American-cassinese congregation of benedictine monasteries office of the president



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PART I

THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT AND
PURPOSE OF VISITATIONS


C 126. Visitation is the personal evaluation of a monastery by authorized representatives of the Congregation in order to assess monastic life and observance, to stimulate growth, to aid in the correction of deficiencies, and to assist the local community in the solution of any problems.

C 128. It is the responsibility of the President of the Congregation to provide for a visitation, either ordinary or special, according to the procedures established in the proper law of the Congregation.

Section A: The Historical Background of Visitation Practice


V 9. Although visitation in the systematic form in which it is found in monastic congregations today is the product of a gradual historical evolution, the roots of the practice spring from fundamental Christian realities that appear already in the New Testament and then in early Christian and monastic tradition.

1. The Apostolic Practice of Fraternal Correction


V 10. Already in the first Christian generation, the disciples of Jesus acknowledged their need to be corrected and admonished by their brothers and sisters as a means of helping them to conform their lives to the example of the Lord. St. Paul summed up this conviction in his advice to the community of Thessalonica to "admonish the idle, cheer the faint-hearted, support the weak, be patient with air (1 Thes 5,14). To the Galatians he wrote, "Even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted" (Gal 6,1).

V 11. Paul himself did not hesitate to intervene with appropriate admonition when problems arose in the communities that he founded and over which he presided; the difficulties that arose in Corinth prompted him even to invoke excommunication and stern rebuke in order to bring healing to the erring (1 Cor 5,5.11). At the same time, he could be generous in offering praise and positive support to those who were making sincere efforts to live the Christian life in a serious way (see 1 Thes 1,2-10). Paul and his disciples often recommended this practice of correction in a spirit of concern for the genuine welfare of others (see 2 Thes 3,13-15; Col 3,16; 2 Tm 2,25). In the literature of the subapostolic period we find a similar practice of helping Christian communities to recognize and live up to their obligations (see 1 Clement and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch).

V 12. The Matthaean church not only taught a similar doctrine, but founded it directly upon a saying of Jesus that is transmitted only by the first gospel, viz., "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector" (Mt 18,15-17).
V 13. This passage, which is the fundamental New Testament text on correction within a Christian community, must be understood in the light of the Jewish background that it presupposes. In the Old Testament God gradually formed his people through human agents, the prophets, to whom he addressed his word for the upbuilding of all. This divine pedagogy continues in the Christian community through the service of teaching, government, and admonition of the "apostles, prophets, and teachers."

2. Pastoral Visitation in the Early Church

V 14. The practice of a pastor's visiting the flock under his care, either personally or through a delegate, goes back to the apostolic period. In the letters attributed to St. Paul that have come to be known as the "pastoral epistles," the apostle is depicted as sending Timothy and Titus, his collaborators, to visit the communities that he had established in Ephesus and in Crete, respectively. Their role was to preach the gospel and to teach sound doctrine, to correct error, to reprove improper conduct, and generally to build up the community. These letters became the model for the practice of pastoral visitation by bishops during the patristic period.

V 15. St. Athanasius, who was often exiled from Alexandria, took advantage of this misfortune to visit Christian communities in upper Egypt, including monastic communities. St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker was likewise eulogized by Gregory of Nyssa for his zeal in visiting his flock and guarding it from error. In the western Church we find St. Augustine lauded by his biographer Possidius for a similar concern. Likewise, the Life of Martin by Sulpitius Severus depicts the monk-bishop Martin of Tours as constantly engaged in visiting the churches of the diocese that constituted his flock.


3. Early Monastic Visitation Practice

V 16. When monastic life began its phenomenal growth in the fourth century, the monks, like all other Christians, fell under the jurisdiction of the local bishop, who visited them as members of his flock and therefore as recipients of his pastoral concern. From the beginning, however, the charismatic nature of the monastic life produced a certain tension between the monks and the Church's hierarchical authorities, regardless of the esteem in which they may have held one another. Hence monks began to develop their own structures for self-government and for supervision.

V 17. We find this already in the case of the Pachomian monasteries, which multiplied rapidly in upper Egypt and quickly spread to several different dioceses. These large communities were seen by their founder as forming a single "koinonia," and he maintained supervision over them all by periodic visits to the various houses. This constituted the first known example in monastic history of an organized visitation system. Pachomius and his successors strove to maintain regular monastic observance and a delicate sense of fraternal charity among all the monks and nuns of the koinonia by visiting each community once a year. There was also a regular reunion of the koinonia, which may be seen as a forerunner of the later institution of the general chapter.

