Fundamental Principles | A Grateful Look at the Past

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As part of the renewal of Consecrated Life following Vatican II, and especially in light of the decree Perfectae Caritatis which called all religious orders and congregations “to return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institute” (PC 12), the Xaverian Brothers took up the call to renewal with enthusiasm.  One aspect of renewal was the rewriting of the Constitutions, the “rule of life” of the Congregation. From the Extraordinary General Chapter of 1968-69 until the 21st General Chapter in 1977, there were various revisions of the Constitutions. In 1979, the General Executive Committee of Brothers James Clifton, Superior General, Brother Jan Devadder and Brother John F. Kerr created a Commission to draft what would be the final revised version of the Constitutions.

The Commission was made up of one member of each of the Provinces at the time: Brother Roger Demon (Belgium), Brother Bernard Philpott (England), Brother Peter Fitzpatrick (Sacred Heart Province-American Central), and Brother John Collins (St. Joseph Province-American Northeastern). Brother John F. Kerr chaired the first meeting of the Commission. At this initial meeting one of the members of the Commission asked if, rather than just picking up where the last revision left off, the Commission could “start from the beginning.” Brother John F. Kerr responded that the Commission could approach their task however they saw fit. Bother John Collins was asked to serve as chair of the Commission. He suggested that, in order to start at the beginning, each member of the Commission do some reading and study on the materials that had been produced during the early years of renewal, especially the articles published in Ryken Quarterly, the works of Brother Julian Ryan, Brother Aubert Downey and Brother Jan Devadder. In addition, he asked that each member write his own vocation story as his starting point for the work that had been entrusted to them.

Brother John Collins reflected on the experience of serving as part of this Commission in an interview conducted in 2012 (view interview clips below). He recalled that he took some time away at the Jesuit Retreat House in Gloucester, MA where he struggled with how to begin writing his vocation story. After hours of work and various drafts, he found himself throwing his drafts away and began to write, “Brother, you have freely chosen to respond …” He wrote through the night and discovered that what he had been inspired to write was a “rule of life” that was poetic and exhortative rather than a set of prescriptive statements typically found in constitutions. At the next meeting of the Commission, where each member shared the fruit of his study and reflection, as well as his vocation story, it was decided that the style that Brother John Collins had been inspired to write would be the direction of the Commission in redrafting the Constitutions.

Over the course of the first 6 months of 1980, the members of the Commission continued their writing and meetings. What they came up with was a document that indeed did go back to the beginning, capturing some of Theodore James Ryken’s own hopes and dreams for the Congregation. It was a “rule of life” that stressed the contemplative dimension that was at the heart of Ryken’s vision for the Congregation, with mission and ministry flowing from that contemplative dimension. (Story continues after the break).


Watch clips from the video interview with Brother John Collins, as he talks about his experience on the Commission and writing the early drafts of the Fundamental Principles.


Brother John Collins presented the draft of what we now call the Fundamental Principles to the General Council at their meeting in the fall of 1980. Brother James Clifton and the General Council embraced the work of the Commission, finding it different from what they had expected, but very uplifting and a document that spoke to them. They determined that there should be a process to introduce the Fundamental Principles to all the Brothers.  Over the course of the next year, a 2-day program of reflection was held in the various regions of the Congregation to introduce the document. As part of that program, Brother James Clifton spoke on the place of the “Rule” in religious life; one of the Commission members spoke on the process used in revising the Constitutions; and Brother John Collins spoke on the Founder, based on the research, study and reflection he had been doing during his years as Formation Director and Novice master for the St. Joseph Province. The large majority of Brothers who participated in those 2-day programs found that the document spoke to their experience and was a source of spiritual enrichment for them.

The General Chapter in 1983 approved the Fundamental Principles and give the task of creating the set of prescriptive statements we now call the Constitutions to the newly elected leadership team under the direction of Brother John F. Kerr, Superior General. The Constitutions were an attempt to take the sense of call, community and mission found in the Fundamental Principles and articulate them in language that the Congregation of Religious would deem appropriate for Constitutions. Finally, after these were approved at the General Chapter in 1989, the complete document was sent on to the Holy See for approval.  On the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, December 3, 1989, the Vatican approved the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Brothers of Saint Francis Xavier which included the Fundamental Principles as the first section of the Constitutions.

In gratefully remembering the work of this Commission of Brothers John Collins, Roger Demon, Peter Fitzpatrick and Bernard Philpott, we must also recall with gratitude the leadership exercised by our Superior Generals during this time of renewal: Brothers Harold Boyle, James Clifton and John F. Kerr. So too, we should recall how universally the document was embraced by Brothers coming from very different backgrounds, cultural experiences and even traditions of living as Xaverian Brothers. In the Fundamental Principles they found their own vocation story and a true source of nourishment and challenge for responding to God’s call to “manifest God’s love to the peoples of the world in these times.”

Next Monday (January 5, 2015) we will look at how we are “embracing the future with hope.”

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