Dom Armand Veilleux, OCSO
Abbey of Scourmont (Belgique)
Dom Ambrose Southey
Kevin Southey was born at Whitley Bay, in the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle on 22nd January 1923. A few months after his 18th birthday, on the 25th September, 1940, he entered the Abbey of Mount Saint Bernard in Leicetershire. Closure of the Abbey had been planned by the Order a few decades earlier, but it had had an exceptional renewal of life under the abbacy of Dom Malachy Brasil, who came from Roscrea in 1933.
At his clothing the young novice received the name Ambrose. He made his solemn profession in 1945 and was ordained priest in 1948. A few years later he was sent to Rome to study canon law (1951-1953). At his return to Mount Saint Bernard he was appointed sub-prior, and the following year prior. When Dom Malachy, seriously affected by sickness, resigned in 1959, after twenty-five years as abbot, Dom Ambrose was elected to succeed him. A few years later, in 1963, the community of Mount Saint Bernard, continuing to flourish, was able to make a foundation at Bamenda in the Cameroons, and its young abbot began gradually to take on important responsibilities in the Order. In 1964 he was elected Abbot Vicar and in 1974 Abbot General. Hence all his life was closely linked to that of the Order, in a period particularly important in its evolution. It is almost impossible to relate one without the other.
When Dom Ambrose retired from the post of Abbot General in 1990, the Holy See had just approved our new Constitutions. This was the summit of a long process of aggiornamento begun with Vatican II. Dom Ambrose’s humility and discretion were such that not many people knew the part he had played in this process right from the beginning. It is worthwhile to explain it.
At the Chapter of January 1964 at which Dom Ignace Gillet was elected Abbot General Dom Ambrose was chosen as Abbot Vicar. In our former Constitutions this role was more important than it is today. The Abbot Vicar was in charge of the General Chapter. Dom Ambrose stood out in this function by his ability to listen to others and by his respect for every individual as well as for the process as a whole.
The Chapter of 1964 was pretty brief, for it was the election of a new Abbot General, since Dom Gabriel Sortais had resigned the previous autumn at the beginning of the second session of Vatican II. All the same the agenda contained some points considered urgent. It dealt particularly with the question of lay brothers, which had been under consideration for a long time under the presidency of Dom Gabriel. The abbot of Westmalle, Dom Edouard Wellens, requested that the holding of another General Chapter should not be delayed, ‘in view of the urgency and importance of questions which are preoccupying many of the young and fervent elements of our communities’ (Minutes, p. 11). Being caught unawares by this situation and not wishing to decide the question himself, Dom Gabriel decided to create a special commission to study it, and Dom Ambrose received the duty of presiding over this meeting.
At the opening of the meeting Dom Ambrose expressed its purposes: ‘It is a question of studying the nature and origins of the difficulties felt by young religious about the exterior forms of our life, and to propose to the Most Reverend Father some conclusions or ‘vota’ which could possibly be submitted to the General Chapter’ (Minutes, p. 1 – Archives of the Generalate). Dom Ambrose managed this meeting which proposed in its report to the Abbot General that they should meet again to prepare a submission to General Chapter.
The second meeting took place at Monte Cistello in December 1964, and was, like the first, presided by Dom Ambrose. No General Chapter had ever been so well prepared, so that the Chapter of 1965 decided that a similar commission, called a ‘Preparatory Commission’ should prepare the following Chapter. This Commmission was to become an important organ of the Order.
Dom Ambrose made the first moves as Promoter of the General Chapter in 1965, which met before the end of Vatican II. It was in the course of the next three Chapters that the wisdom and tact of the new Promoter were to show themselves. The General Chapter of 1967 was held at Cîteaux, 20th May to 5th June. On the 6th August of the previous year Pope Paul VI had promulgated the Motu Proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae, giving a certain number of norms for the application of Perfectae Caritatis. This document provided for holding during this period of renewal a General Chapter, which could be held in several successive sessions over a period of several years. It also gave this General Chapter the power to approve ad experimentum a certain number of changes to Constitutions. Hence the Chapter of 1967 allowed communities a certain number of experiments, notably in the liturgical domain.
The Abbot General, Dom Ignace Gillet, was sincerely convinced that some of these decisions, in particular the use of the vernaclar in the liturgy and the possibility of re-structuring the Divine Office, constituted an act of disobedience to the decisions of the Council. Some of his interventions with the Congregation of Religious created a malaise in the Order, so much so that at the opening of the Chapter of 1969 a significant number of the members thought he should resign. It was in a personal meeting between Dom Ambrose and Dom Ignace that a compromise was found which was to permit the Chapter to continue its work serenely. This Chapter, in the course of which the Declaration on Cistercian Life and the Statute on Unity and Pluralism were passed almost unanimously, that the decision was made to ask the Holy See to allow a Law permitting the renewal of the liturgy which respected the spiritual experience of each community. This was a turning-point in the evolution of our Order into the modern era. It also set off the process of renewal of our Constitutions which would continue until 1990.
When Dom Ignace offered his resignation at the Chapter of 1974 in accordance with the intention he had expressed to Dom Ambrose at their ‘summit’ meeting in the course of the Chapter of 1969, Dom Ambrose was elected Abbot General at the first scrutiny by a large majority. Once he had been elected, he announced, with the fair play for which he was known, that out of respect for the majority of Chapter members who had voted in favour of a limited time-frame, he would submit himself afresh to a vote of Chapter at the General Chapter following 1974.
