12 July 2019

Followup Questions on Accountability and the Diocesan Hermit

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, thank you for answering my question on diocesan v universal church representation by hermits. If someone argues that they are not subject to a local bishop in the way canon 603 hermits are because they are not diocesan but instead are hermits in the whole Church then how is it they are responsible to the Church for their vocation? Is their pastor the one they are answerable to? Is Joyful Hermit insinuating she is responsible in a less local way  to someone other than her local bishop? It just seems to me that if she explains that she can move from place to place without requiring acceptance by the local bishop  she must be "suggesting" she is answerable in a different way --- or maybe not at all. How would a bishop feel about having some hermits who were accountable to him and others who are not accountable at all? I can't imagine that sitting well with most bishops, not mine anyway! Lastly, I was wondering about your own statement about your vocation. You say you live your vocation with God in the silence of solitude for the sake of others. Do you mean merely that you pray for others? Are you accountable to others besides your bishop and delegate?]]

 You are most welcome. You have also put your finger on the really important issue of accountability. The Church does not ordain or profess and/or consecrate anyone in an ecclesial vocation (priesthood, religious or monastic life, canonical eremitical life, consecrated virginity) without assuring adequate structures or relationships for accountability. In a vocation with the history and heritage of stereotypes common to eremitical life as well as its rarity (it is not the usual way most people come to human wholeness!), the need to assure supervision and accountability becomes particularly important. In any case whether one belongs to a religious congregation, is a consecrated hermit or a consecrated virgin, one is responsible to people on the local level more immediately than to others on less local levels. Again, we use the principle of "subsidiarity" to be sure accountability is exercised at a level which is most helpful to the consecrated person and the congregation or local church in which the person ministers and lives her life.

Recently I wrote that legitimate superiors exercise what is known as the ministry of authority. I also wrote it is a ministry of love and service. For this to be true, authority must be exercised at a level closest to the one being ministered to. Accountability must be similarly exercised or the entire dynamic of loving service will be short-circuited or made empty. By the way, though a pastor is closest to a consecrated hermit in terms of church attendance, reception of sacraments, and pastoral care, etc, pastors of parishes are not legitimate superiors in the sense required by law. They may witness (but not receive) private vows but in so doing they do not become responsible for an eremitical vocation in the ways a bishop does. Neither would a hermit's Spiritual Director. The ministry of authority requires both persons in the relationship accept the rights and obligations which are part of the exercise of legitimate authority. This means they must also be able to do so and this requires commissioning by a greater legitimate authority.  Bishops acquire their authority with regard to consecrated hermits from canon 603 and from Rome who appoints them bishops in the first place. Parish pastors or parochial administrators have not been given the authority to act in this way with regard to a consecrated hermits --- though, of course, a bishop could delegate a hermit's pastor to take on such a responsibility and authority as he delegates this to any delegate/Director.

Regarding subsidiarity with regard to religious institutes, while these have General superiors (Presidents, etc) there are also a network of superiors exercising authority at more and more local levels (provincials, priors and prioresses, regional superiors,  novice or juniorate directors, etc., to the level of house superiors). Solitary consecrated hermits (c 603 hermits) don't have such a network of those in authority because they do not belong to institutes of consecrated life. Instead they make their vows in the hands of the local bishop who is thus their legitimate superior and he assigns or accepts the hermit's choice for a delegate or Director who serves as a kind of superior for the hermit by exercising the ministry of authority on behalf of the bishop/diocese for the benefit of the hermit's life and vocation. However, no one who is professed and consecrated is without the relationships required for the exercise of their obligation to accountability, and this at the lowest (i.e., the most local)  possible level of responsibility according to the principle of subsidiarity.

To suggest one is not accountable in this way while claiming the title "consecrated hermit" or to affirm that one can move from place to place because they are responsible to the "universal church" is simply to indicate one does not know (or perhaps care) how such things actually work in the Roman Catholic Church; it is to express an actual untruth. This is of a piece with saying Canon 603 doesn't mention legitimate superiors when it clearly refers to making one's profession "in the hands of" the Local bishop; profession is always made in the hands of the one serving as legitimate superior. Doing so is derived from an act of fealty once made to Kings, princes and other Lords. There are many words which canon 603 doesn't use directly but they are presupposed by the Canon. Because a word is missing does not mean the concept is not present nor part of the Church's larger theology of consecrated life.

How Would a Bishop Feel?

