A COMMUNITY OF COMMUNITIES
THE CISTERCIAN FAMILY
Abbot Armand Veilleux, ocso
Abbey of Scourmont
The Trappist Order has its own characteristics. Dom Armand Veilleux here shows its strengths, its opportunities and its fragility. It is an example of a monastic network which has evolved according to different times and places. It is an especially supportive structure whose centralisation is perhaps not so strong as is often claimed.
In the bosom of the great family constituted by all the communities which live by the Rule of St Benedict is the Cistercian family. This is made up of all the communities sprung from Cîteaux. Nowadays it brings together two great Orders legally distinct, the Ordo Cisterciensis and the Ordo Cisterciensis Strictioris Observantiae, popularly known as the Trappist Order. The Order of Cistercian Bernardine Nuns d’Esquermes and the Cistercian Congregation of St Bernard, known as Las Huelgas, in Spain and some independent monasteries also belong to it.
Even if all the communities belonging to these various groupings live the same Cistercian charism, they live it according to different modalities, often due to mere historical chance. In the present article I shall confine myself to describing how this charism is lived in our day in the Order to which I belong, the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. Moreover , far from claiming to give a global presentation of the charism which belongs to my Order, in view of the precise objective of the present publication on monastic networks, I shall limit myself to describing how relationships between the monasteries of our Order are articulated.
Cîteaux was born in 1098, when Robert, Abbot of Molesmes, of which he was himself the founder, left that monastery with a score of monks to try out a renewed form of the incarnation of Benedictine monachism in a society and a Church which was boiling with cultural change. In the final years of the eleventh century and at the end of the period called the Gregorian Reform we find ourselves in an exceptional moment of creativity. Cîteaux is, with Vallombrosa, Camaldoli and the Grande Chartreuse, only one of the new forms of monastic life which appear in the West at this period. After a slow and difficult beginning this foundation was to know an extraordinary expansion.
The Central Commission
Robert, called back to Molesmes by the community, and obliged by the Pope to answer their appeal, returned there. He was succeeded as head of the foundation of Cîteaux by two of his co-founders, Alberic and Stephen. The latter, Stephen Harding, of English origin, was a genius for organisation. To him we owe the Carta Caritatis or Charter of Charity, which describes the relationship between the community of Cîteaux and all the communities founded by Cîteaux, as well as their own foundations and affiliated houses. For the first time in the history of monasticism it had been discovered how to group several communities in one great Order while still wholly respecting the autonomy of each one. It would be possible to say that the fundamental intuition of Stephen Harding and of the Carta Caritatis of Cîteaux was to make of the Order a community of communities. The fundamental unit of the Order remains the local community with the abbot it has elected. In the present canonical situation, even if there are different conditions for becoming a priory or an abbey, each community, whether priory or abbey, is an autonomous community from the canonical point of view, and its superior is a major superior. Even in the exceptional cases where it is necessary to nominate provisionally a superior ad nutum as the head of a community, this superior is a major superior, and the community loses none of its legal autonomy. The only difference is that in this case the superior is nominated rather than elected by the community.
The abbots and priors of all the communities meet periodically in a General Chapter. At the beginning of the Order this meeting occurred every year; now it takes place every three years. The General Chapter is the only authority which has jurisdictional power over the local community. It could be conceived that the autonomous communities which constitute the order delegate to it a small part of their authority, this delegation being established in the Constitutions of the Order approved by the Holy See.
The General Chapter has powers clearly defined and limited by the Constitutions. It can approve new foundations, incorporate or suppress monasteries, accept the resignation of an abbot and, in rare cases, depose an abbot. It can promulgate laws or regulations which apply to all the monasteries, but it cannot interfere in the internal running of communities, except to correct any abuses there may be.
