16 March 2012

Common reasons dioceses decline to profess individuals under c 603

[[Dear Sister, I don't think you took into consider-ation the very real possibility that those "discerning" a person's vocation may have let personal prejudice creep into their ultimate decision. If a lay person who has lived their vocation as a lay hermit as long as the writer has, is rejected, I have to question whether they really ever wanted to conclude in favor of the petitioner in the first place. Sometimes it is not the person's deficiency; sometimes it is a problem with people disliking the person under scrutiny. Your advice could be very healing for such a terrible moment in a person's life.]]

Many thanks for your comments. I admit I have not run into such a situation myself, and though I agree it is possible, I honestly don't think it is all that common. However, let me discuss it directly after I mention some of the more common reasons lay hermits (or those calling themselves lay hermits) are denied admittance to canonical profession/consecration. I think this will help demonstrate what in most cases is far more often apt to be at work than simple prejudice. (Let me be very clear, none of these examples should be assumed to apply to the original poster's situation!! Neither do any of these necessarily make the very real difficulty of diocesan denial of one's petition any easier to bear.)

The Problem of Self-Identification

First of all, generally speaking, the problem with lay hermit vocations is the IF in your conditional sentence, "If a lay hermit has lived this vocation. . .for such a length of time. . .". This is, unfortunately, a VERY big IF. One problem with self-designations is that one can call oneself a lay hermit without any checks or balances and be something other than what the church recognizes as a hermit, lay or otherwise. Obviously this can come from many causes -- including a simple lack of adequate spiritual direction or other challenging feedback, or access to others who can educate one regarding the meaning of terms like "silence", "solitude", "the silence of solitude", "the world", "stricter separation from the world", etc. But whatever the reason, self-identification is a problematical practice and may or may not represent the truth of the situation. One of the reasons I have written recently about the hyperindividualism and even narcicissism of our culture is to indicate that this is a real danger. One of the reasons I have distinguished between just living a pious life alone and living eremitical solitude is because this is true. Not everything that goes by the name "hermit" is authentic. (Remember the story I posted here re Tom Leppard?) Sometimes the application of the term "hermit" is a way of trying to validate isolationism, misanthropy, narcissism, social failure, as well as a piety which is more than nominal Christians live, but which falls far short of the eremitical life required and marked by canon 603. Unfortunately such reasons are not uncommon.

In such cases these people are not truly hermits. The designation "hermit" is self-assumed and neither the church nor society approves nor monitors the way they live their lives nor calls them directly to do a better job of it! Private vows are significant personal commitments but they are private in every way. Neither the church nor the persons witnessing such vows have a role in supervising these commitments to see how well the person is living them. Thus, there is simply no way to easily verify 1) if the person lives what canon 603 describes as essential to the eremitical life, nor 2) what the designation "hermit" really means on a daily, year in -- year out, basis. While some have contempt for the legal aspects of canonical standing, accountability is a big piece of standing in law and the church tends to make publicly accountable those who demonstrate they have been faithful to and accountable for a genuinely generous eremitical vocation without canonical standing. Sometimes the diocese in question simply cannot establish this to their own satisfaction when dealing with lay hermits.

Making the Transition to Hermit Life

Others not only do not live, but do not even want to live an eremitical life; they simply want to be able to wear religious garb and be called "Sister" or "Brother"; canon 603 seem the easiest way to do that as a lone person. (For every person who genuinely wants to live a canonical eremitical life, there are dozens who approach canon 603 as a stopgap measure only.) Such persons typically never make the kinds of breaks with their former way of life which are necessary to eremitical life. When I speak of people living pious lives alone rather than living an eremitical silence of solitude I sometimes am referring to these kinds of people. Some watch several hours of TV a day (or participate similarly in some other personal activity or hobby (even those with significantly more value than TV) in ways which make these the defining activities of their lives) while they add in an hour of prayer here of there, and so forth; the basic approach here means that the radical break with the world (especially as it is represented in their very selves and living space) is not made. Such persons may even be fine writers, artists, etc, but this does not of itself make them hermits in the church's sense of that term.