How would a bishop feel if they have canonical hermits who are accountable to the bishop and others who come and go without being accountable? I suspect the situation would be problematical (unworkable) and at least frustrating for such a bishop. Imagine then that such a person blogged in ways which were disedifying about the eremitical vocation. Imagine they had their own take on private vows and consecration based upon a misinterpretation of  two ambiguously or even mistakenly translated paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Imagine this same lay hermit insisted on remaining anonymous and without specific location in the putative name of "eremitical hiddenness" all while claiming to be a "consecrated religious" or a "consecrated Catholic Hermit" while writing disedifying things about consecrated life or misrepresenting eremitical life and the Church's role in governing such vocations! But of course, the Church does not have a dual track in the way it governs consecrated life. It does not allow for accountability of those in one track and complete unaccountability of those in another. Instead it recognizes and states clearly that the consecrated state of life is a "stable state of life" lived for the edification of the Church and the glory of God and it provides (and requires) what is necessary to establish and maintain that stability including structures and relationships ensuring  responsibility and accountability.

I once thought canon 603 referred to both lay and consecrated solitary hermits. Over time I came to change my mind on that. Similarly I tried several ways to make sense of the ambiguity of pars 920-921 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it speaks of "without always making vows publicly". In time I checked the original Latin which clarified the canon could not be referring to the possibility of private vows or to lay hermit life as well as consecrated life. I concluded the badly-written English version was trying to point to the only alternative to public vows c 603 allows, namely the use of other sacred bonds. In either case, though, the person's profession is and must be a public one and other sections of the CCC (cf par 944) make that absolutely clear. One of my sincerest hopes is that when the CCC is revised they will clarify the matter and add a paragraph on the importance of the lay hermit, the non-canonical hermit who embraces eremitical life within the baptized state without benefit of additional canons or institutional accountability. As it stands the CCC is particularly problematical for those who would like to exploit its misleading ambiguities and portray themselves a consecrated hermits without either the rights or obligations of that vocation..

Questions about Joyful Hermit Specifically:

You ask several questions about Joyful Hermit specifically.  While I will answer these generally with regard to Joyful, I believe they fit anyone claiming/pretending --- for whatever reason --- to being a Consecrated Religious or hermits living eremitical life in the name of the Church. I think the bottom line is that beyond her baptism Joyful (and others) has not been initiated into any canonical (public, legal) relationships within the Church or with her leadership or hierarchy, no canonical standing that would allow her to claim to be obligated or accountable in the way someone with an ecclesial vocation as a "consecrated hermit" would necessarily be obligated and accountable. Another way of saying this is to note that Joyful and persons like her have not been initiated into the stable state of life associated with profession and/or consecration.

What you cited earlier did sound like an attempt by Joyful to avoid the entire issue of ecclesial accountability with vague references to the Universal Church and mistaken interpretations of what it means to be a diocesan hermit. That said, Joyful remains a laywoman who has embraced eremitical life without benefit of canonical standing or consecration beyond her baptism. This does not detract from the fact that her own vocation is important. In fact it accents its importance. Her private vows are of real value, both personally and in the Church. As a result of her baptism she has the very significant freedom of a lay person to live eremitical life as she deems necessary in response to God's call. She is free to move about as a hermit without direct accountability to anyone except God and her own conscience precisely because she is a lay hermit and not one in the consecrated state of life. What is interesting to me is that she lives precisely this kind of freedom even as she insists she is a "consecrated Catholic Hermit".

It is important (and quite challenging) that people like Joyful accept their vocations, that they respond to God's call in the lay state and find ways to live eremitical life with authenticity. The history of eremitical life has been carried forward in the Western Church by such people -- not least the Desert Fathers and Mothers or the anchorites prevalent in the Middle Ages. As I have noted a number of times here the majority of hermits have been and will always be lay hermits --- those who embrace a call to eremitical life in their baptized state without benefit of canonical profession or consecration. But one does not do this by refusing to accept the simple fact that a private commitment by a lay person means one remains a person in the lay state. In this matter one cannot have one's cake and eat it too. Joyful (or anyone in a similar situation) cannot seek the benefit of calling herself and being regarded as a "consecrated Catholic Hermit" while insisting on the unique freedom which is pertinent to lay (or non canonical) eremitical life. She (nor any other person acting similarly) cannot honestly claim an ecclesial vocation without concrete accountability to legitimate superiors or the other elements which constitute a stable consecrated state of life in the Roman Catholic Church.

