The unique structure of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance is the vital force that has allowed our equally unique spirit and character – the Cistercian charism – to endure and flourish, despite the normal ups and downs of human institutions – golden periods and times of wars, plagues and persecutions. From its very beginning with the Charter of Charity (1118), until the present Constitutions and Statutes (1990), this structure has engendered innumerable brothers and sisters who have expressed the Cistercian heritage in writing, chant, architecture, crafts, and the skillful management of natural resources, land in particular. Above all, it has served well our whole reason for existence: providing a path to God for men and women through the ages.
Gathered by the call of Christ, the sisters or brothers constitute a monastic “church” (or “community”) that is the fundamental unit of the Order. The normal physical expression is an abbey, headed by an abbot or abbess elected by the community. This community is composed of professed members, and new members in various stages of formation, living under the Rule of St Benedict.
In accordance with the Charter of Charity, Cistercian communities are autonomous but united in a communion implemented by the institutions of the Father Immediate, the Regular Visitation, and the General Chapter. The Father Immediate is the abbot of another monastery, whose responsibilities include a formal visit to the community every two years. The purpose of this “Regular Visitation” is to strengthen and supplement the pastoral action of the local superior, to correct where necessary, and to renew the nuns’ or monks’ spiritual fervor.
The General Chapter is the supreme authority in the Order. There are formally two separate Chapters, one consisting of the monks’ superiors and one of the nuns’, but they meet together, normally every three years for three weeks, to foster peace and charity among themselves and to make appropriate decisions for maintaining the patrimony and unity of the Order.
The two Chapters together elect for an indefinite term of office an Abbot General whose main duty is to be a bond of unity within the Order. He is assisted in this task by a permanent council residing in Rome. This council consists of five members, four of whom are elected by the Chapters and the fifth chosen by those four, in such a way that the major language groups of the Order are represented.
The General Chapter is prepared by a Central Commission elected by the previous Chapter and whose members are chosen by the various regions of the Order. Several other more or less permanent commissions are assigned particular functions – the Law Commission, the Finance Commission, and the Commission of Mutual Assistance.
From the very beginning the growth of the Order has been assured by a judicious system of foundations, governed at present by the Statute on Foundations.
This statute has proven helpful in alerting communities to the indications of Providence that they are invited to extend monastic life to other places, for example to such diverse localities as Norway, Syria and Brazil.
Another reality still “under construction” is the movement of “Lay Cistercians” or “Associates,” a world-wide movement undergoing a cautious but creative evolution.
The structure of our Order will always flourish, God willing, if there is an openness to the signs of the times, faithfulness to the fundamental charism and a personal love of Jesus Christ which gives life and substance to all structure.