Sr. Suzy Hadermann, from Belgium share with us her experience of the Chapter of 1981. It was the Chapter which responded to the desire of the Church (expressed by the Second Vatican Council) to see that Congregations rewrite their Constitutions, “updating” them (“aggiornamento” in Italian). The 1981 Chapter was therefore devoted mainly to this task, which is very important since it was a question of saying again what we want to live, how we feel the Lord is calling us to participate in his Mission.
Two aspects in particular touched me during this chapter:
– Our Constitutions are the fruit of the participation of all the sisters of the Congregation
– The Spirit accompanied us and worked with us throughout this process
The participation of all the sisters:
The work to rewrite our Constitutions began several years before the Chapter. We were all invited to re-own our charism by re-immersing ourselves for a year in the writings of Cardinal Lavigerie and Mother Marie-Salomé. It was the year of the “return to the sources”. (1978).
All the communities then shared the fruit of this year by sending to the General Council the elements which, according to them, should appear in our Constitutions in order to keep the charism alive and active, that is to say the gift that God has given to his Church for Africa and for the world through the Cardinal and Mother Marie-Salomé.
In Rome (the generalate was in Frascati near Rome), a team worked with the general council to draw up draft Constitutions, based on what the sisters had written. This draft of the Constitutions was then sent to all the communities and we were invited to study it, then to give our opinion, our suggestions, our questions. If I remember correctly, the preparation team reorganized the draft Constitutions by integrating all these reactions.
These responses from the communities, I still see them! We could consult them… They were there, at the disposal of the capitulants on a large table at the back of the Chapter hall under the watchful eye of the Cardinal.
General Chapter in 1981: group picture with the delegates around Our Lady of the Vow in the inner courtyard of the generalate in Frascati, Rome
We were divided into working groups (French or English), and each group had one of the themes to study: starting from the project and the reactions and from all the sisters, it was a question of writing what was to become our Constitutions. Exciting work! It is sometimes not easy to agree on such and such an aspect, then to manage to express the essential in a language accessible to all! Every word was weighed, nothing was left to chance. All of this, of course, in prayer. And when the group had finally managed to write the numbers of the Constitutions relating to the theme entrusted to them in a way that seemed best to them, the “result” was translated into the other language and sent to the other groups, who were to examine it while continuing to work on their own themes.
It was a difficult stage to go through, because you had to “let go” this text, and leave it in the hands of the other groups. Then, when the other groups were ready, we had a plenary session, where the other groups gave their opinion on the text that we had prepared. Often they suggested changes, either in substance or in form. It was all the more complicated since the remarks came as much from other groups working in the same language as from groups working in the other language. Thus, for example, our French-speaking group received the French translation of what the English-speaking groups had said, those who had worked on the English translation of our original text!
Let us note in passing the important role, in a chapter, of the people who ensure the translation!
The group then had to go back to its original text and rework it, trying to incorporate the comments made by the others. When a group had finished, the text was again distributed to all (with translation for the groups of the other language), and we arrived at the voting sessions. For a text to be accepted for the Constitutions, it had to receive at least two-thirds of the votes.
It was the responsibility of the “central committee” to follow the progress of the work of each group, in order to determine the agenda of the plenary sessions.
All of this seems very complicated, but makes us realize the importance of our Constitutions: each paragraph, each sentence, each word has been prayed over, weighed, reflected upon, studied before being placed in this book. This is important, since these are texts that tell our raison d’être, and which will be a source of inspiration for all current and future sisters!
And when all the articles of the Constitutions had been voted on one by one, there was still the final vote for the whole book. During this final vote, there was a feeling of satisfaction, of accomplishment!
But there was still one step left, which was to be experienced after the end of the chapter: our Constitutions had to be presented for approval to the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the dicastery (Church body) on which we depended at that time. This is an important step, because the Church has the authority to examine whether the Constitutions or Rules of Life submitted to them are authentic paths for following Christ in consecrated life according to his Gospel. It was therefore another experience of renunciation to accept the gaze and approval of others on the result of our work. The decree of approval is seen on the first page of our Constitutions.
It seemed obvious to me that the Spirit was working with us throughout the elaboration of the Constitutions: first of all, obviously, in the personal and community prayer of the members of the chapter, and also of all the sisters everywhere who carried the chapter in their prayer, as we are currently doing for this year’s chapter.
The Spirit was present in the experience of renunciation lived by each one, when it came to listening to each other in the group, then listening to what the other groups had to say to us in relation to our work. … and, as a final point, to listen to the opinion of those who have authority in the Church to authenticate the Constitutions.
What also shows me the work of the Spirit with us is the beauty of our texts. When you know to what extent each sentence has been tossed and turned in all directions, weighed, changed, and you see the beauty, the unity of these texts as if they had been written in one go by a single person, we feel that through all this work, this search by the capitulants and all the sisters, it was the Spirit who was at work.
For me, the most important attitude of a capitulant, whether she is a delegate or a member by right, is first of all prayer, the conviction that God is there and can do wonders if we let him act. For God to act, we must listen to what he wants to tell us through others, events, the world. And, especially for the delegates, to remember that it is a question of the whole Congregation and its Mission, and not only of the entity which delegated me, of my community, of “my Mission.”
This attitude of confident prayer, self-surrender, openness of mind and heart is also particularly important during the “very important” event that is the election of the new General Council.
Very delicate phase, because it is about people, and that inevitably resounds in our sensitivity.
Remember that at that time too, all your sisters everywhere will be with you in prayer, and in expectation of those whom, through your deliberations and your votes, God will give to the congregation for the years to come.
Sr. Suzy Hadermann, Belgium
Article in Sharing Trenta Aprile N° 1-2023