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The General Chapter from the canonical perspective
An element of governance that obtains commendable attention in every institute or society today is the General Chapter. The Superiors and the members render inordinate amount of interest, time, energy and thought to these special meetings. Because, though various organs of governance provide ways and means to make decisions that shape the institutes and societies, the contribution of the General Chapter which is one of the organs of governance is enormous.
Indeed, as we SSS Religious joyously waiting for the forthcoming 36th General Chapter that will be celebrated from November 6 to 24, 2023, in the provincial house of the Province of Vietnamese Martyrs, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is very relevant and optimistic to make a study on ‘The General Chapter’ from the canonical perspective for greater comprehension, fruitful participation as well.
Governance and governmental structures are essential for the smooth functioning of any organization. The Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which are structures within the Church, reflect this aspect of governance in their administration. In ICL and SAL, the aspect of governance is carried out through the instrumentality of the Superiors and the Chapters, in accordance with the common law and the proper law of each institute or society. While the Superiors exercise personal authority over the members, the Chapters exercise collegial authority. Among the Chapters, particularly the General Chapter is indeed a vital organ of governance as it holds the supreme authority in the institute or society while in session.
The Second Vatican Council that brought about renewal within the Church, in its decree Perfectae Caritatis, provided practical norms for all religious in their work of renewal. The Council also provided the ways and means for the accomplishment of the task of adaptation and renewal. Among those means, the primary place was given to the General Chapter as the Church was very much convinced that the General Chapter could contribute enormously. As a result, the Church provided the parameters of the General Chapter by outlining its authority, functions etc. Later this received a significant place in the Code of 1983, in the form of can. 631.
Though the Code of 1983 dedicates only one canon that precisely mentions about General Chapter, i.e. can. 631, it is an authoritative organ of governance which has the competence to influence the whole institute in general and each member in particular. The knowledge about this organ of governance is imperative for each and every member of any institute or society. At the same time, the lack of knowledge with regard to the functions of the General Chapter would deprive any member of an institute or a society from actively fulfilling the responsibilities one has towards the institute or society. Since it touches the whole life and activity of an entire institute or society, every member needs to be aware of one’s personal contribution or responsibility in relation to the General Chapter.
- General Chapter in the Conciliar and the Post-Conciliar Documents
The Second Vatican Council which set new direction for the whole Church, adequately contributed for the renewal and the growth of religious life and the societies. Among the various conciliar and post-conciliar documents that guided the religious life, Perfectae caritatis and Ecclesiae sanctae II hold the prime place since they contributed enormously with regard to the General Chapter. Perfectae caritatis which highlighted the renewal of religious life, called for two important things regarding Chapters through the motu proprio Ecclesiae sanctae II. They are: the mandate to deal with renewal of institute through special Chapters and the greater emphasis on the importance of Chapters. So the Chapters were set as the principal procedure for effecting renewal and adaptation in religious life.
Particularly, Perfectae caritatis emphasized the principles of representation and participation of all the members in the governance of the institute by stating that the Chapter must give expression to the involvement and the concern of all the members of the community for the good of the whole. It also envisioned the competence of the General Chapter to establish norms appropriate for the renewal, to legislate for the renewal and also to provide for prudent experimentation. Ecclesiae sanctae II emphasized that the reshaping of the congregation is the task of the members themselves through the instrumentality of the General Chapter and it is not limited to merely making laws but rather should also foster spiritual and apostolic vitality. The renewal brought about by these documents was so powerful that the instrument of renewal - the General Chapter - itself was renewed in the process and took its place as the supreme authority in the life of a religious institute.
- Kinds of the General Chapter
General Chapters can be distinguished into two types from the occasion when the Chapters are convoked. They are ordinary General Chapter and extraordinary General Chapter.
The ordinary General Chapter is held as prescribed by the constitutions at fixed intervals and in practice of many institutes the Superior general is elected during the ordinary General Chapter. So, the General Chapter which is convened due to the vacancy of the office of the Superior General for whatever reason could be considered as ordinary General Chapter.
