05 March 2010

Cloister Outreach, CAVEAT EMPTOR!

[[Dear Sister Laurel,
I have been following the Internet activities of a woman who. . . runs a large, labyrinthine web site called "Cloister Outreach." On this site, as well as in other Internet forums, she claims to be founding many new religious communities under the aegis of the Diocese of Charlotte. . . . Unfortunately, [the founder of this website] also seems to be attracting people with the promise that they can become religious by Internet correspondence. Some of them even have a sort of "habit." I don't believe she has real diocesan approval. What is your view of this?]]

First let me say that I am all for anything that fosters genuine vocations. I am also quite sympathetic with those who are trying to find ways to live a dedicated life if they are older or have other difficulties which seem to rule out established canonical communities. Experimentation, non-traditional approaches, etc, are often very good ways to go in such cases, though one needs to take care in doing so. In terms of eremitical life, the need to be flexible and think outside the box is helpful in some ways --- so long as one is careful and respectfully rooted in living tradition! Lay eremitical life itself is supremely flexible and need not be legitimated beyond the individual's felt sense of call --- and this is a good thing. However, in terms of the organization you mention this is not the first time I have heard (or had) this question asked and I have had similar concerns myself over at least the past couple of years.

Because of this, and because the person who runs "Cloister Outreach" has said many times and in various places on the internet (precisely in response to such questions) that people should verify her claims to be supported by her Bishop and supervised by a canonist, a couple of us decided it was finally important to do just that. The delay in acting on our concerns came because until recently we thought perhaps no one serious about, or suited to, religious life would link themselves to any of the listed projects ("communities", "charisms"), but that changed especially when we realized some people who might have genuine vocations were not looking into established communities or vocations to the consecrated life because they had "joined" Cloisters Outreach. Thus we became concerned for people unknowingly getting sucked into something fraudulent or at least misleading and perhaps entirely factitious. There was also concern for the professional reputation of the canonist referred to and the prudence of the Diocese in this matter.

And so, as a result of our inquiries (about three weeks apart), we received responses from two members of the Charlotte chancery. First, the Chancellor of the Diocese of Charlotte, Msgr "Mo" (Mauricio) West who simply said the diocese had no knowledge of the person mentioned (". . .is unknown to the diocese."), and secondly (because the name provided is not the legal name of the person running Cloister Outreach, as well as because chancery departments can fail to communicate with one another in larger dioceses), we spoke by phone with Sister Sheila Richardson, ESA, hermit-canonist on the Tribunal who is supposed to be guiding these projects (but especially the eremitic expression) "every step of the way".

She did know the person in question but clearly disavowed any support for her, or the projects mentioned; In fact she is not in contact with the person running the Cloisters Outreach (Cloisterites) website at this time and seems not to have been for a while now. More bluntly put, perhaps, Sister had been contacted a couple of times by this person and cut off contact after just a couple of visits!). Given this state of affairs, which is hardly one of active supervision in service to the Bishop or diocese, it becomes hard to understand how the Bishop of the Diocese may be said to be supporting or "encouraging" this enterprise. We should remember that contact with a diocese regarding dreams or ideas does not constitute support for those ideas or dreams, nor far less does it constitute approval. Neither does the fact that a diocese fails to step in and stop a project even if to them or others it seems ill-advised, imprudent, eccentric, etc, constitute tacit approval. While the diocese may be taking a Gamaliel-like approach, the likelihood is more often that the diocese does not even know about the project.

Finally a glitzy website does not constitute legitimacy. Of course qualified (or unqualified!) individuals may begin such projects (private associations of the faithful) at any time and the support or approval of a Bishop is not required to do so. Still, moving beyond a private association to one with a public identity, especially as a religious institute DOES require the knowledge and approval of the local Ordinary. In any case, merely imagining a community or charism does not constitute such a thing in reality; those wishing to "join up" without serious research and verification should take seriously the old adage, "caveat emptor!" Meanwhile one should not claim to be under the supervision of a diocese if one really is not. In this case, the bottom line is that, Cloister Outreach or any of its projects (e.g., Cloisterites) are NOT SUPPORTED or supervised by the Bishop or Chancery personnel of the Diocese of Charlotte. Any assertions to the contrary are, for the moment, simply false.

This raises a lot of questions, I think --- especially about fledgling congregations, and becoming a religious or, if one really feels called to solitude, a diocesan hermit: how should one go about these things, who should be responsible for formation, and in fact what IS formation and how does one participate in it effectively, why habits are worn and what they mean (and how it is we empty them of meaning), how does one discern an ecclesial vocation in the church and under whose guidance, etc, but these can be dealt with later. At this point in time it is important to simply note that, all these issues and others aside and especially the motivations for the project notwithstanding (for these motives might be stellar), claims to have the support of the Bishop of Charlotte or to be (and have been) under the supervision of the hermit-canonist associated with the diocese, especially with regard to those living as anchoresses or hermits in "formation" with (some project of) Cloisters Outreach, are currently verifiably untrue. (Should this change, and I am made aware of the matter, I will be more than happy to report that it has!) Notes From Stillsong Hermitage: Cloister Outreach, CAVEAT EMPTOR!