08 March 2013

Followup Question: Resistant to Canon 603 in one's Heart of Hearts

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I am shocked that anyone who feels the way the person does in the post about Bishops requesting they become a canon 603 hermit would even consider such a thing. But aren't there stories about superiors asking people to do things like this despite their not wanting to? True, they don't happen so much anymore but I know I have heard some. What would happen if the person became convinced that God was calling her to this because her Bishop asked her to accept profession?]] (cf, Sickened by being Called)

Hi there yourself! Of course it is very unlikely today that a Bishop would do as you describe. Most dioceses have at least a handful of people who really desire to be professed in this way and a Bishop would be far more likely to discern a true vocation from among these before he would turn to someone who speaks about the vocation itself in such negative terms or who truly feels sickened by the thought of being professed in this way and personally having such a vocation. To be frank, were a Bishop to act in this way it would be a slap in the face of those who deeply desire such profession and have presented themselves in good faith for discernment with the diocese only to be deemed unsuited for an extended discernment process or for admission to profession itself.

It would be insulting to those dioceses who have professed candidates in good faith or to diocesan hermits who both love their vocation and are committed to canon 603 as a legitimate and significant instance of the development of such. Further, it would not be the healthiest thing for the person being professed and could well lead to a failed vocation, compromised conscience judgments, and thus too, to actual sin. Finally, it would set a terribly destructive precedent regarding how discernment takes place, how we gauge the presence of a vocation, how the Holy Spirit works in these matters, how we conceive of authentic obedience or the theology of grace, and a number of other issues including the question of the validity and edifying quality of such a "commitment" or the vows used to embrace it. So let's be clear that on any number of grounds, spiritual, theological, pastoral, and canonical, Bishops and their curia would generally find such an arrangement completely inappropriate and even offensive.

A Change of Mind and Heart?

But your question shifts things a bit. What if the person truly became convinced she should do this because of the Bishop's desire to profess her?  In such a case SOME of the problems would drop away or at least be diminished. For instance, we would not need to be as concerned about the validity of the vows, of creating a disedifying situation for the diocese, nor so much about potentially creating or colluding in a situation where the individual could be compromising or violating her own conscience judgments. But to really be sure of the truth of her conviction, other things would also have to change. The individual would need to accept whole-heartedly that the vocation was the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church; she would need to esteem it and its developing nature. She would need to reject the idea that any variations present generally indicate an abuse of the canon and come to clarity that variability from diocese to diocese may well indicate the result of the Church's response to the Holy Spirit.

She would need a correlative change of heart as well. She would really need to be convinced that this was the way God was calling her personally to achieve human wholeness and holiness. She could not only not be "sickened" by the vocation but would probably need to evidence some personal enthusiasm for and imagination regarding its place in and possibilities for fruitfully addressing the contemporary church and world. In other words she would need to appreciate the gift or charismatic nature of the vocation both personally and generally. Flowing from this she would likely need to demonstrate a sense of responsibility, gratitude,  joy, and freedom at being called to this. Finally, she would absolutely need to give every evidence that she believed all of this in her heart of hearts and was truly desirous of committing her whole self  for the rest of her life to God in this way and to the vocation itself as an inspired way of serving the Church and the world. In other words, she would need to give evidence that petitioning for admittance to profession as a diocesan hermit was an act of profound discernment and obedience, not simply a matter of doing what someone else thought was a good idea --- even if that person is the Bishop of the diocese.

Discernment and Obedience in the Past and Now

Yes, there are many stories about people taking on tasks because others desired it. There are numerous stories about superiors desiring something and  "subjects" accepting this as the will of God. More, we have had people accepting roles as Priors, Abbots, Abbesses, Bishoprics and even the papacy for reasons they thought constituted signs of the will of God while also admitting grave reservations about the truth or prudence of such a thing. Just recently in light of Benedict XVI's resignation we remembered the story of Celestine V, a hermit who was convinced to become Pope but who resigned his office within just a few months for the good of the Church. Despite doubts, Celestine had accepted the will of the non-conclave electors putting an end to a two year process of election. Good came from Celestine's election AND his resignation, but it seems that the deeper doubts and desires proved to be the truer pointers to or signs of the will of God in Celestine's life --- at least in the long term! Too often in the history of the Church obedience was defined in terms of doing what one was told and discernment was simply treated as synonymous with "hearing what the superior desired."

Today we recognize that discernment is a complex or at least demanding process of hearkening (listening and responding) to the presence and will of God; in ecclesial vocations (Religious life, ordination, consecrated virginity, diocesan eremitical life) it is truly a mutual process where the Bishop and his staff listen carefully to the candidate, to those who know the candidate well including psychologists, physicians, pastors, directors, to their own minds and hearts, to God and his Church (tradition and history) while the candidate listens carefully to God, to her own mind and heart, to the Church (especially on the tradition and history of her proposed vocation), and to those she is working with at the chancery. Obedience too is not a simple matter of merely "doing what one is told". Because it is a serious form of  hearkening to the voice of God one needs to truly honor all the ways that voice comes to us. In a profession of vows there must be a sense that every person actively involved in coming to this has listened attentively and is responding to the voice of God in this situation. Otherwise the result will not be edifying (it will not build up the Church in love --- much less the Kingdom!) and may even become a scandal.