by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD(Cand), JCL, OCV, DHS
This was originally intended to be called “When Vows are Not What They Seem”, but I have decided to make that observation at the end of this new article.
He was a fellow student at my university, his habit swirling about as he walked the long corridor. One day, as we were talking, I discovered that he was a quasi-refuge in the sense that there was an implicit understanding he would never return home. Why was that? Because in his home country, where his religious community had to be wary of informants, he was secretly ordained in a room set up as an office. His community had already ordained the maximum number of priests permitted by the government and this was a clandestine ordination. Only a bishop and another cleric or two were present.
Although my friend and classmate was “secretly” or “privately” ordained, he entered the very public state of the priesthood. The only reason his ordination was not “public” in view of all the faithful was because of ongoing persecution. But yet it was still a “public” occasion despite it taking place in an administration office. If this is confusing, it is because the Church has very particular uses of the word “public” when it comes to the liturgy and vocations. These meanings are not immediately evident to laity, and so it is high time to make this public!
Public Ceremony vs. Private Ceremony
My secretly ordained priest-friend was ordained in a public liturgy… that wasn’t open to the public due to dire circumstances. Liturgies, by their nature, are public. Outside of specific and unusual circumstances, (e.g. the ordination of a bishop or other such special Mass where “tickets” are usually issued), the liturgy celebrated in parishes and the cathedrals are public, open to the faithful. This is why you’ll see some cathedrals, otherwise only accessible for touring by means of admission fees, open during Mass times or the Liturgy of the Hours, free of charge to the faithful who attend, and tourists are either barred or admonished not to disturb the proceedings.
Outside the liturgy, most Catholic ceremonies are “private”. For example, a May crowning of Our Lady is a private devotional act. Likewise, the Stations of the Cross are a private prayer, even if thousands of people attend it. To protect the faithful from inappropriate or unsound private prayers or devotions, only prayers and devotions that have been approved by the bishop may be done in a Catholic Church. Even if prayers are said in a Church, if they are not liturgical, celebrated in an integral liturgical act, they are private in nature. So, a rosary said in a parish church with a hundred people is still a private prayer. The gospel of the day, if read at the conclusion of the rosary and not in Mass, is a private act.
Now, over the years, the Church has increasingly shifted certain public acts (we will discuss that shortly) from a private setting to a liturgical setting. The most obvious case is that of marriage. For centuries, the sacrament of marriage was conferred by the spouses upon each other in their homes or suitable locations for such a momentous event. As time went on, more and more fiancees opted to be married in Church immediately before Mass and then to attend Mass. This was not mandatory. A wedding could still take place anywhere. However, a problem cropped up in which people with greater access to mobility (think nobles, merchants, and others with means), could go from one town to another picking up women and “marrying them”, without the others knowing it. Hence, the Council of Trent stepped in and made it a rule that notices of marriage, the “banns”, needed to be published, and that the couples had to celebrate their marriage in front of a priest and two witnesses, and that this marriage would be recorded in baptismal records of the parties so that they couldn’t pick up additional “spouses”. This was in the sixteenth century.
Once the sacrament of marriage had to be conferred by the spouses in front of a priest and two witnesses to be valid, the location of weddings shifted to churches and sometimes rectories. But it must be noted that marriage is always inherently a “public act”, regardless of where it is celebrated, and irrespective of how many people actually attend to see it happen. Eventually, after the Vatican Council II, the sacrament of marriage was permitted and encouraged to be done in the context of Mass. It is not an absolute requirement: a couple can get married outside of Mass, but that is not a topic for today. The point is that while marriage can and generally is conferred by the spouses in the context of Mass, what makes the ceremony public is not the Mass, (although the Mass is public), but the fact that marriage is a public act.
Another ceremony that was a “public” act but done in private settings that has been moved to be normally celebrated in the context of Mass is the profession of religious men and women. Again, up until Vatican II, professions were not always done in the context of a Mass: many religious Orders did theirs privately, in the chapter-room (meeting room) of their convent. E.g. Therese of Lisieux had her solemn profession in the chapter room, surrounded only by nuns. Dominicans and others also made perpetual profession in-house. On the other hand, there were a plethora of homebrewed “liturgies” for perpetual profession that were created by religious communities given that there was no official liturgy for it. Sometimes the profession of vows took place before Mass like with weddings. Other times, religious made their vows right before Communion with the host being elevated. There were a lot of different practices. Following Vatican II, a specific liturgy template was created in the Roman RItual for the profession ceremony of male and female religious in the context of Mass. It is not mandatory for use, as religious still have the option to do professions in-house, but most religious have adopted it and slightly adapted it with the flavor of their own institute.
