14 March 2013

Should Hermits be Professed at a Parish Mass?

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, I have heard that professions of diocesan hermits need not take place during Mass and that those insisting on making their profession during Mass are opting for something which canon law does not require; I also heard it is something which goes against the hiddenness and simplicity of the hermit vocation. Is that correct? The person who said this asserted that the Catechism and Canon law say that there needs to be no big service and there can even be just a sign of commitment. A public celebration is not necessary or even appropriate. The idea of having lots of people attending seems to be something some hermits need for ego, or as a sign of being "approved of" etc. You made vows at a public Mass. Why did you choose that option?]]

It has been a while since I heard these arguments about ego and canonical "approval". I am disappointed they are being made once again. I have tried to be tactful in responding to the attitude and errors involved, not always successfully; I admit that that is a bit taxing sometimes. Still, there is an essential tension between the public character of this vocation and the call to essential hiddenness or stricter separation of the diocesan hermit. Exploring this tension is something I enjoy and believe is important even apart from statements like those you have asked about; for that reason let me approach your questions from that perspective.

While it is true that initiation into religious life (what is called reception into the community for instance) is not allowed to take place during Mass, and while first, simple, or temporary vows which will be liturgically a relatively simple matter may or may not take place during Mass, perpetual or solemn vows are a different matter and the Church says clearly that it is appropriate that these occur within the context of a public Mass where attendance can be high (par 43 Rite of Religious Profession for Women, "It is fitting that the rite of profession by which a religious binds herself to God forever should take place on a Sunday or a solemnity of the Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or of a saint distinguished in the living of the religious life."  and again, no 45, "Notice of the day and hour should be given to the faithful in good time so they may attend in greater numbers." )

Other prescriptions delineated in this Rite involve the use of the cathedral or parish church, making the profession at the chair and in the sanctuary, use of fitting solemnity but also eschewing lavishness unbecoming religious poverty, sufficient bread and wine for all, what is necessary for the giving of insigniae, etc. Could a hermit choose to do something else? I suspect they could; whether it would be theologically and liturgically appropriate is something the hermit and her Bishop would need to determine. Certainly the hermit could choose a Mass with a more intimate setting, especially for temporary profession, but again, it is the Church herself that specifies the appropriateness of wide attendance and publicity in her own Rite of Religious Profession.

 You see, none of this has to do with ego or the hermit's desire for public recognition; it has to do with the Church's esteem for this vocation and the appropriateness of a liturgical celebration for life commitments like this. (Thus we do the same with Baptisms, marriages, consecrations, and ordinations --- whenever public commitments are made which establish the person in a new public identity or state in the Church .) As for the claims that the CCC and Code of Canon Law say a hermit need not have a service and may use only a sign of commitment, I don't know anywhere that either book says anything about this with regard to canon 603 hermits. Canon Law (cc 654-658, the section spelling out the law re profession of religious says nothing about this; C 603 itself is merely clear that the hermit may make vows or other sacred bonds. It says nothing about the context in which these are to be made. The CCC does not address either issue of course. In other words, these claims seem to me to be specious and simply plucked out of the ether.

It is true that in dealing with private vows the Church tends to expect these to take place outside Mass so people do not confuse them with public vows or vows made and received in the name of the Church. Perhaps the person you are quoting was speaking of private vows rather than public ones and something other than either the CCC or Canon Law per se. Alternately perhaps s/he got the references wrong. The issue of sources aside, it remains possible s/he was speaking of temporary canonical vows or professions, but perpetual or solemn vows and actual consecration are a different matter and there is no way one makes a solemn commitment like this without a liturgical celebration (Mass).

Your question about my own profession taking place at a Sunday Mass seems to be tied to the notion that it was done out of ego. Let me correct that idea. First , I did not choose to have a Mass; my diocese naturally set up a date and time when the Bishop would preside at my profession and the appropriateness of this occurring at a Mass was understood by everyone. This is not simply custom but at heart a reflection of our sacramental theology and theology of church. So my pastor and I worked with the diocese and used the official texts for the Rites of Religious Profession;  I also worked with a canonist and Vicar for Religious to assure all was done in a way which was legitimate and appropriate.

Details which were worked out in advance included the texts of the vows or vow formula (I used a vow formula I had used before but with some slight changes for the occasion), the insigniae (ring, cowl) and other things (candle, vows to be signed during Mass), readings, and all the persons who would be participating in the liturgy apart from the assembly (servers, lectors, cantors, delegate, concelebrants, etc). The diocese provided a worksheet for all of these things and, immediately prior to the Mass, provided several  legal documents which needed to be signed apart from the vow formula itself. (That is signed on the altar --- in this case by the bishop, myself, my delegate and the pastor of the parish.) In other words, this was a diocesan matter undertaken on behalf of the universal Church, not something I desired out of ego; it was undertaken because the Church clearly saw it as completely appropriate and significant.

But let me be equally clear: there is no doubt I would always choose to make perpetual profession during a Mass. Theologically and liturgically this would have been completely fitting for the solemnity and significance of the event. It should be clear that life commitments of this sort which also mediate God's consecration and the commissioning of the Church are appropriately done during Mass where the effective (real-making) symbolism of self-gift, consecration, and commissioning are clearest and paradigmatic. This is also important since the person making the commitment is assuming public/legal rights and obligations which affect the entire Church, and which most intimately affect her local Church --- both diocesan and parish communities. While the hermit may live a life of essential hiddenness, the act of perpetual profession is both a public and an ecclesial one. It is an act of love celebrating the God who calls us to life in union with him, espousal to Christ, and communion with one another. It marks and implicitly celebrates all the forms of love that have brought the person to this moment: Divine, familial, community, friends, et. al. It is only appropriate that all of these people should be able to participate in such a celebration of love and grace --- and of course that it be done at Mass where Christ is uniquely present, proclaimed, and received.

Further, the Rite of Profession marks a commissioning to make this love even more fruitful in the future and says we do this together. No authentic hermit is ever truly alone and that is certainly true of a diocesan hermit. Not only does she live with and from God, but she lives at the heart of the Church and is publicly commissioned (at the very liturgy we are discussing in fact) to do so in an essential hiddenness. Such life is always nourished by the Church (especially in Word and Sacrament) even as this same life nourishes the Church as a whole. Finally, I should note that if it is appropriate for strictly cloistered nuns to celebrate their own solemn professions in the sanctuary of a church open to visitors (and in the mind and position of the Church it certainly is!), then it is appropriate for the diocesan hermit to do similarly because in either case we are celebrating the Holy Spirit's gift to the Church, a gift which is part of her call to prayer and holiness, a gift which is meant to inspire and nourish her in this goal.