Isolation, Sunday Rest, and Hermits

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD(cand), OCV, DHS

One of the deacons I am friends with has spoken about his visits to impoverished housebound people and assistance both spiritual and temporal given to them. Our conversations became a catalyst for this article, which has been put on the backburner for far too long, for I wish to speak on covid isolation, Sunday rest, the movement of parishes and dioceses cutting off Mass live streaming to encourage people to go back to in-person Mass, and hermits.

Covid has wreaked havoc around the globe. No one has escaped its impact, and for the first time in history, most of the world had had its Sunday Mass attendance obligation suspended because of the virus. This has lead to otherwise healthy single people living in greater isolation due to government regulations. They have been cooped up in their homes and apartments, only gradually being “let out”, perhaps only for a brief time before again enduring more isolation if another wave breaks out.

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Church going Catholics have been fairly vocal about the pastoral and governmental response to the covid crisis. This is not what we’ll be focusing on today, and any comments about the concrete handling of this situation by authorities will be summarily deleted, as this is simply not the space for such a discussion. Rather, we will be examining something I think has been overlooked and undervalued, namely, Sunday rest, the lot of the homebound, and hermits.

Healthy individuals who are forcibly isolated and who have more limited access to the sacraments have understandable feelings about being unable to socialize with people, partake of the sacraments normally, etc. Priests who are dealing with the crisis are for the most part not happy about having to livestream their Masses as being a “youtube tech” was not what they imagined as part of their ministry description. Both groups just want to go back to life as normal with in-person Masses, and having a normal social life and ministry. This is fine and natural.

When transitioning back into society, it is appropriate for us to begin seriously reflecting upon how we understand Sunday, which is to help “everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives.” [CCC #2184). Sundays are not simply for attending Mass and fostering our spiritual lives, although that is extremely important; humans need a holistic and uplifting praxis of the day that allows for but sufficient rest and leisure for other very positive effects in our lives: cultural, familial, and social. In pandemic times, how this is accomplished must be adapted for our concrete reality. Obviously we cannot completely re-create our former social, familial, and cultural activities conducive to Sunday observance in these trying times, and millions of us have to do this in relative isolation because of the restrictions imposed on us.

Many Catholics know that we are “to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body. Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The charity of truth seeks holy leisure- the necessity of charity accepts just work.” (CCC #2185). However, it may come as a surprise that “Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation.” (CCC #2186). How many healthy individuals think only of fostering their own leisure, their own social life, and their own methods for attaining relaxation?

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Who of us think about doing works of mercy and offering humble service to the “sick, the infirm, and the elderly”? I would mention in particular, the home-bound isolated individuals who are ignored by society and rarely or never visited by their relatives or members of the clergy or fellow parishioners. Do we go and mow the lawns of widows, the elderly, homebound, or the military spouse with children? Do we make it a point to ensure that there is regular visitation of the sick by not just extraordinary ministers but also priests who can hear confessions? Will we keep livestreaming Masses and prayer services for the homebound? Or will all sense of solidarity evaporate once the healthy get what they want?

Let’s face it. Marginalized persons are so far out of the mind of most of the healthy who are not caregivers, and their pastors, that their needs are simply ignored when it comes to decisions about livestreaming Masses, visits, and volunteer work. This needs to end. If healthy people are finding it difficult to cope with imposed isolation, it is high time to consider those who are homebound and do not necessarily have the same resources for cultivating their social, religious, cultural, and familial lives. That couple on a fixed income might need to get out of the house and brought to a social activity or cultural experience provided with courtesy and respect by others. Or, that 83 year old woman living alone with a leaky sink could do with a cheerful word and donated repairs services.

It is time that we embrace the fullness of living out the Sunday observance and start reaching out to our neighbors. We need to bring community and care to our homebound, and to foster a love and appreciation for our culture. We need to be constructive about our collective future.

Now, it is time to shift to a related topic, that of hermits. If anything, the pandemic has highlighted the fact that people can live in isolation on a temporary basis, but most people are not called to live withdrawn from normal pre-pandemic social interactivity. The majority of people are waiting with bated breath for normality to return so that there is an end-point to the severe disruption isolation causes in their lives. Put in another way, most people do not have a positive call from God to live “alone with the Alone” as a hermit.

