ECCLESIASTICAL LIBRARIES AND THEIR ROLE
Rome, March 19, 1994
To The Most Reverend Archbishops and Bishops
The Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Patrimony of the Church tries to carry out the wish of the Holy Father John Paul II who wants to "strengthen the pastoral work of the Church in the vital context of culture and cultural goods” and to apply his guidelines concerning this matter (see John Paul II, Motu Proprio "Inde a Pontificatus Nostri initio", 25.III.1993, Preface).
With this aim in mind and conscious of the tasks assigned to it by the Apostolic Constitution "Pastor Bonus" (see Preface, and art.4) - repeated and stressed now in the above mentioned "Motu proprio" - we have tried to work so that the entire people of God - and primarily today's and future priests - "magis magisque conscius fiat" of the importance and necessity of the role of the Cultural Heritage in expressing and deepening of one's faith.
For this reason, a first document was sent out to reawaken the sensitivity of future priests on such problems during the years of their pastoral and theological training. Three other documents are being drafted which intend to deepen respectively the sense and value of sacred art; the importance of an appropriate care for Church archives; the resumption of a renewed effort for an appreciation of libraries in the context of ecclesial studies and communal life.
In this circular letter we would like, therefore, to key in on the subject of ecclesiastical libraries and their role in the mission of the Church. "Bring me the books and above all the manuscripts" (2 Tim. 4, 13).
This was St. Paul's recommendation to Timothy at a time when he was reducing his life to the essentials as he felt he had reached the sunset and he wanted to use what was left so that "all gentiles could hear the message" (2 Tim. 4, 17).
1. The Church, culture, cultural heritage, and libraries
1.1 The Church as well, instituted by Christ to bring the message of salvation to all people and to protect its living memory, within the traditions of societies and cultures, where the assimilation of faith can flourish, has care "of books and parchments" because it is enlivened by a deep interest for the culture of every people and nation. Indeed, in the course of her history, the Church "has used the different cultures to spread and explain the Christian message, to study it and deepen it" (Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes", 7.XII.1965, n.58). In other words: the proclamation of the Gospel, through the life and the thinking of the Church, involves, by its very nature, the development of a process of "inculturation". In definite terms this means nothing more than putting together those cultural facts generated by the "incarnation of the Gospel in autonomous cultures" and the "introduction of these cultures in the life of the Church" (John Paul II, Encyclical Letter "Slavorum Apostoli", 2.VI.1985, n. 21; see "Exeunte Coetu Secundo", final Report of the extraordinary Synod 1985, II. D4).
From here derives also that attitude of extreme caution which the Catholic Church has reserved to all documents, especially those mediated by scripture, which incarnate and pass down the values of peoples' wisdom. The mere existence of ecclesiastical libraries, of which many are of ancient foundation and of extraordinary cultural value, constitutes a decisive testimony to this irrevocable effort of the Church towards a spiritual heritage documented by a library tradition which she considers, at the same time, as both a good of her own and as a universal good placed at the service of human society.
1.2 Libraries of ecclesiastical property, where the monuments of learning of human and Christian culture of all times are protected and made accessible, represent an inexhaustible treasure of knowledge from which the entire Church community and civil society can draw into the present the memory of their past.
However, the specific and primary interest the Church has for the so-called "ecclesiastical libraries" is based on the fact that the "leaven of the Gospel" - of which the Church has been the custodian and communicator - in the measure in which it has inserted itself in the different disciplines of knowledge, has given origin to Christian history and Christian culture or a culture inspired by Christianity, producing thus an incredible rise of religious, literary, philosophical, juridical, artistic, psychological and -pedagogical thought, and so on.
Thus, library documentation - archival and artistic - represents for the Church an irreplaceable means to put generations, which have encountered the Christian faith and life, in contact with everything that the Christian “event” has produced in history and in human thinking. This is done with the aim of not depriving it of the experience already carried out by preceding generations in the river-bed of their respective culture. One can also say that the Christian tradition - guaranteed by its everlasting character for all generations - within the Church finds in written books a constant contribution for its diffusion and transmission, for its deepening of meaning and comprehension, for its living insertion within people's traditions. To protect a book, encourage reading it, and its circulation is thus for the Church an activity very close to - if not to say one with - her evangelizing mission.