It is one thing for a public ceremony to take place in a public manner, often in the context of the liturgy or taking place inside a church. However, there are, as has already been said, “private” ceremonies, prayers, and devotions that may be done “publicly”. This is important to understand. Prayers, devotions, and other ceremonies are legally private when they are not liturgical even if they take place in a crowd or within a Church building. While the Church regulates these “private” acts, it does not give them “public” standing.
As far as vocations go, the closest “imitation” of a vocation event there is, with regard to a “private” act that is not “public” in standing, is the private vow(s) a person might make of the evangelical counsels. There are other private events or acts that might take publicly or in a Church, such as the Stations of the Cross that are public only in the sense that they are done with people, but private in the sense that these are not public worship.
To recap, a public ceremony is always “public” in the eyes of the Church and her laws by its very nature. However, whether a crowd attends is an entirely different matter, and will depend on circumstances. A private ceremony or prayer is always “private” even if done in the midst of a crowd or broadcasted on TV, and this can include things like the Stations of the Cross.
Private Vows vs. Public Vows
Anybody, with sufficient knowledge, deliberation, and ability to carry it out, can make a promise or vow to God to do something for the greater good, including making promises of chastity (obedience and poverty are not usually made by individuals not banded together). Such a vow or promise when made directly to God and outside the context of either an institute of consecrated life (religious institute or secular institute) or as a diocesan hermit in the hands of a bishop, are by their very nature “private”. This means while the person making the vow is obliged by the virtue of religion to fulfill his/her promise to God, the Church sees this as a private arrangement between the individual and God. As a private arrangement, the Church’s oversight over it is largely confined to the “internal forum” in confession and spiritual direction. However, appropriate authorities do have the power to commute or dispense such vows and how this is done and the parameters is covered by canon law.
Another form of private vow, usually not widely understood, are the vows made by people in groups that want to be an institute of consecrated life, or who belong to a society of apostolic life. While these vows usually “imitate” the public vows made by members of religious institutes or secular institutes, they are not public. Even if there is a crowd and the persons making them wear a habit, these vows are still “private” because the people making them do not belong to an institute of consecrated life. What is an institute of consecrated life? There are two types. One is a religious institute of diocesan or pontifical right, and the other is a secular institute of diocesan or pontifical right. What is common to institutes of consecrated life is that their vows are “public” and members don’t merely “make” vows, they “profess” vows. Groups that “hope” to be a religious or secular institute do not “profess” vows: they make private vows. Again, these private vows can be made in the midst of a crowd and in front of bishops.
Let’s illustrate this concept with a community well known to American Catholics: The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. This community was started in 1997 when they were established as an association of the faithful (a group of the faithful who want to be an institute of consecrated life). These women made private vows until 2013, 16 years after they started. From 1997 to 2013, these women were laywomen in every sense of the word: they were not religious. They were laywomen, some of whom were in private vows. Yes, the private vow ceremony looked like the vow ceremonies of religious, but they were legally “private”. They did not make the people who made these vows “religious”: the women, dressed in habits, were laywomen with private vows. Only in 2013, when the community became an “institute of consecrated life”, that is, in their case, a “religious institute”, were the women allowed to “profess vows” and become “religious sisters”.
If this is not confusing, it should be noted that it is not making vows in a habit. It is not making vows in a group. It is not making vows in front of a bishop or even in the hands of a bishop that makes a vow public. All vows are legally “private” governed by the rules that govern private vows in canon law, unless they are made in an institute of consecrated life or at the profession of a diocesan hermit in accordance with canon 603 in the hands of the hermit’s bishop.
