Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor

As mentioned in the history section about the community, the decree of erection as a ‘public association of the faithful destined to become a religious institute’ was received from Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor in December 2003 (a copy can be seen below). This followed two years living together as a private association of the faithful discerning what the Lord was asking of us.

The action of the Cardinal established COLW as a public juridic person in the Church (this is defined in canon 313 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which is the principle legal text of the Roman Catholic Church. Sr Sharon Holland, IHM, who has advised us on matters of Church law throughout COLW’s existence, kindly sent us some notes in March 2013 (extracts of which follow) to help us, and all those interested, to understand the common practice when new religious communities are started.

‘Although it is not evident in the Code (of Canon Law), it is the long practice of the Holy See, that before becoming a religious institute, a community must first be established as an association of the faithful in the Church. In the past, and under the 1917 Code, these were referred to as pious unions, but the principle is the same. Members lived as religious, wore habits etc., back in the 19th century, while growing, gaining experience and preparing for formal approval as religious. All institutes begin this way.

Because of this, when a bishop is establishing such an association, he is advised to write the Decree saying that it is a “public association of the faithful, destined to become a religious institute.” There is similar language in Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus, n. 111, placing such associations in relationship with CICLSAL (the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life).

Decree establishing the Community

Cardinal Murphy O’Connor’s Decree of Erection of the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham contains a number of points which reflect the intention of the Church in requiring this first canonical step for a new foundation.

  • It is defined as a public association of the faithful “destined to become a religious institute”
  • In addition to the canons on associations, the community is governed by “its own Statutes”. It is according to these approved Statutes that it is possible for such a community to begin to live a life, as similar as possible, to the religious state to which it aspires.
  • The Cardinal included essential points in the Decree which would clarify the intent of the community and it’s right to live accordingly: to receive members, establish a novitiate, make private vows, wear distinctive garb “and to live and govern themselves in a manner as close to the religious life they aspire to as is possible in this formative stage.”  Further he notes that the community relates to the vicar for religious, rather than laity and, if needed, to CICLSAL, not the Council for the Laity.
  • The latter points are fully in accord with what CICLSAL recommends to Bishops or founding persons who ask, and follows the logic expressed in the above reference to Pastor Bonus.

Sr Sharon has also noted several other key points in relation to COLW’s current status, and for the benefit of those people who may be interested in the canonical status of COLW we include these comments for reference:

  • Type of Association: The canons cited in the Decree are those introductory for all associations and those for public associations.  They do not refer to private associations or to the few canons particular to lay associations.  It is better to avoid the confusion of “lay”.  Many of us technically are “lay religious” (canon 588.3 of the 1983 Code) as distinct from clerical religious, but it is not a particularly helpful distinction.
  • Experience of Others: Throughout the world, there are many associations of the faithful aspiring to become religious institutes.  Some are simply viewed and received gratefully as if they were already religious, and in some cultural contexts, they are the object of curiosity or criticism . When petitions came to CICLSAL for approval before diocesan erection, some had been in existence for decades and others had grown much more quickly to the required number and, hopefully, maturity. Often they had spread to other dioceses, and all of the Bishops are consulted.  In the case of new foundations which foresee having both women and men as members, there are some particular guidelines at CICLSAL. Several of this type, besides the Franciscan fraternity of Bethany, are listed in the Annuario Pontificio under the rubric of “New Communities of Consecrated Life”. There is on-going study of how these are structured. Some are two united religious institutes sharing charisms and mission.
  • COLW is authorized by the decree to have a novitiate and to profess private vows. There is not really a problem in speaking of “formation”; it is not exclusively reserved to religious.  The distinction between private and public vows is difficult to have understood by participants in a celebration. A vow is public if a “legitimate superior accepts it in the name of the Church” (canon 1192.1 of the 1983 Code). It technically has nothing to do with the number of people looking on, but of course, this defies common perception.

Any reader who wishes to make further enquiries about the canonical status of COLW is encouraged to contact us directly with any questions that they may have.