15 June 2010

Canon 603 as a Stopgap Means of Achieving Profession.

[[Sister, I am involved in [a named group]. . . seeking to become a religious institute. I have been told I need the following before I contact the Bishop about becoming a diocesan hermit:. . . the Seven Pillars of New Foundations (rule, constitutions, horarium, formation program, remunerative work, stable source of habit parts, and four persevering members). When I have these in place. . . I will present my information to the Bishop. I live in my own home and the others in [the group] do that same in different cities, and dioceses. We decided we were not yet ready to live a cenobitical life so we are 'going the diocesan hermit route.' Can you give me any advice on these pillars or on approaching a diocese about this? Also, which Bishop do I contact, my own or that of the foundress of our group?]]

Hi there. I think there is some confusion on a number of points both in what you have cited and in your own understanding of Canon 603. Assuming then you only know what you have been told by the person you cited, I am going to answer at some length here. Pardon me if some of this is already clear to you. You will find this repeats other articles found in this blog as well.

First, Diocesan hermits are not part of communities. That is they are not religious hermits, but instead they are solitary hermits who MAY but need not join together for mutual support with other hermits from the diocese in what is called a laura. This possibility, contrary to popular opinion is NOT written into Canon 603 itself. It is seen by some as implicitly allowed, but the Canon itself clearly gives every preference to solitary eremitical life so lauras (some suggest) may NOT really be in accord with Canon 603. (They may instead be a form of eremitical life which requires use of Canon 605 which deals with new forms of consecrated life.) A laura (a name that comes from the Greek word (lavra) for the paths which link the individual hermitages) is not the same thing as a religious institute or community. Juridically, that is in Canon Law, the hermits remain solitary hermits even if they come together in a Laura (which, by the way, would be in a single diocese under the Diocesan Bishop).

Discernment is therefore a matter of determining a call to a solitary vocation, and while the process can (and ideally, I think, should) include an extended time in community or a monastery setting (or even in a Laura) --- say for a month or two -- discernment of this vocation for lay persons is primarily done outside these contexts. I say this not only because lay people usually do not have the kind of access to these that discernment requires, but more significantly, I think, because it makes no sense to discern a solitary eremitical vocation, or the form that is to take --- for instance whether lay or consecrated --- mainly (much less only) in community or even in a Laura. The same is true of formation. One can hardly say one has discerned or been formed in a vocation as a diocesan hermit if one has not largely done so in the ordinary setting of that life, namely, in solitary living where the parish is one's primary community and where one is responsible for one's own horarium, living situation, chores, business "in the world", ministry, income, etc.

This last comment does not apply to you directly it seems, but it does raise the pertinent question about both discernment and formation: What are you in the process of discerning a vocation to? Is it community life or is it diocesan eremitical life? You said you all decided to "go the diocesan hermit route" because you were not ready for cenobitical life. Besides the fact that the cenobium is traditionally and psychologically an important, even crucial, preparation for solitary life --- and not the other way around --- there seems to be some confusion about what you are either discerning or being formed in and for here. If you are trying to become a diocesan hermit you will do so under your own Bishop and no other. Further, you will need to be pursuing this because you believe in your heart of hearts that God has called you to this, not as a stopgap measure until something else is possible, but because it is a LIFE VOCATION and therefore, the way to your own and others' wholeness and holiness for the whole of your life from this point on.

Another question this raises then is, unfortunately, that of fraud. It is not uncommon to hear of people who believe Canon 603 is the "easy" way to get professed until they can find or found a community. I have written here before about this problem, especially in an incident occurring in Australia. Canonists, Vicars, and Bishops are increasingly aware of this difficulty and some are taking simple steps to make sure the person being professed under Canon 603 is doing so as a solitary person who has discerned a life vocation to diocesan eremitical life. One step is to include an introductory line as part of the vow formula itself: ". . .I earnestly desire to respond to the grace of vocation as a solitary hermit. . ." Another is to require the candidate for profession to sign an affidavit which states clearly that they are not and do not intend to become part of a religious community (even a fledgling or putative one), and are accepting profession as a solitary hermit. This leaves the option open in the future of joining with other diocesan hermits in a laura, but it makes it clear that the vocation being embraced is a life vocation and, as far as one knows and intends, not that of a religious hermit (one in community). If one made vows under Canon 603 while part of the kind of initiative you mentioned above, they would then be committing fraud, their vows would be invalid and they would conceivably be open to sanctions. These are, unfortunately, merely prudent safeguards of which I completely approve.

