The General Chapter

I had been nominated by the Provinces of the United States to attend the General Chapter of 1958. It was here that I was assigned to look after the needs of the Marist Brothers in the United States, as well as those of its mission in the Philippines. I was also in charge of the Province of China, which at that time included not only China but also the Marist work for the Christian education of youth in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Sarawak. China had been closed to apostolic work since the beginning of 1950 due to the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao. The duration of time between two Chapters at that time was nine years. We were already getting ready and planning for the next General Council, which was due to be held in 1967. The Church had held its special periodic Vatican Council in 1962, later called Vatican II, for the renovation of religious life and had made many important changes to be implemented in all aspects of the practice of religious life. Many congregations were also working on the renewal of their constitutions to keep in accord with the changes of the 1962 Council. Our Chapter of 1967, therefore, was of the utmost importance in following the directives of the Church Council. Some of the changes had already been implemented, but there still was plenty of work to be done.

In fact, at the convocation of our General Chapter, we studied our rules and made changes and adaptations recommended by the Church General Council. There was not sufficient time for us to complete all the work that was expected of us, and so the General Chapter of 1967 was planned to last two years. The main outlines would be set up, followed, and studied by all the Brothers during that year, and we planned to return for a second session of the same Chapter in 1968. This would afford us ample time to make the necessary adjustments during that two-year period.

There was plenty of work necessary to study the new regulations and at the same time we had to carry on our normal work. We all worked together at preparing the agenda for the General Chapter, and I was assigned to prepare the timetable to be followed. This meant setting a date for the Chapter and looking after the facilities needed to lodge about 169 Marist Brothers who would come from all over the globe to attend the meeting. We had to train some Brothers from various places to come to the Chapter to be prepared for the translations that would be needed in French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. We also wanted to prepare the meeting hall with translation booths and have the needed facilities for the instantaneous reading of voting results.

All this meant the implementation of a lot of technical improvements that had to be ready on time for the Chapter. We needed to provide living quarters for all the extra help. Fortunately we were given a free hand to call upon any qualified Brother necessary to help us. We wanted the possibility for immediate voting with results shown at once on the large screen on stage for the entire assembly. Much of this would be new for this Chapter. It was new, it was daring, and it would greatly help expedite matters.

We had our group of helpers organized from the various countries represented, and they were invited to the Generalate for ten days of practice in preparation for the Chapter. That meant practice for the translators and voting controllers and the need for a monstrous amount of work to be done in the print room to get the many varied documents ready. There was also the need for added helpers for the kitchen staff as well as those needed to provide some light entertainment. We had arranged the infirmary facilities in case of sickness or emergency and had a good crew of drivers on call for any emergency. Brothers were also on call for pick-ups at the airport, with others ready for emergency printing work at all times.

I was assigned to be the Commissioner of the Chapter with two other assistants to help in presiding at the various sessions. They were to be in charge of various meetings and to take turns running the sessions. I had asked for that help so that I could be free to attend to any emergency that might arise. We also scheduled break days and plans for an occasional get-together by language and liturgical service. At the end of our meetings there would he a special scheduled private meeting with the Holy Father and all the Capitulanes. I was named to be the Commissioner of the Chapter, responsible for all decisions concerning the meetings, the trips to be made, and all details of operation.

It was already decided that we would vote as to whether to have another session one year later to assess our adaptation to the various changes. We would be able to see the wisdom of continuing with the changes under the directive of the Vatican Council of 1962, or implement further change at the next session in the fall of 1968. It was incredible to witness the enthusiasm of such a varied group, all from a variety of countries and different cultures, yet still a real dedicated family in the name and tradition of Champagnat. It was that spirit that saved the day on several occasions. Naturally on an occasion like this, one had to expect that there would be a few tense moments that required some diplomacy so as not to offend anyone. I will share two such occasions.

The first one was at one of the ordinary sessions that might be interpreted as a burden for some cultures. There were two Brothers involved in a discussion of a matter that affected languages. After a moment or two the arguments became a bit too personal to the point that they were no longer asking for permission to speak from the presiding assistant but just rebutting at leisure. Responses went back and forth, and slowly the volume became louder and the choice of words angrier. Everyone in the hall was concerned because these two Brothers were several rows away from each other, and the discussion became heated and louder. It was then that I raised my hand to ask the presiding assistant for permission to speak. The tension in the hall could readily be felt. All were anxious to hear what I had to say.

