understand in depth his personality and life, he can find in the disposition of
the Rule the exact image of all the actions of the master, because this saintly
man is incapable of teaching other than he lived.” (Saint Gregory)
Today is the 31st anniversary of the foundation of Fraternity of Communion and Liberation. The narrative of the Fraternity’s founding is told in “The Greatest Grace in the History of the Movement” by Giorgio Feliciani (Traces, February 2007). Here’s the story.
A priest in the direct service of the Holy See, Monsignor Mariano De Nicolò, currently Bishop of Rimini [he retired 3 July 2007], happened to review, as part of his official duties, a file that illustrated and documented the Movement’s desiderata. Feeling that these aspirations deserved attention and further study, he suggested to Father Francesco Ricci, who at the time was sharing responsibility for the Movement with Father Giussani [for more about this priest, who died in 1991, see Francesco Ricci. Una passione, cento passioni,
San Martino in Strada, Lit. Citienne, 1996], that he consult with Monsignor Giuseppe Lobina, an expert in Canon Law who, along with a solid formal training, had an unusual amount of experience with ecclesiastical praxis.
This advice was promptly taken and, only a few months later, Monsignor Lobina, after acquiring all the necessary information in various meetings with CL figures and Father Giussani himself, was drawing up what would soon be the Statute of the Fraternity, which has remained largely unchanged up to now.
Monsignor Lobina also undertook to find the ecclesiastical authority willing to approve the Movement, and found him in Abbot Martino Matronola, who, as provost [abbot] of the monastery of Montecassino, had the same powers over the surrounding territory as the bishop of a diocese. This acceptance was even more welcome because Father Giussani felt that the concept of his Movement was very close to that of the Benedictines (see Giussani, op.cit., pp. 74-75).
The formal establishment of the Fraternity came shortly thereafter in a very discreet, unassuming way. On July 11, 1980-the solemnity of Saint Benedict, Patron of Europe, on the fifteenth centenary of his birth-a small group of twelve stood together with Father Giussani in front of the Abbot to be constituted as a canonical association. On that same day, Monsignor Matronola,* by a specific formal decree, granted juridical status in the Church to the ecclesial movement called “Fraternity of Communion and Liberation” and approved its statutes and “works of apostolate and individual and social formation,” placing it under the “protection of the Immaculate Virgin and our Patron Saint Benedict” (see the Bollettino Diocesano di Montecassino, no. 3, 1980, pp. 223-224).
Thus, the Fraternity was born as a reality in the Church, recognized to all effects by the ecclesiastical authority and by virtue of this formal empowerment to act, in communion with its respective bishops, not only in Montecassino but also in the other dioceses. Indeed, in the same decree, the Abbot expressed his “fervent wish that wherever the Association exercises its apostolic activity, it may be benevolently welcomed, aided, and encouraged by their Excellencies the Ordinaries.”…
Despite the lack of any kind of organized promotion, adherence to the Fraternity was growing rapidly, to the point that within a year the number of members went from the original 12 to almost 2,000. …
The Abbot of Montecassino was certainly aware that his decree would provoke harsh criticism from those bishops who did not view CL with a favorable eye. One of the leading figures in the Italian Bishops Conference went so far as to state that the decree had been illegally extorted from him. And, realistically, an attentive Canon lawyer noted, “The Abbot of Montecassino was brave (some would say bold) to approve an association that is not diocesan, but evidently multi-diocesan.” In this situation, the recognition generously and courageously granted by the Abbot of Montecassino was no longer sufficient to give the association a juridical form that corresponded with its actual reality. By now, the approval of a higher authority was needed, which could only be the Holy See, and more specifically the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the dicastery set up by Pope Paul VI to handle matters concerning the participation of the laity in the life and mission of the Church.
Consequently, as early as April 7, 1981, less than a year after the decree issued by the Abbot of Montecassino, Father Giussani, with the continued encouragement and advice of Monsignor Lobina, sent the President of the Council, at that time Cardinal Opilio Rossi, a formal application for pontifical recognition of the Fraternity. …
In the end, the Holy Father, John Paul II himself, intervened: after being fully informed about the question, he encouraged the Pontifical Council to proceed to grant the desired approval without further delay (according to the Decree of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, p. 235).
Thus, we come to the Decree, issued on February 11, 1982, the liturgical feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which “establishes and confirms as a juridical entity for the universal Church” the Fraternity, “declaring it to all effects an Association of Pontifical Right and decreeing that it be recognized as such by all.”
As is known, February 11, 1982, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, is recognized as the establishment of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation. It is this date that CL prays the Mass for the good of the Fraternity. Historically, as noted above, the Archabbot of Monte Cassino, on Saint Benedict’s 1500th birthday, recognized the CL as an ecclesial movement, an act that caused much criticism for being perceived as taking authority not his own. Two years later Pope John Paul II addressed the criticism, and on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes had the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation recognized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity under the leadership of Opilio Cardinal Rossi. Hence, Our Lady of Lourdes and Saint Benedict are patrons of the Fraternity Communion and Liberation.
One of my favorite parts of the Saint Benedict’s hagiography (iconography) is the narrative of the “man of God” (Benedict) and the raven. It is related by Saint Gregory the Great (+603) that in the wilderness Benedict fed a raven with some a portion of his bread. When a jealous and wicked priest tried to kill Benedict with poisoned bread, Benedict coached the raven to take the deadly bread to place where it couldn’t harm another. The raven complied.
In his Dialogues Gregory writes, “Then the raven, opening its beak wide and spreading its wings, began to run around the bread, cawing, as if to indicate that it wanted to obey but was unable to carry out the order. Again and again the man of God told him to do it, saying, ‘Pick it up, pick it up. Do not be afraid. Just drop it where it cannot be found.’ After hesitating a long time, the raven took the bread in its beak, picked it up and flew away. Three hours later it came back, after having thrown the bread away, and received its usual ration from the hands of the man of God.”
Today the Church –though localized to the Cistercian Order– celebrates the liturgical memorial of Saint Stephen Harding, one of the 3 founders of the Cistercian reform of Benedictine monastic life. Most of the faithful would not know of Saint Stephen unless they had contact with the Cistercians or remember their church history class.
Several things distinguish Saint Stephen Harding: he was English, he was the third abbot of Cîteaux, he was a man of great pragmatism, he was the author of the Charter of Charity (the foundational document of the Cistercian life), and was responsible for the liturgical formulations for this way of life, cleaning up the corruptions inserted into the Divine Office over the years.
On Saint Stephen’s deathbed he said, I assure you that I go to God in fear and trembling. If my baseness should be found to have ever done any good, even in this I fear, lest I should not have preserved that grace with the humility and care I ought.
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A reading from a sermon by St. Aelred