1.3 From this supreme aspiration - which is the evangelizing mission of the Church - derives the origin of the uninterrupted care which the Christian community has had in creating, protecting, enriching, defending, and making her own libraries fruitful.
This is proven by the continuous recommendations made by the Popes to comply to such tasks and the exemplary care which some religious and diocesan communities have dedicated to their books. For this same reason one should avoid anything which comes in conflict with the protection and custody, the care and the growth, the enjoyment and accessibility of libraries.
In addition, what the Church undertaken to conserve in her libraries is, now more than ever before, of vital interest for the development of culture. And this is not only for the sake of a better knowledge of the religious and ecclesiastical tradition, but also for the benefit of history, the arts, and the sciences of the civilization to which we belong and which we ourselves still nourish. It is for this reason that the Church, while she offers to all people, wherever she is present, the possibility of using her libraries, having to provide for the serious obligations of protection and management which follow, objectively calls upon an effective contribution of civil society. This is done, so that the Church also, in the way that best suits her, can participate in the protection, conservation, and appreciation of this immense ecclesiastical heritage of universal value.
1.4 Naturally, the precise criteria and the concrete ways of reciprocal support between Church and civil society, in this work of protecting and promoting library goods, should be determined keeping in mind the various political situations and the laws in force in individual states. The Catholic Church, on her part, aware of her high and immediate responsibility in this regard, is very sensitive to the many signs of encouragement deriving from a renewed interest in the appreciation of an historic memory on the part of modern culture, even that which is not strictly academic or specialized. The Church proposes thus to increase and evaluate adequately, from this perspective, the public and social dimension of her own libraries.
This means conceiving of a convergence and a collaboration with civil society, not only in view of the conservation policy and the cataloguing organization of ecclesiastical libraries, but also in view of a new policy of appreciation and availability of their book collection. This convergence and collaboration will also be facilitated if ecclesiastical libraries will participate, through national computerized networks, in communicating bibliographical information with other national or ecclesiastical libraries. This would enable the historic, scientific, philosophical, religious, and literary memory, that is stored in libraries, to be widely available for research of experts and for the spread of culture, at the advantage also of religious sciences which, in this way, will be more present in the world of research and science.
On her part, the Church wishes to conserve fully her own direct responsibility on ecclesiastical libraries, considering the importance that these have as an instrument of evangelization.
2. The significance and the value of a library institution within the Church: a center of universal culture.
2.1 While in the overall picture of her historical development, there has not been a lack of some regressions, the Church has participated in a determinate way towards the moulding of cultural institutions, often with an innovative impulse and with long enduring results. This has occurred, directly or indirectly, also in regards to the specific evolution of library institutions.
Thus, for example, everyone knows the importance of the transition from the "roll" to the "codex" with regards to an easier and thus wider distribution of written documents, necessary for the development of culture.
The peculiar Christian concept of "Sacred Scriptures", venerable but not esoteric books, as a matrix of a knowledge which aspires by its very nature to a "universal" distribution, has certainly influenced the process of "communication" and "distribution" of all the high forms of culture itself. It has impressed an epoch-making impulse whose reflections have not lacked to make themselves known, even on the level of social institutions and the cultural reflections homogeneous to them. It would be enough to recall here the influence exerted by the tradition of cathedral schools, of "scriptoria", of monastic "studia", of theological faculties, of ecclesiastical academies: not only concerning the development of the idea of "library" but also the evolution of institutions connected to the production and the spread of knowledge.
2.2 In the more specific area of the idea of a library, one can usefully remember the fact that some qualitative developments in the concept and internal organization of this institution matured in an ecclesiastical environment. For example, it was the Cistercian Order which carried out the first significant transition from a library of quantitative conservation (the bulk of volumes conceived exclusively as a patrimonial good) to a library of qualitative conservation (consisting of a specific selection of books to be gathered and preserved). Another significant turnover was made within the tradition of the Mendicant Orders, when libraries were subject to a systematic attention towards the rationalization of the inventory and the deposit, in view of research and consultation.