So, assuming that you have discerned you are truly called to life as a diocesan hermit under Canon 603, what about the other things you need before approaching your own Bishop? What you cite is correct about a couple of things. You will need to be able to support yourself in some way, and you will need a proven track record (or secure source) here while you are living as a hermit. You will need a Rule or Plan of Life which you have written on the basis of your own lived experience. (Ordinarily it takes several years of living as a hermit before one is really ready to write such a document, but it is one of the most crucial elements of the Canon and one of the most formative experiences a hermit can participate in.) Constitutions are appropriate for a religious community but diocesan hermits don't require them (the Rule is analogous to a Constitution in some ways). However, you will likely need a delegate who will serve you on a more day to day basis than chancery personnel usually can do. This person will assist you to work out the nuts and bolts of your calling, balancing activity with contemplative life, community and solitude, changes in horarium, concerns with physical welfare, finances, etc. She will also serve as someone whom the Bishop can call on if he has concerns or wishes additional input re the hermit's life. The passage you cite is also correct about a horarium. Ordinarily this schedule is simply part of your Rule of Life and has been worked out over time to make best use of time, and including what is fundamental to eremitical life in light of individual needs and capacities.

The passage you cite is not correct about formation program or habit parts or four persevering members, however --- not with regard to Canon 603 anyway. You will need to have provided for and achieved your own formation for a while before you approach a diocese, though dioceses may point you towards other resources you can pursue on your own. Your Rule of Life will also make clear your need and provisions for ongoing formation --- at least that this is a clear ongoing concern with some basic ideas on how this need will be met. As for habit parts, not all hermits wear habits (it can certainly be an important witness but is hardly a foundational element of eremitical life --- or of religious life for that matter) and those who do require their Bishop's approval to do so.

If you choose to wear a habit you will need to speak to your Bishop about whether and when that may be allowed. Ordinarily permission comes only when admission to profession is sure or with profession itself since the right to wear a habit is part of the rights and responsibilities associated with canonical standing. This is a reason part of temporary profession can include investing with the habit. (The cowl, if used, comes with perpetual profession -- as it always has in monastic life.) Too often today I hear of people styling themselves as religious and wearing habits on their own initiative who have no concept that it is actually a responsibility with which one must be vested --- not one they can honestly assume on their own. Again, four persevering members is unnecessary and does not refer to solitary diocesan eremitical life in any case.

But let's also back up a bit in looking at when it is likely time to contact your diocese. Assuming you are (and have been) working regularly with a trained and/or approved spiritual director, and that you have lived as a lay hermit for several years -- long enough to know eremitical life of some sort is your vocation -- you will be in a position to discern whether you are called to lay or to consecrated eremitical life. I think it is important to spend some time on this dimension of your discernment because the church recognizes both lay and consecrated eremitical vocations, but also because the need for lay hermits, their ministry and witness, is very great. (See other articles on this topic for an explanation of what I mean here.) After that, and if you truly determine it is the latter you are called to, you will need to determine whether that will be in community (as a religious hermit) or as a solitary (diocesan) hermit. If and once you have determined the latter is most likely, then it will be time to contact your diocese with your petition to discern further with them (since they mediate this particular call to the individual, they also need to discern the reality of the vocation!) and to be admitted to profession under Canon 603.

Note again that all of this is done within the context and competency of your own diocese with your own Bishop --- who becomes the hermit's legitimate superior, and whose "subject" you now are anyway. While it is possible to move to another diocese after profession, one must get the permission of both Bishops involved in the move to do so. (Remember that a Bishop must determine that this vocation is something the diocese can benefit from and is ready for. Some (perhaps many) have not yet done so. Moving to another diocese is not something one undertakes lightly, not only because of the monastic value of stability, but also because one's life is affirmed as a gift to the local Church at profession.) I personally can't even imagine how a religious-institute-to-be hopes to have individual members professed separately under different Bishops (not to mention under a Canon which deals with solitary and diocesan hermits who, because of something similar to monastic stability implicit in the Canon, cannot move to another diocese without the permission of both Bishops involved) and then, having planned to do so from the beginning, seeks to bring them together in another place under another Bishop and Rule as a religious institute! The whole set up, premeditated as it is, up smacks of manipulation, insincerity or hypocrisy, and not a little lack of understanding of or confusion regarding the gravity and nature of the vocations they are speaking about. Besides being a canonical nightmare it is a completely irresponsible and dishonest way to proceed.

In any case, I do urge you in your work with your director to discern whether or not you are called to life as a diocesan hermit. If so, you will then need to sever ties with the group you mentioned so that that piece of the confusion is cleared away and you can proceed more honestly and with more genuine commitment to this vocation rather than to another. (If, on the other hand, you wish to remain with this group, or otherwise determine you are called to cenobitical life, you should give up the idea of being professed under Canon 603; it is not meant for this situation.)

I hope this helps. As always if my response raises more questions or requires clarification, I hope you will get back to me.