Tweaking one's prayer and penitential life here or there is not what is called for. Stricter separation from the world (that which is resistant to Christ and not yet under his sovereignty), as I have said a number of times, does not mean merely closing the hermitage door on the world outside oneself while one continues the life one lived before. I recall my former Bishop in his homily at my perpetual profession referring to my giving over of my living space to this call. At the time I had not thought of what I was doing in these terms, but he was exactly right. The giving over he was speaking of represents part of the "stricter separation from the world" the canon calls for. While such persons are perhaps learning to live as lay hermits they are not, or at least are not YET, good candidates for canon 603 profession. If the motivation and effort to move beyond such lives into real eremitical silence and solitude, assiduous prayer and penance is not evident, then a diocese may simply be dealing with a person who wants a diocese to rubber stamp a lone, perhaps pious, but non-eremitical life and give them the permission they desire to dress and style themselves as religious. In such cases dioceses will rightly decline admission to profession/consecration.

Simply not Called to Public Profession

Beyond this, there are people who MAY indeed have lived faithfully as lay hermits for some period of time who are simply not equipped to represent the eremitical tradition in some public or normative way. While one would never want to deprive them of the designation lay hermit (something they are free to explore and live or at least try to live by virtue of their baptism -- and which itself is a source of our eremitical tradition), neither would one be able in good conscience to admit them to public vows. In one case I am aware of, for instance, a lay hermit regularly and publicly expresses contempt for canon 603 and all he mistakenly feels it stands for. While he is willing to "turn in (his) paper work" occasionally to see if his Bishop "desires to have (him) professed", it is his stated feeling that canon 603 is actually a betrayal of the church's eremitical tradition. This person has been denied admittance to public profession once or twice in the past and, it seems very likely to me, this had nothing to do with simple personal prejudice on the part of those discerning these vocations for the diocese.

Some are not good candidates for consecration and public vows for different reasons: Perhaps they are seriously mentally ill or significantly personality disordered; perhaps their theology is so off-the-wall, or the "rule" by which they live so inadequate and eccentric that canonical standing (which makes of the Rule a quasi-public document via Bishop's decree) would set a precedent which is detrimental to the vocation generally and may cause problems for other dioceses dealing with similar situations and persons. Some lay hermits have notions of obedience which are far from those more healthy ones used today in the contemporary church with regard to public vows; they require permission for even the smallest decision or change in daily living, and show a concerning lack of autonomy in their capacity for discerning and implementing God's will. One person has joked that they suspect these persons would put their Bishops on speed dial if they allowed it! For such persons, admission to vows and the legitimate superior-subject relationship with one's Bishop and/or delegate which this establishes can be truly detrimental for the person and for the c 603 vocation. At the very least it does not represent the mature obedience of vowed life.

Physical Incapacity

In the absence of such difficulties there are persons who are simply physically incapable of living the life outlined in canon 603. Certainly one does not have to be completely well and one could well be a hermit with chronic illness and conceivably even a caregiver, but one does need to be able to live a disciplined life of assiduous prayer, penance and eremitical solitude without turning, for instance, to hours of various distractions from the symptoms of one's illness.

While it is personally difficult for me to suggest that some persons' illnesses apparently prevent them from living an eremitical life, it does happen. In my experience, sometimes physical illness can be a dominating reality to such an extent that one is unable to live an eremitical life effectively. This can certainly change, but what I am suggesting is that so long as illness is the defining (not just an important and influential) reality in one's life, one may not be ready to live canon 603 life. In such a case it would be important to clarify with the diocese that they will look at one's petition down the line should the nature of illness change. (Note well, I am not suggesting that the illness itself needs to change or be healed but that the way one lives with this illness has to do so if that is possible. In some way God and all of the fruits which life with God produces --- including the silence of solitude and the other-centered, generosity and compassion that result from it --- must become the defining realities of one's life, not one's illness. Ordinarily this occurs in some essential way during the period of lay eremitism one lives before petitioning the diocese for admission to profession but there must be signs of it happening before one is admitted to vows and it should be very clearly established by the time of perpetual vows.)

Steps usually taken in the process of discernment of canon 603 vocations which help insure the wisdom and objectivity of the process.

