Ecclesiastical Conferences are meetings of clerics for the purpose of discussing, in general, matters pertaining to their state of life, and, in particular, questions of moral theology and liturgy.
The origin of ecclesiastical conferences has been sought in the assemblies of hermits of the Egyptian deserts. As early as the third century, it was customary for these anchorites to meet together to discuss matters relating to asceticism and the eremitical life. When, later on, monasteries were instituted, somewhat similar conferences were held among the monks. There seems, however, to be little in common between these monastic assemblies and the pastoral collations, or conferences, of the present time. The more direct source of the latter are the quasi-synodal meetings of the clergy ordained by various decrees of the ninth century. such as those of Hincmar of Reims and Riculfus of Sion in Switzerland, and the Capitularies of Charlemagne. Such assemblies were looked upon as supplements of, or pendants to, the diocesan synods, and were intended principally for those of the clergy who found it difficult or impossible to assist at the regular synods. These clerics were ordered to meet at a convenient place, in their various districts, under the presidency of the dean or archdeacon, and their assemblies were called Calendœ , because held on the first of the month. Other terms applied to such meetings were consistories , sessions , and capitular conferences . We find them prescribed in England by the Council of Exeter in 1131 and the Council of London in 1237. In the sixteenth century ecclesiastical conferences received a new impulse. St. Ignatius Loyola prescribed them in his constitution (1540) for members of his order. Later, Clement VIII and Urban VIII commanded that all houses of the regular clergy have conferences twice a week on matters pertaining to moral theology and Holy Scripture . The main promoter of conferences among the secular clergy was St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, who treated of them specifically in a synod at Milan in 1565, when introducing the reforms decreed by the Council of Trent. Cardinal Borromeo ordered that the conferences be held monthly, and that they be presided over by the vicar forane or dean. Gradually the custom spread through the various ecclesiastical provinces ; and at present these meetings are held in accordance with laws promulgated in plenary or provincial councils or synods. Many of the popes have strongly urged on the bishops of various countries the necessity and utility of the conferences, and Innocent XIII commanded that when bishops make their visit to Rome ( ad limina ) they should report, among other things. whether clergy conferences are held in their dioceses. There seems, howevcr, to be no general law of the Church which makes these ecclesiastical meetings obligatory.
The holding of conferences has been introduced among the clergy of all English-speaking countries, in virtue of ordinances promulgated at councils or synods. Thus the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866) declares: "As an adjunct to diocesan synods and in lieu of their frequent celebration, let there be theological conferences of the priests, which will preserve the rudiments of the sacred science in the minds of all, promote a healthy and uniform method for the direction of souls, dispel mental inertia, and afford an opportunity for eliminating abuses. We greatly desire that these conferences he held four times a year by priests who can conveniently meet; and in the rural districts at least twice a year. All who have care of souls, whether seculars or regulars, should attend them" (No. 68). The Third Plenary Council (1884) treats in title v of the education of the clergy and devotes the fifth chapter to theological collations or conferences. It quotes the words of Pope Benedict XIV : "Some priests who are at first admirable directors of souls later lose their previous knowledge of moral theology, by neglect of study. so that from being masters of the science they can scarcely be called novices in it, since they retain only confused and imperfect recollections of its first rudiments." In consequence, the Fathers of Baltimore renew the decree of the previous plenary council as to the frequency of these conferences, and, after declaring them obligatory on all having care of souls, they add: "Nor can those confessors consider themselves exempt, who, although not attached to any certain church, hear the confessions of religious women in their convents or of laymen in public churches. those who frequently absent themselves without legitimate cause and the permission of the Ordinary should be punished." The Second Council of Quebec (1854) declares (Decr. 14): "Ecclesiastical conferences will promote zeal and love for study. Every one knows how useful they are for increasing mutual charity among priests and for instructing and confirming them in sacred doctrine. We desire all, especially those who have pastoral duties to assist at them faithfully according to the method and time prescribed by their bishops."
For Ireland the National Synod of Thurles (1850) ordained : "Since what the pastors have learnt as scholars can easily be forgotten, unless it be called to memory by use, we recommend that theological conferences be held according to custom, at least four times a year. In them such questions as pertain to practice should be especially treated." We find the following decree (No. 6) emanating from the First provincial Council of Australia (1844): "We ordain that theological conferences be held in every deanery, at least three times a year, where it can be done without great inconvenience." In 1852, the First Provincial Council of Westminster (Decr. 24) made the following rules for England : "We desire most earnestly that conferences on moral questions or on other theological or liturgical matters be held in all dioceses at certain stated times. According to locality, let the bishops determine, whether the whole clergy of the diocese should convene together under the bishop's presidency, or whether a number of conferences be held in different vicariates under the presidency of the vicars forane. The obligation to attend these conferences and take part in them is binding on all secular priests and on all regulars (saving their rights ) having cure of souls." As to regulars, we have the following provision in the "Romanos Pontifices" of Leo XIII : "We declare that all rectors of missions, by reason of their office, must assist at the conferences of the clergy ; and we also decree and command that there be present likewise the vicars and other regulars, having the usual missionary faculties, who reside in small communities." It will be noticed that the pope simply "declares" religious rectors to have an obligation to assist at the conferences, for this is in accordance with common law ; but as he derogates from that law in prescribing that other regular missionaries who dwell in small communities should also attend, he uses the words decree and command . The pope gives the reason why he makes the distinction between regulars inhabiting large and small communities; the former have their own domestic conferences, the latter either do not have them at all, or they are not likely to be fruitful.
Among the questions to be answered by bishops at the visit ad limina is: "Are conferences held on moral theology or cases of conscience, and also on sacred rites ? How often are they held, who attend them, and what results are obtained from them?" It is evident from this question that the main matters to be discussed are those pertaining to moral theology and liturgy. If these be given proper consideration, other subjects may also be considered, such as questions of dogmatic theology, canon law, Biblical science, and similar things. According to the prescriptions of St. Charles Borromeo, a case of conscience should be proposed at these meetings and each one present should, in turn, be asked his opinion. After this, the presiding officer makes a short summary and gives his decision. The Third Council of Baltimore wishes that questions be proposed by the bishops on matters of discipline and doctrine. Cases of conscience are to be solved in writing by all who attend: but only two, chosen by lot, are to read their solutions. Questions on Sacred Scripture , dogmatic theology, canon law, and sacred liturgy are to be answered by those who have been appointed for the purpose at the previous conference. The Provincial Council of Tuam, Ireland (1817), obliges all who cannot attend the meeting to send their solution of the cases in writing. The First Council of Quebec made a similar decree. The Council of Westminster requires that all who come should be prepared to respond to questions concerning the matters proposed. The Provincial Council of the English, Dutch, and Danish colonies (1854) prescribes that the dean send the solution of the cases either to the bishop or to some priest whom the latter shall designate. Among the decrees of the First Council of Westminster (No. 24) is the following: "The conferences are obliged to send to the bishop the solutions of the cases or the conclusions reached, to be examined and corrected by him. Each bishop in his own diocese is to determine the method to be observed and the matters to be considered in the conferences." Pius IX wrote as follows to the bishops of Austria in 1856: "Let conferences, especially concerning moral theology and sacred rites, be instituted by you, which all the priests should attend and bring in writing the explanation of a question proposed by you. They should also discuss, for such length of time as you may prescribe, matters connected with moral theology and ritual practice, after some one of the priests has delivered a discourse on the particular obligations of the sacerdotal order."
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