It is of great importance that nothing be done in the Society simply as an external matter of form. Mere outward appearance has no inner strength and is against truth. Therefore, those who join the Institute must have a true vocation and possess the qualities necessary for the various grades which make up the body of the Society.
The Ascribed member must be a true child of the Church, mindful of his baptismal promises. He must not be ashamed of the Gospel, must lead an exemplary life, attend church regularly, and do works of charity.
The Adopted son must possess an effective desire of following perfection in the Institute as soon as circumstances permit. He must display an evident will to obey the superior of the Society, and show that he is indifferent.
The Coadjutor must embrace whole-heartedly indifference and obedience, dedicating himself to universal charity by means of universal obedience. Temporal Coadjutors will commit themselves to obedience in practical, temporal or academic activities, and must always be held in honour. Spiritual Coadjutors will be called by obedience to various works of spiritual charity.
The Presbyter must be a priest chosen from intern spiritual coadjutors, who combines keen intelligence, extraordinary learning, a certain sublimity of character, and greatness of soul. “Hence, perfected and consummated in all virtues, and rooted and founded in the love of God, the presbyter should not fear to undergo or suffer anything difficult for the name of our Lord JESUS Christ”, in complete obedience to the sovereign Pontiff of the Church. The presbyter will be required to take a fourth vow of special obedience to the Pope, and a fifth vow of not doing ever “anything, for any reason, to relax the ordinances laid down about poverty in the Constitutions”.
Fr. General has full responsibility to admit candidates into the body of the Institute, at the grade suitable for each of them. He will receive regular reports from all immediate superiors, and information about the needs of 1- each house, 2- diocese, and 3- province.
Fr. General has also the faculty of dismissal of any member who is seriously damaging the entire society “by not walking rightly in his vocation”. He will act only after extensive consultation, with great reluctance, when all other means have been pursued in spirit of charity and concern.
The chosen “tiny army of the Lord”
“By the word of the Lord they pitched their tents; and at His command they took them down; by the word of the Lord they marched: and kept the watches of the Lord according to his command by the hand of Moses” (Num. 9,23).
The Fathers of the Church saw the Exodus from the slavery in Egypt through the barren desert to the Promised Land as a figure of the journey of the Church, rescued from the power of the devil by the saving death of JESUS, lead by the sure and mighty hand of God through the arid desert of this human life, to the promised land of Heaven.
Fr. Founder, in a sermon given at Stresa on 28th October 1847 on the occasion of the religious profession of some of his brethren, explains and deepens this theme as he applies it first to the Church, then to religious orders as one body, and finally to the “tiny army of the Lord”, our own Institute.
“Look at the great numbers and marvellous order of the people of God! Six hundred thousand warriors, three million faithful distributed in twelve camps, all living in thousands of tents, yet arranged with wonderful symmetry in an immense desert. They travel, they rest, their soldiers are drawn up, they fight and conquer as one man. What a sight it is! What order! What irresistible power!”
Fr. Founder then compares the many religious orders to a “well-ordered” army within the Church, forming the camps of the Lord, and marching at His commands:
“The Fathers also tell us that the Israelites, chosen by God as his very own people, were more exactly an image of religious life – the many coloured robes, as it were, of the Bride of Christ, one in nature but divided into its various congregations”.
Many holy men and women, inspired by God, applied themselves exclusively to a single work of charity and founded congregations for that very purpose. Fr. Founder mentions Camillus de Lellis (spiritual assistance of the sick and dying), John of God (corporal assistance), Peter Nolasco, Raymond of Penafort, Felix de Valois (redemption of prisoners). He adds, “In fact, almost every religious community has chosen to fulfil some heroic work of charity”.
The Institute of Charity, on the other hand, has no special work of charity: “These saints had special enlightenment from the Lord, enlightenment and stimuli not given to our Institute which cannot therefore predetermine the works of Christian charity to which the Lord may destine it. For the same reason, it cannot exclude any work… The Institute’s special perfection consists in its lack of any special perfection. Its sole desire is that God’s grace renders it excellent and even sublime in the perfection of charity set before all the disciples of the Redeemer”.
