16 May 2016

Reexamining an Earlier Suggestion: On Allowing Lay Hermits to Make Private Vows during Mass

[[Dear Sister Laurel, is it possible to celebrate private vows during Mass? I thought you wrote once it was and could be done as part of baptismal renewal, but in other places I see you don't accept such a practice. Did I misunderstand you or have you changed your mind?]]

On the Reasons I have Changed my Mind:

Yes, you are correct on both counts. I have been torn in the past by some lay hermits' sense of "not belonging" or having no real "place" or "context" for their private vows. I also wanted to stress that the lay hermit vocation is a significant one which needs better recognition. Because of that I argued for the possibility of making such private vows as a hermit within Mass at a general renewal of baptismal vows --- and ONLY there (that is, at no other place within the Mass). I tried to make clear why Mass was not ordinarily the place private vows were made and eventually hedged my suggestion all around with caveats. Unfortunately, since that post it has become clearer to me 1) that liturgically this was a bad idea, and even more perhaps, 2) it could not be done without significant confusion of the distinction between private vows and public profession or between the lay hermit living her life in her own name and the Catholic hermit living an eremitical and ecclesial vocation in the name of the Church. This was especially true for the assembly in general.

You see, I have since heard of or been asked about several situations in the US and elsewhere where lay hermits who did not make vows in a public situation would use vows made during Mass (if this were allowed them) to encourage or underscore the mistaken idea that they are "consecrated" or Catholic hermits; while I can understand why this occurs and sometimes sympathize with the person, the bottom line is the Church's general practice of not celebrating or witnessing  private vows during Mass is wise and prudent. Besides lay hermits who don't always understand or (sometimes) even accept the difference between lifestyles undertaken as private commitments and vocations lived in the name of the Church the simple fact is that the laity in general (and sometimes clerics as well) don't understand the difference or its significance either. Still, there is a difference and that has not only to do with the commensurate rights and obligations which attach to public profession and consecration, but even more importantly in this context, with the corresponding expectations the Church as a whole are given the right and even obligation to hold in regard to these hermits.

The Differing Witnesses and Expectations of Public vs Private Vows:

It is important not to give the impression that a person with private vows (dedication) is bound in the same way a person who is professed and consecrated. The expectations others in the Church and society more generally have a right to hold between those with either private vows or public profession differ and it would be unfair to everyone involved to confuse the situation. That way leads to disappointment and even scandal. As I have noted before, this is so because the graces which attach to  profession and consecration and necessary for living them out differ.  (Note that "profession" is not the same as "making vows" though it ordinarily includes making vows. Profession, a broader reality than this, is always a public (i.e., a canonical) act which initiates into a new state of life. Thus, despite common usage (or misusage!) private vows do not constitute profession; they are instead an act of dedication sans consecration, sans added canonical rights and obligations, and sans initiation into a new state of life.)

Because of the differing public rights, obligations, and expectations, the Church has discerned the public or canonical vocation with the hermit herself and assured herself as best she can that this is a God-given and ecclesially mediated vocation which is a true gift of the Holy Spirit. She entrusts it and responsibility for eremitical life more generally to this person after mutual discernment and she expects this vocation to bear typical fruit not only for the hermit herself but for the whole of the Church. She expects and canonically binds the hermit to live the evangelical counsels in a way which is edifying to all who know her or otherwise hear of this vocation, and she expects all of this (and has a right to do so!) because the canonical hermit's vocation is public and lived in the name of the Church under her formal supervision.

But with individual private vows there is no actual discernment of vocation on the Church's part. The individual may certainly believe she is called by God to live this way (and she may be entirely correct in this!) but the Church as such has not discerned nor does she otherwise validate this belief. This is another reason why private vows are witnessed by someone but not "received." Reception is an ecclesial act (an act of the whole Church )which includes the public attestation that these vows are part of a truly Divine vocation the Church herself (whether through Bishops and Vicars or religious institutes and their legitimate superiors) has recognized through significant discernment and public ministry. The fact that reception binds the person professing vows as well as the one receiving these in an ecclesial relationship, while 'witnessing vows does not, is a dimension of the Church's discernment, attestation, and mediation of the presence of a Divine vocation.  Bearing this in mind it becomes even clearer that celebration within a public liturgy is not appropriate for private vows, no matter how carefully done.

Private Vows are Private Matters:

So, while I continue to believe the lay hermit calling is a significant one, and while I believe private vows are a meaningful way of structuring such a life and committing (dedicating) oneself to the freedom it entails, I do not believe it is appropriate to celebrate these at Mass. What always remains true is that private vows are a private matter. While generally trusting the maturity of a person to make such vows, the Church in no way verifies the vocational nature or soundness of such acts of dedication. Persons with such vows are neither professed nor consecrated, nor have they been extended nor accepted the rights and obligations attached to public and ecclesial vocations. To allow such (private) vows to be made in a public liturgy actually lays expectations on the person she may be neither able nor appropriately experienced, trained, or graced to meet.

Moreover, it necessarily leads members of the Church generally to see this as ecclesiastical approval of the act; it is simply too difficult, I think, to prevent people from thinking the Church has approved this "vocation"  (if vocation it actually is) or that she is professing this person and commissioning her to live the life in her name when such a celebration is done at Mass. This would be true even if it were done as part of a renewal of baptismal vows and promises and it was na├»ve of me to think otherwise.

Additionally there is the entire liturgical dimension which must be considered: is an entirely private act (even this act of dedication) appropriate at a public liturgy? We do not allow others making private vows to do so at Mass; why would we do so for a lay hermit? Private commit-ments do not typically belong to a public celebration. Again, doing so would invite confusion which could be harmful or even lead to offense. I don't think this could be avoided --- whether in the mind of the one making the commitment or in the minds of the rest of the assembly. Later on when the person identifies themselves as a hermit "who made her vows during Mass" there would be no way at all of recognizing the entirely private nature of the commitment and, once again misunderstanding and unreasonable expectations would be created. The bottom line here is the Church's praxis in this regard has been prudent and must be retained.

I have considered removing the earlier post. The caveats added are not sufficient, especially given the existence of lay hermits who continue to mistakenly claim they are "consecrated" and the widespread (even if understandable) ignorance of the Church's teaching on initiation into the consecrated state of life. At the same time the post reflects esteem for the lay hermit vocation and life. It also attempted to answer questions by at least two people so I think allowing those to stand is important. I am sorry though if my opinion at that point was premature or insufficiently considered, and I hope it did not mislead anyone.