Many have the idea that a Catholic hermit is someone who lives alone. In this time of pandemic, it is possible that some might consider themselves all but canonical hermits because the externals of devout Catholics might have the outward appearance of that of a hermit’s life: a rhythm of prayer, meals, greater separation from normal activities, etc. But it is clear that such people do not fit the definition of a real hermit. It is one thing for people to be in relative isolation during the pandemic but afterwards go back into normal socialization. And for those who are homebound due to age or chronic illness, if they had a choice, many would opt into normal activity. It is another to voluntarily choose, not isolation, but healthy solitude to be alone with God.

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Why bring up hermits in connection with the pandemic? Because outward circumstances do not a vocation make. A hermit is more than a pious person who is “alone” in a household. A hermit is essentially one who is given a special call by God to consecrated life “for the sake of the kingdom” in “the silence of solitude”. A call that must be carefully discerned over a period of many years because it is so rare and it can be dangerously unhealthy for a person who is not balanced to embrace.

The pandemic is not only bringing out the goodness in people as evidenced by the outpouring of the corporal works of mercy by individuals and organizations, but also the ugly distortions of sin, the amplification of struggles of people with certain mental health conditions, and proliferation of issues due to financial inequity. It will undoubtedly bring up a small segment of people who may be considering the eremitic vocation for the first time in their lives because of forced isolation. The healthy individual should be using this time of forced isolation as a time for reflection, and adaptive habits that foster community, culture, religion, etc. within the boundaries set by the authorities. To really use this opportunity for “solitude” to have better self awareness and to do some good soul-searching. Those struggling with the challenges posed by isolation should work to find solutions.

For a very small minority of people, this period of forced isolation may be the transformative experience needed to seriously consider the possibility of a hermit vocation. In the absence of certain distractions, one might very well find oneself drawn to be with God in a disciplined life of prayer, penance, etc., lived in solitude that the busy-ness of everyday life may have drowned out. But hermit life is not the life of the eccentric person who hates people or is a-social. Nor is it a nice label for “basement dwellers” who are unable to function in real life. It is not the caricature of eremitic life that might come immediately to mind of a cranky social misfit that the Church fosters as an authentic vocation to the eremitic life.

The Catholic hermit withdraws from normal social life because he is drawn to conversation with God, not because she thinks that she cannot live in society without sinning because all “conversations are idle”. The diocesan hermit is a healthy, balanced individual who is able to have strong relationships with others, not the loner who can’t get along with other people. A person called by God to this lifestyle is drawn to the service of the greater body of Christ in service done via prayer and penance rather than focusing on his own private benefit. The hermit doesn’t spend the majority of his time wrangling with the problems of society and of the Church in activity, but instead focuses on grappling with those elements in his own life that keep him from a closer and more virtuous relationship with God and cooperating with grace to become a greater vessel to humankind.

Whether the hermit is a dedicated individual (via lifestyle and/or private vows) or a consecrated diocesan hermit whose superior is the bishop, the lifestyle embraced is far different and more expansive and rich than that of those simply forced into isolation by reason of the pandemic, ill health, age, quarantine, or even imprisonment. It is not about isolation but of communing with God and fighting with the inner demons. The eremitic lifestyle is not a runaround for starting a religious community or shorthand for a person who is aping religious life as a kind of “active religious of a community of one”. It is its own unique style of life with its own charism, spirituality, way of life, etc. It is a very rare vocation in the Church.

If a true call to the eremitic life that might bubble up within the laity and possibly detected in this time of pandemic is rare, it is far rarer for there to be an authentic vocation to the eremitic life from members of institutes of consecrated life and diocesan clergy. The pandemic is certainly impacting religious and clergy alike. It is fostering deep divisions over issues such as social distancing, vaccinations, care for the elderly and vulnerable, sacramental access, etc. It can be a catalyst for pitting brother against brother, sister against sister, priests against priests, and parishioners against priests. Thus, it shouldn’t be too surprising that care should be taken in the discernment of a religious or secular institute member who yearns for a hermitage but whose institute does not provide for hermit members, and the discernment of diocesan priests to the hermit vocation.

For the religious, a simple transfer isn’t possible. The religious would have to line up a way of providing for himself, a hermitage, etc. Then he would have to seek a dispensation from community life to experiment with this lifestyle, and eventually from his religious vows. Only after living several years as a lay person testing the hermit vocation successfully would the former religious be in a position to petition the bishop for candidacy as a hermit.

