02 March 2015

Private Vows and the Lay Hermit

[[Dear Sister Laurel, how do I make private vows to become a consecrated religious hermit without joining a community?]]

Hi there. Thanks for writing. I am also  including someone else's question below this one since the subject is related. I think there is some confusion in your own question. To become a consecrated religious hermit (that is, a hermit in the consecrated state of life), you cannot do so with private vows. You see because this is an ecclesial vocation you must do so through the formal (and canonical) mediation of the Church. You can only do this via a public profession.This requires 1) a petition to your diocese followed by  2) a mutual discernment process if your diocese sees you as a good candidate; then, if admitted to profession by your Bishop it will mean 3) public vows received by and Divine consecration mediated by the Church. The key here is public profession and consecration (which only comes with perpetual public vows) made in the hands of the local Bishop. The consecrated hermit is publicly commissioned by the Church in the person of the local Bishop to live her life in the name of the Church. She is literally then a Catholic hermit (not simply a Catholic AND a Hermit) and (after perpetual vows) a consecrated religious. Thus it always involves a public commitment and solemn consecration. You might consider this after living as a lay hermit for some time, especially if you live private vows for some time and work out a workable Rule of Life.

If you wish, on the other hand, simply to live as a lay hermit (not publicly professed and consecrated) and eventually make private vows you are free to do that by virtue of your baptism, but there is no formal procedure for doing so. Remember this would be an entirely private commitment. To make such a commitment in a meaningful way your life as a hermit really requires regular spiritual direction and you need to have lived as a lay hermit for some time (at least a couple of years would not be unreasonable to expect) before even considering making private vows. Until you and your director believe you both need and are really ready for these you should prepare by considering what your baptismal commitment requires of you in more specific terms.

Renewing and Specifying one's Baptismal Commitment as Either an Alternative or Preparatory Step to Private vows:

(Please note my opinion on using any setting during Mass has changed. Please read my explanation of this in Reexamining an Earlier Suggestion)

For instance, you may find they require you to live the evangelical counsels in some way and you will want to shape a commitment including these expressed in a way which really fits your life. Your baptismal commitment requires a sound prayer life as well so you will want to spell out what this means for you. The same is true of silence, solitude, and penance. Being a disciple of Christ requires some degree of all of these and you can specify what you feel yourself called to at this point in your life as someone already committed and consecrated in baptism. Your pastor could certainly help you to work out a brief ritual where you renew and specify your baptismal commitment in terms of lay eremitical life.

It seems to me (with a lot of caveats!!) that if this was what you decided to do you could renew your own baptismal commitment and further specify that commitment during Mass within the context of the parishioners' own general renewal. This is the ONLY situation in which I would suggest such vows might conceivably occur during Mass --- that is, as part of a renewal of baptismal vows. Such a commitment would have to make clear in a very explicit way that this is a lay commitment and that you are not assuming any additional canonical rights or obligations such as are associated with religious life, but if this could be done, it could be quite a lovely and meaningful commitment. It could also be of immense value to your parish and even beyond parish boundaries. Your parish would know you as a lay (but not a consecrated or Catholic) hermit and you would have some chances to share what that means with them. Some, especially the elderly and chronically ill might want to do something similar; the difference this could make in their lives could be immense. 

At the same time you would model the lesson that we need to think about and make concrete the kinds of demands our Baptismal vows require of each of us. That is rarely done I think and it is important; often we do not need additional vows but we do need to specify and commit to the ways our baptismal promises are meant to be lived here and now. In preparing for this step what you will actually be doing is constructing an informal Rule of Life which covers prayer, penance, evangelical counsels, silence, solitude, lectio, and other essentials in the hermit's life. Over time you will probably want to rework or even rewrite this. Though it may take you some time to do this, and especially to do it while truly living as a lay hermit with the aid of your director, working in this way can prepare you for meaningful private vows as well as strengthening your baptismal commitment itself. However, let me be very clear, if there was the slightest doubt or the least impression given that this was not a specification of an entirely lay vocation and NOT entrance into the consecrated state of life, the vows should not occur at Mass. It may be that this cannot occur without misleading others. If that seems likely then this idea would not work and needs to be relegated to the trash heap.

If You Decide to Make Private Vows

If and when your director agrees with you on your own need and readiness for a temporary private dedication as a lay hermit (say, for a period of three years or so) she can witness these for you at any time. Your pastor can also witness these. The Church does not celebrate private vows at Mass because she does not wish these to be confused with public vows which are associated with ecclesial vocations lived in the name of the Church. These are also associated with legitimate superiors and (with perpetual vows) with entrance into the consecrated state, as well as with other legitimate (canonical) rights and obligations.

Because private vows are undertaken as a private (as opposed to public or canonical) commitment, they do not lead to any additional rights or obligations not already associated with Baptism. This is another reason they ordinarily take place apart from Mass. (If your pastor agrees, for instance, you might well make them after Mass though which would allow some friends and family and interested parishioners to attend and witness this private dedication.) At the end of the duration of these vows (three years or whatever you have chosen) you will need to discern whether or not you are being called to make this commitment a perpetual one or perhaps approach your diocese with a petition to become a consecrated Catholic or diocesan hermit. (Private vows can still be dispensed at any time by your pastor and others as well without any formal paperwork; if you were admitted to public profession private vows would also cease to be binding as soon as you made public vows.)

