14 January 2008

Followup Question on Canonical Status, Ecclesial vocations, etc

A follow-up question to the one on canonical status arrived in my email box:

[[Thank you for explaining that canonical status does not mean "status" in the usual sense of the word. I really had not heard that before. It is probably true that everyone thinks of canonical status as indicating what you called, "relative ranking" and "perks," but not the responsibilities or legal standing leading to these. You said too that the discernment period is often protracted. That raises two questions for me:1) why does one need to undergo such a process, and 2) why does anyone else need to be involved in discernment in the first place? Isn't this between the individual and God? The idea of a "unique charism" is new to me too. Doesn't this conflict with what you called the "hiddenness" of the hermit? And what about people who do not feel called to the kind of parish or diocesan ministry you referred to? Can't they be canon 603 hermits too? Shouldn't they?]]

I'm pretty sure I have written about some of these matters before (I will try to link you to the pertinent article down below), but let me also reprise that here. The answer to both your questions has the same root, namely, vocations like the eremitic, religious, ordained priesthood, or call to consecrated virginity, are what are called "ecclesial vocations." This means that although the individual can feel personally called to them (and of course MUST feel so called!), the Church herself plays a role in mediating God's call to the individual. If you look over the rite of religious profession or of ordination you will see there is a place where the candidate is formally called forth on behalf of the Church, but speaking as the mediator of God's own will in the matter. She stands and responds, "Here I am Lord; you have called me, and I come to do your will," or something similar. This is more than a bit of superficial pro forma ritual. It is the symbolic expression of the fact that the church herself mediates God's OWN call to this candidate and extends this call formally at a public liturgy. In the question and response which follow immediately, the Bishop will ask the candidate what she requests of God and his Holy Church. She may respond, "The privilege (or grace) of perpetual profession," or something similar, adding a request for "the grace of perseverance," etc. At that point the Bishop, says something like, "With the help of the Holy Spirit, we confirm you in this charism and choose you for this consecration. . ." Only after this dialogue is concluded, a homily is given, and an examination of the candidate's readiness to assume the responsibilities of this call are carried out along with (in perpetual profession) the prostration and litany of the Saints symbolizing the whole Church's involvement in this act, does the actual profession of vows take place.

I think it is not understood sufficiently that vocations like this in the church are NOT matters of individual discernment alone. When I say the vocation is an ecclesial one, I mean several things: 1) the Church herself discerns who is called to this vocation; 2) the Church regulates and oversees the vocation because specific expectations and responsibilities are involved, 3) the Church mediates the ACTUAL CALL of God TO the person, and 4) she receives the hermit's vows authoritatively and publicly consecrates her to the service of God and his Church. There is no doubt that a person can feel a call years before the local church (the diocesan church) is ready to move on such a vocation, and the person needs to remain true to that in the meantime, but it is ALSO true that in Roman Catholic theology, vocations to consecrated, religious, and priestly life, the Church herself mediates God's OWN call; she does not merely recognize or validate that the individual's discernment is sound --- though of course, she does this too. So, to answer your second question first, yes, the call is between the person and God but not ONLY between them. Even more accurately it might be said that the call to an ecclesial vocation involves God, the individual and God's Church in a mutual dialogue of discernment, call, and response. We might also say that unless and until the Church formally calls the Sister forth to make her perpetual profession and to consecrate her to God (or at the very least DECIDES OFFICIALLY to admit her to these things), the call is at best incomplete or only partial.

Your first question was also good: why does such a process have to take place (and why, I will add, is it often so protracted)? The fact is, it is easy for an individual to make a mistake regarding vocation. I would say that with regard to an eremitic vocation it is even easier. But even when one is correct about one's own discernment, it takes some years to grow into the vocation, especially as, in the case of canon 603, one may not be coming from a monastic background or background in other formation to religious life. On the diocese's side a number of things must be clear to be sure they are dealing with a DIVINE vocation: the person must be psychologically and spiritually sound, they must be able to support themselves in some way, shape, or form, and must demonstrate the ability to carry on with this vocation in relative independence from superiors or other church leadership (as well as in obedience and fidelity to them) for the WHOLE of their lives.

The local diocese must also feel this vocation is right for the local church (diocesan eremitism is relatively new so reflection on what it means for any dioceses involved is ongoing). Details need to be worked out: what kind of communication and how much will take place between the hermit, her Bishop, Vicar, etc? How will the vow of obedience work out in terms of everyday and unusual requirements or requests on the hermit's behalf? What about ongoing formation, education, spiritual direction, routine "permissions" or oversight, and the like? The simple fact is most diocesan personnel have no experience dealing with candidates for the eremitical life, and sometimes themselves see the vocation as unnecessary, a waste of time, or too eccentric to attend to seriously. And, since candidates have often lived out commitments to other forms of religious or consecrated life before coming to the conclusion that they are called to eremitic life, or they have come to eremitic life rather late in life after significant changes, trauma, etc, greater care may be taken than would be the case otherwise --- and rightly so!