The extraordinary General Chapter is convened by the Superior general in order to take care of exceptionally important and urgent matters, but outside the time fixed for the ordinary General Chapter. It is convened with the permission of the competent authority. During the extraordinary General Chapter, no elections are held generally, unless the Superior General was to resign during the Chapter. If so, automatically the Chapter would turn out to be an ordinary General Chapter.
Considering the end for which the General Chapter is convoked, it is divided into: Chapters of affairs which decides on important matters of various kinds committed to the Chapter; Chapters of election which elects the various Superiors of the institute; mixed Chapters, which conducts both elections and discusses various matters of the institute. Practically most of the General Chapters come under the kind of mixed Chapters.
- General Chapter or General Assembly
The need to clarify this term arises here because in most of the constitutions of ICL and SAL we do not find the term ‘General Chapter’; rather we find the term ‘General Assembly’. According to the history, though the concept of Chapter originated from the daily assembling or gathering of the members, later its use was restricted to the area of governance. This word ‘Chapter’ received acceptance in general among the religious institutes as official or obligatory gatherings which discussed about the governmental aspect of the institute. This was followed by the Code of Canon Law too. However, the history proves that there was no strict rule to follow this term and as a result various terms like ‘congress’, ‘congregation’ or ‘synod’ were used by particular legislation of various institutes. This is evident precisely in the history of the Society of Jesus, where the term Chapter was ruled out or excluded because of its monastic flavour and preferred the term ‘General Congregation’. But in every case, the functions allotted to the General Chapter apply to those organs also. In the same way, in the history of most of the ICL and SAL too we find the term general assembly instead of the General Chapter though both mean the same. However, there were societies which used other terms like General Congregations or General Chapter itself.
- Nature of the General Chapter
General Chapter which is one among the organs of governance in any institute is made up of persons who, according to the common and proper law, represent the whole society. As any other organ of governance, the General Chapter also has got its own unique nature. This is made evident in can. 631 which concentrates on the General Chapter.
- Collegial Nature
General Chapter, by its basic constitution is a collegial body. Collegium could be illustrated in the context of the General Chapter as a specifically delineated group of persons who are recognized by Church law as a true decision-making body, in which each member has one vote, with each vote being of equal value.
So, as a collegial body, when General Chapter is in session all participants including the supreme Moderator enjoy equal authority or identical rights – with equal voice and vote – in matters discussed and decided within it. Any decision, taken collegially is attributed to the college and the responsibility for that act would rest upon the members of the college. So in the same way, the acts of the General Chapter are attributed to the General Chapter itself and every member of the institute is bound by the acts of a Chapter that is legitimately held and concluded.
- Sovereign Nature
The Code of 1983 presents the General Chapter as a sovereign body which exercises the highest internal authority in the institute, in an extraordinary manner, during the time it is in session. The extension of the authority is regulated by the constitutions of each institute and so the authority may vary somewhat from institute to institute. While designating its authority, it must be borne in mind that its authority neither derogates nor conflicts with the ordinary authority of the Superior.
The authority of the General Chapter is supreme and distinct in the substantive nature of its responsibilities that is, in its right and obligation and therefore the General Chapter does not usurp the executive role of the Superior general in matters of ordinary or day-to-day administration on behalf of the community. While it is in session the Chapter has only those powers attributed to it by the approved constitutions and other legislation. At the same time, though a General Chapter does not govern in the strict sense, it sets limitations on the governance of Superiors in general and requires accountability from them for their exercise of governance between Chapters.
- Theological Nature
The Code of 1983, along with the juridical aspects of the General Chapter, presents the theological nature of it by saying that it is a sign of an institute’s unity and love. It should be constituted and celebrated in such a way that the spiritual character of the institute also must be evident. Pope Paul VI states that these Chapters though have relevance primarily to specific Orders and Congregations, yet they also influence the life of the Church; for, the Church to a great extent, derives her vigor, her apostolic zeal, and her fervor in seeking holiness of life, from the flourishing condition of her religious institutes.
