Reflections on the Ascribed Members of the Institute

Hopes for the Future

 

 

Introduction

I was greatly heartened to read the decisions regarding the Ascribed in the General Congregation document "Facing into the 3rd Millennium Together".

After years of neglect and, in some cases, indifference and ignorance we are at last "getting our act together" and coming to realise the importance of the lay members of our Society. Let me hasten to add that this is a general criticism. I am only too aware that the Ascribed have been valued in certain parts of the Order. But on the whole they have not been appreciated sufficiently nor have they been encouraged to feel at home and part of the Order they joined. Fr General, in his address to the General Congregation expressed this very clearly. "Whatever the reasons for our avoiding the development of, and sharing with, Ascribed Members, it is true to say that they have not fully entered into the blood stream of Institute consciousness. …Rosmini considered them an integral part of the Institute/Society, another and privileged means of achieving the aims of his Congregation. Unlike Third Order members of other Institutes, they were not grafted on to the main body of the congregation in more modern times but have been included from the beginning. Were we to take to heart his ideas on the Ascribed, we would be as enthusiastic about their development and spread as we are about encouraging religious vocations." 1

 

Fr Founder, writing to Don Luigi Gentili at Grace Dieu, January 24th 1841 says, "I foresee that ascription will do great things, indeed very great things, in England if it is conducted wisely, with the wisdom and sanctity of God, especially in the beginning. It must not be confused with the Third Order of St Francis or with ascriptions to other religious orders. It is similar to them but it is also basically different. Simply to consider the ascription to the Institute as one of the type which other Orders or religious Congregations are accustomed to have, would be to give a false impression of the matter and prejudice the good that it could do. It must not be described like this. On the other hand one must not say categorically that it is something completely different, because it is not. It has an analogy with them and must make itself known by good works, rather than our explanations. In the meantime, it is very necessary that we all study its nature and consider the great advantages which could be derived from it at certain times, if we knew how to make use of such a great means." 2

 

Each of us needs to be familiar with the Constitutions regarding the Ascribed and to have a clear picture of its place in the Institute. Maybe we have not fully understood Fr Founder's concept of the Ascribed. Maybe we should see it in the light of his global view of universal friendship, (seen earlier in his plan for the "Society of Friends") universal charity, and his vision which led to founding a Society as extensive as the universal charity which inspired it.

 

Repentance

Earlier in his address Fr General reflects on our need for repentance as we enter the Third Millennium and that personally and collectively we have a lot to be sorry for and that we have good reason for asking forgiveness of those in our care whom we have failed over the years. I would like to suggest that this includes our attitude to our ascribed members. 3 It is difficult to know the origins of this attitude of neglect. One reason may be ignorance and the fact that we lacked in our own formation a clear explanation of the fact that there were and could be lay members of our Society. I recall that when I was in the noviciate (1948-50) we were told that we could offer ascription to our parents. But I did not know a great deal about ascription and though my parents became ascribed I think that's as far as it got. The ultimate cause of this indifference perhaps we shall never know. But it is strange!

 

Fr Founder had earlier written to Ambrose Phillips in England, "I am sending you by Gentili the letter of ascription to the Institute, the seal of charity which unites us. Who knows whether it may not please God to make our ascribed society do great good in England! I have a presentiment it will be so; it appears to me to be so well adapted to the needs of your nation. I even think it is from your nation that this society will spread to other nations and draw together in the closest union of body and soul the most fervent disciples of Christ throughout the world". 4 Ascribed Members in New Zealand and the few in Australia will understand the relevance of these words! For me, these early letters of the Founder radiate an optimism and a longing for the spread of the Church inspired by his basic principle that of ourselves we can nothing but that in God anything can happen!

 

A Problem

Another reason why we have been slow to support and promote the ascribed is probably due to the principle enjoined on us from our novitiate days of not positively encouraging vocations to the Order. There is no doubt that Rosmini's attitude to vocations was inspired by his attitude of waiting on God's Providence to send those whom he would. In the letter to Luigi Gentili, already quoted, he expressly says so. "It must be a work coming completely from the mercy, grace and providence of our Lord according to his will which is clearly known and on which all our actions must depend and turn. For these reasons we should observe faithfully even in this matter the rule which is very dear to us 'not prompting or asking anyone to be ascribed'. Then we shall be certain that the persons will be sent to us by God." 5

 