To be honest I think these cases are far more prevalent than instances of unfounded or merely personal bias on the part of diocesan personnel. With regard to the way discernment of eremitical vocations is carried out in dioceses I am familiar with, here are some of the steps usually involved: 1) a more or less loosely supervised period as a lay hermit with regular spiritual direction, involvement in a parish, and (later on in this period) regular meetings (including home visits) with the Vicar for Religious or Consecrated Life; 2) psychological screening when this seems prudent or helpful (occasionally dioceses do this routinely for c 603 aspirants, just as congregations do for their own aspirants), 3) time for the writing of a Plan of Life or Rule based on lived experience of eremitical life and preparation for living the vows, 4) submission of the Rule to canonists (usually third parties outside the diocese, especially those who specialize in c 603 or consecrated life) who will critique and make suggestions for such a document, 5) assembling of various recommendations (pastors, spiritual directors, physicians, psychologists, former Vicars of Religious, or others who have dealt with the individual), 6) usually concurrent assembling documents of Sacramental history in the Church including the Sacrament of matrimony and decrees of nullity, 7) a period of discernment beyond all of these perhaps leading to a recommendation to the Bishop to admit to profession, 8) a personal meeting with the Bishop who (in my own experience) only then reads all that has been submitted, whether by the petitioner or others, meets with the aspirant several more times, and does his own separate and final discernment in the matter.

I should note that a person's admission to temporary profession is actually a continuation of the discernment process, though this occurs in a different way. Still, temporary vows are made for a certain period of time and during this time the hermit will meet with her Bishop, regularly with her delegate, and regularly with her spiritual director; she will petition for renewal of vows or admission to perpetual profession near the end of this period and another process of decision making rooted in discernment will occur at the diocesan level. Changes in the Rule may be needed, and this again may be submitted to canonists for approval. Another period of temporary profession may be requested of the hermit by her diocese. Discernment --- so far as the diocese is concerned --- ceases only with perpetual profession.

What Should a Person do if they are still convinced they are the victim of prejudice in the diocese's decision?

But what should a person do if they are convinced that they cannot get a fair hearing from diocesan personnel? This is a tough question actually. The first thing, however, is to ask to speak to whoever has been dealing with one's petition directly. Ask the same kinds of questions I have already noted in earlier posts. See if there is anything which could cause a change in one's opinion in this matter. Ask if there is any single document or recommendation which is the sticking point and speak again to that person --- open to having them be honest with you --- hard as that might be. If the Bishop has not yet received the case (or has not received a positive recommendation) write him a direct letter and lay your concerns and perception of the situation before him. If the Bishop is the source of the negative evaluation then still try to see him for a clarifying conversation. This could be one of those rare situations where someone should consider moving to a new diocese and trying again --- but one should contact the new diocese beforehand to see if they would look over your documents and consider ANY petition to be professed under canon 603.

Another reader made an additional suggestion which could be helpful for both the individual and diocese. They suggested that a "come and see" period at a contemplative house or monastery might be helpful in clarifying issues and concerns. This could provide a more objective source of discernment for either the diocese or the individual. I don't know how common are houses which would participate in such a project, and certainly some individuals would not be able to leave their homes to try such an extended (say, a month  or two long) period, but for those able to do so, this could really be helpful. The community would need to be willing not only to welcome the candidate into their daily lives, but also assist in their acclimation and (in the person of their superior or formation director) meet with both the candidate and the diocese to frankly assess the experience. This could either be affirming for the individual and reassuring for the diocese in ways which allow it to adjust its thinking, or it could confirm all of the reservations the diocese has already.

I have personally suggested such periods are important for candidates for canon 603 profession given our culture which shuns solitude and is allergic to silence. We have candidates who think that silence is turning off one's iPod while leaving the TV on (an exaggeration in most cases, but a good illustration of the general problem nonetheless)! In such cases an extended period in a monastic community where one meets true silence --- as well as the solidarity of love in solitude and what canon 603 calls the silence of solitude --- lived by a number of healthy people is extremely helpful. However, I had not thought about these other aspects before. I am grateful to the reader who wrote me about this.

My experience is that generally diocesan personnel work very hard at discerning such vocations. They serve the church and those in positions dealing with discernment are usually pretty savvy in their regard. They are ordinarily good enough at their jobs and their people skills not to fall into the trap of rejecting an individual vocation out of mere prejudice (rejecting the eremitical vocation itself is a little more common unfortunately). Of course this does not mean it cannot and does not happen --- only that in my estimation is it far less prevalent than other common causes of refusal of admission to public profession and consecration.