What are “public vows”? Public vows are divided into two categories. One is the “public vow” of religious. The other is the “public vow” of other consecrated people who belong to secular institutes or who are diocesan hermits according to canon 603. Sometimes this second kind of public vow (although recognized by canon 1192) of secular institutes is called a “semi-public vow” because it is not intended to be a part of the “public” witness that religious give to the Church as in “visible” witness. Religious are publicly known to have public vows and their habit is a visible sign of this public witness to the people of God that they are individuals with a visible (public) mission in the Church and who are bound by the vows to the observance of the evangelical counsels. For religious, the “public” nature of their vows is not merely confined to the fact that they are “public” in law, or “publicly” made in front of people, but that people have the right to know that these people are bound by these vows and are visible reminders of the Heaven all should strive to attain.
Although the nature of the vows of members of secular institutes are “public” because they have been professed in the hands of a legitimate superior who accepted it in the name of the Church, they are not intended to be “visible” in every day life. This means that secular institute members do not wear habits (they are forbidden to do so) and their vocation, unlike that of religious, is not intended to be “in your face” visible with the faithful always being aware of the fact that they have professed the evangelical counsels. In other words, the person in the pew with ordinary clothes who is unmarried might be, unknown to you, a member of a secular institute. He/she has no obligation to make it known to you or anyone else that he/she is a professed secular institute member. Why? Because “visibility” is not demanded of this vocation, while it is an essential component (“separation from the world”) for religious.
There is another division of public vows (see canon 1192) that has less meaning today than it did previously: the “simple vow” and the “solemn vow”. There are differences between the two types of public vows, and now is not the time to get into this. Generally speaking, for a woman religious having solemn vows, it means that she is a cloistered nun, as only Orders (not congregations) were allowed to have solemn vows. So if a woman has “solemn vows”, it means she is a nun, she is cloistered.
Private State vs. Public State
There are three basic states in the Church: Clerical, Lay, and Consecrated. These states are juridic, or legal. That is why when we say that a priest is “laicized”, we mean that he has left the “clerical state” and put back into the “lay state” but he continues to have holy orders on his soul even if he is only treated like a layperson. Not all consecrated people are in the consecrated state but all who are in the consecrated state are not in the lay state ( as distinguished from the clerical and consecrated states not in the hierarchical clerical/non-clerical sense of “lay”). And to add to the confusion, being in a “public state” does not necessarily refer to those “juridic states”.
So, let’s talk about being in a private state. An unmarried, non-ordained person is generally in a “private” state of life. This person can have private vows of the evangelical counsels, but since the vows are “private”, he/she remains in the lay juridic state. Having private vows does not place a person in a true ecclesial vocation (more on this later when my dissertation is published). However, it does place the person in a private state of dedication with obligations binding in conscience.
Vocations change a person’s state of life, but not necessarily the juridic state of life. A person’s state of life is changed by Holy Orders, Marriage, Profession as a Religious, Profession as a Secular Institute Member, Profession as a Diocesan Hermit or Consecration as a Virgin. A person’s juridic state is changed by only these vocations: Holy Orders, Profession as a Religious, Profession of a Diocesan Hermit and Consecration as a Virgin. Married people and members of secular institutes remain lay or clerical as the case may be: marriage and profession as a member of a secular institute does not change a person’s juridic state of life.
These distinctions are important because they help put context into the status of these lesser known groups: members of secular institutes, diocesan hermits, consecrated virgins, and privately vowed individuals.
Secular Institutes: Public vows ( or sacred bonds) but not publicly visible in day to day life as people with the vows. Members remain in the Public state of laity or clergy respectively.
Privately vowed individuals (and members of groups who are not institutes of consecrated life): Private vows. Members are fully in the lay state or clerical state respectively. They are not consecrated, they do not “profess vows”, but they can “make vows” even if group members (with permission) wear habits or go through vow ceremonies that imitate consecrated life.
Consecrated Virgins: Public consecration, public juridic consecrated state, but “visibility” as a member of the consecrated state is not required. Members of the Order of Virgins may belong to secular institutes, or cloistered religious institutes or not belong to any group. Consecrated virgins are not in the “lay state” (they are only “lay” hierarchically as in being non-ordained, but not lay vocationally, any more than a cloistered monk.)
Diocesan Hermits: Public profession, public juridic consecrated state and “visibility” of profession is generally undertaken (a habit is a sign of “separation from the world”. Diocesan hermits are not in the “lay state” (they are only “lay” hierarchically as in being non-ordained, but not lay vocationally, any more than a cloistered monk.)
When Vows Are Not What They Seem
It is time to analyze some highly irregular situations that have occurred over the last year in different places around the globe to figure out the actual status of certain people who have shared their “ceremonies” publicly in social media or are otherwise featured on diocesan/parish websites.
The Hermit Who Aped Hermit Profession
It is not fitting to use the liturgy to convince people of a false status in the Church. In the case of one woman, she fixed up a costume that resembles a habit, and with the assistance of a priest, said vows in the middle of a livestreamed Mass, got her clothes blessed by said priest, and goes around calling herself a hermit. This situation is problematic because the priest does not have permission to allow a person to interrupt a Mass to witness vows, or bless habits, as if he has been authorized by the Church to witness private vows. The woman is every bit as lay as the unordained married man with ten children, and if she solicits funds as a hermit, such actions are fraudulent unless the people know she is not recognized as a hermit by the Church and is no more consecrated than her donors.
The Hermit Who Made a “Vow” of “Simplicity” in Front of a Priest
A hermit whose profession was approved by a diocesan bishop made vows before a priest of chastity, obedience and simplicity. This profession ceremony, livestreamed on TV, was invalid and did not constitute the person as a hermit. A diocesan hermit must make the profession in the hands of the bishop (or his delegate) and the vow of obedience is not amorphous: for validity it must be made to obey the bishop and his successors and the rule of life. The vow of poverty cannot be substituted with an amorphous vow of “simplicity”. The canon is specific about the vows being about the “counsels”, which do not include “simplicity”. This person is not a diocesan hermit or a consecrated person until/unless making a proper profession with valid vow formulae.
The Strange Case of the Woman Who Claims to be a CV but Whose Certificate Says she Made Solemn Vows
There is a highly irregular situation in which a woman who claims to be a consecrated virgin but whose certificate says otherwise. The certificate in question states that this particular woman pronounced her “solemn vows as a consecrated virgin” in the presence of a named priest. Then it says that the “vows were renewed and confirmed … in the presence of” her named bishop.
The problem with this particular situation is that the alleged consecrated virgin has not furnished any evidence that this was anything other than a private dedication ceremony in which she piously decided to remain single for the rest of her life. Red flags include the fact that she is not a nun; therefore she did not make “solemn vows”. That a certificate states that the woman made “solemn vows” betrays a level of ignorance as to the nature of both vows and the consecration of virgins that would render any alleged vows and consecration invalid by reason of ignorance. A vow cannot be validly made without the ability to make it (does the person understand the duties it entails; a vow of chastity goes way beyond abstaining from genital activity); due circumspection, which means that the person must not only understand what the vow is (there is a reason religious spend at least one or two years in training and classes before making temporary vows and as much as nine years prior to making final vows: vows are serious business and you need to know what you are committing yourself to), but also understand how it impacts their life in very practical ways and theological import; etc. One very basic thing that any well formed person ought to know is the difference between a solemn vow, a simple vow, and a private vow, and a public vow. If such a person cannot articulate this, it is unlikely that their vow is valid. Not only must there be sufficient knowledge to validly make a vow, the vow-er must be able to fulfill it. That is rather impossible if no formation is given on it.
The second troubling aspect of this alleged consecrated virgin case is that the woman in question purportedly made the “vows” in the “presence of” her pastor and later her bishop. In no case is a private vow ever anything but private. Whether the vow is made in front of a priest, an auditorium, in a hot air balloon, in the desert, or in front of a bishop or pope, if it is private, it remains private and made merely “in the presence of”. Yes, it can be witnessed by the seagulls or a crowd in a church or by even a bishop, but witnessing is not the same thing as “receiving”. The language of this woman’s certificate plainly indicates that whatever promises, vows, or spiritual declarations of love made by her (we don’t know exactly what was done), this was strictly private and personal between her and God.
The consecration of virgins, by its very nature, is not strictly private and personal between the virgin and God. The virgin doesn’t make herself a consecrated virgin by saying some kind of private vow or even emitting solemn vows as a nun. She “receives” the consecration from the bishop. Not a priest. A bishop. A bishop does not “witness” the virgin making a private or fake “solemn” vow, he actively confers the consecration upon her. Thus, by the certificate’s own words, whatever this woman is, she is certainly not certified as being a consecrated virgin.
