CLC's History and Relationship
to the Sodalities of our Lady

  by Julian Elizaldé, S.J.


CLC's historical roots go back to 1540, when Pope Paul III approved the Society of Jesus. From the very beginning, Ignatius and his companions invited lay persons to cooperate in the apostolate and even assume the responsibility of some specific programmes, inviting them to form groups, sharing with them the same spirituality, introducing them into the experience of the Spiritual Exercises [1].

Based on these widely spread experiences, a young Belgian Jesuit, Jean Leunis, who met Ignatius on 1556, and was assigned to the Roman College, created the first Sodalities with students of this institution. On 1584 Pope Gregory XIII approved the rules of these Sodalities - The Prima Primaria - and placed the new Lay Association under the authority of the General of the Society. The contemplation of the Incarnation inspired them. They chose as the Association's official title: Sodalities of our Lady, taking Our Lady of the Annunciation as their patroness.

Integrating faith and life

The group's initial goal was clearly defined: To integrate studies with Christian faith. Leunis fostered the spirit of responsibility and service of the laity. All the members of the community were invited to find their personal vocation in the Church and in the world, following the call of the Council of Trent and its invitation to all Christians to collaborate in the renewal of the Church.

Comparing the Sodalities with the Third Orders and with the Oratories of Saint Philip Neri, we find out that: the Third Orders were attached to monasteries as centres of Christian education and social action. The Oratories offered formation programmes, companionship and prayer life in a flexible, unstructured way. While the Sodalities, genuine lay associations, were highly structured and hierarchical (the Director of the Sodality was a Jesuit named by the Provincial Superior).

A unified ignatian pastoral approach

Jesuits all over the world, including in the missions in the New World and in the Orient, used the Sodality's way of life, formation tradition and apostolic thrust. The model by which the Jesuits inspired themselves was the Prima Primaria of the Roman College. This unified pastoral approach among Jesuits was a guarantee for continuity, allowing greater mobility among the Jesuits because a change of director did not mean a change of pastoral approach.

There was not, however, any structural link between the sodalities at national or international level. Father General of the Society had the authority to affiliate them to the Prima Primaria, but once affiliated the only link between the Sodalities was through the Society of Jesus to which all father directors belonged. The unity of spirit and direction was guaranteed by the Society of Jesus.

There was no limit to the number of sodalists. There could easily be two or three hundred members in any given Sodality. But membership was selective. A candidate could have to wait months or even years before been admitted as a sodalist. Sodalists were usually admitted at the Sodality’s main celebration on December 8th, feast of Mary Immaculate. The Sodalists would then make the Consecration to the Blessed Mary and receive the Sodality medal which they would proudly wear at the Sodality celebrations. The commitments included frequent Mass, Communion and Confession, personal prayer, attending the weekly Sodality meeting and taking part in some apostolic activity. The Sodality’s weekly meeting included an instruction given generally by Father Director, news, progress reports on apostolic programs and other activities. Then the sodalists would meet within the special group or section.

Within the Sodality there were sub-groups (Sections) especially committed to work in a specific sector of society: prisoners, street girls, hospitals, orphans or poor persons ashamed to beg (poveri vergognosi) etc.

The Spiritual Exercises were seldom offered as a silent experience in a retreat house. The ignatian formation was conveyed through the weekly instructions given by Father Director.

During the next two centuries the development of the Sodalities was extraordinary. There were Sodalities for specific groups: Government officials, lawyers and judges, military officers, nobles, businessmen, tailors, construction workers, merchants, artists, carpenters and furniture workers. According to Louis Chatellier, during the seventeen and eighteen centuries, the Sodalities offered a significant contribution to the Christianization of Europe [2].

Diversification in the Sodalities

On July 21st, 1773 Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus together with all its apostolic works. The 2,500 Sodalities existing at that time should also disappear. However, at the request of some bishops, the Sodalities were allowed to develop under the jurisdiction of the local bishop. Cut from the original ignatian inspiration, the Sodalities' spirit changed too. They multiplied (reaching the number of 80.000) but their apostolic and spiritual quality was very different from place to place: some offered a solid personal formation and were very apostolic while others became pious groups, with an accent on Marian devotion as the only unifying trait.

Going back to our roots - Renewal - Christian Life Communities

After the Society's restoration, on August 7th, 1814, the Jesuits started forming Sodalities as they had always done. Yet the diocesan ones continued to develop too, but with little or no influence from Ignatian spirituality. There were, therefore, Diocesan Sodalities and Sodalities attached to Jesuit apostolic works. The uneven quality of the Sodalities, diocesan or run by Jesuits, was evident.