Another structure of the Order which goes back to the Carta Caritatis is filiation. Each community is considered a daughter-house of the house which founded it, and therefore that house holds the title of mother-house. The abbot or prior of the mother-house is called the Father Immediate of all its daughter-houses. The Father Immediate has the responsibility of a pastoral oversight of the daughter-houses, and is called to help them in very diverse ways, material no less than spiritual. If necessary he can correct abuses, but in no way may he take part in the internal running of the community, which depends entirely on its own abbot. He has the responsibility of making the regular visitation of the community (called Visitatio canonica in Canon Law) at least every two years.
In the course of the centuries certain communities which fathered several others have disappeared. In these cases the titles of mother-house and Father Immediate have passed to other communities. Filiations have sometimes been re-organised to avoid certain houses being overloaded with too many daughter-houses. The principle of filiation nevertheless remains absolute: every house of the Order has a motherhouse. It is a question of the relationship between two communities, even if it is the superior of the mother-house who is the most closely affected by this relationship. Obviously Cîteaux is in a particular situation, the Abbot General acting as its Father Immediate.
The Abbot General
The Order has an Abbot General. His role is important among us, even if his juridical powers are very limited. Obviously he is by right President of the General Chapter which functions as a college, where the president is primus into pares. He can make the regular visitation of all the communities. He has a certain number of powers given him by the Constitutions, such as the power to dispense from temporary vows, but he does not have authority to interfere in the internal life of the communities. He could not, for example, give to a monk a permission
which had been refused to him by his abbot. His role is essentially to be a living link between all the communities of the Order, and to be ready to stimulate the quality of monastic life in all the communities. In exceptional cases he can, with his Council, elected by the General Chapter, take urgent decisions in the name of the General Chapter and using its authority. For several years now his Council has included both monks and nuns.
Hitherto I have spoken in the masculine, although our Order includes 75 monasteries of nuns, while those of monks number 100. The history of relationships between the communities of nuns and monks within our Order is complex, and there can be no question of even a résumé here. Let us rest content with describing the present situation since Vatican II.
Each monastery of nuns in our Order is considered a daughter-house of a monastery of monks whose abbot or titular prior is the Father Immediate. Until Vatican II our Cistercian nuns were subject to the decisions of General Chapters composed solely of masculine superiors. From the middle of the twentieth century periodical meetings of abbesses were held, which gradually acquired the name of General Chapter. At the time of the post-conciliar aggiornamento and the revision of our Constitutions the question of the relationships between the monasteries of monks and those of nuns was naturally the object of long discussion. In order to give the nuns complete autonomy one possibility was to have two parallel Orders, one of nuns and the other of monks, working together but without any legal dependence one on the other. The nuns were the first to reject this possibility. The solution retained by our Constitutions – this was as far as it was possible to go at the time – was to consider that all the monasteries of the Order, monks as well as nuns, form a single Order but with two General Chapters, distinct but interdependent, and distinct Constitutions.
In reality the Constitutions are almost identical for monks and nuns, except for a few points proper either to the monks or to the nuns. In practice, since 1987 General Chapters have always been held at the same time in the form of ‘General Mixed Meetings’, votes which had constitutional import being taken separately. The election of the Abbot General has occurred in the two Chapters, the candidate elected requiring a majority in both assemblies. Since 2011 we finally have a single General Chapter composed of abbots and abbesses and exercising authority over the whole Order.
More recent Structures
In our day some structures have been born within the Order to respond to new needs. The first was the Central Commission. This was born after the Council, or rather during it, as an organ necessary for careful preparation of General Chapters, at the time when these were facing the exigencies of the post-conciliar renewal. In the course of the years its role has evolved. At present its role is essentially to prepare the General Chapters on the basis of the work done by the Regional Conferences of the Order. It is composed of the Abbot General and his Council and representatives of all the Regions of the Order. When it is in session the Central Commission can also make use of the enlarged Council of the Abbot General for important questions which he wishes to bring before it. Until very recently there were two Central Commissions juridically distinct, one masculine and the other feminine, the two always meeting together. With the arrival of the single Chapter there is now only one Central Commission for the whole Order.
