Councils, Chapters and E-Participation

COVID-19 has changed our day-to-day life in remarkable ways. It is also changed our self-understanding as religious communities, as a Church, as a society, and as a world community. Even with a vaccine, it may be unlikely that we will ever return to the pre-2020-normal. One change in religious life has been virtual meetings. Many agree that this has been a mixed blessing. Virtual meetings have allowed us much richer interpersonal contact than we might have had without it. Many report that meetings are shorter and more efficient, but less satisfying; we still long for the day when we can gather in-person. While we await that day, we learn new tech skills that we never thought we would master, skills that still seem foreign at times. 
This reminds me of the story of a frog that fell into a deep rut in the road and, try as he might, he could not get out.  Friends peered down from the rim of the rut, comforting, cajoling, and confronting the frog, "come on, let's go!" But their efforts were to no avail, the frog simply could not get out of the rut. Then one day, the friends saw a frog hopping cheerily along the road, it was the frog from the rut. They couldn't believe it, "what happened?" they called out to the frog. "A big truck came along, and I had to get out," came the reply. 
COVID 19 was the truck that finally forced us out of our technological rut and enabled us to function amid today's lockdowns and quarantines. Increasingly, we use video-conferences for Councils and Chapters which are a cornerstone of governance in religious institutes. They afford us the possibility for collaborative governance and broader input on the most important aspects of the life of the community. Yet we also struggle to provide our meetings with the richness that physical presence carries.
In July 2020, Rome's CICLSAL issued a letter to congregational leaders that set forth some guidelines for navigating these waters, as we seek to design meetings and gatherings that enable us to continue to live our mission amid today's challenges.
Councils - The letter first addressed council meetings. Council meetings may have as few as three people or may have eight or even more present. They also occur with some regularity, on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis, depending on the practice of a particular group. CICLSAL states that ordinarily, these meetings require physical presence, but for the time of the pandemic, major superiors may request and receive permission to meet via telecommunication. Some criteria for these meetings are that 1) confidentiality is maintained, 2) all the members and only the members of the council are able to be present and their identity is certain, and 3) real-time discussion and intervention by each person are assured. The major superior and of all the councilors have the responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to the proper equipment and training so that they can participate fully in meetings. Minutes of these meetings are retained along with regular council minutes. 
Corporations - These same principles should be observed for meetings of civil corporations of the religious community. Directors should consult state law as well as the governing documents of the corporation to verify whether or not virtual meetings are permitted, when they are permitted and how they must be carried out. A common requirement in civil law is that every person has the capacity to hear and be heard during the deliberations. Corporations can also act by unanimous written consent or some other form of written communication. Often this is done after a more informal exchange. As with a council, documentation of decisions is critical and is to be retained with regular corporate minutes. 
Chapters - The letter from CICLSAL also discussed chapters, discussing at length the requirement that the chapter body must truly represent the entire congregation or province, and that each member of the chapter is physically present throughout the chapter. It argues that chapters have a long-standing tradition and witness of collegiality and synodality within the community of faith. It is a true gift of religious life to the Church at large, one which cannot be dispensed. In an earlier communication, CICLSAL permitted congregations to delay their chapters until it is safe to gather in person. Some congregations have found ways to move forward within these constraints, in a more limited capacity, permitted by their specific circumstances. However, as the pandemic continues unabated in many areas, leadership terms are being stretched out indefinitely, and important decisions remain on hold. Petitions to the bishop or to CICLSAL may be necessary as community needs become more pressing.
Register for February's webcast which will explore issues related to governance and e-participation. Register here.

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Online Forum of Law for Religious Leadership
In response to the pandemic, many regional and national conferences and workshops have been postponed or canceled. We are providing an alternative that may fill a need for those seeking to enhance their understanding of canon law and civil law as they impact leadership in religious institutes. To this end, I have developed a list of recorded webcast series and bundles of recorded webcasts that can be used by individuals and teams. You can find more information here. 

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Ministerial Public Juridic Persons
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis Province are pleased to announce their establishment of St Joseph Educational Ministries as a pontifical Ministerial Public Juridic Person that will sponsor their five educational institutions. For more information, click here.
In addition Sr. Amy will be speaking at an online canon law conference offered by KU Leuven in Belgium, February 26, 2021. The conference theme is Contemporary Issues in the Law of Consecrated Life. Sr. Amy's sessions are entitled Entrusting Educational Institutions to a Ministerial Public Juridic Person, including a case study. FlyerFree registration.

Be safe! and let's hold one another in prayer.
Amy Hereford

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