And of course I have not even discussed the unique charism of the diocesan hermit here (though I have done so in another post below). The fundamental vocation is defined as one of silence, solitude, prayer, penance, and greater separation from the world. However, an ability to relate well to people, to be a vital part of a parish, professional competence (in and out of cell), and genuine compassion are also part of this vocation. It is not generally enough to be temperamentally a loner (and in fact, this may be a contraindication of/to such a vocation. Those who are not temperamentally loners can make wonderful hermits and they are not coming from a place where their temperament also disposes them to isolation rather than solitude!). One embraces eremitical silence, solitude, prayer, penance and greater separation from the world in order to spend one's life for others in this specific way. Whatever FIRST brings one to the desert (illness, loss, temperament, curiosity, etc) unless one learns to love God, oneself, and one's brothers and sisters genuinely and profoundly, and allows this to be the motivation for one's life, I don't think one has yet discerned a call to diocesan eremitism.

While this was not part of your question, let me say something here about the phrase "the world" in the above answers. Greater separation from the World implies physical separation, but not merely physical separation. Doesn't this conflict with what I said about the unique charism of the diocesan hermit? No, I don't think so. First of all, "the world" does NOT mean "the entire physical reality except for the hermitage or cell"! Instead, "the world" refers to those structures, realities, things, positions, etc which PROMISE FULFILLMENT or personal completion apart from God. Anything, including some forms of religion and piety can represent "the world" given this definition. The world tends to represent escape from self and God, and also escape from the deep demands and legitimate expectations others have a right to make of us as Christians. Given this understanding, some forms of "eremitism" may not represent so much greater separation from the world as they do unusually embodied capitulations to it. (Here is one of the places an individual can fool themselves and so, needs the assistance of the church to carry out an adequate and accurate discernment of a DIVINE vocation to eremitical life.)

Not everything out in the physical world is "the World" hermits are called to greater separation from. Granted, physical separation from much of the physical world is an element of genuine solitude which makes discerning the difference easier. Still, I have seen non diocesan hermits who, in the name of "eremitical hiddenness" run from responsibilities, relationships, anything at all which could conceivably be called secular or even simply natural (as opposed to what is sometimes mistakenly called the supernatural). This is misguided, I believe, and is often more apt to point to the lack of an eremitical vocation at the present time than the presence of one. (Let me say that even in these cases, these journeys can grow and mature INTO authentic eremitical vocations. It may take some time, and it ALWAYS requires really good spiritual direction sometimes along with psychological assistance and therapy, but it is possible!)

You also asked: {{. . . the idea of a "unique charism" is new to me. Doesn't this conflict with what you called the "hiddenness" of the hermit? And what about people who do not feel called to the kind of parish or diocesan ministry you referred to, or who are unable to do it because of illness or other limitations? Can't they be canon 603 hermits too? Shouldn't they?]]

One of the things mentioned in Canon 603 is that the eremitic life is lived for the praise of God and the salvation of the world. The idea of praising God is not problematical, I don't think,(that is, I don't think you need me to say more about what this means, true?) and obviously one does (or SHOULD DO) this whether one remains in cell or goes out occasionally. One's whole life SHOULD BE a psalm of praise, a magnificat to the Lord, as I have written before. The idea that the eremitic vocation is not geared towards self-indulgence, escapism, pathological introversion and the like is underscored by this phrase. The phrase "for the salvation of the world" does the same. At the same time, I think these two phrases, while applying to all eremitical life, especially ground the vocation to DIOCESAN eremitism as one with the unique charism I have outlined.

ALL hermits, solitary, monastery-based, non-canonical, laura-based, etc, are concerned with the salvation of the world. We all pray for the world; we all serve as a still-point leavening our world with the peace of contemplation, and mediating the energy or reality of the Kingdom through our prayer. My point in the earlier blog entry was that for the diocesan hermit, the relationship to parish and diocese symbolized in a vow of obedience to God in the hands of the hermit's Bishop comes into greater focus and occasions specific expectations and responsibilities other hermits might not share. Still, the actual outworking of this charism occupies a spectrum, from praying for parish and diocese while remaining secluded, to ministering in more active ways occasionally while maintaining an essentially eremitic life.

Obviously the individual hermit's gifts, talents, capacities, training, education, inclinations, resources, and the like help determine where along the spectrum she falls. Also, while the charism is part and parcel of the vocation, I believe, how it is expressed or embodied over time can shift as well. There will be rhythms to the hermit's ministry: sometimes greater reclusion will be called for, sometimes greater apostolic work. The point I wanted to make is that with public profession, the parish and diocese have rights and expectations in the diocesan hermit's regard which do not obtain with non-canonical status, for instance. One's eremitism is not merely between oneself and God, but is meant for the well-being of others as well, especially of one's parish and diocese. So long as one demonstrates a true willingness and capacity to be a hermit FOR these others in identifiable ways, then yes, the hermit can and should be a diocesan hermit in spite of personal limitations or disability.