It goes without saying that just as a vow has certain elements for it to be valid, so too does the consecration of virgins. Among other things, it requires the plain, unequivocal knowledge of what it is (like the basic understanding that it is not a “solemn vow”), the ability to live it out, virginity to receive it, and most importantly, the knowledge of, and ability to fulfill the obligations that it imposes on its recipient. As a public representative of the Church (in ecclesiae sponsae imago), the virgin assumes new and important responsibilities in the Church. She has a duty to prayer, assiduous penance, and to service of the Church. Her status is public. The faithful may hold her accountable. This is part and parcel of being in public state of consecration. She has a new reality: she is a Bride of Christ, Mother of Souls. As one sainted consecrated virgin publicly stated: “I am Christ’s mother!” (An Arch-heretic may have been triggered by that to launch his own special brand of heresy against Mary; more on this some other time.)
That’s is part of what is required on the virgin’s part for validity of consecration. There are other elements needed too. The prayer of consecration (the liturgy) must be done correctly. A made-up prayer does not suffice. There is no indication that the liturgical prayer of consecration was recited by the bishop upon this woman without any changes to the prayer. In fact, the certificate hints of the very real possibility that this prayer was not said: it implies that the bishop merely witnessed this woman who had already made some kind of private commitment or vow before her pastor was renewing this private commitment in front of himself, and that he probably just said some pious prayer as an encouragement for her self-dedication.
But even if the prayer of consecration of virgins was actually said by the bishop over the woman, there is another element required: the intention of the minister. For a valid consecration, the bishop must intend to consecrate the virgin with all that is implied in a genuine consecration. He has to realize that it is not a “blessing’ or “recognition” of the woman’s private vow(s). He has to intend to use the prayer and constitute the woman a consecrated virgin, placing her automatically in a public state. He has to intend that she be bound by the obligations and rights of her new state in life. He has to intend that she is actually a consecrated virgin. Again, the wording of the certificate and an email sent to her later does not instill confidence that he had any such intention. The certificate is a huge red flag. But the email is even more of a red flag. Part by part it states:
“You consecrated your virginity to God in his church and in the presence of witnesses.”
Notice that it is not the bishop consecrating the woman. He is specifically stating the woman is dedicating her virginity to God in front of people. That is completely different.
“You are not living that vocation in a public manner as some CVs do for a role within the Church.”
Here, the bishop is clearly stating that he woman who is living “virginity” that she dedicated to God herself is not living her call to virginity in a “public manner” for a “role within the Church”. Let’s review what the genuine consecration of virgins does: it establishes the virgin in the role and title and position of Bride of Christ, mother of souls, dedicated to the service of the Church. What is the bishop saying? She does NOT have a role (that one) in the Church. I think that is fairly clear. A bishop cannot consecrate a virgin and erase her public role: by its very nature the virgin is always in a public role (even if not visible).
If this is not already evident, the next sentence states:
“Your consecration was privately celebrated and will be privately carried out, but it is no less sacred or special to God.”
The bishop acknowledges that the woman’s self dedication was ‘privately celebrated” and will be “privately carried out” and he consoles her with the thought that it is “no less sacred or special to God”. Again, for validity, a genuine consecration must be known by the recipient for what it is and does. That means that even if an ordination is done in an office space, the man receiving it knows that it places him in a public position and that he is a priest of God. If a bishop has to explain to someone that something is “no less sacred or special to God”, it implies that the person in question did not understand that a consecration by its very nature is sacred, special to God. In fact, given the context here, the bishop’s words actually point to what is more likely the case: it is quite possible that he is reassuring this woman that her private commitment to remain a virgin is as “special” in the eyes of God as the genuine consecration of virgins given to approved candidates.
