My first contact with the CLSGBI goes back to 1969 when Monsignor Ralph Brown, who at the time was Secretary of the Society, became aware of the founding (in 1966) of the Canadian Canon Law Society and he asked if it would be possible for him to attend our Annual General Meeting to be held in Quebec City, October 13-16, 1969. As Secretary of the CCLS, I responded immediately saying that he would be most welcome. While in Quebec, Monsignor Brown spoke with Monsignor (later Archbishop) Charles Halpin, then President of the CCLS, and suggested that all our Societies would benefit immensely from mutual contacts. His idea took hold, and in 1971, I represented the CCLS at the Conference held in Ilkley. Since then, I have been in the fortunate position of having been able to attend almost every Conference of the CLSGBI.
Back then in 1971, we were just a few short years after Vatican II and people were beginning to realise the monumental implications that the Council would have on Canon Law. This was a period of great excitement, especially as it came to be realised that the teachings of Gaudium et Spes would have significant bearing on the work of the Marriage Tribunals. In fact, at that time, the almost exclusive focus of the CLSGBI’s attention was matrimonial and procedural law.
Since I was the founding editor of Studia Canonica, and selected the articles for publication, the papers presented at the CLSGBI Conference became a goldmine of interesting articles. Through the years, this tradition has been continued and the writings of the members and their knowledge have been given wider distribution.
The second or third time I attended the Conference in Ilkley, there were two expressions that caught the imagination of the members. Monsignor John Humphreys spoke of a minimum quid required for capacity to enter marriage, and Monsignor Cyril Murtagh spoke on the importance of the “verum semen” which lead to the affectionate name of “verum Cyril”.
Through contacts established at the Annual Conferences, it was decided that some dioceses would send students to Ottawa to study Canon Law in Canada. In all, nearly 30 priests and sisters from “these islands” have, to date, done their canonical studies in Canada. This has been a great enrichment both for Canada and for the CLSGBI.
In 1978 we held our Conference in Edinburgh: the first and only time. Two events stands out in my mind regarding this Conference. The first is that, during the same week, Queen Elizabeth II was in Scotland on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of her reign. There was a military tattoo each evening at Edinburgh Castle and Monsignor Gerard Sheehy, who had driven his car over from Ireland, would drive me down to the Castle to see it and to see the Queen. I guess there was no greater love than to lay down one’s feelings for a “royalist” visitor from the colonies. The second event was even more remarkable. The Synod of the Church of Scotland was being held that same week; Queen Elizabeth presided over parts of it. On the Wednesday evening, when some of us went out with the committee for supper – and everyone at the time was dressed in full clericals – the waitress asked us if we were from the Synod. The answer was “yes”, and one of us said that we had just voted that day to allow liquor, so we were all going to celebrate. I guess we set ecumenism back about twenty years, but it was a remarkable evening.
The first time we held the Conference in Ireland, we met the Legionaries of Christ’s Novitiate in Foxrock. Unfortunately, the last day of the Conference, when a number of us were having supper at Archbishop’s House, there was a terrible bombing in Dublin, with numerous casualties. This was the first time that I had come face to face with such violence.
In the late 1970s the four Canon Law Societies agreed that it would be most beneficial for our Conferences of Bishops if we tried to come up with one common response to the various drafts of the Code that were then being circulated. Thus, there was a meeting in Dublin on Procedures, and the following year, in Ottawa, on the People of God. Then, in 1981, the four Societies gathered together in Chicago – with over 600 Canonists present – to examine where we were with the forthcoming Code. Immediately after the meeting, a number of participants left for Rome to take part, either directly, or behind the scenes, in the final meeting of the Commission. It was at this particular point in time that we were really able to reap the benefits of some ten years of close cooperation among the four Societies. Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, and members from the countries we represented, allowed themselves to be briefed each evening on the material to be examined the next day.
In 1982 the Silver Jubilee Conference for the Society was held in London Colney. I still have in place of honour in my room, the beautiful souvenir crystal cup that was given to me as an honorary life member of the CLSGBI. The words inscribed on it are indicative of the true spirit of the Society. “In servitium Populi Dei in iure Matris Ecclesiae radicatum”. The two focal points of this inscription – service of the People of God, and rootedness in the law of the Church – have been cornerstones of the Society’s activities.
Seeing that the “New” Code was about to be issued, the Society decided that it would be an excellent project to write a “Vade mecum” to serve as a pastoral commentary on the Code. Since the drafts were now readily available, people were assigned various parts of the Code and were asked to begin preparing their section. The work took more time than was originally expected, and some of the participants eventually had to drop out. It was then that Monsignor Sheehy and Monsignor Brown, on behalf of the CLSGBI, asked the Canadian Canon law Society to cooperate with the CLSGBI. This led to the publication of a beautiful commentary, Letter and Spirit. I was asked to assist in the editing process and spent a lot of time in Dublin working with Monsignor Sheehy on this project.
In the years immediately following the promulgation of the New Code, we were provided with an abundance of new topics to consider. There was another surge of interest in the early 200s when the issue of sexual abuse began to raise its ugly head. Most of us were totally unprepared to face the various canonical issues that this caused, both for the community as a whole, and for those directly involved in the matter. Someone who would look at the topics being discussed at Conferences today would certainly note a subtle change in focus. Themes such as gender change and marriage, right in the Church and so forth, are now much more common. It will soon be time to start thinking of what a “New” Code would look like, as the 1983 one becomes more and more obsolete due to the fast pace of change in the world and in the Church.
My years in the CLSGBI have been wonderful ones. I learned so much from attending the annual Conferences. Many strong and enduring friendships have been established. I use this week each year as my own time for renewal and continuing education. I hope that the Society will never lose its interest in serious scholarship and in sound pastoral practice. Through these media the members will be able to continue their mission of serving the Church in a very special way, one that can enable all of us to promote the salus animarum which is the supreme law of the Church.
13 September 2007 Francis G. Morrisey, OMI