At fixed times all the abbots/abbesses come together. They discuss there the salvation of their own souls and of those committed to them. They take measures regarding the observance of the Holy Rule and of the Order where there is something that needs to be corrected or added. They foster anew among themselves the benefit of peace and charity. They devote themselves to maintaining the patrimony of the Order and safeguarding and increasing its unity. (C.77)

Friday, September 23, 2011

The treasure of filiation and Father Immediate

The MGM of 2008 looked at some structures of our Order. Not questioning having a Father Immediate, there was still a wish to have a closer look at how this structure – that is particular to our Order (going back to the Charter of Charity of the 12th century) is functioning. All the mixed commissions have discussed this, and the 14 reports were presented in the plenary session this morning.

Father Immediate is for the monks the abbot of the founding house, for the nuns the abbot of the monastery who takes responsibility of fatherhood when the community reaches autonomy. The Father Immediate makes a Visitation every 2 years – or more often in extraordinary circumstances. There is a link of responsibility and pastoral care in relation to each community. For nuns the Visitation can be delegated every six years. An abbess can be assistant Visitor for the monks and Regular Visitor for nuns. There is detailed legislation for when the Father Immediate needs to be consulted outside the Visitations.

It is interesting to see how fruitful the discussions in the small commissions are, how there is room for everybody to have their say and being heard. The report of the fifth commission is reflecting this:

“In view of the complex question of the role and function, efficacy and inadequacies of the Father Immediate, one member felt that this structure no longer responds to the needs of the Order, because of the sheer lack of monasteries able to provide fully for this service. It was suggested that there could be regional visitors. Others feel that the Father Immediate is an integral part of our charism and attempts already made to give daughter houses of large filiations to other monasteries have not always worked because it is not the natural family tree. Others felt that some changes of filiation had and could work well. But there is a scarcity of communities/abbots able to handle the responsibilities involved, cases of houses closing, or renouncing their father immediateship, others wanting to change for reasons of personality clashes, repeated indications of the visitation repeatedly ignored with no enforcement.”

“We can use the structures we have more creatively, giving women the possibility of visitation in houses of monks, delegating visitation rather than the role of father immediate, using friendly visits, etc.”

“A suggestion about shared authority calls for more collaboration for the good of each community, personal conversion and reconciliation, and return to paternity that gives life and helps things grow. Problems lying beneath the surface are the crisis of authority, power, and fears that see the Regular Visitation as threatening.”

Listening to the different reports, I am reminded of the theme heard in the question of formation and the situation of young people of today: The importance of the father and the consequences of the lack of a father:

Through all the reports you will find a great esteem for the role of a Father Immediate and the important link between a community and its Mother house, both through the regular visitation and friendly contact that builds up trust.
  • The Regular Visitation strengthens our vocation by forcing us to look at the most important values we live by. Preparation for the visitation is a beneficial examination of community life. The Visitations often help heal relationships, bringing the concerned parties to see that the source of the problem is not just on one side. Visitations give communities a sense of direction and guidelines for future work.

The differences in culture and language and geographical distance can be a great challenge. In some cultures it takes a long time to build up relationships to a level of openness and trust, and it is not always easy for a person coming in a few weeks from the outside to reach this level and get a realistic picture of the situation in a community. What is a challenge can also be a fruitful opportunity:   
  • The fact that the visitor comes from a different culture and requires translators has not been experienced as a major obstacle. This different – and sometimes more objective – point of view is beneficial. Visitations give communities a sense of belonging to a large family, and assure them that various sources of help are available.

The experience of the Father Immediate himself may be discouraging in situations when he is unable to meet the needs of the daughter house, or when the community does not follow up on the Visitation. Some reports suggested a more clear distinctions for what a Visitor may suggest, what he may recommend and what he may decree, and also that the house visited should make a report on their follow-up on the Visitation after six months.

There was also a suggestion of the role of the Father Immediate not being dependent on the Mother House’s ability to make financial contributions to the Daughter House achieving autonomy. This would allow for a poorer house to be a Mother House. 
  • The ministry of the Father Immediate must be exercised in faith, both on the part of the Father Immediate who sees himself as the representative of Christ, and faith on the part of the community who receives him as Christ. His ministry is one of aid and assistance, not that of a policeman. A visit by the Father Immediate is a time of grace, a time for the community to look at and reflect on its life and how it may grow in its surrender to God.

The Father Immediate is described as a fellow pilgrim and a poor man:
  • He must be conscious of his powerlessness, owning it in prayer. He must be capable of patience and humility, for time is required in order to know and in order to be accepted. Good judgement and good sense is fundamental, and the possibility to listen with empathy, accepting diversity. The primary purpose of the Visitation is to ensure support for the local Superior.

While most commissions advise opening up for an abbess as Regular Visitor, not only for nuns but also for monks, as delegated Visitor, a few commissions showed a different view:
  • The possibility of having an abbess as Regular Visitor in houses of monks does not really excite enthusiasm.

There were some stronger statements in this regard, and it seems clear that there are cultural differences in view of the question of having an abbess as regular visitor of monks. The experience of an abbess as assistant visitor was reflected in this report:
  • The play of complementarities causes monks to accept more readily what is said by a woman, and vice versa.

Sr. Hanne-Maria of Tautra