4. The Rule of St. Benedict

V 18. The Rule of St. Benedict, like most early monastic rules, legislates for a single monastery without juridical ties to any other house. Likewise, it ordinarily does not envisage recourse to any authority outside the community itself. In the case of the election of an unworthy abbot, however, it prescribes that the local bishop or the abbots and faithful of the vicinity should intervene to undo the wrong (64,3-6). In the west at this time, as is clear from the slightly later correspondence of St. Gregory the Great, the bishop exercised jurisdiction over the monasteries of his diocese, and it was his responsibility to watch over their religious observance.

V 19. The Rule of St. Benedict, however, rooted as it is in authentic Christian tradition, is not insensitive to the value of fraternal correction from other sources, as is clear from its statement about the pilgrim monk: "He may, indeed, with all humility and love, make some reasonable criticisms or observations, which the abbot should prudently consider; it is possible that the Lord guided him to the monastery for this very purpose" (61,4). It is but a step from this principle to the later institutionalization of procedures that would regularly provide such advice from visiting monks designated for this purpose.

5. The System of Regular Visitation

V 20. In the western church after St. Benedict monasteries continued their isolated existence under the jurisdiction of the local ordinary, without being formally joined into any larger unity. Gradually the Rule of St. Benedict was spontaneously adopted by more and more monasteries, replacing other monastic rules that had previously been in use. The effort to unify monastic observance developed in the wake of the Carolingian renaissance, which applied its organizing genius to the religious as well as to the political and cultural life of the empire.

V 21. The reforming abbot Benedict of Aniane, who had previously adopted the Benedictine rule in his own monastery, was authorized by the emperor Louis the Pious to reform all the monasteries of the realm under this rule and under a single observance. The reform was instituted at two synods of abbots, who were summoned to Aachen in 816 and again in 817 to be instructed in the Rule of St. Benedict and in the customary that was to be universally observed. A system of visitation of monasteries was also introduced to insure the correct observance of the decrees of the synods.

V 22. In fact, the reform of Aachen did not long endure, for the Carolingian empire was soon torn apart by civil wars among Louis's sons and then by the incursions of the Northmen. Monasteries were fortunate even to survive during the rest of the ninth century. But the concept of organizing monasteries into a larger grouping, with uniformity of observance as an ideal and a system of visitation to assist in its realization, was not forgotten. A century after Benedict of Aniane, it was revived with the remarkable growth of Cluny, after its foundation in 910, into a union of monasteries that eventually became a monastic empire enjoying freedom from episcopal intervention.

V 23. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries a number of similar "orders" of monasteries were to flourish. There were numerous differences from one to another, but they generally strove to maintain the same observance in all their houses. A twofold means of achieving this purpose was commonly employed: a system of visitations and the institution of the general chapter. Both were a revival of the methods of Benedict of Aniane.

6. The Development of Visitation Procedures.

V 24. A major step in visitation procedure was taken by the Cistercians in the early twelfth century. Anxious to maintain uniformity of observance and bonds of fraternal charity among their rapidly multiplying monasteries, they adopted the Charter of Charity in 1114. It prescribed an annual general chapter and the annual visitation of every monastery by the abbot of its founding abbey. At least during the golden age of the order, this system proved enormously successful in maintaining the ideals of the founders, and it had an important influence upon later canonical legislation.

V 25. In 1215 the Fourth Council of the Lateran, attempting to revive the black monks, whose fortunes had begun to wane, decreed that monasteries not belonging to an "order" were to be drawn out of their isolation by regular attendance at triennial general chapters convoked in each kingdom or province. One of the most important functions of such chapters was to appoint visitators who should regularly examine the life of each monastery and report back to the general chapter. Thus the universal Church for the first time required visitations as a means by which monasteries might help one another to maintain a fervent observance of monastic life.

V 26. As has so often happened in monastic history, the implementation of the Lateran legislation was less than completely satisfactory because of numerous problems of the time. Another attempt, with further specifications, was made by the bull Summi Magistri of the Cistercian Pope Benedict XII in 1336. Again in the early fifteenth century the reforming activity that surrounded the councils of Constance and Basel produced further attempts at monastic renewal; these led to the formation of permanent unions of monasteries that began to be called "congregations/' The oldest of these, established in Padua in 1419 and called the Congregatio de Unitate, has enjoyed a continuous existence to the present day; since the entry of Monte Cassino in 1504 it has been known as the Cassinese Congregation.

V 27. The fifteenth-century congregations and others established after the Reformation sometimes elevated the general chapter to the place of supreme authority and made the role of visitators more important than it had been in the traditional monastic polity. Most of these were swept away in the suppressions that accompanied and followed the French Revolution. A return to tradition accompanied the reestablishment of monasteries and the formation of new congregations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But ever since the Fourth Lateran Council/ the institution of the general chapter and provision for regular visitation have been the essential means by which monasteries strive to assist one another in the fulfillment of their common purpose.


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