In fact, one had to wait until the Renaissance and the age of Humanism for the conditions destined to realize these impulses to mature so that they could be transformed into organizational and theoretical principles of a general character. And even here, some ecclesiastical libraries (Vaticana, Ambrosiana) distinguished themselves among the first and most prestigious libraries, with the intent of unifying the interest for the gathering of a vast and precious book collection. This was a collection organized with cultural and scientific intentions of general interest, made accessible to a cosmopolitan public composed of researchers who were interested in the fruition and appreciation of the knowledge contained in the texts and thus not only in the preciousness of the objects collected.
In the meantime, the concept itself which governs the acquisition and the collection of texts becomes wider and more significantly encyclopaedic. The ecclesiastical library, besides the texts which refer to the traditional theological disciplines, gathers also, with equal care and diligence, the Latin and Greek classics, the texts of philosophy and science, documents of cultures and religions, monuments of history and art of various people and of the most diverse civilizations.
2.3 It is thus possible to trace for an ecclesiastical library, following the various stages of its characteristic development, here just briefly mentioned, a significant "vocation" of its own in representing a typical place where various forms of knowledge can confront themselves. This is precisely due to the universal impulse ("catholic") which forms the background of the Christian idea of the search for truth, which entails the interest and the acquaintance with every area of history and culture where the experience of such research can appear practical and documented.
The recovery of this objective historical "vocation" which the ecclesiastical library has had - besides favouring the removal of some commonplaces which still encourage the prejudice of those who want to see an ecclesiastical institution closed off from a spirit of dialogue and from a wide cultural acquaintance exempt from restrictions - can certainly favor a more intense and motivated effort of those who, in the Church, are called to operate in these precious laboratories of culture as are ecclesiastical libraries. In fact, these have been, not rarely, in the course of the history of the Church, cultural centers of a very high standing and are still able to be valid instruments for culture, in collaboration with other analogous institutions.
2.4 If this is the historical truth which qualifies the origin, the physiognomy, the cultural influence and the methodology of ecclesiastical libraries - especially those larger ones remembered above - one should recognize that not always has one wanted or was it possible to maintain all ecclesiastical libraries on this level. Unexpected alienations or the confiscation of the buildings where they were located; repeated strives; the suppression of many religious Orders with the consequent decrease of a substantial number of their libraries; certain trends of cultural attitudes, or certain kinds of forgetfulness and even some disinterest has made the survival and the functional character of many ecclesiastical libraries difficult.
It is hoped that the resurgent awareness concerning the cultural goods of the Church and of nations, will produce a renewed impulse to give back vitality to such centers of culture and make them connected to a common and respectful service to mankind, going beyond what can be definitely harmful to the universality of knowledge - contrasting the impoverishment of these cultural instruments.
3. The Pontifical Commission for Cultural Goods and Ecclesiastical Libraries
3.1 As was mentioned earlier, the Supreme Pontiff and the Holy See have greatly dedicated themselves to revitalize the pastoral and cultural effort of the entire Church for the care of ecclesiastical libraries, established on different levels and with different aims (1).
Some conflicts which have made many seats of libraries precarious, the global transformation which has affected every institution in the last decades, and the very way of conceiving of culture and the means to assimilate it have aggravated the problem of the "protection-fruition" of these libraries. And it seems that the time has come when either one tries to recuperate or renew their function, or they are destined to an irreparable decline.
John Paul II has captured the delicate character of this moment, establishing that the global problem of protection - use - promotion of all the cultural goods of the Church - and thus also library goods - be assigned not only to exhortative documents or to periodic authoritarian decisions, but constitute a real and stable issue of a Department in the Roman Curia, purposefully and authoritatively destined to this area: the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Patrimony of the Church.
3.2 Under this guise, this Pontifical Commission intends, with the present document, to occupy itself specifically with ecclesiastical libraries.
3.3 While aware of her own mandate "Commissio Ecclesiis particularibus et Episcoporum coetitus adiutorium praebet et una cum iis agit" (John Paul II - Apostolic Constitution "Pastor Bonus", 28.VI.1988, art.102), this Pontifical Commission, in wanting to echo the explicit will of the Holy Father, now addresses directly the Most Reverend Bishops of the dioceses and the Superior Generals of Religious Congregations, in order to share with them the concern and the preoccupation concerning the fate of all ecclesiastical libraries - recent and old ones (Episcopal, Capitular, Parochial, university, and student libraries; those of Religious Orders, Institutions, Associations and others).