Fr. Founder had made the same point on 25th March 1844 in his homily on the occasion of the religious profession of new members:
“If you wish, the Society of Charity differs from other religious orders in one way only. Their holy Founders, taught from on high, were not content with justice as the sole norm. They added, as an essential end of their profession, one or more exterior ministries useful to their neighbour and the Church, such as preaching, education and so on. Our Institute has its essential rule, its only aim, in justice alone. Consequently, whoever professes this Institute obtains all the Institute has set before itself and fulfils his calling simply by practising and reaching out for perfect justice. He is not bound once and for all to any specific good work”.
In the same sermon, Fr. Founder expresses his profound desire that many people throughout the world may be inspired by almighty God to join the Institute in its untiring quest for justice and hence for charity, since “Christ’s charity is simply justice at its most perfect”:
“Indeed, as I think of the end which the Institute of Charity holds out to us, I imagine many holy souls, scattered throughout every part of the Catholic Church and known to God, offering with Christ to the eternal Lord and Father of mankind and angels this beautiful prayer: “Open to me the gates of justice; entering them I will praise the Lord”. Almighty God, listening to their passionate longing, answers in their hearts: “Unite in my name to profess justice; bind yourselves tightly together for this end alone; sacrifice yourselves entirely for this, sacrifice all you have as my Son did for your example; sacrifice even lawful pleasures and decent, earthly goods, and time and health and life itself, and your will. In a word, sacrifice everything without exception”. Brothers, your Institute was born in this way. This is its spirit. Justice is its sole foundation. We can truly say of the Institute: “This is the Lord’s gate: the just shall enter through it”
(For all quotations above, please see Fr. Founder’s “A Society of Love”, translated by D. Cleary, pp.2-42).
The simple aim of all members of the Institute, the sanctification and perfection of our souls, unites all members into one body, without distinction of grades. The ascribed, the brother, or the priest have as their specific vocation the pursuit of “justice”, of holiness: this is the reason we join the Institute of Charity. This aim is also the universal aim of every Christian, and so the members of the Institute are one with the whole body of the Church, by means of Baptism, the sacrament by which we become consecrated to justice and charity. We join together in the Institute to pursue the one common end with the special means recommended by our Lord, the religious counsels, and a lifestyle which is closely modelled on the pattern lived by JESUS Himself.
Grades and universal charity
The distinction of persons and grades is determined simply by the extent of the practical exercise of universal charity. Everyone in the Institute is consecrated to universal charity in the depth of his heart, but the Ascribed will pursue charity within the limits imposed by his way of life, and the presbyter will pursue universal charity by making himself available to every types of charity under universal obedience not only to the Superiors of the Institute but, in a direct way, to the Roman Pontiff. The extent of our calling and dedication to universal charity determines the grades contemplated by Fr. Founder.
It is important, therefore, to keep in mind that grades are not meant to “separate”, but to unite all members of the Institute: by being part of the Institute, the ascribed member, the religious brother, the spiritual coadjutor, the presbyter, who follow God’s will in their life, will be part of and will benefit from the pursuit of universal charity which is proper of the entire Institute. Writing about the religious brothers, Fr. Founder says,
“They should be ready to undertake correctly, joyfully, laboriously and earnestly the technical work entrusted to them… When they do this, they will not only obtain their own complete reward, but will also share in all the good which God deigns to procure through the whole Society for his honour and praise. All members form one Body, and the members share together in the working of the whole body in which they co-operate proportionately” (C293).
There is today a re-discovery of the importance of the religious brother’s special vocation, seen as a reminder to all of the vocation to “consecrated life” for its own sake. Fr. Founder in the Constitutions presents the distinction between “temporal coadjutor” and “spiritual coadjutor”, a distinction based entirely on the special vocation of each to exercise universal charity in a determined, specific manner, through the indication of obedience, which is “the special feature” of coadjutors alone (C423).
