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What does celebrating a “chapter” mean?

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The Benedictine Monks gathered to listen to the reading of a “chapter” (capitulum) of the Rule for Monks of St. Benedict after the hour of Prime in the early morning from the 8th century. Little by little this gathering of the monastic community became known as “the chapter” (of the monastery) and the place where it met the “chapter hall”.

There were two kinds of chapter in the monasteries. One was for consultation: the abbot or abbess sought the counsel of the community regarding some subject; the other chapter was for formation: the abbot or abbess made comment on the meaning of the extract of the Rule just read.

The “General Chapter” was established by the Cistercian Monks in 1195. All the Cistercian Abbots met once a year in the Abbey of Cîteaux, in France. The IV Latern Council, in 1215, established (in canon 18) that all religious Orders should celebrate “Chapters” at regular intervals (annual, triennial, etc.) after the example of the Cistercians as a means of promoting the reform of the religious life.

The word “capitulum” had already acquired significance by the time of St. Francis and enjoyed a long and varied tradition. From 1209 until about 1217, a “General Chapter” was celebrated twice a year: at the feast of Pentecost (May-June) and at the feast of St. Michael (29th of September). During the following period (1218-1223) the Ministers of Italy and surrounding regions celebrated a Chapter at Pentecost each year and “Provincial Chapters” were also celebrated each year at the feast of St. Michael. The Ministers of the “trans-alpine” Provinces attended the “General Chapter” at the Porziuncola every three years. Our normal practice today establishes a Chapter in the Province or Custody every three years and a General Chapter every six years.

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