It is necessary that, among the pastoral preoccupations, there should be a full return to those concerning the instruments of evangelization and culture of God's people, such as ecclesiastical libraries. This way it would favour that "dialogue with humanity" which so often finds in these instruments the way to meet oneself in a vital way with the "Christian reality" and with the bimillenial roots of a culture without which the world would be poorer.
It would be inexcusable to assign the cultural heritage as one of the minor concerns of pastors or to yield to the over-simplistic and superficial conviction that the "cura animarum" can overlook such instruments, judging them a "luxury" and not an essential instrument for evangelization, even in newly founded churches (see II Vatican Council Decree, "Ad Gentes divinitus", 7.XII.1965, n.21).
4. Guidelines for the activity relating to Ecclesiastical Libraries
4.1 It is necessary that every diocese and every religious congregation - if they have not done so yet - compile an inventory and identify the different typologies of the libraries under their responsibility. This should be done in order to arrive at a consequent planning of activities regarding, possibly, the necessary adequate spaces which are necessary both for library users and for the current library collection, in addition to forecasting a regular increase of library funds and acquisitions of facilities for work and as an aid for research.
When distances represented a difficulty, it was evident that every ecclesiastical library would try to have the maximum completeness and adequacy to reach the aims for which it was founded. Now that distances are easily overcome and computer systems permit, with great facility, aids and exchanges, it is easier to think of a planning policy of ecclesiastical libraries in order to make them more qualified and more usable within a territory.
Just as in the various areas of pastoral work one tends to have qualified workers, so it must be in the area of "libraries". It is necessary that the "ministry of a librarian" return to be considered fully and honorably within the Christian community. This is because he is not only a worker but also a sponsor of culture and, consequently, of evangelization of the Church when he works to increase the knowledge of the ecclesial community to which he belongs, and for the sake of the research conducted by those who want to deepen their own knowledge.
Even his own professional training will be, for him, a valid aid in his mission to communicate culture and to assist, whenever possible, the attempts of those who want to come in contact with a deeper understanding of the Christian message.
4.2 Certainly the diocesan Bishops and the Father Generals of Congregations are the first individuals wishing for a further revitalization process of their libraries.
This Pontifical Commission would like to point out the opportunity of speeding up this process of renewed interest and effort - favouring the specialized training of priests, religious, and lay people destined to assume the task of directing libraries and to whom, if possible, should be assigned a permanent post - as it is in the case of archives and artistic goods. For this reason for quite some time now a Vatican School of Palaeography and Archive Science and a Vatican School of Library Science have been carrying out their activities with success and competence. Both have been instituted, respectively, alongside the Vatican Secret Archives and the Vatican Apostolic Library.
An Advanced Study Program in the Cultural Patrimony of the Church has been recently set up with the same aim at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. We are working to increment the Associations of Ecclesiastical Libraries in various nations, with the possibility of transforming them in federations, so that they also can help one another to confront the problems which characterize this sector and offer a periodic up to date training of those already assigned to the service of these libraries.
4.3 It seems that in many diocesan churches the time has come to organize a "one large library of the local church", which can represent a more gifted primary location (more accessible to everyone) for finding the principle old and recent works of Christian thought. This would signify re-vitalizing the spirit of old ecclesiastical libraries placed at the service of the church and the city where one can find authentic and documented testimonies of the tradition and where one can find the message which emanates from Christian culture. In addition, this greater strengthening of bibliographical resources placed together at the service of the local church, would permit a more attentive and intelligent protection, conservation, and possible restoration of valuable old volumes, a protection which becomes more difficult when these precious goods are found dispersed here and there in various small libraries.
We are not unaware of the many problems such a decision can provoke. However, it seems that, by now, the times claim from the Church this presence and this cultural ferment within the city.
One should add the fact that many university or specialized research activities are increasingly oriented towards the bimillenial cultural heritage of the Church.
