10 October 2021

What if my Diocese Won't Profess Me? What Should I do?

[[Sister Laurel, what do I do if my diocese just won't profess me as a diocesan hermit? Do I have any recourse?? It just doesn't seem fair that they can prevent me from being professed and consecrated when I am sure about my call!! I have lived as a hermit for two years; I've worked with my director and we have discerned this vocation carefully. Now I have been reading about a priest (Fr David Nix) in Colorado who has been professed and he doesn't even seem to have discerned this vocation! It looks to me like his bishop allowed him to be professed just to get him out of his hair. Is there anything I can do? I don't want to move to another diocese, but it really doesn't seem right that some bishops accept this vocation and others don't do that at all. Can you intervene in some way to recommend me maybe?]]

Thanks for your questions. First, let me affirm that I understand your frustration. It took my own diocese more than 25 years to accept diocesan hermits at all; it was 23 years from the time I first knocked on the chancery door with my petition until I was perpetually professed as a diocesan hermit under c 603. During some of this (@5 years) I worked regularly with the Vicar for Religious at the time until it became clear the bishop was not open to professing anyone under c 603. (Unfortunately, he did not let his Vicar know this decision.) While painful in some ways, much of that time was very valuable to me and I am grateful for it, but some of it was excessive and I regret it took my diocese so long to decide to profess anyone as a diocesan hermit!

Because this vocation is discerned and implemented (that is, the hermit is professed and consecrated) at the diocesan level, it has always been the case that some dioceses have been open to the directive of canon 605 (bishops are to be open to new vocations to the consecrated state of life) while others have not. This has been the case since canon 603 was promulgated in October 1983 --- almost 4 decades ago. Sometimes dioceses have been appropriately cautious (or careful), sometimes not nearly cautious (or careful) enough --- and in these latter cases, these dioceses often ended up paying the price with vocations that were problematical, sometimes required dispensation of their vows, etc. I have written about all this and related issues before but it has been some years so perhaps it is a good idea to revisit some of the issues your email raises.

One of the most difficult dimensions of the Roman Catholic theology of public ecclesial vocations for folks to grasp is the mutuality of discernment required. As I have sometimes said, this specific eremitical vocation belongs first of all to the Church herself and only secondarily to the hermit (though it is entirely hers when she embraces it on behalf of the Church). For this reason, when an individual comes to a diocesan chancery claiming to have discerned such a vocation, the diocese has both the right and the obligation to mutually discern the nature and quality of the vocation that may exist. Unless and until a diocese agrees with the individual's discernment and then agrees to profess and (with perpetual profession) to consecrate the individual, one cannot say one has discerned such a vocation. Let me be clear here. With the requisite time, prayer, and supervision, one may have discerned an eremitical vocation which can be lived out in any state of life (except the married state), but one has not yet discerned an ecclesial eremitical vocation like that of c 603.

Think of it this way. I may believe I have a vocation to be a nun, and when I approach this Order or that congregation or house, I can certainly tell them the steps I have taken, and the conclusions I have reached based on the experiences I have had in prayer, direction, and so forth, but I can't simply announce to them that I have discerned this vocation and therefore they should accept me and admit me to profession just like that. A community has both a unique character and charism and I am asking to test my vocation to see not only whether I am called to be a religious, but also whether I am meant to live out my life in this specific communal context with its own unique character and charism or not. Once upon a time we didn't think of there being much difference between communities, but we know well now that they are not simply interchangeable. While candidates for profession under c 603 are not looking at communities, they are looking at a vocation with a specific charism and ecclesial quality. It is a vocation with specific public rights, obligations, and appropriate correlative expectations on the part of the entire church and society.

