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Notes from the General Chapter by Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP
By Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP, Rome, 20 September 2010
Here are some notes from the General Chapter of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) in Rome, where I am representing the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (Western USA).
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The General Chapter of the Order of Preachers occurs once every three years. Its job is to consider the Order's legislation and to write new legislation to guide the Order until the next General Chapter meets. The Chapter exercises the highest authority in the Order. The legislation of the Order is written by the friars of the Order, for the friars. Only those friars who are duly deputed delegates to the Chapter may vote on the legislation. The nuns of the Order – that is, contemplative Dominican nuns in monasteries – are affected by this legislation insofar as it is recognized by the constitutions and laws of each monastery. The various congregations of active Dominican sisters, while they use the initials “OP,” are not members of the same juridical structure, so they are not directly affected by our legislation. They have their own congregations, each congregation having its own constitutions and laws that apply to its members, with its own structures of authority and democratic engagement. They share in the charism of St. Dominic and take inspiration from him. The members of the Dominican Laity that are sponsored by the friars are also governed by their own legislation. However, a few members of all these Dominican groups (nuns, sisters, and laity) are invited here as non-voting participants.
Speaking of the friars, then, the Dominican Order is composed of Provinces around the world, as well as other kinds of structures in places (Vice-Provinces and Vicariates) where the number of friars is insufficient for the foundation of provinces. To describe who goes to the General Chapter, we must note that there are three different kinds of General Chapter that rotate in a nine-year cycle: an Elective Chapter, a Chapter of Diffinitors, and a Chapter of Provincials. The Elective General Chapter (as is the current one) is followed in three years by a General Chapter of Diffinitors, a smaller chapter of elected representatives (not the Priors Provincial); three years after that there is a General Chapter of Priors Provincial, where the heads of Provinces and the other entities attend (as well as the Master and ex-Masters, who attend all general chapters); three years after that, there is another Elective Chapter. And so the cycle goes. In an elective chapter, the Priors Provincial as well as elected delegates attend (Provinces with fewer than one hundred friars elect one delegate; those with more than one hundred friars elect another; those with more than 400 friars get to elect a third one). This last type of chapter is larger in the number of attendees than the other two; it is not only larger, but also has the responsibility of electing a new Master General, who serves a single nine-year term. At this chapter, we just elected Fr. Bruno Cadoré of the Province of northern France, as our Master. He is now presiding over our meetings as they continue.
With only twenty one days to meet (September 1-21), the calendar of the Chapter can be divided into three main parts, although there is some overlap involved. The first part (after the first day's preliminaries, introductions, etc.), concerned two elements: 1. the overall concerns of the friars, and 2. the election of the new Master. This period lasted from the first day, Wednesday, Sept. 1, until Sunday, Sept. 5, when the election was held. The next period, from Monday, Sept. 6, until Friday, Sept. 10, involved work within Commissions. Each of the 140 members of the Chapter (128 voting friars + others invited) is assigned to work in one of ten commissions of about 15 members each, covering the following seven different themes (with some of the themes having two language groups involved): On the Following of Christ (2 groups), Ministry of the Word (2 groups), Study, Formation of the Brothers, Economic Administration, Government (2 groups), and The Book of Constitutions and Ordinations (a group that concerns the way the legislation fits together legally). I was on the Commission on Study; our language is French. Fr. Emmerich was on Economic Administration; Fr. Michael Rolland was on the Ministry of the Word (Spanish-speaking group). The work of the Commissions is to review past legislation, consider petitions to the Chapter concerning its area of concern, and to draft legislation for consideration by all the voters in plenary session. Since Saturday, Sept. 11, the focus has been on meeting all together in plenary session to consider texts proposed by the commissions. It involves a presentation of each paragraph (or set of paragraphs) by a spokesman for the Commission that is presenting the text. We then have a chance to question parts of it, comment on it, or make amendments. Sometimes, discussion of amendments can last a while. After the discussion comes to an end, or when fifteen minutes' time has elapsed (and not enough people want to extend the time), we vote. This process of reviewing and voting on proposed texts has been our main task up to Monday, Sept. 20 (today). We just considered our last proposals. Tomorrow, the Master of the Order will address us, and we will have a session evaluating the process of the Chapter.