4.4 One should not ignore, then, minor libraries - parish ones or those connected to associations. These have often represented in the past a real place of education for entire rural generations for whom it was not easy to reach the major works and the major cultural sources but which, through the so-called "circulating library systems", were able to deepen their Christian thought and give themselves a pretty solid cultural background.
Today the semblance of these libraries seems to evolve towards a physiognomy of "small multimedia centers" where the book meets up with other helping instruments diffusers of culture.
It seems that an efficient "diocesan nenter", run by staff trained in the cultural heritage (including library, archive, works of art) will have the capacities to dedicate itself to the continuation and the transformation of libraries of parishes and associations.
In this respect, there should be a constant and steady dialogue between the responsible individuals of the Associations of Ecclesiastical Libraries nation-wide and the book and multimedia editors in order to identify and promote what seems to be useful and necessary to the culture of Christian communities and what positive factors of the "Catholic world" can be placed in circulation as a contribution to the culture of various countries.
It seems that an intelligent planning policy can bring about a positive increase both to the spread and the deepening of culture and editorial wisdom, avoiding repetitions, filling up gaps, and nourishing a certain anaemia of values which is currently burdening so many of the publications today.
4.5 One can not ignore a fact which concerns the life of the Church today in some Nations: a decrease in clergy and the subsequent lesser presence of priests, in the single parishes and institutions, who were also the natural guarantors of the conservation and the promotion of parish libraries and the libraries of associations. The result is often the impoverishment or the closing down of such institutions.
We believe that one should not simply give up to the fate of this tendency, but everything should be done to take care of the library heritage of suppressed parishes and institutions, very often a very precious one. One should look after its protection, embody in zonal or area libraries that which is otherwise forgotten or risks to become of no use, or gather in one diocesan center book collections otherwise abandoned - so that besides being protected they can continue to become a useful and fruitful source of knowledge.
4.6 As we recalled earlier, last year in 1992, this Pontifical Commission retained one of its primary task to address a cordial letter (which was, however, also a delicate warning of what had been signalled out throughout the Church) regarding the problem of making future priests more aware of the role of the ecclesiastical cultural patrimony in the work of evangelization as well as the responsibilities which await them in this regard (see the Circular Letter addressed to the Bishops, 15.X.1992).
It seems appropriate in this instance to repeat such an appeal, making it more precise and aimed at: the appreciation and the practical knowledge of the use of the library which the seminarians consult during their philosophical and theological studies; the importance of bibliographical and archival documentation, in order to form a conscience of the identity of one's own church and the universal Church: a reality that the future priest can not permit himself to ignore; the use of valid libraries in ordinary pastoral activity of the priest, where material can be obtained for his studies and were to direct those, in their turn, who ask to deepen their own knowledge. The Seminary, which is preparing future priests, must take upon itself to support this awareness.
4.7 The time seems to be mature enough for the Episcopal Conference to elaborate, for the ecclesiastical librarians of their respective dioceses and for their particular church, a "Directory of Ecclesiastical Libraries" which can evaluate the "appropriate pastoral" task, before the entire Church community, that librarians (priests, religious, and lay people) can carry out for the rise of Christian culture and the dialogue between cultures. This would mean a Directory that might guide the complex doctrinal - juridical - practical problems that involve ecclesiastical libraries, that might furnish guidelines for their relationship with state libraries, which might help their more vigorous development.
The "national" character of such a directory, rather than a "universal" one, seems to be more convenient for this purpose in order to permit a greater adherence to local situations.
This does not mean that Episcopal Conferences should not make known the problems and suggestions indicated by this Pontifical Commission which wants to make every effort to serve the cause of ecclesiastical libraries.
4.8 The Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Patrimony of the Church retains its duty to make known to the Bishops and Superior Generals, working in Churches of old constitution and of consolidated Christianity, a problem which one may call a "missionary library-economy." That is, in many dioceses where the "plantatio Ecclesiae" has taken place recently, not only is it not possible to create adequate "diocesan libraries" - as one suggested above - but neither "national ecclesiastical libraries", in that it is difficult or at times impossible to find patristic funds and great theological collections.
Can churches then plan - if at times they have ecclesiastical libraries no longer in use - to send funds important and fundamental in terms of their content (such as great philosophical and theological series, and patristic sources) to developing churches ?