Commissioned to Live Eremitical Life in the Name of the Church:

Paul Tillich1.jpgI am reminded that the Church has sent me and other canonical hermits into our hermitages to live the silence of solitude in communion with God for the sake of others; that sending obligates me to accountability not only to eremitical life generally, but to solitary eremitical life as the Church has codified this in c 603. Because Joyful is privately vowed, her own missioning is as a lay person and her correlative accountability thus takes a very different form than someone in the consecrated state; again, as a result she is entirely free to live her lay vocation in whatever way she chooses without direct accountability to the Church for the form of life she chooses for herself --- but also without the title appropriate to those living consecrated (canonical) vocations. Similarly one cannot speak and write about canon 603 as a kind of distortion of eremitical life, as Joyful has certainly done from time to time throughout the years, and at the same time ask folks to treat her as though she has the kind of standing in law canon 603 establishes.

This is not a matter of legalism; it is simply a recognition that the rights attending consecrated life are matched by obligations a person is called by God through God's Church to embrace. The Church's own approach to consecrated eremitical life is entirely consistent. Those who live eremitical life in the name of the Church are commissioned to live an accountability to God's People in the hands of legitimate superiors. They accept this accountability as a unique form of responsible eremitical freedom. not everyone is called or even desires to be called in this way. For those who are not (or who do not desire to be)  called in  this way, the route of lay eremitical life is available to them, a route which has been of inestimable value and significance to eremitical life in the Church. But again, one cannot have one's cake and eat it too. To believe otherwise is childish and unthinking; moreover it denigrates or at least disregards the kind of commitments and sacrifices made by those who have freely embraced the consecrated state of life and the direct accountability it requires.

To Whom Else am I Responsible?

Your last question is good. Thank you for asking this. While I do regularly pray for others I do not understand the heart of my accountability to others as that. Instead I understand that first of all I am called to witness to the Gospel that says God completes us, God alone is sufficient for us, God loves and delights in us in spite of our sinfulness or isolation. In today's world (and this is especially clear where I live) we see elderly people and others who are isolated from their churches, from families, through bereavement from their spouses, and so forth. We see people who are isolated by disability and the rhythm of whose lives are marked by illness and even impending death. I believe my life is meant to speak to these people in particular. Yes, of course I pray for them, but even more I hope to witness to them that the way to wholeness, holiness, and completeness is still open to them in God embraced in solitude. I hope that my life says that eremitical solitude is not the same as isolation and that while my life is marked by several things which isolate, this isolation can be redeemed by God and transfigured into a solitude which is filled with life, love, meaning, and hope.

I believe I am called by God through the mediation of God's Church to witness in this way to these and similar people. In a very real way I am responsible to them --- not in the sense I am accountable to the Church through legitimate superiors, but no less really nonetheless. I don't believe the Church professes and consecrates anyone to eremitical solitude simply to make of them some sort of "prayer warrior" (as important as prayer is!!), much less to institutionalize selfishness and individualism. Canonical Hermits are called, like any other Religious is called, to witness to the God who comes to us in the unexpected and unacceptable place, who makes of the deserts of our lives fields which flourish with new life and growth, who allows the dry and barren places to run with living water and the sweetness of milk and wild honey, who transforms  screams of suffering and the anguish of muteness into Magnificats of praise and articulate proclamations of the Good News.

The role of my bishop and delegate is to be sure I live, and have secured (or am able to secure) the necessary means to live the commission to this vocation which the Church has entrusted to me. (This is similarly true for any diocesan hermit with regard to their bishops and delegates.) The personal formation work I do with my Director is meant to be sure I live fully the truth of myself with God. I, as is true of any diocesan hermit, am morally, and legally accountable to the Church in a direct and concrete way for doing whatever it takes within the context of Canon 603 and the eremitical tradition, to become God's own prayer in our world and to witness to the completion that is possible for each one of us with and in God, no matter the circumstances of our lives. I, as again is true for any diocesan hermit, am directly and concretely accountable to the Church Universal to witness to the adequacy and beauty of Canon 603; this canon spells out in normative fashion (thus the term "canon") what a solitary hermit is all about. I, like any diocesan hermit am accountable to my parish and diocese (the local Church) to bring what gifts I can to them in order to witness to the life that God offers and invites us each to. I am accountable to them to be the hermit I am called to be --- not as an isolated individualist, but as someone who recognizes that eremitical solitude is a unique form of community which itself can help build community in powerful ways. In these and any number of complementary ways I am accountable to the Church on both universal and local levels. Again, this is true for anyone claiming a vocation to consecrated life in the Church.