The election itself was a solemn event, with its own prayer-structure. Our outgoing Master of the Order, Fr. Carlos Aspiroz, explained that it is a sacramental, that is, a quasi-sacrament – a kind of holy event. I had the honor to be the one chosen to lead the singing for it. That afternoon, we all went to Santa Sabina for optional tours of the facility, followed by Vespers in Latin. I led the singing there, too; all that time I spent at the Albertinum in Fribourg, Switzerland, learning the traditional Dominican antiphons certainly paid off in that venue, whose acoustics are stunning (I could fill the place without the help of a microphone). The day concluded with a garden party on the lawn looking West, including a view of the Vatican – a beautiful setting.
Our Commission on Study is headed by Fr. Charles Morerod of the Angelicum, with our Fr. Michael Sherwin as its Secretary. Fr. Charles presented our work to the plenary session on Tuesday, Sept. 14, where our texts passed easily without much amendment in most cases. That means we did our work well. Speaking for myself, my work on the Commission was intense, since we were required not only to meet during the day, but to spend our nights drafting texts for distribution and further discussion the following day. It is satisfying to see our work come to fruition; we hope that, having been passed by the Chapter, it will help the Order to accomplish its mission a little better.
On Sept. 14, four prelates of the Order came to speak to us briefly: Cardinal Georges Cottier, former Theologian of the Pontifical Household and son of the Swiss Province, greeted us simply and briefly. Archbishop Joseph Augustine DiNoia, Secretary (the second-highest position) of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (originally from St. Joseph Province, Northeast USA), encouraged us Dominicans to share our own living of the life of the liturgy with the Church, promoting the liturgical year as a framework for all of life. Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education (Toulouse Province), pointed out three challenges of our times for our preaching: (1) education as a work of justice, (2) disappearance of a shared culture as both opportunity and a challenge, and (3) increasing secularization. Fr. Wojciech Giertych, current Theologian of the Pontifical Household (from the Polish province), noted that we are particularly well situated to offer people of our time an example of personal responsibility that is a fruit of our shared life – that is, our lives demonstrate how our communal commitment enhances our personal freedom.
On Saturday, Sept. 18, we passed a prologue for the Acts. It is centered around preaching, which is perhaps especially appropriate as we approach the 500th anniversary of Fr. Antonio de Montesinos' 1511 sermon against the extreme violence and injustice done to the native peoples of the Americas. Normally each commission writes its own prologue for its section. This time, a single prologue was composed for the whole of the Acts, with a contribution from each commission. Every commission was asked to compose ten lines for inclusion in the prologue. The resulting text was much longer than 10 lines times ten commissions. I was surprised by how long it turned out to be. Still, it is not too long, and it does have a thematic continuity. We had one plenary session that reviewed a first draft; we had special rules that we agreed upon, by which we were not permitted to make amendments; otherwise, we would have been there forever. In that session, I made a comment that resulted in an inclusion of what I consider an important theme. I offer personal kudos to anyone who can guess it when reading the text.
It is very edifying and humbling to be here among so many gifted and generous brothers. The breadth of experience of the brothers, the gifts that they have, and their consistently gracious manner leave me inwonder each day. There are some are truly extraordinary stories of holy heroism and generosity that I hope to get the chance to relate some day.
A comment on the overall spirit of the Chapter is in order. It is not at all a partisan kind of spirit. I am not saying that real divisions are absent. There are some controversial points that have been raised; some proposals receive a mixed reaction, revealing certain rifts. However, there is a broad consensus that we should not act by slim majorities in our legislation. We want every part of it to receive broad support. Great effort is made to try to anticipate the concerns of various constituencies and interests. When it is clear that there is division over a point, attempts are made to incorporate the views of all who have concerns over a proposal. This is the case, not just to assure passage of one's own view, but to assure that there will be broad support for it, and also a corresponding broad support for our legislation as a whole.
It is interesting to see how just a few persons' intervention, or even just one person's intervention, can influence and change legislation that is proposed. In general, we all trust our brothers working in their respective commissions, so we do not usually seek to reject their proposals. The tool most often used to address one's concern is the amendment to a proposal. This can modify or blunt the effect of the legislation, change it considerably, or even render it completely toothless! So, it is true that there is not a partisan spirit; but there is still real, vigorous debate happening, debate that has real consequences.