Likewise, the secular priest who desires to be a hermit would have to ask for release from his active ministerial obligations from his bishop. He should have a demonstrable yearning and personal holiness and soundness of life that would indicate potential success in this way of life. As it is a completely different vocation than the priesthood, the clerical aspirant would have to begin from the very beginning and presumably take the same 9-12 years that a lay hermit would have for formation. The theology he has been taught is a good support for the eremitic life but is not a substitute for the actual living of the life nor for the gradual learning of the praxis and theology of consecrated life. Eremitic life goes beyond slapping on the vows of poverty to that of the priestly promises of celibacy and obedience to his bishop and living “alone” [in fact this is not how profession is done, but that is a whole different can of worms].

The clerical candidate would have to learn about the vocation and spirituality of the diocesan hermit. Unlike most aspirants, he would never have to worry about his financial support as the diocese will always have the obligation to support him even if he did profess the vows because he would continue to be incardinated in the diocese but not be in active ministry. He should not be too surprised if permission to experiment with a possible vocation to the eremitic life is not granted by his bishop until retirement age, although bishops should be open to the vocation and give the matter serious discernment on a case by case basis.

For its part, the diocese should be very careful in this time of the pandemic to be even more thoughtful about potential candidates and to have a good grasp on the nature of this vocation. This is a true vocation, and is not a way of getting rid of an annoying individual by “professing them” and then forgetting about them. Nor is it a canonical equivalent to giving a stamp of episcopal approval on an individual’s ministry, whether they be lay or clerical. It is not a way of “validating” a homebound individuals’ existence and giving them a “meaningful purpose”. Nor is this a way of blessing the eccentric individual or the asocial person who is unable or unwilling to live in society because of a false ideology or physical/mental weakness.

If it is tricky for the bishop to discern the lay person’s potential vocation to the eremitic life, which must be tested over a long period of time, it is all the more delicate in the situation of those who desire to separate from their religious institution or be a clerical hermit. The bishop should enquire about the experience of the community of the ex-religious. Was the individual balanced, loving, mature in the virtues, etc. Likewise, the character of a clerical aspirant should be duly considered. Did he live up to his holy vocation as a mature, balanced, holy cleric? Hearing directly from the members of the institute in addition to superiors, and members of the councils and parishioners is important in these special cases.

In particular, the bishop should ensure that primary reason for a religious considering leaving an institute isn’t on account of “personality conflicts” but because they are persons of proven virtue and have carefully discerned a call to greater solitude. Since there are rogue priests who just want to do their own thing, the diocese should take care that the priest is carefully supervised and that the rule of life contains elements that make it clear that this is not a canonical construct for “independent priests” but is built for the “silence of solitude”, a life centered primarily upon prayer and penance with little to no active ministry involved in person and online.

Also, a word of warning. Just as healthy religious have the right to common “communal life”, so too diocesan priests have the right to not be shunted to a fake vocation as a hermit if he is a “misfit” or for “punishment”. A priest found guilty of certain delicts can certainly be punished by being sent to a religious house, if such will receive him, but he is there as an outsider, following their way of life as a restriction on his activities rather than as a person embracing the life as a positive call from God. No priest can be punished by being told to become a diocesan hermit because not only is that outside of a bishop’s authority, but it goes against the very nature of the vocation itself, for which the bishop is a guardian.

In summary, let us not mistake isolation for eremitic life.  We need to be mindful of the homebound and sanctify our Sundays in service to and in communion with others.  Those who are called to authentic hermit life should be aware that it takes much discernment on the part of the individual and diocesan bishop in addition to rigorous formation proper to the vocation.

Posted in Consecrated Life, Hermits, Holy Orders, monks, priesthood, Profession, Religious, Religious Brothers, Rule of Life, Separation from the world, single life, Stewardship | 1 Comment

The Diocesan Hermit: Some Considerations

JEANNE LEBERby Mother Therese Ivers, JCD (cand), OCV, DHS

“Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything!”

In the early centuries of the Church, men and women fled to the desert as the Church’s first hermits.  Christianity had become the official religion of the empire, and as a result of external prosperity and growth, Christian praxis became lax in the cities.  Virgins, hermits, and ascetics grew in numbers to fill the vacuum of those intent on a life devoted to the sole focus on the service of Christ in a life of perfect chastity lived in the manner of their respective calling.

It should be noted that these were hard-core practicing Catholics who were familiar with their faith and extremely familiar with those things “in the world” that could distract them from their focus.  In today’s language, we would say that these men and women were “well catechized” or “well formed”.  

