- The following of Christ, as it is set before us in the gospel, must be the ideal for which canons regular strive day by day. They must return, constantly and with enthusiasm, to this primary source of all religious life, putting into practice what they read and meditate in the gospel. The spirituality of the Order also has much to teach about this following if Christ.
- Then, they must look to the example of the early Church in Jerusalem. It was this ideal, described in the Acts of the Apostles, which inspired Saint Augustine and the reformers of the Canonical Order in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. “Now the company of those who be1ieved were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:32-33). This is the “perfect common life” also called the “apostolic life.”
- They must also take into account other, secondary, sources such as the history of their Order, and the Rules, Constitutions and Directories. The most important of these is the Ru1e of Saint Augustine, which the Order adopted at the time of its greatest expansion.
- The “Canonical Life”, as the form of religious 1ife proper to the Order is called, evolved from the 1ife of the Church itse1f. After the era of persecution, when the Church began to live in peace, there arose a desire to organize the religious life, not only among the monks who were essentially laymen but also among the clergy, to make their pastoral work more effective. According to Saint Ambrose, it was Saint Eusebius, bishop of Vercelli (c.283-371), who was the first in the West to unite monastic observance with the clerical state (Letters 63, 66, 71).
- But it was Saint Augustine (354-430) who was outstandingly successful in combining the two. When he became Bishop of Hippo, he decided “to have with him in the bishop’s house a monastery of clergy” (Sermon 355, 2). He required of them the comp1ete renunciation of persona1 property, an exemplary 1ife, humble obedience, and above all charity “that lovely and wholesome bond of souls” (Sermon 350, 3).
- In the Middle Ages these communities of clergy living the common life were more definitely organized. Their chief task was the choral Divine Office in principal churches, combined with some form of religious life. They were known traditionally as “canons”, a term whose origin was explained thus by Saint Egbert of York (d. 766): We call “canons” the rules given by the holy fathers which describe how canons or regular clergy must 1ive (Excerptiones, Praefatio). Saint Chrodegang (c. 712-766), a Bishop of Metz, gave his cathedral canons a rule which had great influence on the Order. This was followed by the “Rule for Canons” of Aachen, promulgated in 816, which came to be widely used.
- In the eleventh century the Canonical Order was reformed and renewed, chiefly owing to the efforts of Hildebrand (c.1020-1085), later Pope Gregory VII, culminating in the Lateran Synod of 1059. Here for the first time the Apostolic See officially recognized and approved the life of the religious clergy, which had been founded originally by bishops and others. From that time the Order of Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, as it was already beginning to be called, increased rapidly.
It reformed many cathedral and collegiate chapters, and founded a large number of new ones called variously abbeys, priories, monasteries or canonries, to which parishes were usually attached. In some houses the Canonical Life was combined with hospitality to travelers, nursing the sick and other charitable works. Often a number of houses were grouped together in a Congregation. One of the most famous houses was the Abbey of Saint Victor, founded in Paris in 1108, celebrated for its liturgy, pastoral work and spirituality. Also worth mention are the Abbey of Saint Maurice of Agaune, the Hospice of Saint Bernard of Mont Joux in Switzerland, and the Austrian Abbeys; all of which, from the Middle Ages to our own day have devoted themselves to the Divine Office, pastoral work, hospitality and scholarship.
- Later, Congregations properly so called, governed by a Superior General, were established within the Order. Among these Congregations, which gave new life to the Order, were the Windesheim Congregation, whose spirituality (known as the “devotio moderna”) had a wide influence, and the Congregation of Saint George in Alga, whose Superior General, Saint Lawrence Justinian (1381-1455), later Patriarch of Venice, taught a similar doctrine of the spiritual life.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Lateran Congregation added to the Order’s luster by its spirituality and scholarship. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the French Congregation of Saint Genevieve and later the Congregation of Our Savior founded by Saint Peter Fourier (1566-1640), responded to new needs by combining the religious life with pastoral work. Finally, in the nineteenth century Adrien Grea (1828-1917), founder of the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, in his writing put in its proper perspective the ecclesial dimension of the Canonical Life.
- Already in the Middle Ages canons regular were engaged in missionary work. Saint Vicelin (c.1090-1154) took the gospel to the pagan Slavs of Lower Germany; his disciple Meinhard (d.1196) evangelized the people of eastern Livonia. In the sixteenth century the Portuguese Congregation of Saint John the Baptist took the good news of salvation to the Congo, Ethiopia and India. From the nineteenth century onwards the Order has definitely undertaken the work of evangelization.