This would seem to constitute a cultural and pastoral exchange between churches of a relevant significance, which would enable to give back a value to certain libraries made unfruitful because of their limited use.
National Associations of Ecclesiastical Librarians, in accordance with this Pontifical Commission, can become promoters of this cultural exchange.
4.9 As we know, the problem which touches most ecclesiastical libraries is the cost of acquisitions of new book collections and the management of these libraries which necessitates an adequate and competent, and thus stable, personnel.
Regarding minor libraries - those tied to parishes or associations - one needs to turn to the help of volunteers, as was admirably done in the past, drawing from the well-educated sensitivity of the Christian communities which created these centers, so significant for their own cultural identity.
These libraries, being instruments of culture for all, and not only for Christian communities, seem to have all the titles to participate in those contributions which National, Regional, or local communities are providing for the growth of libraries within the territory.
Concerning large ecclesiastical libraries, a new and clearer "public" profile of these should be delineated at least in the particular churches where this has not been done yet.
It happens that if libraries, as well as other Church goods (archives, art collections) serve exclusively the Church community, which then becomes the only referee, it is difficult to think that the national community should include them among the institutions to which must be given the necessary support.
But if the Church - while remaining the owner and the sole responsible for her libraries - opens this heritage to those who intend to use it, it would seem legitimate that this relationship of cultural instruments and animation be included among the cultural patrimony of a nation to which an economic and organizational support should be given.
We consider these problems to be of great interest and concern for the relationship between Episcopal Conferences, National Governments and international Organizations.
4.10 Finally, one of the tasks of this Pontifical Commission is to promote an increasingly growing relationship between the Church community and the International Organizations created for the sponsorship of culture - opportunely expressed by International Cultural Associations. We take the liberty to ask the Episcopal Conferences to help out in this task, favouring the establishment of National Associations of Ecclesiastical Libraries and their adhesion to the corresponding continental and international Associations. We are aware that these Institutions can sometimes ask for demanding collaborations for reasons of co-responsibility, and for extra time to dedicate, to which one must necessarily offer his dutiful availability.
if we had to summarize, in brief sentences, the points contained in this our letter, we could say:
- the Holy Father considers a "sign of the times" the universal flourishing of interest in the Cultural Heritage; the Church, as "expert in culture", can not ignore this appeal;
- we have, on this occasion, wanted to underline the nature, the task, the principal problems of ecclesiastical libraries, in order not to put all the weight of such tasks on the shoulder of the diocesan bishops but so that we can join together in giving back vigor to this very important area of evangelization and culture;
- we have highlighted some problems, suggesting some general solutions, conscious that the situations of Churches are different and we can not formulate all-comprehensive guidelines to all the problems and for all the solutions; we believe this our letter is a spark which can enkindle the interest and the dialogue within Your Episcopal Conference;
- we believe, once again, that the more urgent and radical problem is giving back a sensitivity toward this issue in Church communities - and their pastors - regarding the role that the Cultural Patrimony of the Church have as true and real "goods for pastoral work." Among them, now, we have spotlighted book collections which, together with archives, constitute the memory of the Church regarding its own progressive deepening of faith and can constitute a "memory" for all humanity when She wants to discover the significance of a Christian culture;
- we thus consider it useful that among the themes discussed by the Episcopal Conference emerge, in an organic way, the theme-problem of Church libraries so it can be dealt with afterwards by the individual dioceses. It would seem that - once the major points on which to concentrate the effort are specified - it would not be difficult to provoke a real movement of interest in Church libraries which might spur from identifying and supporting capable sponsors in this area;
- as always, we would be happy to receive a thought-out response to these our observations, so we can follow up the developments and tune in our action to real situations, and suggest valid initiatives based on experience.
We would like, once again, to echo the words of our Holy Father John Paul II: "faith tends by its very nature to express itself in artistic forms and historical testimonies having an intrinsic potential of evangelization and cultural dimension, in front of which the Church is called to lend its maximum attention" (Motu proprio, "Inde a Pontificatus Nostri initio", 25.III.1993, Preface).
To such a wish I associate my most respectful and fraternal regards.
(1) For further information we recall other documents emanated in the course of the 20th century: