03 December 2016

On Delegates and the Adequacy of Canon 603 Provisions for Formation and Governance

Hi Sister Laurel, when you wrote about the role of your delegate were you aware that some hermits like Sister Petra Clare are critical of the way governance of hermits work out on the ground? She wrote:

[[ Although it was a big move for the hierarchy to recognise these ancient solitary ways of life and re-insert them into the life of the Church during Vatican II, I doubt whether the fathers of the Council had foreseen the pastoral and religious gaps which would be exposed by re-introducing a fourth century way of life into the late twentieth century milieu! This gap has its roots in the formal separation of clergy and religious life governance during the Gregorian reforms in the 11c. When the new canons were introduced, together with canon 605 which fosters new religious communities, the bishops – for the first time since the Middle Ages – were directly responsible for a form of religious life!

This was a shock for both sides – clergy and religious! Bishops did not know anything about the job and were not particularly keen for extra responsibilities. Religious, on the whole, simply shrugged and said it wasn’t their job either: their responsibility stopped at the doors of their communities or – at widest – extended to the Congregation. Occasionally, a religious community has fostered a closer relationship with a particular hermit or virgin, but such exceptions are few and far between. Very often, soon after the virgin has made her commitment the guidance of the church dries up. The result has been, with a few exceptions, a no-man’s land of ‘do-it-yourself’ formation and quasi-religious life.

On the whole the pattern seems to be that the Consecration or hermit profession works well in its first stages. The consecrating Bishop has an interest in his charge, and makes provision for formation (usually very basic), presides the profession, and sets up a minimalistic support system, which usually means appointing a spiritual director and/or some oversight from a religious community or the Vicar for religious. . . . ]]


Thereafter she finds there is simply little oversight and the situation becomes problematical. It sounds to me like your delegate is unusual and you are as fortunate as you said you were. I assume you agree with Sister Petra's analysis of the situation. My question is how does a hermit find someone to serve in this way? How does she avoid the notion of "do-it-yourself" formation mentioned in Sister Petra's account of things? Does the diocese have a role in all of this or should they have a role in all of this?]]


I read Sister Petra's account of things on the blog "City Desert" (cf. City Desert: Modern Roman Catholic Hermits) a couple of years ago I think. I was struck not only by her analysis of the lacunae in canon 603's provisions (or, more accurately I think, the deficiencies in the way the canon is implemented in many dioceses), but also the similarity of her impressions regarding Sister Irene Gibson to my own. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the second portion of her comments on formation --- though I would like to have read those. I don't know how pervasive this problem is but, as I have noted, I do know how fortunate I am in having a delegate who accepts her role in service to the diocese and myself, and who has made it her own so that 1) she regards my own needs and her responsibility in helping me meet these very seriously indeed, and at the same time 2) regards the classic freedom of the hermit which is embodied in canon 603 (and my own Rule) at the same time. Sister M. has worked with me for many years now and she has done so during particularly intense formative  periods in my own life despite the fact that she is (more primarily) on her congregation's leadership team during a particularly critical time in her congregation's life.

Finding a Delegate:

So, how does a hermit find someone to work with them in this way? The responsibility for finding a religious to serve in this way was something my own diocese told me I would need to take care of myself. I don't know if they realized how difficult it could be (I certainly did not)  or if they had not really thought things through yet, but undoubtedly I was (yet again!) very fortunate that Sister Marietta agreed to fill the role. However, the content of the role was not really spelled out so it has been something that evolved as Marietta's own sense of responsibility, her experience in formation and leadership, and her own care for me came together with my own needs, discernment, and growth in this vocation. In a sense this kind of "free hand" mirrors the way a hermit's own vocation grows and should grow --- with an emphasis for all involved on discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit in this hermit's life. But the diocese should play a part in all of this -- more of a part than my own plays I think, and far more than dioceses play in the lives of most hermits.

When I say this I mean the diocese: 1) should take the need for a delegate of sufficient experience and commitment very seriously, 2) they should assist a hermit in finding someone to fill this role if the hermit does not know  or cannot find someone right off; this could and probably should include speaking with formation and leadership personnel of congregations in the diocese to seek their assistance,  3) besides the annual or bi-annual meeting with the hermit they should meet regularly with the hermit's delegate for a sense of how things are going --- not so much for the hermit's sake as for that of the delegate herself and for her input on her own role; after all she is serving them in this role and helping them and other dioceses to understand what it can and perhaps, should and should not be, 4) when a new bishop comes in he should make a point of meeting not only the hermit but her delegate as well; moreover he (or the Vicar for Religious) should have all contact information for both persons on hand, 5) when this becomes necessary the diocese should assist the hermit to find someone suitable to replace the delegate. It is not, in my opinion, a role which should be allowed to go vacant nor is it a role just any religious can fill, and 6) the delegate should be given a free hand to work with the hermit as they both discern what is helpful and necessary. Both she and the hermit can report on this in annual meetings with the bishop. The bottom line in all of this is that the delegate serves BOTH the hermit and the diocese or diocesan bishop. She should not be seen as simply doing a personal favor for the hermit. Instead she should be recognized and even commissioned to serve in this capacity --- not publicly commissioned, perhaps, but really  affirmed in this service by the pertinent chancery offices/bishop.

