter », with no existence either before the Chapter was in session or after it was closed.


            At the last General Chapter, it was decided that the Mixed Commissions – which had taken over the work of the former Pastoral Commissions -- would not simply be empowered to study situations and to dialogue with the superior and the other persons concerned, but would even be entitled to make decisions « in the name of the Chapter » without a vote of the full Chapter being required.  It seems that a majority of the Capitulants appreciated this situation. I personally continue to believe that it was a mistake, and for several reasons.


            First of all, when some superiors rejoiced at being able to finally exercise a « pastoral role » at the General Chapter, the impression given was that, in their view, « being pastoral » consisted in « making decisions » about other people.  In fact, having participated personally in all the General Chapters during which the evolution I have just described took place and having taken part in all the Central Commissions at which this new « legislation » was prepared[26], I remain convinced that our General Chapters have not become more « pastoral » for it.   Quite the contrary, it seems to me that the frenzy with which one special commission after another was created by the Mixed Commissions in order to seek solutions to complex situations of which the members of those commissions had hardly any knowledge, and which they did not have time to study, created an activist atmosphere which was definitely less « pastoral » than at the previous Chapters, where the Mixed Commissions made a pastoral study of all those same situations without having to worry about making decisions themselves, as a group of six or seven people and in the name of the entire Order -- decisions destined to have serious consequences for the lives of communities and persons.


            A more detailed analysis of the work of those Commissions at the last General Chapter is required, but this is not the place for it.  A certain number of mistakes were made on account of the pastoral frenzy of some commissions, and these may be termed youthful indiscretions which can be readily corrected.  But there are some fundamental problems involved.


            Upon re-reading Vote 8 of the meeting of the Central Commissions held in 2004 at Scourmont, which was confirmed by the MGM of 2005 and implemented by it, I am struck by its inconsistency. Here is the text of Vote 8: « We wish that the Mixed Commissions have, by delegation, the authority of the General Chapters, when they study the House Reports, in order to suggest or decide what should be done pastorally, and to require the putting into effect of their decisions, except when there is question of rights reserved to the General Chapters (cf. C. 79). » First of all, it is strange to speak of « rights reserved to the General Chapters », for C. 79 does not refer to rights at all, but rather defines the legal competence of the General Chapters.  They have no powers besides those explicitly mentioned in that Constitution 79.  Now, that Vote 8 of the Central Commission meeting at Scourmont (ratified by the MGM of 2005) says that the General Chapters delegate all their powers except those mentioned in that Constitution to the Mixed Commissions! Since the General Chapters have no powers other than those mentioned in C. 79, they are thus delegating powers they do not have  to the Mixed Commissions.  This amounts to squaring the circle.


            A second fundamental problem, at least for the General Chapters of 2005 (but which might very well surface again if the winds from Rome do not bring better tidings), is that Commissions made up of Capitulants from both Chapters took decisions pertaining solely either to the Chapter of abbesses or to the Chapter of abbots, as the case may be.  Are those decisions valid?


            A third fundamental problem is that, at the last General Chapters, decisions were made in the name of all the Capitulants without their receiving a written report describing the number, nature and scope of the decisions taken in their name.  All the Capitulants were certainly strictly entitled to such communication.  Any person who has received delegated powers is under an obligation of giving an account of his  stewardship to the person (whether an individual or entity) who gave the delegation.


            A certain number of problems that came up in practice at the last MGM could, I agree, be readily corrected.  However, a few of them should at least be mentioned.


            a) Vote 9 of the CC of Scourmont provides a possibility of recourse: « If not in agreement with the decision of a Mixed Commission, those concerned may have recourse to the Plenary Assembly, which will decide the procedure to be followed.».  Now, the fact is that some superiors were informed of decisions concerning them after the Chapter was closed.


            b) A number of decisions (v.g. the choice of the special Visitor to be sent to this or that community) were taken during the days following the closing of the MGM. Are those decisions valid?  In fact, the Mixed Commissions cease to exist once the Chapter is closed.


            c) Many superiors were mandated as « special visitors », but their mandate was not always clearly specified.  Failing a very explicit decision of the General Chapter (by delegation!), no Visitor, however special, has any authority besides that conferred on all Visitors by the Statute on Foundations.  Can a Visitor, even though delegated by the General Chapter, assume in practice the role of the Father Immediate?


            d) When the reading of the house reports by the Mixed Commissions was introduced, it was considered normal to have the superior of the house concerned come to the commission when the report was read, and also, if need be, the Father Immediate.  It was realised that this would disturb the working of the Commissions somewhat, since someone would always be absent or in the hallways on his or her way from one commission to the next.  But that seemed acceptable, and in fact  things worked quite well at several Chapters  At the last Chapter, the need experienced by some Commissions to arrive at a « decision » concerning situations that no member of the Commission was really acquainted with led them to create sub-commissions and later special commissions calling on people from other commissions.  This occasioned a rather disturbing back-and-forth movement.


            e) Finally, the whole problem of follow-up remains.  The mandate given to the special Visitor should at least specify who he should report to and who is to intervene if his Visitation does not yield any results.  And here is another question, which is not without importance: who pays for all the travel involved?