Hermits were no exception to the general quality of being “well catechized”.  Nevertheless, not all were prepared for life in the desert or to the specific challenges of their calling.  As a result, “mentors” naturally arose when hermits of great fame for holiness began to accept followers in their lifestyle.  Likewise, hermits began to gather together at times for communal exercises albeit infrequently.  How else would we know the doings of various hermits through the sayings of the Hermit fathers and mothers?

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Some clusters of hermits (many lived at great geographical distance from each other but could be considered a “cluster” or “group”) eventually self organized and consolidated into proper monasteries.  Others retained their proper eremitcal character which consisted of individual hermits who lived their own very distinctive lifestyles who occasionally met up with one or more hermits.  Clusters of such individuals came to be known as “lauras”.

Today, we have two forms of individual consecrated life in the Latin Church.  One is that of hermits (canon 603) and the other, the portion of the order of virgins (canon 604) who are not also members of a religious institute.  There are many myths about both forms of life, which have arisen for many reasons, particularly because of a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the vocation to be a hermit or to be a spouse of Christ respectively.  The purpose of this article is to discuss some aspects of the eremitic vocation that is not always clear to those who are not cognizant of this vocation.

Individual Life Lived “In the Silence of Solitude” is the Primary Reality or Framework Designated by Canon. 603

As some people are aware, my original proposal for my doctoral dissertation in canon law was centered on the “Silence of Solitude” aspect of canon 603.  It encapsulates the solitary lifestyle which is permeated with the mental and physical silence required for the “desert” substitution which provides the backdrop of the intense grappling of the soul with itself and heavenly -and not so heavenly- things.  

Solitude, or a “stricter withdrawal from the world” is not a mere metaphor.  It requires a similitude to the desert in which an individual is not rubbing shoulders with people on a daily basis [with the exception, perhaps of attendance at daily Mass if this is called for in the hermit’s rule].  Encounters with people should be infrequent, even in the running of a guest house, which should have periods of unoccupancy to facilitate the solitude of the hermit manager.

This is not a “religious of one” paradigm in which a hermit is free to do apostolic activity willy nilly.  On the contrary, the lay hermit (or diocesan hermit) is expected to be extremely withdrawn from the everyday hustle and bustle of the world.  This includes apostolic works. 

Some individuals imagine that they can live as a “caretaker” for someone else and live authentically as a hermit.  Again, this is simply not the case.  Caring for another person on a daily or frequent basis goes against the solitary nature of this vocation.  But it is compatible for reasons of age or illness for the lay or diocesan hermit to be cared for, as there is a profound difference between caring for another in their daily necessities and being cared for in daily necessities when one is unable to do so. 

The implication for a “laura” is also clear.  That it is not the responsibility of individual hermits living in a laura (inside their individual hermitages) to administrate long-term care for an elderly or chronically ill fellow-hermit, and that provisions must have already been made and executed for the long term care of such hermits in appropriate facilities or with relatives [ideally Catholic].

A Word on Lauras

Although it is possible for diocesan hermits to gather together in a geographic place, a laura is intended to be strictly distinct from a religious eremitic or semi-eremitic institute.  Here are some of the key differences:

Religious Institute Laura
Common Superior to whom obedience is vowed who is not the bishop Obedience directly to the bishop as superior is professed
Common purse; the institute is jointly responsible for the wellbeing of the religious from the day of entrance until their deaths. Each individual hermit has their own bank account, retirement funds, health care and other insurances, and is expected to manager their finances individually.  The individual hermit is expected to be independent regardless of whether they stay in a laura all their life, leave of their own accord, or are asked to leave.
Common rule of life Individual rule of life that has been lived outside of the laura and which will be observed before, during [and even after] life in a laura
Meals in common.  Meals are eaten together in a refectory or at the same time in the hermitage. Generally meals should be taken alone and within the cell even if cooked for the whole laura.  What is eaten, how it is eaten, and when it is eaten will be autonomously decided by the individual hermit.
Communal Office or synchronized hours designated at common times [e.g. the horarium is the same for every individual even if the office is said alone in the hermitage such as in a Carthusian charterhouse] The individual hermit recites the liturgical hours or other prayers [non-cleric hermits are not obligated to say the liturgy of the hours and may in fact choose other forms of prayer to occupy their time] within the hermitage.  This prayer-cycle is individualized for the growth of the hermit and therefore is highly  unlikely to be synchronized with other hermits.