All coadjutors, temporal and spiritual, must possess the same qualities: “All coadjutors must follow the devout life common to all Christians, have a real desire for the evangelical counsels, are free from any impediment to professing them, and have finally attained, with the grace of Christ our Lord, great indifference, self-abnegation and obedience. Proved under all these headings, they can be admitted to the roll of coadjutors by the superiors” (C423).
Religious life, by its nature, is “neither clerical nor lay” (Canon Law 588): do we value sufficiently the vocation of our religious brothers? Do we stress sufficiently to postulants, novices, and scholastics that vocation to the Institute is not the same as vocation to the priesthood? Do we have structures that allow the “brothers” in the Institute to feel that they are valued, respected, honoured?
Coadjutors are asked by obedience to exercise charity in a particular and limited work or ministry: in a school, for example, or in a parish. Within their specific field of charity, they must give themselves totally to the pursuit of “justice” by means of the work which obedience has decided for them.
Fr. Founder gives a list of more specific qualities demanded by the grade of “spiritual Coadjutor”: noticeable progress in virtue, especially in contempt of self, obedience, fraternal charity, simplicity, longing for poverty, love of our way of life; good knowledge of theology, philosophy, of the Fathers; proven experience of teaching, preaching, administration of the Sacraments; zeal for the salvation of souls, for prayer, and the contemplative life (C432 E1).
All Coadjutors must strive to lead a life of humility and simplicity, and therefore, after profession of perpetual vows, they take a further vow, “by which they renounce all ambition and promise not to seek, accept or refuse any honour or dignity, whether within the Institute or outside it, except in obedience to their own superiors” (C452; RL 63).
Presbyters, on the other hand, have the exercise of universal charity as their specific work or ministry. Their role in the Institute is quite unique, serving as links of charity among all the brethren of the Institute, and links of charity of all members of the Institute to the universal Church.
Many presbyters have often spoken of their embarrassment at reading what Fr. Founder writes about them in the Constitutions. Indeed, the ideal figure of the presbyter as outlined by Fr. Founder is simply beyond the reach of most:
“They should be men who combine keen intelligence, extraordinary learning and a certain sublimity of character with special piety and affection for the Society. The burden of government of the Society and of other works of more universal charity must devolve principally upon these men. Consequently, it is necessary that they should excel the others in greater purity of life and more ardent love of God and their neighbour. In addition, they should be endowed with perceptiveness and liveliness of mind, and greatness of soul. They should also be imbued with sound doctrine and adorned with sufficient erudition to enable them in such an office to serve God suitably… They also promise to embrace wholeheartedly at a sign from the sovereign Pontiff any labour whatsoever that may be necessary and useful for the Church, even at the cost of their own life. Hence, perfected and consummated in all virtues, and rooted and founded in the love of God, they should not fear to undergo or suffer anything difficult or hard for the name of our Lord. The more they are also enriched with natural gifts, especially with vast and profound intelligence and a heart lifted and raised up to all great things, and the humbler they are at the same time, and greater lovers and followers of the cross of our Lord, the more they will be judged suitable for such work” (C429).
In his book, The Republic, Plato also provides a description of the “philosopher” which is a combination of a saint and of a most highly gifted person under all aspects, physical, intellectual, moral. Plato agrees that such person would be nearly impossible to find. Many have seen in the description an image of Plato himself – though written without the intention of doing so.
We may also read the passage above about the “presbyter” as a description of Fr. Founder himself: he certainly fulfilled the criteria that make for a good presbyter. We all know that Fr. Founder considered as his most profound identity his being a priest: “Antonio Rosmini priest” was his usual signature. We may also think of other great “Rosminians” who have reflected in their lives the ideals presented by the figure of the “presbyter” in the Constitutions.
