GENERAL COUNCIL F.I.C. - Prins Bisschopsingel 22, 6211 JX Maastricht, The Netherlands  Phone: *31 (0) 43 3508373
Tuesday, October 24 2017  - 4 User Online  

The Spirit of the Brothers FIC


What was the (spirit) of the Brothers of Maastricht? Admittedly, something like (spirit) cannot be defined. Only a few, and only external characteristics can be briefly indicated. Both internal and external factors influenced the development of the particular spirituality of the Maastricht Brothers. External factors, on which the Congregation had no control, were, for instance, the country and time of its origin. Internal factors, where it did have some influence, were, for instance, the acceptance or refusal of new members or new foundations.

The Congregation was a Catholic child of an age which was hostile towards the Church; this was, at least, the way many believers experienced their time. In those days the Catholic view of the world tended to be pessimistic rather than optimistic. It was also an era marked by a great fear of revolutions: in the year when the Brothers of Maastricht were founded, the upheavals of 1789 in France, and those of 1830 in France, Belgium and Poland, were still fresh in people's minds. In the early years of the Congregation the Founders and their first followers lived through 1848, the year of a number of revolutions in Europe, when again the Pope had to flee from his godless assailants. In 1870 he lost what was left of his secular power. What was Europe heading for? Fortunately, the Pope was still there, the head of the Church, and - in the eyes of faithful Catholics - the saviour of the world and the protector of people against all troubles and dangers of the century.

Rutten, the Founder, was a typically nineteenth-century Catholic priest: an ultramontane and ardent devotee of the pope. For him all salvation came from Rome; Brother Bernard, his co-Founder, shared this view. Thanks to this loyalty the Brothers of Maastricht pretty soon received papal recognition and were thus exempted from interference by the local bishop. This may have given to the newly founded Congregation the drive to extend its activities beyond the town of Maastricht. For quite early on the Congregation fanned out with foundations all over the Netherlands, and even neighbouring Belgium. In modern language: from the very beginning the Congregation was oriented towards the Universal Church, thanks, perhaps, to its close ties with Rome and the pope.

The Congregation was first and foremost Dutch. From the very beginning it recruited its members from all over the Netherlands, i.e. not only from Maastricht or, for that matter, from Limburg, in the Kingdom of the Netherlands the southernmost province, with Maastricht as its capital. During the nineteenth century the national frontiers did not separate the countries so strictly as in the twentieth century. That's why in that century various brothers came from the German Rhineland and also from Belgium, where, around 1880 - for a short period - the Congregation had no fewer than four houses. On the whole the Maastricht Brothers numbered mainly people from Limburg, Brabant and from two Dutch coastal provinces: North and South Holland. The mixture of different national and regional character has been valuable for the Congregation. It saved the Congregation from a regional lifestyle, which would have made it more difficult to get settled in other regions and countries. The differences in social class among the brothers were only small; this made living together easier. Most brothers were from three social groups: small businessmen and tradesmen, skilled workers, and small farmers. These three groups had many characteristics in common, also in society outside the Congregation. The humble origin of the members may be one of the explanations why the Congregation was fond of mentioning again and again that it was praised by (those in higher places), bishops, politicians, scholars.

The atmosphere among the brothers was one of good nature. Formality and pomposity in daily contact was foreign to the brothers. Another trait was passion for work, day in, day out. A true brother was always doing something; resting, idleness or laziness were detested. This was, for that matter, a national trait. Furthermore, the brothers were no zealots, no fanatics, but quiet, down-to-earth Dutchmen, who could rejoice at the good fortune of others. The same characteristics also affected the way in which rules and regulations were put into practice. They were usually taken with a grain of salt. Not in important matters, though, but, indeed, in the observance of the numerous minor directives concerning everyday life.

Typical of the fraternal community life was in particular the great tolerance, both among the brothers and towards the world outside. During the first decade of the twentieth century the Dutch Church, like the Universal Church, was confronted with (integralism). This was a conservative - in the unfavourable sense of the word - and fanatic reaction among Catholics against any updating, any adaptation of Catholicism to the achievements and insights of modern society. Dutch integralists published a periodical of their own to propagate their endeavours. The Maastricht brothers were forbidden to read this because there were also integralists among the brothers, and the superiors feared heated discussions and divisions.

Differences of opinion about essential matters that were aired in public, were taboo for the brothers of Maastricht. Always and everywhere the brothers should show to the world outside consensus on all matters, even if there was no consensus among them. Sharp discussions were always avoided. They were viewed as incompatible with the prevailing spirit of tolerance and fraternal love, so strongly recommended by the Rule. This in itself was a praiseworthy mentality, but unfortunately it degenerated too often into an exaggerated fear of offending fellow brothers. This fear was so great that - wherever possible - the brothers avoided any real discussion. (Do not think; act!) was the catchword.

Time and again there were major differences of opinion between on the one side brothers in administrative offices and on the other side the brothers who did not belong to that group. In everyday life the Congregation was very democratic as long as it was about the style of living and material provisions. In this sphere there were hardly any differences between superiors and subordinates. But when it came to essential issues, like the implementation and adjustment of the aims of the Congregation in a concrete situation, or the relation between active and spiritual life, or the delegation of administrative power to those of a lower rank, democracy was put aside to make room for the autocracy of the superiors, especially of the general council. This was especially evident immediately after the Second World War (1939-1945) when a strong drive came up to conserve the old and reject any adaptation to changing conditions. All monastic communities in the twentieth century were universally    characterised by rigid maintenance of a stable organisation and firm sticking to what had been prescribed once and for all.