Speaking of language, there are three official spoken languages of the Order: English, Spanish, and French. Our plenary sessions look like UN meetings, with friars sporting headphones for listening to our fine translators, doing their best to offer simultaneous translation. It is extremely useful to me that I speak and understand French, and understand a fair amount of Spanish (though I must listen to the translation of the Spanish in order to understand precisely). A fair amount of humor, intended and otherwise, is a part of the proceedings. By the way, by my count, the preferences of the vocals for the three official languages are as follows: English is preferred by 51, Spanish by 38, and French by 34. Note that this does not take into account how many speak the second or third as another language. A curiosity of our Study commission is that only one of the fifteen members has French as his (or her) first language.
The Liturgy alternates in language: Monday through Saturday passes in a three-day cycle, such that on one day, the liturgy is in English, the next day, French, the next day, Spanish, etc., with one Sunday given to each language group. The Provinces and other entities have been divided up according to their respective language group, so that a few Provinces have responsibility for the liturgy each day. For example, on Monday, Sept. 13, English was the language of the day, and the Western, Central, and Southeastern USA Provinces were responsible. I have been leading the singing on all the days in which English is the language. I did it the first time, and afterward the different groups of provinces, as their day came up (England, India, Philippines, etc.) kept asking me to do it, whether because they liked what they heard or because they did not want to do it themselves. I have been happy to contribute in that way. One of the friars here in Rome made a nice book for each capitular attending the liturgy, with all the texts needed, but without any pointing or psalm tones for psalms; it has a good but limited selection of music, including key Latin hymns, Mass settings, and the like, which have come in handy. In English, we have used more Latin than the other two groups. We have been using the “Jubilate Deo” Latin parts (yes, the Mass for the Dead) for every one of our weekdays (with Missa de Angelis on Sunday, Sept. 5), since there is no shared musical setting in our language (the British use some settings, Americans use others, etc.), and anyway, no English settings were in the books. (The French speakers use various pieces by the Dominican André Gouzes.) I used the simplest psalm tones I could think of, and even wrote a couple for the occasion. (There was confusion and what I would call “interference” when I used one pair of tones too close to each other, i.e., people started singing the previous tone after I had started another one. That is why I wrote the new ones.) I tried to keep it as simple as possible, under the circumstances, and I believe that people appreciated it in general.
Our schedule Monday through Saturday has been the following:
The three Sundays were each a bit different. The first was partly a working day, starting at 7am with Mass and Lauds, and then continuing with the election of the Master, beginning at 9am and lasting until after noon, with lunch at 1pm (the main meal) and the trip to Santa Sabina at 2pm, as described above. The other Sundays have been “free” days, with Mass and Lauds at 9am and Vespers at 7:30pm.
Breakfast: Coffee from an espresso/cappuccino maker, tea, milk, or juice (or any combination you wish); rolls, lunchmeat, and cheese, cocoa crispies or corn flakes.
Lunch (really, dinner), 1pm: always available: tossed salad, nice roll, red and white wine, bottled water, various cold plates with vegetables, meats, etc.,; warm entrées, which always include two starch dishes (at least one pasta, then one more, usually rice or another pasta), and a meat dish (fish on Friday); various fruits and a prepared pastry dessert (usually a small sliver of tart) which I usually skip.
Supper: About the same as Dinner, except it includes a soup, and includes only one starch dish in place of two, and the entrées are perhaps not quite as fancy.
All of this is on an all-you-want basis, but the time period does not last forever. At our age, few of us abuse the privilege.
Our common life together seemed to have had one negative effect. A cold virus has made its way among the folks here, involving a sore throat and/or cough for most of us who got it; I would estimate that about a fourth of us got something or other. One friar came down with a fever.
The facility is contemporary in style, and is both well-designed and well-appointed. Each has his own room and bathroom, like a hotel with smallish rooms (quite large enough for one person). Mosquitoes live here in abundance. Most of us keep our windows shut as a result. There is a cooler that functions to some degree; it may be a swamp cooler (I am not sure), but it has been helpful. We are situated on the outskirts of Rome, roughly between the Fiumicino airport and downtown, very near the Beltway freeway that surrounds the Eternal City. The grounds are nice here, but there is no grocery store or any other kind of retail business that is within easy walking distance from here. There are some such places further away that the more able-bodied can reach if they have time. A trip into the city on a public bus takes about an hour, I am told. I have had too much to do, or have been too ill, to be eager to try it.