We must keep in mind that Fr. Founder is presenting in this Section of the Constitutions the “ideal Institute of Charity”, his vision of what the Institute would be like if every member should pursue holiness, responding with wholehearted commitment and great generosity to the gifts of the Spirit and the grace of our Lord. The ideal must have a sublime quality about it to draw the will of people to embrace it; it is like the Lord’s request, “Be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect”. The important point is that we have a burning desire and a steady will to strive towards the ideal with all our strength.
The “presbyter” is also Fr. Founder’s view of the perfect priest. The grade of presbyter is the highest grade a priest of the Institute can obtain; it is the fullness of the process of formation of priests within the Institute. In the Five Wounds Fr. Founder gives us a fuller description of what he understood a complete formation of priests should entail, and one could profitably read what he says about the matter when he deals with the second wound of the Church, “The insufficient education of the clergy”.
The Rule of Life presents succinctly the role of the presbyter:
“After full consultation, Fr. General may choose from among the Coadjutors certain priests of proven charity, obedience and prudence, so that they may take a vow of special obedience to the sovereign Pontiff. By this vow they become presbyters of the Institute… This vow signifies and expresses the union of the Institute and the Church; it shows and expresses the end and the special nature of the Institute, which is dedicated to universal charity and lives solely for the Church” (RL65)
For Fr. Founder, the presbyters in the Institute of Charity form the “foundation of the Society”, and would be those who,
“On the one hand bind the members closely together among themselves, and on the other bind and subordinate the Society to holy Church. The presbyters bind the members among themselves because they alone can occupy the central offices in the Society, that is those to which all others are ordered. In this way, all the members of the Society would be bound by their vow of obedience to the presbyters from the moment they are appointed to those offices. The presbyters would also bind and order the Society to the Church. As they receive the obedience of the whole Society when they undertake offices within it, so they themselves offer obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff when they become presbyters, make their vow, and place themselves entirely at his disposition” (Description of the Institute of Charity in its social organisation, written by Fr. Founder but left unedited – see A. Valle, pp. 60-62).
Fr. Founder makes often the point that the structure of the Church is of divine origin and is therefore the most perfect structure. The Pope and the Bishops form a Collegium that continues the initial Collegium of JESUS and the Apostles and, after the Ascension, of Peter and the Apostles. Governed by the Collegium we have, thereafter, a great variety of other grades that encompass the whole people of God.
It was Fr. Founder’s wish that the structure of the Institute should reflect closely the perfect model of the Church as established by the Son of God. Hence, we have Fr. General and the presbyters governing the Institute, and then the vast array of grades – intern/external coadjutors, temporal and spiritual coadjutors, professed scholastics, adopted sons, ascribed. But the Institute itself is the “servant of the Church”: Fr. Founder does not want a body caught up in itself or divided from the Church, but one in full communion with her and committed to advancing her unity.
It is clear that for Fr. Founder the terms “coadjutor” and “presbyter” have a substantial meaning as well as the terms “ascribed” and “adopted son”: what problems have Formators encountered in presenting these essential features of Rosminian identity to the candidates in their care? What arguments could they give against the tendency to “simplify things” by adopting structures and terms common to most modern religious congregations?
Finally, it is worth noting Fr. Founder’s insistence that Fr. General must always keep in mind “three principal things” when he decides grades or ministries for the brethren. As usual, they are presented in order of importance:
Stressing again the “personal” interest and quality of the Institute, that is, “persons come first in the Institute” Fr. Founder adds significantly,
“Fr. General must give preference to the place where there is more need of members for the interior progress of the brethren and the observance of the rule, and for fulfilling obligations and exercising adequately ministries of charity already undertaken” (C434)
Is there a danger that works of charity may take priority over the “interior progress of the Brethren”? Should the Institute take more and more works of charity at the expense of Houses dedicated to community life, observance of the rule, and contemplation? How to strike the right balance?