- The work of teaching the young in schools, which had already been undertaken in earlier times (for example, in the Abbey of Saint Victor), was also intensified during this century.
- Already many houses and Congregations had organized themselves into various groups and fraternities for mutual support. In 1959, nine hundred years exactly since the Lateran Synod, a Confederation of Canons Regular of Saint Augustine was established, by authority of Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) in the Apostolic Letter “Caritatis Unitas”. The Congregations which then belonged to the Order, while preserving their autonomy, entered a “covenant of charity”. In the words of the Apostolic Letter, by this covenant they bound themselves “to be more closely united in charity, strengthen the whole Order, and help each other especially in the fields of spirituality, formation of candidates, and scholarship.”
- At the present time, Canons Regular are working to renew their life and adapt it to the needs of today, especially where the sacred ministry is concerned, following the decrees of the Second Vatican Council.
- Nevertheless the Rule of Saint Augustine and his other works (especially Sermons 355 and 356 on the common life) are a constant source of spiritual renewal for canons regular. The Rule, even though a few of its provisions refer rather to the customs of another age, remains the permanent and unchangeable norm of Canonical Life. And so canons regular should constantly “look into this little book as though into a mirror.”
- The Rule is given more definite application by Constitutions, approved by the Church’s highest authority, which contain regulations adapted to the needs of the time, always with due regard for the special character and work of the Order.
I. The Nature Of The Canonical Order
- In the light of the Order’s history, which shows clearly the characteristic features of the Canonical life, and taking into account the pressing needs of the Church at different times, the nature of the canon regular may be described thus: Canons Regular are essentially clerics, who share the priesthood of Christ, the Savior of the world, and who practice their priesthood in the context of the religious common life sharing their life in community so that they may serve the people of God, “for the building up of the Body of Christ” (Eph 4: 12), which is the Church. While fulfilling their priesthood in community life and serving the faithful, they resolve to follow in the footsteps of Christ by observing the evangelical counsels. It is by faithfully putting all this into practice that they respond to their vocation from God to be holy (cfr 1 Thess 4:3; Eph 1:4).
II. The Apostolic Way Of Life Or Common Life
- The common life is one of the principal characteristics of the Order, and it expresses in a special way the mystery of the Church, whose unity it should both reflect and demonstrate. It gives canonical families strength and support to carry out their ministry and so attain perfect charity; and it gives personal fulfillment and security to each member of the community.
- This common life was valued so highly by Saint Augustine that he taught his disciples to do everything in common. And so canons regular put their common life to the service of God and his people, especially by working together for the good of the Church in the liturgical and pastoral ministry.
- The mainstay of the common life must be charity, which should permeate each canon and each community. Charity should lead to a sincere love for one’s own community and Congregation. And the Congregations themselves must be bound together by charity, since they have entered into a “covenant of charity” in the Confederation.
III. The Ministry
- Since Canons Regular, by the very nature of their Order, are dedicated to the service of the Church, they must spend their lives for the good of the Church at all its levels: the local Church to which they are appointed, their Diocese, and the universal Church.
- The example of the community of clergy at Hippo, and of many others, shows that the Order’s “original inspiration” makes it ideally suited to serve the local Church. Therefore canons regular should be particularly concerned for the spiritual welfare of the local Church.
- As they exercise their ministry within the confines of a Diocese, they must reverence their bishop with sincere charity and faithfully obey his orders.
- As members of the Confederation, which goes beyond national boundaries, they should take pains to know, and as far as possible meet the needs of the universal Church, sharing the solicitude of the College of Bishops for the salvation of the whole world.
- The ministry of canons regular is above all a priestly one. This is why, as Saint Thomas Aquinas states, “Their Order is ordered directly to the sacred mysteries” (II-II q.189.1.8 and 2). They take great care, therefore, over the celebration of the liturgy, “the summit to which all the activity of the Church is directed, and the source from which all her power flows” (SC10).
Thus canons regular have a special right, in virtue of their office, to nourish God’s people with his Word, to pray and offer the Eucharistic sacrifice on their behalf.