There was an urgent need of renewal. In 1922 Father Ledokowski, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, called to Rome forty Jesuits, all of them Sodality Directors, for a thorough reflection on the movement. A Central Secretariat was created at the Jesuit Curia for the promotion and renewal of the Sodalities[3]. On 1948, Pope Pius XII, a former sodalist himself, published the Apostolic Constitution Bis Saeculari, clarifying the identity of the Sodalities of our Lady and inviting them to go back to their original inspiration. The Constitution placed the Spiritual Exercises at the heart of the Sodalities spirituality.

Father Carrillo de Albornoz was head of the World Secretariat at the time. A personal friend of the Pope, father Carrillo was very influential in the preparation of the Apostolic Constitution. Unfortunately, two years later he left the Priesthood, married and became a Protestant. It was a deadly blow to the renewal movement.

To replace him father Jansens, Superior General at the time, chose a holy and enterprising young Jesuit from Holland: Louis Paulussen. Father Paulussen had some clear ideas about the renewal of the Sodalities as a lay association, run by lay people, rooted in Ignatian spirituality, particularly on the Spiritual Exercises. He tried to open the World Secretariat to lay people, and the opportunity was offered in 1966 when the offices on Borgo S.Spirito 8 were vacated. Ms Edythe M. Westenhaver came to Rome from the United States, becoming the first lay person at the World Secretariat.

On 1954 the World Federation of the Sodalities of our Lady was born. The World Congresses [4], organized every five years, prepared the General Principles with the collaboration of the Central Secretariat and the National Federations. The Second Vatican Council (1963-65) started opening windows in the Church. Lay people were given a new protagonism and importance in the Church. At the Bombay World Assembly the new General Principle were ready, but it was decided to wait until the closing of the Council. On 1967 a special World Assembly was called, in Rome.

A golden jubilee: the birth of the Christian Life Communities

The 1967 Assembly was a re-founding of the Sodalities. It was not an easy gathering because there were different traditions and experiences among the National Sodalities. Some ‘traditional’ Sodalities numbered hundreds and even thousands of members [5] and did not feel any urgent need for a radical renewal. While others had already experienced a fruitful renewal, particularly in making the Spiritual Exercises [6].

The desire for renewal prevailed. Looking for new ways, France provided leadership, vision and experience. Since World War II, the Sodalities had died in France, and what had flourished was a spiritual movement, “Vie Chretienne”, deeply rooted in Ignatian Spirituality. When the French delegates spoke, their message was welcome as prophetic. At the end, the French model and even the French name was adopted: the Sodalities of our Lady would become Christian Life Communities. The new General Principles were approved too.

On 1970 Ms Josée Gsell, a talented and charismatic French leader, came to Rome as Executive Secretary. For the next twenty years Ms Josée Gsell would foster the new vision and way of life at world level.

The new World Federation followed new juridical norms. The spirit’s authenticity was to be assured by the General Principles and not by the affiliation to the Prima Primaria. The authority to affiliate a community was entrusted to the World Assembly and its World Executive Council. The Holy See approved these General Principles and Norms; the Superior General of the Society of Jesus willingly renounced his authority in favour of the World Assembly and its World ExCo.

Many Sodalities, however, felt betrayed and abandoned. Some continued to operated outside the new model, like in Medellin (Colombia), the Koskas of Madrid. Others accepted the General Principles only as a formality, while going along their own way, like the Sodalities of Madagascar and Lebanon. Others, like Italy, would only accept the renewal years later.

The emphasis of this renewal was on the formation of each individual member and of community life (in small groups of up to twelve members). The person joining the CLC would go through different stages of growth, patterned along the spiritual itinerary of the Spiritual Exercises, starting from the Principle and Foundation, reaching the Contemplation to attain Love, learning about individual and communal discernment, and having individual spiritual guidance.

The renewed communities offered to laypeople in the Church a formation process, a lifestyle and communal structures of Ignatian inspiration. This Ignatian way to live the lay vocation and mission has been developed in the process of formulating the General Principles of 1967 and later improved in 1990. The General Assemblies have also offered a precious contribution to the development of this lay-ignatian-charism. After 1967 the World Congresses were organized every three years, after Providence '82, every four years, after Itaici ’98, every five years. Of special importance are Providence '82 where CLC ceased to be a Federation and became One World Community and Guadalajara '90, where the Renewed General Principles were discussed and approved. The General Assemblies until 1990 helped clarifying CLC's identity and formation process. The last ones, especially Hong Kong '94 and Itaici ‘98, focused on CLC’s common mission.

However, the General Assemblies have little or no impact on the lifestyle of most local communities. The spiritual support and friendship offered by the local group seems to meet the needs and aspirations of most CLC members. Regarding the wider community, especially at the national and world levels, most members show limited interest and only take part in those events, gatherings and mission drives which interest them at the moment.