When the chair had recognized me I said, “My dear Brothers, we will advance our coffee break today and have it right now.” All left for the coffee break. When we resumed the meeting, after a short prayer, I raised my hand again for permission to speak. The tension was evident. “My dear Brothers, I am sorry that I had to intervene and call for an early coffee break; but I had to, for it is important for all of us to follow parliamentary procedure, to ask for the floor, to address the Chapter, and to wait to be recognized before any rebuttal is allowed. We failed to do so and tension dominated. Two people in a meeting like this cannot engage in a heated discussion without having the permission of the presiding officer each time they speak. This was not done. Should it happen again, I will have to give the individual a warning or then expel him from this session. In this case both individuals failed to follow the parliamentary procedure and it is surely not Marist.” One of the culprits raised his hand to be recognized. He said, “I wish to apologize to this assembly and to my confrere, and I wish to commend our Brother Commissioner for the way he handled this situation.” Everyone applauded.

The second example occurred when there was a heated discussion on the topic of the vow of stability. Presently, a Brother with the vow of stability was allowed to indicate his status by adding a fourth knot to his profession cord. There were some Brothers present who felt that we should wear a special medal to indicate that we had the vow. A good number argued in favor of a having a special ring to be worn on the left ring finger that would be a mark of the fourth vow. There was quite a discussion that there should be some kind of way to indicate this special great attachment to the congregation.

The Provincial of England raised his hand and asked for the floor. It was granted and, actor that he was, he began his talk by saying that he agreed that there should be some recognition or way to tell that a Brother had the vow of stability. He would not favor a knot in the cord for that would not be seen and is really not evident enough. He believed sincerely that it would be better to have a simple gold ring to remind us that the vow of stability meant that we would never leave the Institute and that we would be faithful to its traditions forever. Then he added that he himself was fully in favor of a ring, but because of our tradition of humility he would like to insist that the ring be worn not on one’s finger but in the nose as we do for bulls. The Chapter exploded in applause, and no further word was ever mentioned about wearing a ring as evidence of the vow of stability.

It had been a wholesome Chapter. We returned to our Provinces to oversee the application of the decisions of the Chapter and to study thoroughly the results so that the changes could be finalized after one more year of prayer, observation, and study. Our greatest pride and our greatest reward are our own true Marist spirit, to be lived here and now, as well as hereafter! General Chapter 1958

The General Chapter of the Marist Brothers was called to order for the year 1958. Each religious order, like the Church itself, schedules a general meeting periodically to check on the administration of the congregation and at that time to replace those whose term of office has expired. The General Chapters in some ways are like the General Council that the Holy Father calls for at critical times in the Church that demands reexamination to make whatever changes or updating that is needed. The General Chapters of the congregation have been on a regular basis since the time of the Foundation. For many years these General Chapters were called every twelve years. In 1958 the General Chapter had been determined already to last for nine years.

As stated above, this was based on the practice of the Church, which is called upon to elect a new Pope, to replace the deceased one, and to make whatever changes should be made at that time. Besides that, there have been special general congregations in the Church such as the one called for by Pope John XXIII for a renewal in the Church. The last one was called in 1962 where, among other changes, it was requested that the altar should be set so that the celebrant would be facing the congregation and that there should be a special place set aside for the Blessed Sacrament. The Chapter for religious congregations is very much the same–a time to elect new officials and to study the rules and regulations governing the religious order and to make the needed changes in keeping with the charisma of their Founders.

In the case of the Marist Brothers, the practice was to have the General Chapter every twelve years. The General Chapter of 1958 then decided to have Chapters held more frequently to be able to keep up with the times and to make the needed adaptations for the number of Provinces and Districts to make for a more efficient administration of the units of our Marist congregation. The Superior General was named, and then we were to elect the team called General Council, which would help him administer the congregation. Up to the present time there had been a Superior General as head of the congregation with the Vicar General to assist and replace him in any capacity needed. Then the various Provinces of the congregation were grouped, generally by country or area, and a team of seven or eight Assistants General were in charge of administrating the Provinces, Vice Provinces, and missions in their assigned area. These then had the administration of their area, and all requests came to the General Congregation through the Assistants General who really got to know their areas well and presented all their requests to the General Council of the order for implementation.