A laura, is in short, a temporary living arrangement of independent diocesan/lay hermits who maintain their own rule of life, finances, hermitage, etc. on a piece of property.  It is not the “ideal” way of living to which a canon 603 hermit “aspires” but is merely an arrangement that can be permitted for the good of hermits on an ad hoc and temporary basis [even if such an arrangement de facto lasts decades].  Practically speaking, the numbers of hermits on the property in a laura should be limited as it would become too unwieldy to have over a handful unless the property is vast and perhaps owned in trust by some entity that rents out hermitages.

Canon 603 is not intended to encourage the formation of lauras, but is primarily focused on the actual solitary vocation for which membership in a laura may be a help or a hindrance.  In any and all events, membership in a laura cannot be a condition for profession as a hermit and it must always be the result of a voluntary and seriously discerned path on the part of the experienced and [ideally] already professed hermit who believes it may be of benefit.  

Unfortunately, due to greater familiarity with religious institutes, dioceses may have an incorrect understanding of the difference between a laura and a budding religious institute.  This may cause abuses of canon 603 when a “hermit” is really an aspiring founder/ess of an eremitical or semi-eremitical religious institute.  If the “hermit” really intends to be a religious founder, then the steps for the founding of a religious institute are to be utilized and the “vocation” tested.

As a canonist, I have heard all too often the opinion that the “ideal” hermit is one who has membership in a laura.  To the contrary, I would say that membership in a laura by its very nature would merely be a temporary living situation for a diocesan hermit.  The diocesan hermit cannot escape the hard work of crafting a personal rule of life over the course of several years – I consider the minimum for this to be at least 7-9 years as a prudential measure not unlike the requirement for final profession of contemplatives to have had no less than 9 years of formation reasonable. 

This rule of life cannot be a mere appropriation or light tinkering of existing rule(s) of religious institutes or even that of other hermits.  It must result from experimentation and the self-knowledge of what is helpful for this particular person in his/her struggles in “the desert”.  This hermit must know what a balanced lifestyle for himself looks like and that will not be identical to that of anyone else.

The relationship between the hermit and his/her bishop is a direct one, as the bishop is the lawful superior of the diocesan hermit.  This remains true even in a laura, as the position of hermits in a laura is that of equals among equals.  Any “leadership” position would be only to assist with certain communal exigencies of living on the same property; real authority is not canonically granted.  The diocese continues to have the obligation of furnishing continuing formation and supervision to the individual hermits, whether they belong to lauras or not. 

If a diocese thinks it can “escape” its responsibilities to hermits by abdicating its duties to a fictitious “superior” of a laura, then it is gravely mistaken.  The hermit has the right to direct access to his/her lawful superior who is the bishop, any “delegate” notwithstanding and the bishop has the obligation of knowing the individual hermits in his diocese.

Initial and Continuing Formation of Hermits

The problem faced by hermits today, whether they be in the pre-formation/candidacy stage, initial formation stage, or post-profession stage, is that of formation.  This is a complex reality as “living in the cell” is a large part of the formation process.  But it is not the only part of the process.  For diocesan candidates or hermits, the diocese has an intrinsic and serious responsibility to provide initial and ongoing formation to its hermits. This must be tailored and adapted to the reality that there will be no “companions” or live-in superiors to ensure continued growth of virtue and of wholeness in humanity of the hermit.

The individual hermits themselves have a grave obligation of growing in the practice of virtue, growing in prayer, widening their understanding of sacred scripture, theology, etc.  They also need to be well aware of their own holy patrimony in the Church, and steeped in the mindset of the desert fathers/mothers.

Given the complexity of all that has been said above, the bishop, whose duty it is to carefully discern with those who believe that they may have a vocation to the eremitical life, should consult with true experts on the eremitic vocation.  It is not enough for the people tasked with assisting the bishop in the discernment of eremitic vocations and/or formation to be ordained or possess a diploma in theology [unless their role is to give formation in say liturgy or theology].  Bishops should collaborate with those who actually know the canonical and practical framework of the vocation for viable candidates and those in need of continuing formation.  

Likewise, the eremitical vocation is not a mere matter of the internal forum.  It is a public vocation even if it is lived in solitude and therefore it has a visible framework.  Thus, it is highly inappropriate and a grave abuse to relegate all work with the individual aspiring hermit to the “spiritual director”.  The division between the internal forum and external must be maintained and those entrusted with roles in either must be suitably competent in their area.