Many members of our communities are not familiar with the General Principles or even with the Ignatian spirituality; only a few do the Spiritual Exercises every year or go beyond the local group and collaborate with the national and world community’s projects. There are deep differences in formation, lifestyle and apostolic dynamism between the National Communities. In many aspects CLC continues to be a “Federation of National Communities” rather than “One World Community”. One of the main reasons for this inconsistency is the lack of adequate channels for communicating the charism to the national and local communities. The danger of General Assemblies is pretending that the mere formulation of bold statements is an adequate answer to the needs and challenges from within as well as from around the association.

The second danger in the General Assemblies comes from the way reports are presented. Most delegates simply enumerate the events and activities that have taken place in the last five years at national or world levels. The main question seems to be: What good have we done? The exercise becomes a display of vitality and commitment. The prevailing feeling is complacency. We are really brave! In this general atmosphere, no national community wants to be dissonant by offering a more sober view of their life and service in the context of the surrounding urgent needs and challenges. The guiding question should, therefore, be: What are the needs and aspirations of people around us to whom we feel called to serve? What have we actually done? How much we were not able to do? Why?

It is especially in the field of mission that the CLC needs to continue the transformation from its roots, the Sodalities of our Lady. The mission statements in the General Principle are particularly generous, aware of the spiritual needs as well as of the social injustices and critical situations around us. The Itaici ’98 document clearly states: “First, we want to bring the freeing power of Christ to our social reality. Secondly, we want to find Christ in all our varied cultures and to let His grace illuminate all that needs transformation. Thirdly, we want to live Christ so as to bring him to every aspect of our daily life in the world”.

Once more, there is a great distance between the World Assembly’s statement and the reality of the local communities. Unlike the old Sodalities of our Lady, which had a tradition and a specific style in the field of service, the CLC has developed a deep spirituality and community lifestyle, but not yet its own apostolic strategies in the service of families and marriage preparation, youth, the marginalized, professionals or people with special needs. Many communities are not even aware of the existence of such bold statements in our documents [7].

It is true that many CLC members actively collaborate with other institutions in the fields of culture, catechesis or social action. In some national communities there are rich experiences of service in specific fields such as marriage preparation, education and social involvement. But these experiences remain local, and the only field in which World CLC has developed important strategies and tools is in the Spiritual Exercises, Spiritual Direction and Ignatian Spirituality.

Writing the CLC history. An inspiring way to celebrate our golden jubilee would be writing the history of the CLC along the last 50 years. This history can be read at “world level” through the General Assemblies, or at “national level”, gathering the information about the struggles, success and difficulties faced by the national community in the past 50 years. The history of CLC at world level has often been written. It is at the national level that the history of the past 50 years needs to be known. Some articles may already exist. The task of the national communities would be to gather these articles, witnesses and documents, adding what still is missing. It is still possible to document the situation of the National Sodalities before 1967. Though delicate in many cases, it is also possible to document and describe the transition process from the Sodalities to CLC:

- the background of the transition: the Sodalities’ situation before 1967, the leadership at the time;

- how the need for renewal was felt or less;

- the answers offered along the past 50 years;

- stages of change, crisis, adaptation and growth;

- Jesuits’ collaboration before and after the transition in terms of facilities, leadership, and collaboration.

Hopefully CLC keeps bringing up many committed men and women who love Jesus very dearly and generously serve people. Let us hope too that the Association develops ways and means to make this service more efficient and accessible to more people, becoming a better instrument in God’s hands.

Vietnam, June 12th 2008

• • •

Appendix A

Appendix B

[1]  Ignatius believed that God can be experienced by lay as well as by religious persons. Says Karl Rahner: “Ignatius’ most significant contribution to the Church is his insistence that the Christian can experience God in some genuinely direct fashion; that this is a grace not simply reserved for an elite but offered to the average Christian”.

[2]  Louis Chatellier, « L’Europe des devots », 1987

[3]  See the “History of the Sodality’s Secretariat” in Appendix A

[4]  See the “History of the World Assemblies” in Appendix B

[5]  Like the Sodalities of Father Lord in St.Louis, or in New York, the Koskas of Madrid, Barcelona, Naples, Bombay, the UCA in Miami, the Sodalities in Brazil, Lebanon, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina and Chile.

[6]  In Cleveland, Montreal, Germany and France.

[7]  Not to mention the ‘resistance’ of  some communities to this “social emphasis” of CLC’s mission. In Guadalajara, while discussing the revised General Principles, annoyed by the insistence on the “poor”, the Ecclesial Assistance of  France took the microphone and stated “There are no poor people in France”.


    Đồng Hành là ai? Tổ Chức | Tài Liệu | Lịch Trinh LT | Báo ÐH | Tập San ComigoMục Lục | Photo Album