United in Mission – the General Chapter in Mexico

United in Mission – the General Chapter in Mexico

Fr Gregory Pearson OP reports on the recent General Chapter.

Dominicans from around the world came together for three weeks in July and August in the tiny hamlet of Tultenango, three hours’ drive north-west of Mexico City, for the General Chapter of the Order. Tultenango is the place where the Mexican Province of the Order was reborn after the anti-clerical persecutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – quiet and out of the way, to avoid attracting attention, rather like our own province’s first post-reformation foundation at Hinckley – and it is now the site of a retreat house run by the brothers, set not in a landscape of desert, beach, or jungle which one might associate with Mexico, but amidst lush green hills and with a climate that was more than comfortable for a northern European.

The General Chapter is the highest decision-making body in the Order, and takes place every three years. Its composition is always representative of the Order as a whole, but in complementary ways: either the priors provincial or brothers called ‘diffinitors’, elected specially for the purpose, represent their provinces, with both attending when a new Master is to be elected. This Chapter it was the turn of the diffinitors, and so I found myself representing the English Province as one of the forty-five voting members of the Chapter. I was not, however, the only Englishman there. Although the General Chapter legislates directly only for the friars, its conversations are also informed by the contributions of other branches of the Dominican Family, whose representatives attend and can speak at the sessions of the Chapter. The representatives of the nuns, apostolic sisters, lay Dominicans, and Dominican Youth Movement were all from the host country of Mexico, but the guest from the priestly fraternities was a member of the fraternity in England, Fr Michael Hall of the Diocese of Leeds. Fr Benjamin Earl of our Province, who works in the Order’s headquarters at Santa Sabina in Rome as Procurator General, was also present as the Chapter’s legal adviser. Besides the members of the Chapter assembly, a gathering on this scale is of course also a complex logistical operation; not least of the tasks is that of providing simultaneous translation between the three working languages of the Order – English, French, and Spanish – and this was shared by a team of friars including our own Fr Matthew Jarvis.

The work of the Chapter was divided between plenary sessions of all the participants and a number of smaller commissions which handled particular areas of the Chapter’s work – questions of mission, for example, or studies and teaching, or the Constitutions of the Order, which was the commission to which I was assigned. Though at one level it was bread-and-butter committee work – receiving reports, discussing issues, drafting resolutions, and debating their final form at some length – at another level it was quite a profound experience of the feedback mechanisms which are built into the Order’s structure and help maintain its unity of purpose and healthy functioning. Questions came before the Chapter, either sent in as petitions from particular brothers or entities in the Order or arising in the course of the Chapter’s initial discussions. These were distributed among the commissions and discussed, before the commissions drafted a proposal to put to the plenary. There, the diffinitors from the different provinces were able to comment on the question in the light of the wide range of contexts in which the Order finds itself, and if necessary amendments were made before a definitive text was adopted.

Not every challenge facing the Order can, of course, be addressed by a sentence in the Acts of a General Chapter, and we sought to focus our work on those areas where the decisions of the Chapter might make the greatest difference. Considerable attention was devoted to the question of ensuring a full and authentic formation for those entering the Order, to enable them to flourish in the life and so carry on the Order’s mission; the coordination of the Order’s international undertakings, especially its academic institutions, was also addressed, as were questions of good governance and fidelity to Dominican life at local and provincial levels.

While the whole of the General Chapter’s Acts, the official document which is the fruit of its labours, might be slightly heavy reading for those not directly affected by them, their Foreword (nn. 57–89) expresses very well the interests and concerns of the Chapter, and captures the mood and feel of its conversations, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who would like to get a better sense of what the Tultenango Chapter did.

As well as the formal business of the Chapter, the capitulars, guests, translators, and logistical staff, along with the brothers of the house in Tultenango, formed a temporary community which prayed together, ate together and had times of recreation together like any Dominican community. It has to be said, though, that at no other Dominican recreation have I ever seen a brother running round the cloister carrying a cage of lit fireworks on his back! Performances such as this are apparently the modern substitute for bull-running in Mexico, and thus a feature of local fiestas: it was certainly quite an impressive, if slightly unnerving, display. Firework-running aside, though, the sense of community at the General Chapter was a strong witness to the unity of the Order across such a wide geographical and cultural range, and to the reality of the bond of fraternity which our vows establish.

Praise must go to the brothers of the Mexican Province for the huge amount of work put into hosting the General Chapter, especially amidst so much uncertainty, for much of the period of preparation, about whether and how it could take place in the light of the pandemic. We look forward, now, to the next General Chapter of priors provincial, which will be hosted by the Province of Poland in Krakow in 2025.

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