While this may sound intimidating, it is the Church’s intent that both parties do their due diligence and not shirk their individual responsibilities.  The bishop has the obligation of authenticating and promoting true vocations to the hermit life and the hermit aspirant has the obligation of discerning and following their vocation even if the diocese refuses to profess hermits for valid or invalid reasons.  Someone called to the silence of solitude will do it regardless of whether the diocese is willing to profess hermits.

Posted in Hermits, Profession, Rule of Life | Leave a comment

Are Priests Bridegrooms of the Church and the Bl. Virgin Mary?

St. Joseph Holy Spouse of Mary
St. Joseph Holy Spouse of Mary

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD(Cand), DHS, OCV

The vocation to the priesthood is a sublime one, as the priest is the minister of life-giving sacraments for the people of God. It is a vocation of service, of ministry. A priest is a servant-leader. Starting from the diaconate, which was instituted to help “wait tables”, and among other things, help the widows and the orphans who are the treasure of the Church, the man in holy orders is ordained to follow the complete self-giving of the Lord to the Church.

Recently, there has been a fringe movement to see priests as the “bridegrooms of the Church”. Or, equally appallingly, the bridegrooms of the ever Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. The reasoning goes as follows. Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church. Priests image Christ. Therefore priests are bridegrooms of the Church. And because the archtype of the Church is the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is also the Bride of Christ, the priest is the bridegroom of Mary. The title floating around is “in persona Christi sponsi Ecclesiae” or “in the person of Christ, Bridegroom of the Church”.

This thinking is dangerous, and contrary to the traditional teaching of the Church. It makes the Blessed Virgin Mary into a sexual object, an affective replacement “spouse” for the woman the Latin priest chooses to give up in matrimony in order to receive holy orders. Far from the respect the priest should be paying to the Blessed Virgin as his mother, the mother of his Master, it puts him on an equal footing with the Mother of God. Spouses, after all, enjoy a certain equality. It makes him infinitely presumptuous, to usurp the place of the glorious St. Joseph, chaste spouse of the Virgin Mary, and of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, such a priest would deem himself better than the Apostle John, who honored, revered, and respected the Virgin as his Mother and not as his Bride. Jesus did not entrust the Virgin to John as Bride, but as Mother. John, a bishop, an Apostle, was to respect, honor, and care for the Virgin as Mother, not as his equal.

A priest is a servant of Christ, a disciple of Christ. In the Latin Church, he willingly gives up marriage to serve as the “friend of the Bridegroom”. A servant or friend does not presume to fancy himself the bridegroom himself. He honors the Bridegroom by serving the Bridegroom in precisely that capacity as friend or disciple. He does not presume to usurp the Bridegroom’s place.  The priest serves the Church, anticipating the wants of the Bridegroom and Bride.  How does the Divine Bridegroom desire his services to serve the Bride?

It is well known that an image has its limitations. A portrait can be said to be an image of someone. But it lacks life, intelligence, a heart beat, etc. Just as an image of a human can lack many important characteristics of the human being, so too can the image of Christ the Eternal Priest lack as well. A good place to start would be the sacrament of the diaconate. The deacon does not mirror or image or share in the facet of Christ as “head” of the Church (in persona Christi capitis). This is an important clarification that the Church has recently made. So if the deacon, although he images Christ in service, does not in headship, is it too great a leap to believe that a special, intimate aspect of Christ is not shared with priests and bishops, namely, that of being Bridegroom to the Church?

As St. Thomas well put it centuries ago, squashing the idea that holy orders makes a priest/bishop a bridegroom of the Church:

In the reception of Holy Orders someone is not consecrated as a bridegroom, but as the minister of the bridegroom; and so virginity is not required for signifying the integrity of spiritual matrimony, as it is required in the veiling of the woman who is consecrated as the bride. Sent. D. 38 A.5. R. 3.

Any participation of priests/bishops in Christ’s relation to the Church as Bridegroom is very remote, because marriage is not an essential element of holy orders.  This is why there are married priests.  This is why bishops, although they receive a ring entrusting the Church to their care, can move dioceses, meaning that they are not actually married to the local Church (otherwise, such a move would be adulterous or divorce-like).