A bishop has no authority to demand or insist that a virgin’s consecration be “privately carried out” if it is the genuine consecration of virgins found in the Roman Pontifical and validly conferred upon the virgin. By is very nature the consecration of virgins is public (even if celebrated in a closet) . By its very nature, anything the woman does is as a representative of the Church. There is no such thing as it being “privately carried out”. What a real consecrated virgin does is done in full image of the Church. I remember the case of another woman who actually did receive the genuine consecration of virgins, whose bishop insisted that she get permission from him if she wanted to be in a public position like that of a politician: this was an invalid restriction because he had no authority to restrict her from a perfectly legitimate path. Put differently, if a bishop does not trust a woman to conduct herself as an exemplary Catholic in her words and actions, he has no business consecrating her. If the bishop is foolish enough to consecrate a woman who is not formed with at least a few years of actual formation in the basics of philosophy, theology, theology of vows, Christology, ascetical and moral theology, liturgy, and the like, then he should expect to reap the consequences. The woman must be capable of living an edifying life, one that isn’t merely “pious” but one that exemplifies the “state of perfection”. Most women do not have the generosity and formation needed for the transition, and thereby do not actually qualify for the consecration of virgins.
Given all of the above, it is highly unlikely that the woman in question validly received the consecration of virgins. There are too many unanswered serious problems with that situation and the above merely form some of the legitimate questions surrounding it.
Canon 603 is sometimes abused and invalidly used to deal with immigration or personality conflict or pastoral style issues. Sometimes there are men who are ordained, and their ordination was a highly imprudent mistake made by the bishop, often done for the sake of augmenting numbers, who are simply unsuitable for any ministry with the people. Bishops wrongly make such men “diocesan hermits” without reference to whether there is a divine call for such men to be a hermit. Sometimes this is just a “label” slapped on a priest who happens to live alone. In one case that I am thinking of, the alleged priest hermit has shown no evidence that he actually made any profession of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the hands of his bishop. Thus, whatever he is, it isn’t a diocesan hermit unless he did in fact profess the vows in the hands of his bishop on a perpetual basis. In other cases, there is a question of immigration fraud when a convent of nuns wants to get a “chaplain” and the only way of doing it is to claim the man is a “religious” when in fact it is just a label stuck on someone who merely expects to do ministry solely with the convent and live alone. A priest is not a hermit until and unless he perpetually professes the vows in the hands of his bishop in accordance with a time-tested (usually years) vetted, and approved rule of life.
When a Bishop’s Word is Definitive and When it is NOT
Now, there are some who take a priest’s or bishop’s words indiscriminately, without actually paying attention to what is objectively said and done vs. what is alleged to be said and done. As a result of things done willy-nilly, and usually as a result of problems and questions arising from concrete historical situations, canon law gradually expanded to give definitive norms on many things, including how vows are made and dispensed, what people belong to associations vs. institutes of consecrated life, etc. These establish objective criteria to evaluate the validity and/or liceity of concrete actions and their legal consequences. This means that there are a lot of things that can be evaluated independently of what any individual priest or bishop might say.
E.g. A bishop might have presided at the vow ceremony in a Mass of the Dominicans of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist between 1997 and 2013. He might have called the women “religious”. He might have informally or even at Mass called the making of vows a “profession of vows”. But the women in question were not religious, were not consecrated women, and did not profess vows. Why? Because in law, the Church recognized the group as an “association of the faithful”. That meant that any vows made were private vows. Even though the women wore a habit, they were not religious. They were lay women in private vows wearing a habit, and hoping to become consecrated women eventually. So, just because a bishop “says” something doesn’t always mean that what he says is real. On the other hand, it was a bishop who made the Dominicans of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist a “religious institute of diocesan right”. He had to do this legally in the legal format required by canon law after consulting the Holy See. If he had not followed the legal procedures, the Dominican sisters would have remained laywomen and an association of the faithful. But once the group became, through his authorization, a religious institute, the women were able to profess vows, become consecrated women, and were truly “religious”.
Why is this important? Because a person or place might “look” like a religious or a hermit or a consecrated virgin, but just because a priest or bishop says that they are doesn’t always mean that is the case. And the same can be true of erroneous statements that priests and bishops can make about people in real vocations. For example, many consecrated virgins are called “privately vowed” persons by ignorant priests and bishops. Secular institutes might be ridiculed as not consecrated persons by others. But in fact, members of secular institutes are every bit as consecrated as the consecrated virgins and religious and diocesan hermits. The purpose of canon law is to make things more clear and to help people get to heaven doing what is needed in their state of life with their respective duties.