Getting Ahead of Ourselves:

But this is getting a bit ahead of things. Again, you will need to live as a hermit in a focused and conscious way while under regular spiritual direction for at least a couple of years before you can really meaningfully consider such a private dedication. (This might differ if you have already lived as a religious and been through formation with a canonical group.) Remember that even if you have been living alone for a while this is not necessarily the same as living an eremitical life. When you understand the difference on the basis of your own experience and can articulate this for your director you may be close to readiness for private vows. In this I recommend you listen carefully to your director and her reservations or concerns; then discern what that means for you and work on whatever it requires. The same for your pastor if you desire him to witness such a dedication. (The preparation for public profession is much longer (at least five years before first vows) and commensurately more demanding in terms of discernment --- which is undertaken with the diocese, not merely on one's own.)

The Problem of Language:

There has been a lot of confusing use of language by some lay hermits today. Your own question conveyed some confusion about terminology which you may have gotten from some of these persons, a couple of whom have several blogs. While you may not be interested in this particularly, your question is an opportunity to address this problem. Especially, it is time to remind about how the Church  uses various terms. After all, when a person calls herself a Catholic Hermit, but is not using that term in the way the Catholic Church does it is at least incoherent and sort of an absurd practice. The basic principle is simple: we enter states of life through the Sacraments (Baptism, Marriage, and Orders) and through public profession and/or consecration (Religious life and Consecrated Virginity). There is no other way. Each initiation into a new state of life is mediated to us by the Church in a public and graced juridical act.  Private vows never initiate us into a new state of life. Neither does any consecration (dedication) of self. Only consecration by God received in a public action mediated by the Church does this. This is part of the reason we call such vocations ecclesial vocations.

For instance, a conse-crated person is one who is in the conse-crated state of life. She has been conse-crated by God through the mediation of the Church and except in the case of consecrated virgins, has made public vows (or other sacred bonds for some c 603 hermits) which involves additional canonical rights and obligations as well as the formal and legal relationships required to fulfill these. Thus people who have entered the religious or consecrated states of life have legitimate superiors and public vows of obedience. The same is true of the term consecrated religious or just religious; the church uses this term to refer to a publicly professed and ecclesially consecrated person who exists in the consecrated and religious states of life. Consecrated  and Religious life always imply the public assumption of additional (legitimate) canonical rights and obligations besides those which come with baptism.

Consecrating (dedicating) oneself to God is not the same as being consecrated BY God through the mediation of the church. When one 'consecrated' oneself to God (dedicates is absolutely the preferred term for this act) one does not enter the consecrated state of life. The Church does not call consecrating oneself "consecrated life". A hermit who consecrated (dedicated) herself to God is not a consecrated hermit; she remains a lay hermit who is privately dedicated. This means not every Catholic living as a hermit is a Catholic hermit. If one is living the life and is commissioned to do so in the name of the Church under a legitimate superior, then and only then is one considered a Catholic hermit. For a lay Catholic living as a hermit under private vows, she is called a lay hermit because she lives her eremitical life under or according to the canonical rights and obligations which came with baptism and the lay state.

[[Sister Laurel, if I have doubts about whether someone is a Catholic Hermit or not is there a question I should ask which will give me an answer the person can't waffle about or dance around?]]

 I am adding this question which I received a few days ago because much of what I have just said  provides an explanation of my answer. My first inclination was to say the critical question is, "Have you been  publicly professed and commissioned to live as a hermit in the name of the Church?" A friend pointed out that a person intent on dancing around the question might still be able to do it or might just lie. She suggested the bottom line question regarding whether someone is a Catholic Hermit  or a consecrated religious should be: "Who is your legitimate superior?" A similar question (a kind of corollary)  is "In whose hands did you make your public profession?"

For diocesan hermits the answer to either question will be their Bishop, a specific Bishop with a name! (It will not be the person's spiritual director, even if that director is a priest and it will especially not be a director in a different diocese! A delegate may serve as a quasi superior but will do so on behalf of the Bishop and diocese.) For a hermit belonging to a canonical community it will be the superior of her house or of the congregation. If you are really concerned about the standing of someone claiming to be a Catholic Hermit or a consecrated hermit/religious then ask them about their legitimate superior. No one responsible for a public and ecclesial vocation will hesitate to answer explicitly. Meanwhile, if this is an additional step you feel is important to take you can contact the person's diocesan chancery. Diocesan hermits' chanceries will generally verify that a person is a publicly professed and consecrated hermit in good standing and may even include the hermit's date of perpetual profession in their response to your query. They will not provide any information beyond these basic facts.

Also the consecrated hermit will ordinarily be given a document identifying them as a consecrated hermit in the diocese on the occasion of their perpetual profession and consecration. It will be signed by the Bishop in whose hands the hermit was professed, the Vicar for Religious or ecclesiastical notary and sealed with the diocesan seal. It is equivalent to a Sacramental certificate and while hermits don't have any obligation to show these on demand to any casual questioner they are official documents which indicate the hermit's canonical standing and underscore the public and ecclesial nature of the vocation.