Established by the General Chapter
The Swiss Benedictine Congregation, in the first decades after its founding in 1602, had no legal code. Everything was done according to general and special ecclesiastical law or according to established custom. From the very beginning, however, the abbots in formal assembly issued numerous decrees, disciplinary and later also ritual, with the explicit purpose of achieving both reform and uniformity throughout the Swiss Congregation. Eventually, the abbots saw a need to have these decrees codified and to have some congregational norms of observance established. The Dean of St. Gall produced a text in which each chapter heading of St. Benedict's Rule for Monasteries was followed not only by those congregational decrees which were pertinent to the chapter but also by statements of customs in the more observant houses which seemed to be worth making norms for all houses. This text, entitled Notae et observationes in Regulam Ss. P. N. Benedicti, was formally accepted by an assembly of both the abbots and, extraordinarily, their deans or priors on the 7th of September 1636. New decrees were issued, and supplementary collections of them appeared in 1655 and 1702.
In the middle of the eighteenth century there appeared the two documents which, with occasional minor revision, still constituted the proper law of the Swiss Congregation when the first American monasteries were founded: a new edition of the Notae et observationes, confirmed by the abbots in 1748, and the Constitutiones et Statuta, confirmed in 1757. The copious Notae et observationes were arranged according to the form of the first edition. The Constitutiones et Statuta consisted of a first part, De forma et ordinatione Congregationis Helveto-Benedictinae in communi, with sections on the general assemblies (our general chapters), on visitations, and on the relations rising from the union of the monasteries, and a second part, De gubernatione monasteriorum in particulari, consisting of nineteen long sections, each addressed to one of the officials, major or minor, of every monastery, with the intention of ensuring uniformity of principles and procedures throughout the congregation.
The detachment of the Swiss monasteries in America from the Swiss Congregation in 1881 made it necessary for the newly erected Swiss-American Congregation to produce its own proper law. The result, the Constitutiones et Sacrae Regulae Declarationes, was published in 1894 and, with some revisions, in 1897, each time with approval of Pope Leo XIII for three years, then in 1901 with definitive approval. The document took the basic form of the Swiss Notae et Observationes, in the sense that all the ordinances and regulations of observance were given as appendages to particular chapters of St. Benedict's Rule. This was an arrangement proper for declarations on the Rule but not for the constitutional statements of the congregation's origins and purpose or for the constitutional ordinances regulating its regimen, its general chapters, its visitations, and the relations of the houses to one another, which the Swiss abbots had separated from their Notae et observationes and placed in the first part of their Constitutiones et Statuta of 1757. In presenting both types of material in the form of declarations on the Rule, the early Swiss-American legislators had as their model the Beuronese Congregation's Regula S. P. Benedicti cum Constitutionibus Congregationis Beuronensis of 1884. Although many of the Swiss-American provisions were based on the practice of the Swiss monasteries, their succinct formulation was new, very little attempt having been made to use the lengthy Swiss documents as textual sources. The early Swiss-American code did, however, incorporate several paragraphs of the Beuronese Constitutions, with little or no change.
In the Declarationes in Sacram Regulam et Constitutiones Congregationis Helveto-Americanae of 1925, the properly constitutional material was separated from the Declarations, and the work of two general chapters bringing both parts into conformity with the Codex Iuris Canonici of 1917 was incorporated into the text, approved and confirmed by Pope Pius XI on the 9th of September 1924. Subsequent modifications were evident in the new edition of 1950.
After the Second Vatican Council, all religious institutes were expected to produce new constitutions and to observe them provisionally, until the new Codex Iuris Canonici would be completed and constitutions could be adjusted to it. The Swiss-American Congregation, in its general chapter of 1969, produced a text which was innovative in many ways, not only in its provisions but also in its form. The ordering of articles as declarations on individual parts of the Rule was abandoned. The idea of reckoning three documents: St. Benedict's Rule, a new Declaration of ideals but not of specific points of observance, and a Constitution in the proper sense of the word, as the component parts of a congregational Covenant of Peace was adopted. Specific regulation of matters of monastic observance was left largely to the customary which each monastery was to draw up for itself; the uniformity of discipline which, in the Swiss tradition, had been a primary end of congregational legislation was thus replaced by the principle that individual houses should determine their own practices and their own standard of observance, within limits set by the Church or by the congregation. The provisional state of the new Constitution made it possible for the general chapters of 1972, 1975, and 1978 to introduce changes based on fresh experience.
The appearance of the new Codex Iuris Canonici, to have the force of law from the first day of Advent, 1983, made possible the new Constitution's co-ordination with it. The general chapters of 1984 and 1987 did this, revising still other details as they did so. Just as the congregation's legislation had left many things to be determined by the individual monasteries, so the new Code left many things to be determined by each religious institute. For our congregation, they were determined by those two general chapters, with attention to our customs, to our previous legislation, and to prudence. The new Code also made it necessary for the general chapter to determine which articles should remain articles of constitution, as fundamental norms which cannot be changed without approval of the Apostolic See, and which articles should become what in our congregation are now called statutes, which the general chapter may revise by its own authority as conditions change and new experience is had. This was done by the general chapter of 1987.
The final text of The Constitution and the Statutes of the Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation was approved and confirmed by Pope John Paul II on the 8th of December 1988. Rapidly made copies of it were immediately distributed. Having ascertained the wishes of the general chapter of 1990, I now direct that it be printed in a form appropriate to its importance.
+ Patrick Regan, O.S.B.
President of the Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation
Saint Joseph Abbey
The eighth day of December 1990
C An article of the Constitution of the Congregation
CIC The Codex Iuris Canonici of 1983
GC Acts of the General Chapter of the Congregation
LP The Lex propria Confoederationis Benedictinae of 1985
PC The Second Vatican Council's Decree Perfectae caritatis
S An article of the Statutes of the Congregation
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Rev. 08 Apr 2009 | www.osb.org/swissam/const/preface.html