As for the substance of what has been decided, the following are the matters that stick most in my mind. They are not always the matters of greatest importance, but they are what I can write about most fully, from my own perspective. Yet I can say that the most important decision was no doubt the election of the Master. What the election means for us has yet to be seen. I can say this much: though he is small and thin in frame, Fr. Bruno Cadoré is no figurative lightweight. He is a physician and a doctor of moral theology, with the care for human persons in their concrete lives that such emphases entail. He is said to be a good administrator, and he himself emphasized his own desire to put in place a good team upon whom he will rely – that is an encouraging sign for a leader.
Another important decision was made: where to hold the next chapter. We decided to accept the proposal by the Provincial of Croatia, Fr. Anto Gavric, who listed three possible sites where they have priories: Dubrovnik, Bol,or Ciovo (having also heard proposals from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Bologna, Italy, and Avila, Spain). The most persuasive aspect of the presentation was the pictures presented: gorgeous locations on the Adriatic coast, including one picture featuring Fr. Stipe Juric going for a swim!
Regarding legislation, there is little doubt that the most important matter we decided concerns the restructuring of the entities of the Order. If our decisions are confirmed by two more chapters, then by 2016, the entities of the Order will include Provinces, Vice Provinces, Provincial Vicariates, and, for those not under these structures, houses in other territory but associated with these three entities or directly under the Master. I may have missed some details, but that is basically it. Gone will be Regional Vicariates and General Vicariates. Those entities that are currently Regional or General Vicariates will need to find a way to be reconstituted according to one of the other structures, or combine with another vicariate to form a new entity (e.g., a Vice Province), or be reduced to houses allied to a Province, etc. This is a great simplification, and means that the smallest free-standing entity will be the Vice Province. The goal was to assure that all vicariates have some province that would have some responsibility for keeping them strong until they can be on their own. Fr. Michael Mascari of the Central US Province did a great job of walking us through this in the plenary session; I have no doubt that he was just as painstakingly fair and thorough in his preparatory work on the Commission.
A kind of running theme through much of our legislation is that of cooperation and planning. This can be seen in the restructuring of entities mentioned above; there, a realistic view was taken that each vicariate needed some kind of juridical link to a Province in order to be properly connected with the Order as a whole. It seems to make sense to me. Another way that the Chapter affirmed the need for collaboration, cooperation, and planning was in its decision on the regularizing of meetings of Regents of Studies that came due to the prompting from the congress of Regents held recently (a meeting that they seemed to find quite beneficial). This is legislation on which I spent some late nights, working in the Commission on Study. The Regents of Studies from each region of the Order will gather every three years. Furthermore, the coordinator whom each region chooses will sit on the Order's commission on the promotion of study. Finally, in the year before an elective chapter, all the regents of studies worldwide will meet. The goal of all these meetings is cooperation and planning; these are not juridical bodies, but means by which communication can occur at the regional and worldwide levels, something the Order has been lacking with regard to its planning for the intellectual life. Since we cannot order things from the top down in our Order, this is about the best we can do, and perhaps the most we would want to do at this point. This legislation is something that I saw from the inside, and I am pleased with how it turned out, even if the result seems rather humble, or perhaps even annoyingly bureaucratic (another meeting one must attend, with reports required, etc.). We hope that the Regents will not find this merely a burdensome requirement, but a real help to them (they asked for it, after all).
Another theme that recurred was that of fundraising. It was agreed that there was a need to spread the practice of fundraising beyond North America and into the rest of the world. There were only a few concrete steps taken in this direction (certain encouragements surrounding International Dominican Foundation); and I should say that this was a particular concern of the US delegations here, but one that seemed to be shared by others.
Related to this theme is that of economy, in two senses. First, our Chapter came in well under budget, and is rather simplified. For one thing, we are here for three weeks rather than four; there are few special perks (no stoles made for the occasion, etc.). So we had to work pretty hard to get done in time. I am not an exception in having to spend late nights getting work done; there was no other way to do it for many of us. Second, there was an emphasis on economy of words – at least for many of us. We hope that the overall acts of the chapter will be much briefer, leaner, and more efficient than those of recent chapters. We tried to keep mere congratulatory remarks to a minimum – though they started multiplying in some cases.
When we get the final text, we will see whether we succeeded in all this. We hope that our efforts will help Dominicans and others, in some small way, be better organized in order the better to preach the Word of God for the salvation of souls in our world.
Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP
For more information, please visit the Order of Preachers website .