During the Generalate of Dom Ambrose and under his peaceful and appeasing leadership the Order tackled a number of fundamental questions whose solution would complete the editing of our Constitutions. First of all there was a long debate about ‘collegiality’, which was the object of arduous discussion among the regions of the Order, arising more from cultural sensibilities than from divergences over the essentials of Cistercian life. More important was the debate over the relationships between the two branches of the Order, male and female. These discussions issued in the vision of a single Order composed of monks and nuns, under the authority of two independent General Chapters. A subsequent development led to the acceptance by the Order and by Rome of a single Chapter.
During this period Dom Ambrose had to preside over three General Chapters of major importance in the modern history of the Order. The first was at Holyoke in the USA, where the monks refined their Constitutions, then the Chapter of El Escorial the following year, where the nuns did the same for their Constitutions. Finally the first RGM (mixed general meeting) at Rome in 1987, where monks and nuns established the definitive text of their Constitutions. After examination by the Congregation of Relgiious and discussion with them, these were promulgated by Rome at Pentecost 1990.
Faithful to his promise, Dom Ambrose raised again at the end of six years his offer to resign and submit to another vote of Chapter. He was dissuaded from doing so, for the almost unanimous opinion of the Order was that he should remain to govern the Order until the conclusion of the long elaboration of the new Constitutions. Therefore he presented his resignation at the General Chapter of 1990. For everyone and especially for those who had lived through with him several successive General Chapters, it was a joy to have his presence by invitation as guest of honour at each following General Chapter until 2011.
The Abbot General of the OCSO can wield a great moral authority because he has so little juridical power. At the General Chapter of 1951, after the resignation of Dom Dominique Nogues, Dom Gebriel Sortais as Abbot Vicar gave a long speech about what was expected of an Abbot General. This was a sort of programme, which he furthermore put into practice during his twelve-year generalate. He saw himself as an elder brother of the other abbots, helping them not to falter in difficult circumstances. He delighted in the limitation of power of the Abbot General, seeing his authority to be in the order of confidence, affection and persuasion (See Minutes, 1951, p. 36-39).
This is the spirit in which Dom Ambrose exercised his ministry for sixteen years. Being a canonist he realised that the General Chapter is a college, and that a college is of its nature a moral person where decisons are taken with equality of rights. No one exercises authority over the Chapter, but within it there is a President who has the responsibility of calling the Chapter, establishing the agenda and enabling all to exercise their rights. Dom Ambrose, by his infrequent interventions, knew how to exert extremely strong moral authority when the fundamental values of the Order were at stake and important decisions needed to be made.
Dom Gabriel Sortais had accustomed the Order to a long circular letter from the Abbot General at the beginning of each year. Like his predecessor, Dom Ambrose maintained this tradition but in his own style, which was much appreciated. While Dom Gabriel’s letters easily slipped into a long treatise about the spiritual life, those of Dom Ambrose were rather in the spirit of the Fathers of monasticism, a sharing of experience on specific questions.
Remaining true to himself and avoiding always identification with his office, Dom Ambrose from the moment of his resignation became again sub regula vel abbate. Not long afterwards he was offered an important post in the Vatican. To the person charged with asking him whether he would accept this post he answered without hesitation, ‘I must speak to my abbot.’ The next day, having discussed the matter with his abbot, he answered that, having left his ministry as Abbot General, not because he was tired but simply because he thought that it was due time for him, after so many years out of the cloister, to return to ordinary monastic life, it would not be logical or coherent on his part to accept a post which again took him out of his monastery. This did not prevent him from remaining willing to take on more humble assignments.
At the time when Dom Ambrose was the young abbot of Mount Saint Bernard there was among the monks the Blessed Cyprian Tansi. It was reasonable that Dom Ambrose should go to Omicha in Nigeria for the beatification by John Paul II on 22nd March 1998. It is not every day that one can be present at the beatification of someone whose abbot one has been! Nevertheless, during all the festivities Dom Ambrose, the retired Abbot General, mixed with all modesty among the other monks and nuns gathered for the occasion, without ever trying to draw attention to himself. The monastic foundation in view of which Michael Cyprian Tansi had come to Mount Saint Bernard could not be founded in the Cameroons in 1964 during the abbacy of Dom Ambrose. When, not long after his resignation as Abbot General, the community of Bamenda needed a superior ad nutum he willingly accepted this assignment. He did the same a few years later at Scourmont in Belgium. Having first accepted this ministry at Scourmont for one year, he consented to remain for a second year, but made it his business to look for someone younger who could take on this ministry for at least several years. This did not prevent his remaining at Scourmont for some years as novicemaster. After that, still in the same spirit of service, he fulfilled the ministry of bursar for several years at the monastery of Vitorchiano in Italy, before returning to his own abbey of Mount Saint Bernard to leave his final years in peace.
He died peacefully, soon after participating in the community concelebration, in the morning of 24th August, 2013. He was 90 years old, professed for 71 years and priest for 64. He had been abbot of his community for 15 years and Abbot General for 16. A long life of service of God and the Order in a great spirit of simplicity and modesty.