            One thing is certain: if at the next General Chapters (or at the next General Chapter, Vaticano volente) the same power is conferred once more upon the Mixed Commissions, many clarifications will have to be made as regards the exercise of that power.






            Just as each community of our Order is constituted by the bonds of charity uniting the brothers or sisters, likewise our Order is constituted by a vast network of structures and services whose purpose is to maintain communion between the communities and to allow each monk and each nun to live a deep relationship with God.


            Within his community, the monk can count on the support and example of community life, as well as on the pastoral attention of his abbot, who will take care to cause himself to be assisted by various officers, both in the spiritual and in the material areas.


When they accept their office, all the superiors of the Order assume a collegial pastoral responsibility for the entire Order.  They exercise it mainly through their participation in the General Chapter, through the relationship of filiation between the communities and the role of the Father Immediate, as well as through the Regular Visitations and the meetings of superiors within the framework of the regional conferences.  Both at those regional conferences and at the General Chapter, they cause themselves to be assisted by a few delegates from their communities in the exercise of their pastoral responsibility.


            In an ideal situation, this pastoral attention can be exercised without the exercise of the powers attached to certain responsibilities.  When, under special or difficult circumstances, the exercise of canonical authority is required, it is of the utmost importance, in order to maintain charity and bear spiritual fruit, that each person involved be aware of the scope of his or her responsibilities and of the limits of his or her authority and exercise the latter with full respect for the authority of all the other persons or entities intervening.  It is that scope and those limits which we have attempted to specify throughout the above pages.


            Both the autonomy of the local community and the supreme power of the General Chapter must be scrupulously respected.  Any pastoral intervention between those two poles must respect the principle of subsidiarity.  Higher authority must help the authority over which it has a duty of vigilance to exercise its own pastoral responsibility properly rather than substituting for it.


            Whoever holds pastoral responsibility within the Order, at whatever level, must take care to acquire a clear notion of the scope of his or her responsibility and of the  limits of his or her authority.  He or she must also be well acquainted with all the canonical rules governing the exercise of that authority, which are, generally speaking, the fruit of centuries of experience and wisdom.  Experience shows that whenever, in the name of broad-mindedness or of alleged personal pastoral wisdom, some of those rules are neglected or not implemented, the rights of other persons are violated.


            The precarious situation of certain persons within the local community or of certain communities  within the Order requires not that others arrogate themselves the responsibility of making the decisions that concern them in their place, but rather that they be helped, with a great deal of attention and very tactfully, to take their own decisions.


            From this point of view, some recent structures, born of life but not yet well broken in, will require special attention during the coming years.  We will have to see to it that the Commission of Aid always work in harmony with the Father Immediate and the local superior, with full respect for the responsibilities of the conventual Chapter and even of the legitimate « susceptibility » of the members of the community.  As for the Mixed Commissions of the General Chapter, if we persist in conferring on them the delegated power to act in the name of the entire Chapter, they will also have to restrain their pastoral frenzy and be more aware than in the past that the quality and success of a pastoral intervention are usually evidenced by the fact that, in order to bear fruit, it does not require any exercise of power, nor even – in most cases -- any decision-making.


Scourmont, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 2006


Armand Veilleux


[1]           The text of the Declaration may be found on the Internet :

[2]           “Gathered by the call of God, the brothers constitute a monastic church or community that is the fundamental unit of the Order.” (C.5).

[3] See what a good historian of religious life, Eutimio SASTRE SANTOS, has to say about this : “Quando nel 1119 Stefano Harding riceve da Callisto II la conferma dei primi statuti, ci sono cinque monasteri in più, situati in diocesi diverse... Stefano Harding – oppure Alberico come vuole l’Exordium parvum – deve affrontare e risolvere il problema giuridico che bloccava il vecchio monachesimo:  come conservare l’autonomia dei monasteri e assicurare l’unione delle osservanze nel momento di uno strepitoso successo.

            La soluzione escogitata mantiene il principio del diritto antico di conservare l’autonomia di ogni monastero;  perciò ad agni abate et alla sua badia viene riconosciuta un’autonomia amministrativa e financiaria.  Però lo stesso abate e la stessa badia devono sottostare alla suprema autorità legislativa e giudiziale, che non è di tipo fisico, ma giuridico: il capitolo generale.  Tale capitolo, radunato ogni anno a Cîteaux, il 14 settembre, sotto la presidenza dell’abate della stessa badia, corregge gli abusi, punisce i colpevoli, modifica le leggi.  A vegliare sull’osservanza dei monasteri provvedono le visite che devono allacciare i legami spirituali tra i monasteri autonomi... Vige così tra i monasteri autonomi il sistema di filiazione...

            La Carta Caritatis cioè la constitutio del novum monasterium ... ha gettato le basi per risolvere la questione giuridica di come collegare tra loro i monasteri...