During the six years the general council was in office it could act rather autonomously; it sidestepped giving account of its policy and going into discussions with the brothers. It was only after its six years in office that it had to render account to the general chapter. According to canon law the chapter exercised the highest authority. However, again and again, it excelled in profound submission to the outgoing old as well as the incoming new general council. Only seldom did the general chapter come forward with criticism and even then with the greatest caution.

As a matter of fact the Congregation rarely - if ever - opened the door to genuine dialogue. This failure was related to the great value attached to tolerance; but it was also typical of a general council which, with its following, operated regardless, more or less, of the opinion of the brothers. An ancient, wise saying, dating from medieval monastic communities runs (Quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus approbare debet), meaning, (Matters that are the affairs of all, should be approved by all). However, in the Congregation the ideal was: everybody should just do what he was told to do, without ifs or buts. The (all) was thus generally limited to the leaders, or to a person in authority and his followers. The wave of democratisation arising in the years 1963-1964, when everybody suddenly got the chance to have his say in, for instance, the preparation of a general chapter, died away. For the brothers had simply never been taught to take an active part in deliberations or to speak up. Not all the brothers - far from it - promoted the process of change that started in the 1960s. But this was covered up.

The Rule and the host of detailed regulations about everyday life breathed the spirit of the nineteenth century. As mentioned before that century inclined to pessimism rather than optimism. In the Rules of the Maastricht Brothers this expressed itself in an outlook which was anything but optimistic, and which showed but little trust in the good will of the majority of the brothers. As individuals brothers were - on the whole - optimists. They knew - or trusted - that their teaching and their labours were making the world a better place to live in. They could not identify with the pessimism implied in the wording of the rules and regulations. As a result they interpreted them at their own discretion; this again strengthened the pessimistic outlook of the lawgivers. The tension in active religious, which we have mentioned above - being drawn between action and contemplation, between being a religious and being a worker-in-the-world - also played its part in this situation.

The lawgivers and superiors viewed the world outside as a constant danger for religious life. The true brother should distance himself from it. Already at the juvenaat the aspirants were trained in this (distancing). Strangely enough, the contact with their very own relatives, in whose midst their religious vocation had actually developed, was not thought to be without risks! And so occasions for visits to or by relatives were strictly limited. Relatives were welcome visitors to a religious house or the juvenaat, but within limits!  The brothers were not allowed to be present at family parties, like weddings. Attending the funeral of a relative could, of course, not be refused, but the stay should be as short as propriety permitted. Friendships with lay people outside the community were downright unacceptable, and affectionate relationships within the cloister were strongly discouraged and even prohibited by lawmakers and superiors.

The necessity to avoid the world, emphasised time and again, also led to the rejection or at any rate mistrust of the technical achievements of modern times. Not in the schools, though; there the very best and the very latest was not good enough. At all times the Congregation tried to keep education up to date, also in its technical respect. Certainly when school finances made this possible, the latest things technical that might perfect education, were always promptly bought. But in personal and domestic life there was a different mentality. Here the superiors were extremely conservative and, on top of that, stingy; this was justified by the vow of poverty made by every brother. The introduction of technical novelties was kept in check as much as possible; it was too costly and, for a variety of reasons, unbecoming in a religious.

Let us take as example the typically Dutch means of transport, the bicycle. Since the first quarter of the twentieth century the bicycle was no longer a luxury; it was used by all Dutch people. But it was not until 1940 that the brothers of Maastricht were allowed to mount a bike, and even then only with restrictions. Not just every brother got a bike: those who did get one had to use it with restraint: only to go to school and to study courses. The superiors were of the opinion that any increase in mobility brought with it lots of dangers for the brothers. When, as mentioned before, the use of radio and television was allowed (resp. 1934 and 1963) the same restraining caution came into play.

Everybody in the Congregation, high and low, adopted an attitude of independence towards the world outside. Liberty above all! As mentioned above the Congregation liked to be complimented by (those in higher places); we also mentioned that it sought advice from the clergy, but always rejected direct interference by priests. The last point had something to do with the friction between the ordained and non-ordained, clergy and lay people: an age-old trauma in the Church. The appointment of a priest as chaplain to a community, customary in a great number of sister congregations, was downright unthinkable with the Maastricht Brothers. Something similar to the brothers' spirit of independence also came into play in the relationship with secular authorities. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the civil authorities became more and more meddlesome in education and in schools. The Catholics, including the Maastricht brothers, did not like this. Ever since the French Revolution the relation Church-State had been very tense and this affected the atmosphere in education. When the State gave something, as - for instance - financial support for education, or salaries for teachers, the taxpayers' money was eagerly accepted. But when - and rightly so - the same State, for the common good, made demands on the quality of education and the competence of teachers, the Catholics, including the Maastricht brothers, were not keen to cooperate but would rather quietly try to evade or sabotage them.

This spirit of nonconformity  - or was it recalcitrance? -  played a part also at lower levels. In the separate houses and schools the brothers collaborated wholeheartedly with parish clergy, the school boards, school inspectors and other authorities, provided they did not start interfering in the internal organisation or issue annoying directives. When this happened the brothers suddenly adopted a decidedly noncommittal attitude and it became quite clear that they valued freedom above all. All in all, a remarkable mentality indeed for a religious organisation, which - within its own ranks - attached such a great importance to absolute obedience to its own law! Did the laws of (the world) not matter for the brothers? Sure they did matter, but the loophole and the misleading argument was that God's laws were above the laws of the country. Catholics in general would agree.

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