There were eight such Assistants General covering the various countries and their own missions as well. The Assistants General reported directly to the General and his Council on the work being done in their Province and Vice Province or missions. Besides these eight Assistants General there was also a Secretary General who was the Secretary of the General Council and in charge of the archives of the congregation. There was also a Bursar General who administered the funds of the congregation and made whatever investments were needed. Finally, a special contact person was named to control all the relations of the congregation with the Holy See. This person provided the information needed by the Holy See about the congregation and presented the special requests for dispensation from vows, or any other special request to the Holy See. He was called the Procurator to the Holy See.

As the Assistant General of the Marist Brothers when named at the 1958 Chapter, I was in charge of the Marists of the United States and of the missions in the Philippines and Japan as well as all the Marists in the various countries of Asia. This covered China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. Furthermore, I was on the Mission Commission in charge of our various missions and was called upon mostly to look after the interests of the missions of Asia and Africa. It was quite a vast area to be assigned to but then I was one of the youngest Assistants General. This is what I was called upon to accept on the day at the General Chapter when I was voted in to be the Assistant General of the United States and Asia. This would account for the fear that came over me when the appointment was made at the session of the General Chapter. Our headquarters were at St. Genis Laval in France but this General Chapter was being held in Italy in our Marist house of Grugliasco, which was a kind of international house and had ample room for all the delegates of the Chapter and their meetings.

After appointment by the General Chapter, I naturally felt floored by the size of the burden. I wish to recall here that I had been assigned to share a room with a Brother Luperque, an Irish Brother from the Province of England and Ireland. On the evening of the appointment, I felt completely overwhelmed and I guess it was quite evident, for my roommate tried to explain to me that I was the right man for the job. He said that everything would fall into place, and I would have all the help I needed from the Lord. As a true Marist he told me that this appointment came from the Holy Spirit, and that one should accept what the Lord wants of us, for with the appointment came the grace needed to succeed. He told me that on the next day I should look into the mirror on arising and say, “Lord, I am the Assistant General for America and Asia and their missions. With your help, Lord, I will succeed. Please be with me all the way.”

Then he told me that he was going to get a drink ready to celebrate. He returned with a bottle of Glenlivit Scotch whiskey, which as he said was the best Scotch there was. I told him that I do not mind a drink but hated Scotch. He replied that this was all he had and that it would have to do. We drank and also discussed late into the night, when Brother told me to go to bed and in the morning to look into the mirror and say the prayer. That was it–so be it.

The next day I looked into the mirror, said the prayer, which I meant from the heart, and went straight over to the office of the new Superior General, Bro. Charles Raphael, a Belgian. He listened to me carefully, then held my hands and told me that he felt exactly as I felt. He said that he did not know what was wanted of him, but that we would pray together the same prayer I had just told him. He said that he would leave everything in the hands of the Lord and let Him operate within us. He gave me a true Marist embrace; I asked his blessing and left that office looking forward and confident that I was not alone.

One of my greatest helpers and kindest confreres also appointed at the same time was Bro. Hilary Conroy, Assistant General for Australia, New Zealand, and their missions. He is no doubt the kindest person I have ever met, and the truest and most loyal friend. Already the Lord was beginning to lift the burden.

The General Chapter held at Grugliasco in the Italian Province was also the place where the famous Marist liqueur was being made. It originated in France and was then transferred to the Italian Province that would use it as a means of help for our Marist missions. It was a secret of one of our original French Brothers who had gathered some twenty-plus special herbs culled from mountains and cultivated them. He then distilled, aged, bottled, and sold the liqueur. All the profits from those sales went exclusively to the missions.

The Chapter completed its serious work along with the elections, and after a brief celebration with the Brothers of the communities nearby we headed off to France, which was then the headquarters of the Marist congregation. Brother Leonida, the former General just replaced, came back with us to St. Genis before retiring in the Province of Mexico where he had worked. He had had a firm hand and was very strict on himself, and demanded the same of those he worked with. The man who replaced him, the Belgian Bro. Charles Raphael, had been a linguist in charge of our International Training Center for Missionaries and was the kindest man to have as Superior General.