During the Second Vatican Council the abbots and abbesses began to meet informally to share their concerns and their experiences in the context of the conciliar renewal. Thus Regional Conferences were constituted which gradually became a new structure in the Order. They are groupings of monasteries by geographical areas. In no way are they the equivalent of Provinces such as other religious institutes have, for they have no power of decision and still less of legislation. First and foremost they are a place for pastoral exchanges between the participants, who are the superiors of the monasteries of the region and a number of delegates who are not superiors, varying according to the regions. The Order sometimes entrusts to them the study of important questions concerning the Order as a whole, before they are discussed and – if it is suitable – decided at the General Chapter.
These Regional Conferences have had an important part to play in the preparation of our new Constitutions and additional Statutes, for example those concerned with formation, temporal administration and the regular visitation. This elaboration of the Constitutions, which actively involved all the members of the Order, took place over a period of 25 years, the regions serving as a stepping-stone to bring the viewpoints of the base to the attention of the General Chapter.
I have often heard our Benedictine brothers and sisters say that our Order is very centralised. From the juridical point of view this is certainly not the case. From this point of view it is probably less centralised than most of the Congregations of the Benedictine confederation. The truth is that, in the course of the preceding centuries but more particularly in our day, our Order has set on foot several organs of co-operation between monasteries, or structures of mutual assistance which are at the service of the communities without restricting their autonomy. These services exist as much at the level of the regions as at the level of the Order as a whole.
First of all there exist a certain number of commissions. Some have had a provisional role and have ceased to exist, like the commission for the redaction of the Constitutions, or those set up for the preparation of one or other statute. The liturgical commission of the Order had an important role to play during the period of adaptation of our liturgy to the demands of Vatican II. It ceased to exist and was replaced by a simple secretary for liturgy at the moment when liturgical commissions were created in the various regions of the Order. The same thing happened with formation. We have in the order a general Secretary for formation, whose role is essentially to circulate information in the regions. There exist also at the regional level secretaries for formation, whose task is to circulate information and to propose sessions of formation, in particular for the various stages of initial formation. In several regions these organisms in the service of the liturgy or formation, as also other groupings like meetings of bursars, guestmasters and mistresses, cheese-makers, etc, include members of other monastic Orders, or even persons who do not belong to the monastic world.
A Legal Commission is at the service of the Abbot General and his Council, and also at the service of the regions and local superiors for the study or the solution of questions concerning the proper law of the Order or of the universal Church. During the General Chapter the members of this commission who attend the Chapter either as capitulars or under some other title constitute the legal commission of the Chapter. There is also a financial commission of the Order as well as a commission to co-ordinate mutual financial assistance between the monasteries of the Order.
Commissions for Assistance
In the course of the last two decades the custom has developed of creating a special commission to accompany a community living through a particular situation, whether as a consequence of an internal crisis or, as in most cases, to confront questions posed by the ageing of the members of the community and the scarcity of vocations. Customarily these commissions are named ‘Commission for Assistance’ or sometimes ‘Commission for the Future’. They are created at the request of the superior of the community or of the Father Immediate, or occasionally of the General Chapter. They do not replace the Father Immediate, who normally is a member of them. They have no power of decision. They are simply to help the community on its journey and in its need to help the superior and the Father Immediate in the exercise of their ministry to the community. This process is still evolving.
An Enlarged Network
Obviously the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance is a complex reality. It is a community of communities, in which the communities are linked to one another in a whole interlocking network. In a spirit of collegial responsibility and in absolute respect for the local autonomy a number of structures strive to achieve a task both effective and enlightened by charity and shared responsibility.
At the same time the Order maintains relationships with other monastic networks. Thus it is that the Order has always been active on the Council of the AIM, and that the monasteries of the Order, especially in the young Churches, participate in the associations which join together communities belonging to various monastic Orders. None of these networks is simply a human structure of co-ordination and assistance. They incarnate in the daily life of our communities the fundamental Christian reality of Koinonia.