As I say, this idea of mutual discernment is difficult for people to get sometimes. We live in a culture very much taken with individual rights and freedom which does not always understand that while we speak of "my vocation" we are speaking first of all of a share in the church's own patrimony and mission; thus, the church as institution is responsible for discerning and mediating this call to individuals who feel called in this way. When one has considered their heart affirms this vocation it is hard to hear diocesan officials and others do not agree, but when one proposes and petitions to be professed to live an ecclesial vocation this is always a possibility. Consider that you are seeking to live eremitical life in the name of the Church, and thus you were petitioning the Church to allow you to do that. While our entire lives will be marked with our own names, I think you can appreciate what a weighty thing it is to live a specific vocational path in the name of the Church.

Time Frames and Other General Considerations:

Of course, I don't know why your diocese rejected your petition, whether they suggested you live in eremitical solitude for some time and then re-approach them after several years, whether your diocese has ever professed anyone under c 603 before considering your petition or what their experiences with cc 603-605 have been over the past 38 years, and so forth. Sometimes bad experiences will make dioceses wary of professing subsequent candidates without more discernment than they formerly assured; sometimes good experiences can cut towards more liberal use of c 603, but these can also help a diocese to firm up their expectations of what is involved in such a vocation and make them more demanding. I would certainly encourage you to get a complete assessment from the Vicar for Religious or whomever you met with regularly regarding the decision. Be honest, ask the questions you need answered about your own situation and diocese. They cannot answer questions regarding other professions carried out, nor can they usually explain the policies of other dioceses. However, they owe you frank and honest summaries of their findings in your own case and what options are open to you in the future.

Ordinarily, in my experience dioceses will not profess anyone after only two years of personal discernment. They might not even accept such a person for serious mutual discernment. Even those moving from religious life in community to profession under c 603 will ordinarily require more than two years to transition sufficiently and test this new vocation unless they specifically left life in community because of a sense of a call to greater solitude. Even then one needs to discern what form of eremitical life to which one feels called: semi-eremitical, life in a laura, solitary eremitical, and consecrated or non-canonical. Some bishops will not consider professing anyone under c 603 with fewer than five years living in solitude under regular spiritual direction and discernment. I generally tend to agree with them, though individual cases differ. If the person has a strong contemplative background in vowed life they may be admitted to perpetual profession at that point. If not --- and if the diocese believes the person is called to consecrated eremitical life, they are likely to be admitted to temporary profession for 2-3 years before admission to perpetual profession and consecration.

Your diocese may well desire you to secure more formation and experience in eremitical solitude before they are open to admitting you to profession of any sort. They may have other concerns which can be resolved with the assistance of spiritual direction, counseling, or greater levels of lived experience. (Eremitical life is ordinarily seen as a second half of life vocation and candidates are expected to have lived well and in some fullness before seeking to pursue this vocation.) They might wish you to get some more education which includes some sound theology, Scripture studies. The only way you can know this, however, is to talk about it fully with whomever you met with regularly at the chancery.

Recommendations, etc.

While you are not the first person to ask this, and while it is gratifying that you would do so, I really cannot recommend you (nor would anyone listen to such a "recommendation" from me in your regard); after all,  I don't know you, nor your diocese, nor what their decision actually was or was based upon. You are likely already to have discovered that your diocese will  require recommendations from your director, pastor(s), and, sometimes, others who have worked with you re: discernment and formation. (Mine asked for recommendations from past Vicars for Religious, for instance because they knew me and had known me for some time under other bishops.) Dioceses are also apt to seek additional information from doctors, psychologists, etc. 

You asked me what you should do. I have given you some suggestions throughout but let me list them in a more summary fashion: 1) find out if your diocese is open to using canon 603 at all. If they are then 2) ask for a frank and constructive summary of their decision in your regard and their reasons for that decision, 3) Clarify whether they are open to reviewing this decision in several years time. If they are, and you decide to pursue this further, then continue to live as a lay hermit and work to get further formation, etc., in the meantime. If they are not, work with your director and discern what next steps you need to make, if any. If you  are called to be a hermit (whether canonical or non-canonical and whatever form) no time you spend in any of this will be wasted. If you are not called to eremitical life (of whatever form), you will discover that with time and again, you will come to know yourself better, will have developed a stronger spirituality, and will likely find the time to have been well-spent.