Unfortunately we do not know all the circumstances at the time the Founder wrote this letter but it is worth recalling that he had to rein in Gentili's ardent and impetuous nature more than once! In another letter to Don Pagani he says that Gentili should be gently corrected because he offered "Ascription to people who have not spontaneously asked for it". Rosmini certainly made known to Ambrose Phillips that there was room for non professed members. And in1831 says in a letter to him, "I will also send you the rules of the Ascribed Members if you wish to become one". 6 It would be interesting to know if Ambrose Phillips had asked for Ascription or whether the Founder discerned that there was an implicit desire. We know his attitude only through tradition and the written word. On the other hand one can adapt the words of St Paul, "And how will they hear of it unless there is a preacher for them?" 7I believe there has been some shift towards a more positive attitude to making our Founder and Order known. In fact Pope Paul VI specifically mentioned this. 8Whether or not this includes specifically inviting people to be Ascribed members may be debated. But we all know that vocations to the professed life in the Institute have sometimes come about through a member discerning that a person had a vocation to the Order and mentioning it. I personally think we have to avoid a rigidity in following the "letter" which can impede the action of the Holy Spirit and rather to be on the watch for what could be Providential indications that a person implicitly desires ascription. "I didn't know there was such a thing, why didn't someone tell me?"

 

In New Zealand in the 60's we started the Ascribed by asking some people if they were interested. These were people whom we believed were interested in us as an Order and not just in the school. This method of course is open to the charge of being contrary to the mind of the Founder and also of elitism. "Why wasn't I asked"? To which one could reasonably reply, "If I had known you were interested I should have mentioned it. The other extreme would have been to enrol people indiscriminately. But,"it is necessary, however, always to bear in mind that our ascription should not degenerate into mere formality or into a nominal society, useless in the kingdom of God." 9

 

My experience is that people enrolled nominally do not persevere in any active way. On the other hand I believe the situation at the time was one in which one could reasonably "read the signs" and the implicit desire in certain people to be associated with the Institute in a formal manner. In Auckland those early approaches have certainly borne fruit and the Professed has been immeasurably helped and supported by the Ascribed and hopefully they have been helped by us. 10 To sum up, I think there are cases where we can tell that if the person knew about the ascribed she/he would be happy to become one and there are other cases where people would like to become ascribed members but are too shy to ask or might even think that we are not sufficiently interested in them. An approach that has been tried in Auckland is to mention on an appropriate occasion that there are such people as ascribed members and see what happens! 11 On other occasions the ascribed members themselves have recommended people.

 

Individualism

I have entitled this section "individualism" for want of a better word. I mean that interest in ascribed membership has too often depended on the enthusiasm of certain individuals in the Order and not the members as a whole. I can only speak here out of my own experience. In my own early days in the Order the ascribed members were associated with one priest, Fr Geoffrey Smith. There may have been other priests interested but I never knew of any who were really involved . Some the older members of the Order can correct me here. In the 70's when I was given the grandiose title of Province Prefect I remember suggesting to Fr Tom Kearns, then Provincial, that I should visit the various houses of the Province in an effort to organise and vitalise the members in the various parishes. He wisely told me that unless our priests in the actual areas were sufficiently motivated the situation would revert to the status quo as soon as I left. There were, to my astonishment, over 300 ascribed members in England at the time. When I was at Loughborough the ascribed quickly came forward when it was made known that there would be a meeting. And when an occasion warrants it the ascribed do gather for it. For instance the visits to Derrys Wood.

 

When I returned to New Zealand we began a group of ascribed members at St Peter's, Gore. There were about 30 in number. Alas, when I left four years later, no one felt able to take my place to look after them and the group ceased as a group (note this qualification). This was a great disappointment to me personally but I have to take some of the blame. I should have ensured that the ascribed saw themselves as a viable group which could organise itself simply calling on one of the priests for help at their meetings or at least at some them. I should have realised that the energy of the brethren was greatly absorbed in the busy running of a coeducational boarding and day school. I can only hope that these ascribed members who were so faithful over those four years still regard themselves as ascribed and know that we cherished our association with them during those years.

 

A New Initiative

On the brighter side there is a flourishing group of ascribed members in Christchurch. This began when we were working there and the problem was what we should do when we left that diocese to work together in Dunedin. The group in Christchurch is a flourishing and active group. They have a secretary who is the organiser and the brethren (both from North and South) make contact with them regularly. This is a most encouraging situation and shows what can be done both by the ascribed themselves and the brethren who show them unstinting support. I should add that in New Zealand there has always been community involvement with the ascribed, and the Auckland group has always had one of the priests as chaplain. I think I am right in saying that the first ascribed member entered in 1966. Before I left New Zealand I was fortunate enough to have the help of a husband and wife team who were willing to take on a lot of the organisation of meetings, and acting as a centre for the spread of information. No time was lost in appointing Fr Ernie Milne as chaplain. Now we have moved to a new parish, Glenfield, not too far distant from Takapuna, active ascribed involvement continues there.