Cardinal Eduardo Pironio who was the prefect of the SCRSI states that “… since it is an ecclesial event, the Chapter cannot be confined to reviewing specific problems of one congregation only. It must be essentially an evangelical reflection of the needs and aspirations of the Church at that particular time.”
So the General Chapters are held in order to promote the spiritual and apostolic vitality of the institutes and at the same time they constitute a moment of intense participation in the life of the Church and in its holiness. It is an ecclesial event and it is recommended to invite the Bishop or his delegate to celebrate Eucharist at the commencement of the event.
- Composition of the General Chapter
The canon states that the Chapter is “to be composed in such a way that it represents the whole institute…” (can. 631 § 1) and it is ideally a microcosm of the whole institute. So, participating in General Chapter is an acquired right of the members of the institutes alone and extending this right to non-members of institute is illegal. The Code does not determine the number of ex-officio members or the number of delegates or about the ways of choosing them by election or appointment etc. The details of accomplishing this are left to each individual institute. So the directory issued by the Chapter or some other normative document must provide for the exact number of representatives and the ways of choosing them, keeping in mind the whole institute along with the geographical distribution of the members and special categories of people who come under special apostolate or age or language. Nevertheless, common practice suggests that the number of ex-officio members should not exceed the delegates elected or at least be as numerous as the delegates determined by law.
General Chapter cannot change its composition once the delegates are elected for its celebration. Rather it can make norm for the composition of future General Chapters as it is entrusted with this responsibility of deciding the number of ex-officio members, the other members and the procedure to be followed in their designation. The norms also must provide for the election of alternates to replace members of a Chapter who could be impeded from participating in it and the reasons for which a delegate may be excused and by whom and how he or she is replaced. Another element which also must be defined in the norms is with regard to the replacing of the members of the chapter who have to be excused after the Chapter has commenced its work. However, the absence of a few members which would interrupt the Chapter from making decisions should never be permitted.
- Convocation of the Chapter
The act of convocation is a juridical act and it is one of the preliminary acts of a college. In order to assemble the members, it is required to be convoked. So the principle of convocation is one among the indispensable acts of a college and the Code regulates this act through various canons. Here convocation could be described as the official notification, call or invitation made to the electors to participate or to those who should come together for the formation of the collegial will to be present at the time and the place of meeting.
Taking into account the manner in which the convocations are made to those who have the right to be convoked, the convocation may be 1) general – when the notification of the Chapter is made through a general announcement, done through the publication of the notice of convocation in an official bulletin of the college or edict or announcement in community, etc. 2) personal, when it is made to an individual who has the right to be notified. The method of making general or personal convocation also is not determined by the universal law and left to individual institute since it would vary according to particular circumstances. The letter of convocation in general should contain the date, place and the hour of the session along with the actions to be accomplished by the college by means of an agenda. These indications are very important. Because if a member of a college is not present in time since no particular time is mentioned in the notice, then it would affect the validity of the convocation. Added to it, can. 167 provides the right to vote only to those who are present on the day and at the place determined in the notice.
As we live in the 21st century which is an advancing age, the demands of the world for service are enormous. Members of institutes or societies need to yield for the need and at the same time should not defer from their call. Prudent renewal and discretional adaptations are required according to the time and need. These aspects could be realized through many channels. Among them the documents of the Church places General Chapter as the primary one. General Chapter is the point at which a community comes together to organize its mission and it is an instrument that involved the whole institute all at once. Today General Chapters hold and function as the supreme authority in any institute or society and it is the greatest channel of renewal and adaptation. These legal factors while expressing the mind of the Church at the same time helps to achieve the purposes of the General Chapter.
March 27, 2023
Father Nelson Joel Soosai Marian, sss
Fr Nelson is a religious of the Province of Kristu Jyoti (India). He is in mission in Vienna, Austria, as superior of the SSS community and parish priest. He is a doctoral student of Canon Law at the University of Vienna.