The Role of the Delegate and the Role of the Diocese:

Since I have not been able to read what Sister Petra says about formation I don't know whether she is speaking of formation of hermits who have sufficient experience of religious life prior to perpetual profession under canon 603, or those who, relatively speaking, have none or very little when she refers to "do-it-yourself-formation". (I believe it is wrong and an abuse of canon 603 to profess hermits with no experience of or formation in the skills, values, attitudes, and disciplines of religious life but the simple fact is that it does happen in some dioceses.) Neither do I know if she accepts solitary eremitical life as possible under c 603 or believes instead that hermits must live in colonies. Since she is from Scotland she may be associated with a group that believes c 603 is inadequate for the living out of the eremitical vocation. (She may even be the person who once wrote this. I cannot recall.) If she does believe the latter, then I disagree with her and while I believe dioceses have to take greater care in implementing canon 603, I also believe the canon per se defines a livable eremitical life. In instances of solitary eremitical life we must recognize that formation for the hermit mainly occurs in solitude and that hermits who are perpetually professed must show both initiative and responsibility; they must be able to discern (at least in some vestigial sense) and either find or ask for what they need. At the same time the hermit's delegate should be able to discern and inform the hermit of avenues of formation, resources for retreat, etc., which can be helpful to her and certainly those which are necessary for her well-being generally and in this vocation specifically.

While canon 603 does not spell out the role of delegate nor provide for legal categories governing the relationship between herself and the hermit, the canon does clearly say the bishop is the hermit's legitimate superior in whose hands she makes her profession and under whose supervision she lives her Rule and commitment. Given the busyness of bishops and, generally speaking, their own lack of expertise in religious or consecrated life, this can easily be seen to call for a delegate who is a religious with sufficient experience and talents in formation and leadership; the bishop would be the one who outlines the responsibilities of such a role in light of his own needs and those of the hermit, but also with feedback from the Sister or Brother who is assuming the role of delegate. In general we are talking about exercising authority with a light touch but insisting everyone shares in ways which are pertinent not just to the hermit's vocation but to working out prudent ways to implement canon 603 itself so the whole Church benefits.

One thing I may not have been clear enough about: the delegate is NOT the hermit's formation director. The hermit ordinarily has none (and here is the reason for requiring significant lived experience prior to admitting to eremitical life/profession). Moreover, the hermit's formation as hermit mainly occurs in silence and solitude. The delegate and the hermit's spiritual director can assist the hermit in negotiating this more specific formation --- especially her ongoing formation which never ceases to be a challenge and obligation. At the same time there are resources which should be considered in assisting the hermit's education and formation in religious life generally and in eremitical life more specifically. For instance, it is critically important that the hermit has extended experience of real silence and solitude. One of the best ways this can occur is with an extended stay (or repeated stays) in a contemplative monastic community. It is tremendously helpful  to live with religious who themselves live silence and solitude (in community) as they move through a daily routine of prayer, work, recreation, prayer, etc. We tend to learn what is possible by watching others. More, hermits need to be sustained in their solitude and having a sense that others move through their days in the same way the hermit does is tremendously helpful in providing this sustenance.

Dioceses must take seriously their Responsibility with Regard to C 603

I have argued in several specific ways that the diocese is and should be involved in this but let me also comment in a more general way on the place of the diocese in regard to this topic. Dioceses act in a rather uneven manner in implementing canon 603. Some profess, it sometimes seems, almost anyone coming through the door petition in hand. Some refuse to profess anyone at all --- whether because they have no suitable candidates or because they don't believe in the vocation itself, and some use the canon with care and caution --- usually because they understand the vocation along with its rarity and have high standards on who they will admit to formal discernment and profession. Some dioceses may also be concerned their responsibility for the life of solitary hermits will be onerous and more than they can take on --- or more than they know how to take on. It is this last concern which needs to be discussed at greater length and it is a discussion which a delegate along with the hermit can help to facilitate. In particular hermits and delegates can have meaningful input on formation, both initial and ongoing. In any case, a diocese which professes a diocesan hermit definitely needs to take on meaningful (which does not mean extensive) responsibility for this vocation. Otherwise, as I have suggested before, they probably ought not admit hermits to profession under canon 603.

Canon 603, as I have written uncountable times, defines an ecclesial vocation and in all such vocations there is a bond of mutual responsibility between the hermit and the Church as a whole. It is true that generally speaking diocesan hermits do not need much oversight in living their lives. Still, they represent a new form of consecrated life which reprises an ancient and important impulse to prophetic and contemplative witness pivotal to the life and good health of the Church; for this reason every diocesan hermit and those who assist her share in the establishment and evolution of canon 603 life within the Church. There has to be meaningful dialogue between the diocese/bishop and the hermit and delegate so the Church can continue to recognize and risk consecrating these vocations. If the canon is not working well in some way or a hermit's life is disedifying, if dioceses require greater experience of such vocations, if they are to risk discerning and professing c 603 vocations, then it can only be with the input of hermits who are already perpetually professed (and their delegates!) in order that the limited experience of the Church in regard to these vocations can be extended and enlighten more widely.