06 March 2013

Called to Canon 603 and yet "sickened" by Canon 603 eremitical life?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, are hermits called to profession by their parishes or Bishops? I guess I am asking if a person could feel adverse to becoming a canon 603 hermit but be called to it by parish, diocese, or Bishop? I heard someone calling herself [name omitted] suggest this. She doesn't think canonical status is a good thing and says she is even sickened by it. She says she believes it will not and should not last as an option because of all the abuses by Bishops and hermits, but also that she would be willing to accept it if her Bishop said he wanted this. Her point is that there are graces for the church and for the hermit which come from public profession so she is open to these graces.]] (redacted)

If I understand your first question, the answer is no, this is not the way things work with regard to this (or any!) vocation and especially not ecclesial vocations. While a diocesan hermit is called forth from her faith community by representatives of the Church on behalf of God and the entire Church during the Rite of Religious Profession, and while both hermit candidate and Church are involved in a serious mutual discernment process up through this point (and beyond it if the vows being made are temporary), this is not like a community discerning that perhaps someone from their midst should serve as deacon and then assisting and supporting them in going through the training and formal discernment process, for instance. Still, please note that even in such cases the person must themselves truly discern the vocation and the Church still may or may not concur. This means they must see its value, believe profoundly it is a gift of the Holy Spirit given to the Church and world, and also feel certain in their heart of hearts that God is calling them personally to this. Only when this is the case is it really possible for the Church hierarchy to truly discern the truth of this for this diocese and at this point in time.

Remember that when we are called to a vocation and especially to an ecclesial vocation like Religious life, ordination, or consecrated virginity we take on not only our own personal vocations but a place in the living tradition of that vocation itself. I honestly don't see how someone who actually felt "sickened" by the vocation itself, who thought it would and should die out, or who was merely undertaking it because they were asked to do so could represent it authentically. Surely we could not say this was the Holy Spirit's work in their lives because they simply have no love for any of this, not for the vocation, not for the way the Holy Spirit is working through this specific vocation, not for those others who do feel so called, and not for the unique gift the vocation represents and which those representing it are called to live with heart, mind, body, and soul.

The underlying question here is the nature of true obedience which is at the heart of all genuine discernment. While all of those vowed to obedience will be asked to do things from time to time they may not fully agree with, they simply cannot go against their heart of hearts and still be truly obedient to the will of God in their own lives. Obedience is not merely about "doing what one is told"; it is about listening intently to the voice of God in one's life and acting on that. A major part of that is surely listening to one's own deepest convictions. More, doing what one is told and simply disregarding or denying the contrary voice of one's own heart is not authentic discernment either although it has sometimes been mistaken for this. In the case you have described, presuming the person is actually in honest dialogue with the Bishop (or diocese) about this, both the Bishop (or his representatives) and the candidate are called to listen intently together to determine the will of God in this diocese and in the life of this person.

On the graces attached to public profession:

Yes, there are graces attached to public profession. But these are not something that can be externalized, concretized, or reified, and then piled into a basket to be showered on the candidate (or others) like rice after a wedding. The graces are not extrinsic to the actual call/response itself. In other words if the Church is not mediating a true call and the hermit is not responding to one the profession will not be the grace-filled event it is meant to be. Grace always has to do with the powerful presence of God and in the act of public profession this powerful presence is unleashed in the heart of the hermit and in the life of the Church as well. Thus, we see the hermit becoming more herself, experiencing a freedom she may have only opaquely sensed was possible, and otherwise bearing fruit in many different ways in her own life, the life of the parish and diocese, with regard to this vocation, etc.

In the ecclesial and personal act of profession the person commits her entire self to God and therefore, to her vocation, to the church in Christ, and as a result God is able to work in her life in ways which are not generally possible apart from such a commitment. Another way of saying this is that in making a whole-hearted commitment, the person opens herself to the active and powerful presence of God in ways she has longed and been called to do. Of course this will bear fruit. But what a different picture of profession stems from the situation described in your question! The idea that a person who did not truly feel called, is sickened by the vocation itself, is acting on someone else's desires and not those of her own heart simply does not comport with the idea of authentic profession; it will hardly be a grace-filled occasion in the way one truly called experiences it or the way a Church depending upon authentic discernment of the will of God at every level experiences it.

Abuses by Bishops and Hermits:

As a reader of this blog you are probably aware  I have no great sympathy for actual misuses and abuses of canon 603. I have written about several that have occurred over the last three decades as well as tendencies which can lead to actual abuses or misuses. I have also written about the consequences of such misuse or abuse. Still, it is not the case that this is common. Far more often we are merely dealing with a learning curve with both Bishops and hermits coming to greater experiential understanding not only about the eremitical vocation but to its shape and significance for the contemporary Church and society at large. Canon 603, as I have written, balances non-negotiable or essential elements which have been present throughout the history of eremitical life with a Rule written by the hermit herself which allows her to shape these elements faithfully but personally according to her own authentic discernment of God's call in her life. This is PART of the nature of the call itself and a piece of what public profession requires of the hermit, how ever she determines she is meant to do this.

The variations we see in canon 603 hermits (age limits, habits or none, titles or no titles, vows or other sacred bonds, location of hermitage, horarium, differences in ministries apart from prayer alone, level of participation in parish life, and a number of other things) are mainly a function of the healthy interplay of these two dimensions of the canon as hermits, their Bishops, delegates, pastors, Vicars, and others discern what the Holy Spirit is calling them and the Church to in regard to canon 603. Remember that there are very few rules or laws in place about the use of canon 603 beyond the content of the canon itself. There is no sense that this is changing and I think that is a good thing. However, general experience and prudence figures into all of this in significant degrees. Thus, for instance, we generally find this is a second half of life vocation and though there is no rule about this, the Church will assess the wisdom of professing younger vocations as solitary hermits on a case by case basis. (Ordinarily they do better to try their vocations in an eremitical or monastic community.) Errors may occur in this and in other things, but this does not necessarily mean anything has been misused or abused, much less that variation means abuse is rampant.

It is when the actual nature of the life defined in the canon, or the essential elements themselves are disregarded that we get actual abuses. So, a canon meant to govern solitary eremitical vocations should not legitimately be used to create communities and skip the canonical process already established for that; a life of full-time ministry outside the hermitage with contemplative prayer on Saturdays should not use canon 603 simply because there is no other canon available to profess individuals; persons who have been unsuited to religious life, or who have failed in other life endeavors, nor those who live alone ought not automatically be assumed to be called to canon 603 profession much less be admitted to this. While individuals may seek to use the canon in these and other illegitimate ways, at the level of the chancery itself my own sense is that in the main canonists and Bishops do not often allow these persons to be professed and Vicars or Vocation personnel do not entertain such petitions. Exceptions are problematical, no doubt, and they must be addressed, but they are still exceptions.

Bottom Line:

I don't personally believe any Bishop would actually ask a person who felt the way this person says she feels about canon 603 eremitical life to even consider becoming a diocesan hermit --- at least not if she is honest with him. Clearly there are a number of significant reasons for this. It may be that speaking this way allows someone to temporize and thus deal in increasingly effective ways with some sort of disappointment that she is not called to this or deal with the fact that her diocese will actually not profess her. But whatever the reason, I think her expectations and approach are, at best, unrealistic and misleading regarding the nature of vocation, discernment, obedience, public profession and the graces and import of public profession within the church.