07 August 2013

Canon 603's History presupposes Significant Formation

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, in a recent post you spoke of "the bottom line" and you pointed out that canon 603 presupposed a fairly extensive background in monastic formation and life. I have read your discussion of the history of canon 603 before but this is the first time I have understood why this history makes such a difference to the way the canon is implemented.  When people complain that you are "institutionalizing" the vocation or write that canon 603 came to be because of abuses are they trying to avoid the demanding nature of the canon? Do dioceses understand the correlation between the history of the canon and the requirements for reading it rightly or implementing it appropriately?]]

First of all, of course, I don't know why people write what they write nor do I know what dioceses in general understand. I admit to being astounded by certain attempts to nullify or at least minimize the spiritual maturity presupposed by canon 603 and necessary simply to read it accurately. There are more than enough stories of eremitical professions which do not measure up to the background presupposed in the composition and immediate history of the canon. Some of these seem premature at best, some seem ill-conceived and an abuse of the canon at worst. Some have caused provinces to refuse to profess anyone according to canon 603. On the rest the jury is simply still out though many (of us) seem (and certainly strive) to be appropriate and edifying examples of the vocation. We are finding our way here, dioceses, hermits, all of us together.

I recall one account of the history of canon 603 which, as you say, asserted it came about because of abuses of the canons in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.  (I have referred to it here at least two or three times.) Supposedly this account of things came from a canonist who should surely have known better. (This canon is entirely new, not the redaction or refinement of an existing canon.) One version of this reads: [[As a means of solidifying the norms for consecrated Catholic hermits and desiring to eliminate abuses, in 1917 (or was it 1918?) some further delineations were made by the Church. And in 1983 these were refined further for those whose superiors desire them, or the hermit desires or is led by God, to a public profession. That formalizes the profession through Canon Law 603.]] Another version from the same blogger is found along with a detailed history of the actual origin of the canon in my post: On Visibility and Betrayal of the c 603 Vocation.

Whatever the reason people write what they do, what remains true is that the history of the canon gives everyone a significant key to understanding the formation which the canon presupposes and requires. What is indisputable is that this formation is substantial and will not be attained by the majority of candidates and by a very much smaller number of inquirers. What is also true is that whenever this history is forgotten or neglected, the vocation protected and governed by canon 603 is in danger of being trivialized and the canon misused. When this happens it also ceases to be the gift God has given to the Church and world and may not only be rendered pastorally insignificant but incredible and a scandal.

But in some instances Bishops have really appreciated the vocation canon 603 defines and especially they have tried to respect and make normative the kind of monastic formation which is necessary no matter where one lives as a hermit. For instance, the French Bishops published a list of "statutes" for all canon 603 hermits (I am told the better translation of the original French is "considerations") which included requirements of 1) regular periods in a monastic community and 2) assigning a hermit to a monastery where they could get the formation and mentoring so vital to living this vocation well. My own suggestion that candidates and temporary professed spend  a month each year or so in monastic community was made independently of these "statutes" but came from my own experience of living the life. Still, I think we are on the same page in this regard despite coming at it from different perspectives.

While I believe this experience (or something similar which occasions a substantial break with one's old ways of living and represents a disciplined turn to assiduous prayer and solitude) is essential for most, I also recognize that a diocese has to deal with each candidate on a case by case basis. No matter how a person comes by it (for, relatively rare though they are, some exemplary eremitical vocations will never have set foot in a monastery), what cannot be forgotten is the degree of experience in solitude, personal formation, and discernment needed before one is admitted even to serious discernment with the diocese and certainly prior to temporary vows.

Unfortunately it sometimes looks as though dioceses do not understand the necessary correlation between the canon's history and the spirituality and degree of formation it still presupposes and requires. It is almost certain that persons without any background in religious life and no significant experience of solitude (including that physical solitude occasioned by chronic illness, etc which can sometimes lead to genuine eremitical solitude) mainly do not. (At other times, however, a diocese's understanding of this, coupled with the fact that dioceses do NOT form hermits, has made it necessary to rule out professing ANYONE according to canon 603.) Today's world fosters isolation and individualism --- both of which call for the redemption represented by genuine eremitical solitude. It does not naturally foster vocations to this kind of solitude nor does it make reading canon 603 intelligently (with the mind and heart of a monastic) particularly easy to do.

I am sorry I have not been clear enough in the past regarding why the canon's immediate history is so vital to the way it is imple-mented. Knowing this history is critical to reading the canon accurately. It prevents substituting anything at all for the non-negotiable elements of the canon and calling them "eremitical". It demands that the person admitted to discernment have transitioned to being a hermit in an essential sense; it requires that they have an experiential knowledge of what the canon refers to as "the silence of solitude" and that they are capable of writing a Rule which negotiates the tensions between the eremitical tradition and the contemporary situation BEFORE admission to profession. It suggests that they will have at least a rudimentary sense of how and for whom besides the hermit herself this vocation is a sacred gift!

Similarly the history of this canon supports the expectation that anyone admitted to profession will live the life with integrity and with an independence rooted in one's sense of being entrusted with this unique charism or gift of the Holy Spirit. Paradoxically this kind of independence depends upon formation and deep understanding and appreciation; these go hand in hand. I have written explicitly of the critical importance of understanding the vocation's charism in preventing diocesan misuses and infidelities by the hermit herself; it is also necessary to empower the kind of integrity and independence just referred to --- something far more positive and significant than merely avoiding infidelities. Understanding the vocation's immediate history is an equally critical piece of this.