- “Christ continues his priestly work through his Church. The Church, not only by celebrating the Eucharist, but also by other means, especially the Divine Office, is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world” (SC 83). Canons regular, therefore, must have a special reverence for this Prayer of the Church, and take special pains over its celebration, remembering that “while they are praises of God, they are standing before the throne of God in the name of their mother, the Church” (SC 85).
At the same time they must do all in their power to ensure that the people of God take an active share with them Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Prayer of the Church.
- “It is part of a shepherd’s duty to uncover hidden sources of water and give his thirsty sheep fresh, untainted water to drink” (Sermon 128,5). Since this pastoral office takes many different forms in the Church, the various families of the Canonical Order can undertake different kinds of pastoral work, such as the solemn celebration of the sacred liturgy; work in parishes and with other groups; missionary work; education of youth; charitable works; and Christian and secular scholarship.
- The canonical families serve the Church in their pastoral ministry primarily as c1erica1 communities. For this reason they undertake work which is suitable for such communities, in the conviction that the cooperation of each member of the community makes their work more fruitful.
- To achieve this, those duties which meet the needs of the community itself are also necessary. Those who perform such tasks, even though they are not priests, such as brothers, are helping the community to do its work. In this way they are rendering a genuine service and exercising a share in the apostolate of the whole community.
- And so, Canons Regular, provided they are open to the spirit of Christ, make progress towards perfection in the Canonical life, both by their daily activities and by their whole ministry (PO 12).
IV. The Evangelical Counsels
- The Canonical 1ife is put into practice by observing the evangelical counsels of Chastity dedicated to God, Poverty and Obedience, based on the teaching and example of the Lord. By the profession of these counsels canons regular resolve to accept and reproduce in their lives, in a fuller, clearer and as it were prophetic way, the pattern of Christ’s life, which is already present in every Christian by his baptism.
- By Chastity dedicated to God, willingly and freely accepted, “for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven”, Canons Regular are united intimately with the Lord, and serve God and his people with undivided heart.
- It is chastity in fact which makes it possible for communities to exist, and the community ought to help its members to keep this counsel in a religious spirit. “Let all, and especially superiors, remember that chastity is preserved more securely when the members live a common life in true brotherly charity” (PC 12).
- In the Canonical Order poverty is understood as common 1ife without personal property, in the sense that each member of the community hands over his talents, his capabilities and his belongings to the community, and receives in return what he needs. Unburdened in this way from preoccupation with temporal affairs, Canons Regular can more freely and effectively turn their attention to God and their ministry.
Saint Augustine demanded of his clergy that they live from a common fund without personal property so that “they might together possess a more than ample property God Himself” (Sermon 355, 2), and that “each might be given what he needed” (Rule 1).
- Each Canon should practice poverty with simplicity and moderation, conscious of the personal obligation by which he is bound in this matter.
- The work which Canons Regular do is itself a sign and a guarantee of poverty. Inspired by this spirit of poverty, they must work for the sake of the common good.
- In the same spirit, communities should meet the needs of the Church and of the people
- The whole community, both superiors and members, should strive to seek and do the will of God in obedience. Everyone, whatever his position in the community, is bound by the same obligation of obedience.
- Superiors should use their authority for the good of their brothers, “happy to give them loving service” (Rule), encouraging their progress, promoting fraternal cooperation, and being the first to seek and foster a spirit of unity.
- All members of the community should remember that they are bound by fraternal charity, and obliged in conscience, to cooperate with the one who is at their head; and that the prosperity or otherwise of the community is at least partly their responsibility.
- Cooperation can be achieved in various ways, by discussion, and especially at Chapter meetings. The Chapter meeting, as the focal point of fraternal cooperation for the common good, has a special place in the life of canons regular.
- It is for the superior, after careful consideration, to decide and order what is to be done (PC 14); and the members of the community must defer to him in a spirit of faith. In this way, by their obedience, they will be serving the community in the best possible way, while supporting their superior by their charity.
- Besides keeping these three essentials, to make their religious life complete, Canons Regular must seek nourishment for the soul in the Scriptures and study the spiritual traditions of their Order.
- And so, by living the community life, carrying out their ministry, and following the evangelical counsels, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Canons Regular fulfill their vocation, and finally reach the heavenly Jerusalem, “for which they long without ceasing during their earthly pilgrimage” (S.Aug. City of God 18,51,2; Conf. 9,13).