16 October 2012

Short Discernment Periods for Canon 603 Profession are imprudent and Uncharitable

[[Dear Sister, when you wrote the following recently, what did you mean by disrespecting the vocation and lacking charity for the candidate? It seems to me that long periods of discernment are meant to put the candidate off. So you disagree?? How is it loving to make things longer and harder? (Sorry I could not copy the whole passage). . .]]

The referenced passage is the following:

 [[(The diocese) must have a sense of the normally extended time frame for moving through a discernment process and not be tempted to ignore it --- an act which disrespects the vocation and fails to act with charity towards the candidate. Finally they must understand the central elements of Canon 603, especially the silence of solitude and its function as charism of the eremitical life. Bishops are called and canonically required to be aware of and foster new forms of consecrated life. While it is a serious commitment in time given the rarity of these vocations, chancery personnel (Bishops, Vicars for Religious or Consecrated Life, Vocations directors, etc) must foster a readiness to patiently discern and assist such vocations instead of simply rejecting their possibility out of hand.]]

Again, thanks for your questions. As noted, I have substituted the actual passage you could not copy for your own shortened version so I hope that is helpful. Also I have written some in the past about dioceses who merely put people off by telling them things like, "Just go off and live in solitude; that is sufficient" or actually prolonging the discernment process simply to discourage people, so please check the labels regarding time frames for becoming a diocesan hermit and persistence in dealing with dioceses, for instance.

Longer Discernment is not necessarily Unloving

It is true that dioceses can put people off by drawing out a discernment process. My own sense is that this is much less common than simply cutting off the discernment process prematurely and saying "no" to admission to profession or simply never allowing a person a chance to participate in a process of mutual discernment with the diocese so let me speak to that first. One small but essential piece of dioceses really understanding the vocation is being clear that eremitical solitude is different than other forms of solitude in our world, and that the need or experience of transitional solitude (usually unchosen), for instance, or other chosen forms of solitude comes in every life for many different reasons. Because this is so discerning a vocation to eremitical life is more complicated; beyond this initial discernment, distinguishing between a call to lay eremitical life and consecrated eremitical life is another necessary step in things. Thus, discerning eremitical vocations of whatever sort takes time and care.

It is not unloving to be honest about this with a candidate for canon 603 life. As I have noted before, so long as the diocese is dealing with the candidate in good faith and not simply stringing them along this really will serve them well in the long run. It also will serve the c 603 eremitical vocation well --- something a diocesan Bishop, chancery and all hermits themselves are responsible for.  A diocesan hermit does experience a new grace and freedom with consecration, but even so, the time leading to these are important for growth and can be very fruitful so long as the diocese is dealing in good faith. After all, for one seeking profession under canon 603, whether before eremitical consecration or even apart from it, the person is living the eremitical life and not merely setting other plans aside temporarily. One does not approach a diocese in this way just "to see" about eremitical life, or "to experiment" with it. One approaches a diocese with a petition for profession under canon 603 because over some time one has come to believe that God is calling her to consecration to a LIFE of the silence of solitude. While one can  and should certainly spend some time as a lay hermit to experiment, c 603 life is really not a vocation one tries out on the way to something else or uses in order to comparison shop.

Meanwhile, longer periods of discernment will serve the vocation itself well because it will  1) cut down on incidences of non-eremitical solitary lives which are merely called "eremitical", (e.g., transitional solitude or the physical solitude from bereavement, etc which is not yet and may never be eremitical), 2) cut down on incidences where canon 603 is used as a stopgap to profession (e.g., folks who want to found a community or who treat c 603 as a preliminary to something else or those who want the privilege of being religious without the obligations of community life --- especially problematical in this day and age of individualism), 3) diminish uses of canon 603 as  merely a fallback option (e.g., those who have lived consecrated life and left for various reasons but still wish to live consecrated life; most of these will never rise to the level of eremitical vocations and some will be escapist because the person is unwilling to make the transition back to lay (secular) life, but it needs be noted well that SOME eventually can and, given time, WILL do so) 4) help prevent professions which contribute to disedifying stereotypes of the eremitical life and vocation including especially using the canon to profess individualistic and narcissistic persons --- again, a serious temptation and truly an imminent danger given today's culture. The eremitical vocation today is significant and edifying but it cannot be either if it is used to profess anyone just living alone, no matter how pious they are, or those seeking to be recognized as religious without the obligations or checks and balances of religious life. More positively, c 603 is meant to be used for rare LIFE vocations which clearly attest to the counter-cultural working of the Holy Spirit in our overly competitive, consumerist, individualistic and narcissistic times.

