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Vatican approves election of lay brother to lead Congregation of the Holy Cross

The Vatican has approved the election of a lay brother as superior general of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the global religious community which administers the University of Notre Dame.

The election and Vatican approval is believed to be the first use of a new rescript issued by Pope Francis in May, which allows for lay brothers to lead clerical societies of apostolic life and institutes of consecrated life, exercising the power of governance over clerical members.

Br. Paul Bednarczyk, CSC. Credit: Congregation of the Holy Cross


Br. Paul Bednarczyk, CSC, was elected by the congregation’s chapter general on July 1, having served as the congregation’s vicar general and first assistant for the last six years. He is the first lay brother to serve in the role, saying in a statement from the congregation that he was “humbled and grateful” to be given the position.

Owing to the provisions of canon law, which generally prohibit non-ordained religious brothers from assuming offices that entail the exercise of governance over clergy, the result of the election was not announced until July 4, after Vatican approval for the order’s choice.

The CSC’s statutes, say the order is “religious congregation composed of two distinct societies of religious, one of religious priests and one of religious brothers, bound together in one indivisible brotherhood.” 

Though technically “distinct,” the lay and clerical members share a “common founder, tradition, rule, government, way of life, and mission.”

Under the general provisions of canon law, only clerics can be elected as superiors of religious institutes and societies with clerical members. Canon 134 defines major superiors as “ordinaries”, which are those “who at least possess ordinary executive power” of governance. 

In general, canon law provides that only “those who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction.”

But in May last year, Pope Francis issued a permission allowing clerical religious institutes and societies to elect a lay brother to serve as superior, despite being technically ineligible, and seek Vatican approval for the election on a case by case basis — a process known as postulation.

When the rescript was issued, it was widely reported as an accommodation for religious orders with a historical tradition of lay leadership. 

The pope’s decision to allow lay brothers to lead clerical institutes and societies came at the same time as Francis promulgated Evangelium praedicate, the new governing constitution for the Roman curia, which came into force in June. 

That constitution created the possibility for laymen and women to lead curial departments and assume other offices and functions which had been legally restricted to clerics under the previous law.

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In the CSC’s statement Monday, the congregation said that although the “structures of the Congregation have long reflected this commitment to the common dignity of its priest and brother members,” canon law had required that “only a priest could serve as the congregation’s superior general.” 

“Past general chapters of the Congregation had petitioned the Vatican to allow a brother to serve as superior general, but those requests never received a response,” the statement said.

Br. Paul Bednarczyk, a native of New Haven, Connecticut, is a graduate of the CSC’s Notre Dame High School in West Haven, where he first came into contact with the congregation and discerned his vocation. 

The brother entered formation with the congregation in 1975, the year he graduated from Notre Dame, joining the congregation’s former Eastern province and making his first profession of religious vows in 1979.

In addition to serving in educational leadership positions on the East Coast and in Italy, Bednarczyk has also served as provincial vocations director and formation director, and served multiple terms on the provincial council. He has also served as the executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference.

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