There is suggestion that the “evangelical counsels” or “celibacy” inserts a man deeper into the so-called bridegroom dimension of human priests. This cannot be, because neither the evangelical counsels nor celibacy constitute matrimony, spiritual or otherwise. This is a common misconception, based no doubt on the popular idea that the evangelical counsels somehow constitute a human being into a bride of Christ in religious life. But it doesn’t. In fact, St. Thomas links spiritual matrimony not with celibacy but virginity, specifically, virginity that has been “veiled” or consecrated by the bishop, who, incidentally, acts as the “friend of the Bridegroom”, not the Bridegroom himself. In other words, St. Thomas is talking about the solemn liturgical consecration of virgins, found in the Roman Pontifical, in which a female (and he says only a female qualifies to be a Bride of Christ), is elevated to the sublime dignity of being a Bride of Christ.

The Blessed Virgin is not the only Bride of Christ along with the Church. Priests, take heed. For others receive the sublime dignity of being elevated to bridehood with the Son of God, bound by a matrimonial spousal bond. They are the sacred virgins, members of the Ordo Virginum. Do not presume that because you are a priest, that you can lift your eyes unto them and take them unto yourselves as your spouses. They are sacrosanct, off limits, the spouses of the Lord Jesus Christ who have been overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit, to whom you have pledged to serve in continence as your Master and Leader.

If you have chosen the priesthood, you have chosen to renounce marriage. You have chosen a vocation in which you sublimate your marital inclinations in order to serve the Bridegroom as disciples. To serve Him and His Bride. To honor the Church as your Mother. To honor Mary as your Mother. To honor individual consecrated virgins as your spiritual mothers. They are espoused to your Master and pray for you.  You have renounced marriage to serve the eternal Bridegroom with greater freedom.

Lastly, if the claim is that a man must be able to be complete in his roles of father, son, husband, and brother, then let us remember that in Sacra Virginitas, the Pope Pius XII pointed out that chastity is not “against” nature, and that human nature will not suffer from being unmarried.  Mary is wedded to another, she is off limits to priests.  And if the claim is for man to not be able to handle solitude, then why are priests so very special?  Are there not bachelors, religious monks, friars, married men who are continent for different reasons?  Should they all take on consecrated virgins as their brides because they need to find an outlet for the spousal proclivities?  This is absolutely absurd and not well thought out.  And what of the women?  Should they be seeking out all the clerics as their  bridegrooms and center their affectivity on them?

Let this be the audacious proposal:  let those with marriage bonds have spousal affectivity and those without marriage bonds restrain themselves.  Husbands and wives have the right to spousal affectivity.  Sacred virgins have the right to spousal affectivity with their Spouse, Jesus Christ.  But all others have chosen other vocations.  Let them be content.

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The “Affair” of the Consecrated Virgin Indicia: A Cautionary Tale

609px-Veronese,_susanna_e_i_vecchioni,_genova
Susanna and the Elders

by Therese Ivers, JCL, OCV

The world of consecrated virgins is astir because a consecrated virgin has been alleged to be a “mistress” to an archbishop. It goes against the very heart of sacred virginity for a consecrated virgin to have an affair with any human being; the “fallen virgin” becomes an adulteress to her Divine Spouse.  Excommunication and even (at one time) capital punishment were meted out to those who engaged in this serious and sacrilegious behavior in centuries gone by. This being said, now would be a good time to bring up the alarming case of the consecrated virgin, Indicia, because her story is a truly cautionary tale for consecrated virgins, bishops, and the faithful alike.

Indicia was consecrated as a Spouse of Christ by Bishop Zeno.  At the time, she was an orphan, and some say, an heiress.  Some years after her solemn consecration, she lived with a reputable consecrated virgin friend in another diocese, but eventually decided to move to the home of her newly wedded sister and brother-in-law, “Max”.

Max decided to circulate rumors by letter that Indicia was a fallen virgin.  Eventually, Max informed their bishop, Bishop Syagrius, that Indicia had secretly given birth at a monastery and murdered her infant.  In short, he accused Indicia of capital crimes.  Strikingly, though, he did not sign his name to this accusation.  People threatened to leave the Church if the bishop didn’t do something about Indicia.  Bishop Syagrius bowed to public pressure:  He ordered Indicia to undergo a medical examination.  He did this solely on the basis of Max’s unsigned accusation without conducting a thorough investigation and fair trial.  To soften the humiliation of this medical examination, he suggested that Indicia’s consecrated virgin friend, Marcellina, be present.  Marcellina indignantly refused, as she was convinced of Indicia’ purity.

