27 December 2014

Lay Hermits, In What sense Public or Private Vocations?

[[Dear Sister, isn't it true that a lay vocation is a public vocation in the Church? If that is so then why wouldn't living as a lay hermit be a public vocation too? I am wondering how my lay state can be a public matter but my privately vowed eremitical life cannot. Thank you.]]

Good question. Remember that public in the sense I have used the term, and the sense the Church uses it with regard to vocations,  means the assumption of legal or canonical rights and obligations; these are extended to the person (and accepted by them) through the formal mediation of the Church. The lay state, which is the result of baptism, is indeed a public vocation and state of life with commensurate canonical rights and obligations --- just as is the case with any other state of life in the Church. However, if one wants to be a lay hermit and makes private vows as part of this personal commitment or dedication (one does not have to), this portion of one's life remains private rather than public in the canonical sense; that is, it does not add legal/canonical rights or obligations to those that come from Baptism alone.

In the consecrated state of life such rights and obligations are added to those assumed in Baptism. The same is true with the ordained state. Moreover, a priest making private vows of whatever sort remains in the ordained state and the vows are a private matter despite the public nature of the priest's vocation. Also, when vows are public others have the right (and possibly the obligation) to hold certain expectations of the person in this regard. This is not the case with private vows. Further, public vows of poverty, chastity or obedience as well as being publicly (canonically) bound to a Rule of Life mean that one cannot break these vows with impunity or live contrary to her approved Rule and say, "Oh, it's a private matter! People should mind their own business!" Neither can one do whatever one likes and call it eremitical solitude or healthy spirituality. One is accountable in specific and concrete ways for the public commitments one has made.

While some dimensions of these things will certainly be private in the sense that few will know of them, one's commitment as a whole is not; one has assumed an ecclesial vocation which one is commissioned to live in the name of the church and for that reason the People of God have their own right to be concerned that such commitments are lived faithfully. Serious breaches can have ecclesial consequences which can include dispensation of one's vows and loss of the rights and obligations which are part and parcel of the consecrated state of life. (Consecration per se cannot be undone but one does not remain in the consecrated state of life in such a case.) With private vows none of this is the case. They represent just what they say, namely, a private dedication of self which builds on and may be an important specification of the public vocation and (in your own case) lay state of life. They are an added dimension to one's state of life but they do not change this nor do they become a public matter (a matter of public rights and obligations) themselves. Thus, they can also be dispensed without significant formality nor does their dispensation change the person's state of life.