 

Fr General's 1998 Christmas Letter again addresses the matter of the Adopted Sons/Daughters and Ascribed Members. He quotes from Via Consecrata 54, "We may say that, in the light of certain historical experiences such as the Secular or Third Orders, a new chapter, rich in hope, has begun in the history of relations between consecrated persons and the laity." We can only wonder at the prophetic vision of Rosmini in founding an Order over 150 years ago in which the laity are incorporated. We must also feel a certain sense of shame that our history has not fulfilled this original vision. However, as Fr General says, Fr Gaetano Gigli, a member of the Curia, has been given special responsibility for the Ascribed and has already visited the Ascribed in various parts of the world to meet them and encourage their development so the future is a bright and positive. There is also a renewed interest in the English Province.

 

What can we do?

This is a question I have been asked by the ascribed members many times. In a letter to Monsignor Samuelli, Bishop of Montepulciano Rosmini writes, "The Society of the Ascribed can be considered in its beginning and in its progress. In its beginning it is a society so broad and general that any good Christian can belong to it. In order to leave the door open to any good Christian to join, it was necessary not to have any obligations in conscience. So it is a spiritual union, a spontaneous sharing of good works, a Christian friendship or fellowship. However this general union does not prevent more fervent members from doing more and seeking greater perfection. This is desired and regarded as its natural progress or development. " 12 Fr Founder goes on to say that the general and common society is the foundation on which greater things can be built, that is, of more specific and determinate societies which are called Sodalities. One of these which is proposed in the Rules is that of the Oratory. These should be formed in agreement with the Bishop and rules submitted to Fr General for his approval. 13

 

My experience is that ascribed members who are working and bringing up a family have little time to take on more organised works of charity. Most of the ones I have known have already taken on work in their parishes. I would tell them that they do this as Rosminian ascribed members and fulfil the aims of Ascription. In effect they are living their Rosminian vocation in accordance with the sixth Maxim, being sensitive to the calls on their charity without being called to form a Sodality. In my opinion to do this they would need some clear sign of Providence, say from the Bishop or some obvious need perhaps even arising from themselves or the professed members. Maybe the formation of Sodalities would be more appropriate for older members who have retired from active work and for whom time might be more flexible.

Finally another problem is that in keeping with the rest of the Institute the ascribed members are getting older! In New Zealand for instance many of our ascribed members have been with us since the 60's and 70's. This brings us back to the problem of vocations to the ascribed. We felt the lack of young ascribed members. Maybe we should have been more positive in making ascription known to school leavers for instance, or other young people associated with us. The other problem associated with this is that a different approach is needed with young people. What suits the "oldies" does not always suit the youth.

 

Conclusion

By way of conclusion let me sum up what has been outlined above. We have become more aware of the need to be more positive in our attitude to ascribed membership to the order. We need to admit our own indifference and ignorance of the Ascribed and the place they hold in our Society. The thorny question of vocations to the Ascribed and how we make known Ascription needs to be tackled. The interest in and care of the ascribed should not be the domain simply of one or two individuals in the Province

but we should all be aware that the ascribed are our Rosminian sisters and brothers and part of our Order. We should be sensitive to the positive contribution our ascribed members wish to make to the Institute and the Church and encourage their talents and generosity. Finally we should examine ways of encouraging young people to become ascribed members.

 

J.A.Dewhirst.

 

21 December 1998

 

 

footnotes

1 General Congregation 1998, Facing into the 3rd Millennium Together, p.22. TEXT

2 Letter n.4178. TEXT

3 Ibid.p.18. TEXT

4 Letter n.4204. TEXT

5 Letter n.4178 TEXT

6 Letter n.1512 and 1567. TEXT

7 Romans 10, 14-17. TEXT

8 "Rosmini was a great man too little known today. He was a man of great learning and wisdom…His thinking and spirit ought to be made known and imitated…" General Audience, 1972. TEXT

9 Letter n.4178. TEXT

10 Matt. 7,16-18. TEXT

11 For instance on the occasion of our launching the book , Rosmini, a Gift to the Church. TEXT

12Letter n.4847. TEXT

13 See also Letters nn.4178, 4638, 4450 and Constitutions of the Ascribed Members of the Institute of Charity, 1841, nn.37-41. TEXT