Shorter Discernment May be Unloving to Candidates and Destructive of the Vocation

It is not loving to allow someone to make vows to live a vocation they do not have. It is not loving to bind someone (or allow them to bind themselves) to the obligations of a life-vocation to which they are not called. It is not loving to them or to those to whom they will (attempt to) minister. I think that goes without saying --- at least is SHOULD do. Most folks think of the rights associated with eremitical life, habit, title, and so forth as cool things they would like to be allowed -- signs of religious privilege and prestige, not as symbols of responsible lives they are called to live on the behalf of God and others. They may also envision the life as one of "peace and quiet" or "rest and relaxation" which really affects no one else. But someone with that notion of the life demonstrates complete ignorance of it. These folks certainly MIGHT have the stamina and grit to live out real eremitical life, but they are not yet ready to make a profession to do so much less be consecrated to the state of life this involves. The simple fact is there are real sacrifices involved in committing to eremitical life and one must have already come to understand these in some intimate way if one is to discern they are sacrifices God and his Church calls one to make.

I know that some dioceses have gotten older candidates and perpetually professed them fairly quickly --- after a year or two. There  may be real exceptions with great backgrounds, life experience, and sufficient spiritual maturity, etc, for this to work, but generally I am certain it is not sufficient time to discern such a vocation. This is especially true when the person is still dealing with bereavement, has really desired to live in community which did not work out, is newly diagnosed with chronic illness, etc. While chancery personnel might want to be "pastoral" to the person's own situation, I am convinced that besides this they are often asking themselves, "Besides, what harm will it do?" or "Well, the vocation is isolated and of no real benefit, so who can it hurt?" or "One more person in a habit! That's a good thing." The problem with professions which are premature in such situations is that people are hurt, the vocation itself is harmed by being trivialized and rendered incredible, and the habit is turned into a bit of pious costuming rather than a symbol of genuine sacrifice and witness (again, all matters of disrespecting the vocation). Put more positively, perhaps, we have to say that because the gift (charisma) the solitary eremitical vocation is to the Church and World is neither understood nor valued, dioceses admit persons who will never live the gift or bring it to those who need it so very badly. Establishing such precedents only help to ensure this fragile but vital vocation will be suppressed or rendered incredible and the Divine gift associated with lives of the "silence of solitude" will be lost once again.

Two Final Clarifications: 

Let me be clear. We ought not extend periods of discernment interminably. Even so, a period of 2-3 years in solitude as a lay hermit (not merely a lone person) while participating in spiritual direction, followed by 2-4 years of mutual discernment prior to admission to temporary profession and then a period of temporary profession for 3-5 years is entirely reasonable in approaching perpetual profession under canon 603! During the latter 9 years (discernment through temporary profession) the diocese HAS to be willing to follow the candidate carefully (including visits to the person's home/hermitage for interviews). If, after the initial period of mutual discernment the diocese is seriously doubtful about the vocation they should be honest about their doubts and concerns and end the discernment unless everyone involved agrees to extending this for another year or two. If the diocese still has serious doubts and concerns then the process should be discontinued. If the individual is truly called to eremitical life --- if eremitical solitude really is the environment and goal of her life --- she will remain a lay hermit, continue working on the issues that were raised, and in a few years might be able to petition the diocese to revisit the matter.

Also, it IS the case that in time some few of those putative vocations which looked initially to be merely stopgap or fallback "vocations" WILL MATURE into authentic eremitical vocations. It takes time for this, however, and the person who will eventually come to be professed with such a history needs to be very clear that God has redeemed the initial situation in this way. A niggling sense that perhaps one was ONLY using canon 603 as a stopgap solution to personal desires, deficiencies, etc, or that perhaps a diocese admitted one to profession out of pity or because they didn't understand the vocation well enough cannot be allowed to cloud one's profession under canon 603. Dioceses need to understand clearly that one may leave religious life BECAUSE one is truly called to eremitical solitude; they need to know that eremitical solitude represents the redemption of  isolation and that hermits thus live something that is a gift to a church and world marked and marred by individuals' isolation. But validating isolation and redeeming it are different things. Thus SOME especially authentic and edifying vocations will necessarily come FROM such isolation (chronic illness, life failures, etc) and become strong witnesses to the redeeming power of God. Again though, teasing apart the various motivations, deficiencies, and potentialities takes time which makes long discernment both prudent and charitable, especially in such instances.