            Una diversa institutio distingue il vecchio dal nuovo monachesimo.  A Cîteaux,

a differenza dell’unico abate di Cluny, si mette in piedi un capitolo generale:  la suprema autorità non è una persona fisica, ma una persona giuridica:  un collegium.  Gli instituta dei capitoli e la vigilanza attuata con le visite, suddivise tra quattro abati, permettono di mantenere l’osservanza... Tuttavia, le “novità” del capitolo e delle visite non sopprimono la vecchia autonomia dei monasteri.  In realtà l’ordo Cistercii è costituito da una federazione di monasteri uguali e autonomi sotto la suprema autorità di una persona giuridica: il capitolo. Però, la suprema autorità personale di Cluny, del vecchio monachesimo, è stata spodestata” -- Eutimio SASTRE SANTOS, La vita religiosa nella storia della Chiesa e della società, Ancora, Milano, 1997 pp. 319-320.

[4]           It should be noted that it is the election that is confirmed, not the person elected (electio confirmatur). (See C. 39,6). This, of course, implies ascertaining the canonical idoneity of the elected one.

[5]           For a long time, the superior ad nutum, in our Order, was considered to be a mere delegate of the Father Immediate, which was an anomaly, since, according to universal law, all superiors of autonomous houses are major superiors endowed with ordinary powers.  This anomaly was corrected at the General Chapters held in 2002 (vote 34).

[6]           Father Jesús Torres, the former under-secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, who is an excellent canonist, explained to me one day, in his clear and vivid language, that the authority of our General Chapter is made up of the parcels of authority delegated to it by the autonomous  communities which make up our Order.

[7]           Even if the Visitation is done by the Father Immediate, the superior keeps his ordinary power in the monastery during the Visitation.” (Statute of the Regular Visitation, nº 18.

[8]           Ibidem.

[9]           According to the Statute on the Regular Visitation, nº 22, he may, in exceptional cases and after consulting the superior, remove a person in charge or an officer. He is not, however, authorised to appoint his or her replacement.

[10]          I wrote a rather detailed paper on the history of the Abbot General’s role in our Order for the 2006 meeting of the CNE (Central and Northern Europe) Regional Conference.  It may be found attached to the minutes of that meeting as Annex 3. It may also be found on the Internet at the following address:

[11]          See the Minutes, 1951, pp. 36-39.

[12]           Abbas Generalis iure intellegitur supremus Moderator instituti clericalis iuris pontificii, ad normam Constitutionum. His powers are those mentioned in can. 620 (those of the supreme Moderator of a decentralised Order), and not those mentioned in can. 622, which are those of the supreme Moderator of a centralised Order, who has autority on all the provinces, the houses and the persons of his Institute. See the explanation on this point given by Dom Hermenegildo Marín at the MGM of 1987, Minutes, p. 71.

[13]          See votes 44, 45 and 60 of that General Chapter.  The possibility of special Councillors was added to our Constitutions as Statute 84,1,J.

[14]          I have made a rather detailed study of the origin and development of the Central Commission. See  “Histoire de la Commission Centrale”, dans Un bonheur partagé – Mélanges offerts à Dom Marie-Gérard Dubois. (Cahiers Scourmontois – 5), Scourmont 2005, pages 213-236. The same text may be found on the Internet at the following address:

[15]          I wrote a paper on the origins and evolution of the Regions for the CNE Regional conference  held in June 2003. The text may be found in the Minutes of the meeting, as well as on the Internet at the following address:

[16]          I have explained my position more fully in my article on the Central Commission referred to in note 9.

[17]          The Abbot General appoints a monk of the Order to be responsible for the ordinary administration of the Order.  He also appoints a finance commission to administer the capital of the Order.  This commission will provide the General Chapter with its annual reports.” (Statute on Temporal Administration, nº 33,b)

[18]          Minutes, Votes 23, 24 and 26.

[19]          Minutes, vote 28 to 31. We may add that communities sometimes entrust the Abbot General with sums of money which he may use to assist monasteries which present requests to him.

[20]          Minutes, page 265.

[21]          “Le General Chapter nommera un Secrétaire central qui prendra soin des questions de liturgie qui se présenteront at the level of the Order” (Ibidem)

[22]          Document on Formation, nº 70.

[23]          The General Chapter of 1967 passed a new statute for this commission.  See Annex VI of the Minutes, p. 169-170. I do not know at what date it ceased to exist.  A cursory consultation of the minutes of the General Chapters did not allow me to discover whether it was abolished or died a natural death.

[24]             I wrote a working document in this respect in preparation for the General Chapter of 1971, under the title  “For a prophetic General Chapter”.  The text may be found on the Internet:

[25]          I dealt with this matter in my article on the Central Commission referred to above.

[26]          I was a member of each of the “ad hoc” Commissions which, during the successive Central Commission meetings, prepared and revised the document entitled “Pastoral treatment of the house reports” – with Dom Eduardo of Azul and Mother Anne of Ubexy at Orval in 1995; with Dom Yvon of Oka and Mother Benedict of Berkel in Latrun in 1998; with Mother Benedict of Berkel and Dom Damian of Spencer at La Trappe in 2001.