Marcellina’s brother, a bishop, took up Indicia’s cause.  He convened local bishops and held a trial. In addition to Max’s (unsigned) allegations, two women were the principle witnesses, as well as two men associated with them who spread the word about Indicia’s alleged activities.  The two women fled before they could be questioned.  The penalty for calumny was exile, and it is supposed that they did not wish to risk this.  The two men were questioned separately, and like the Biblical story of Susanna, they gave contradictory accounts of the affair.

It should be pointed out that Max had not signed his name to any accusation – he was essentially an anonymous accuser.  The two female “witnesses” had fled (one of them had been seduced by one of the two males).  The men gave contradictory accounts of Indicia’s alleged crimes- violation of her spousal bond with Christ as a veiled virgin, and infanticide.  The legal analysis of the case was clear.  There was no accuser – an anonymous accusation is inadmissible; at the time, an accuser had to provide proof of allegations or he/she could suffer severe penalties for calumny. There were no eye-witnesses.  Indeed, the witnesses had fled the area.  Witnesses are usually necessary for a just and fair trial, particularly when capital punishment and/or excommunication is at stake.  It is widely accepted that the rationale for their disappearance was that the witnesses knew they would be committing perjury if they stuck to their story in court and that they would be liable to exile for calumny.  This can be deduced from the hearsay testimony produced from their two male cohorts.  Also, the credibility of one of the witnesses was weakened because she had been seduced by one of the two male accomplices. Most importantly, in analyzing this situation, is the fact that the two men who had been the women’s collaborators had contradictory accounts of the alleged crime.  Thus, everything was “hearsay”, with no evidence and contradictory testimony from non-witnesses.

The trial was just and transparent.  Max and the two men were excommunicated until they were repentant and had satisfied the penances imposed upon them.  Indicia was exonerated.  Her own bishop was severely rebuked on several points. Syagrius had caved to public pressure.  He also side-stepped the correct way of handling the issue:  namely, he tried to informally try Indicia and attempted to force her – although she had the legal presumption of innocence – to have an invasive gynecological exam.  The correct way of proceeding was to inform the public that he had not received a formal accusation from a named accuser and therefore her good name and reputation must be upheld.  He was unjust because some of the faithful were threatening to leave the Church if he didn’t punish Indicia on account of the rumors.  Also, not only did he side-step the legal route of holding a trial or judging that a trial could not take place on account of the lack of a named accuser; but he used his position to demand the medical examination.  This was unjust and against the human dignity of Indicia, not to mention a potential sacrilege (on his part) precisely because it was uncalled for and unjust.

Fortunately, Indicia had powerful friends — friends who thirsted for justice and truth, friends who understood the incredible violation being proposed by Syagrius.  These were friends who were imbued by faith and who did not join the public lynching mob.  Indicia could have lost not only her reputation but also her property and even her life, because of the malicious gossip spread about her by her brother-in-law, Max.  Thanks to the efforts of her friends, Indicia was vindicated.

It is easy for a case like this to happen again.  False accusations are easily conjured, and with the internet, can be disseminated far and wide in a matter of seconds. For consecrated virgins who do not have a wise St. Ambrose or his sister, St. Marcellina, to defend them, it is necessary to know their rights when accused explicitly or implicitly of being a “fallen virgin”.

In the first place, it must be remembered that sacred virgins do not make vows of obedience to their bishop.  Thus, a bishop cannot command a virgin to ignore the situation or to just pray about it.  He may offer advice but she is not bound to accept it.  The virgin has never surrendered her natural law right to a good reputation.  The only people who are forbidden to protect their own reputation are priests who are accused of solicitation in confession, because of the confessional seal.

Secondly, even if there is an actual named accuser, the virgin must not presume that the bishop will presume her innocence, although the law requires that she be presumed innocent unless found guilty.  Many a falsely accused priest has discovered that the first thing his bishop wants to do is to throw him to the wolves.  Indeed, the bishop may try to pressure the virgin to admit guilt or quietly disappear from her apostolates by side-stepping due process and instead attempt an invalid “administrative procedure” (read: act arbitrarily) in place of a just trial – to rid himself of a potential liability to his diocese.  Often this is done secretly to shield, not the accused, but the diocese from proper external scrutiny and to absolve the bishop from responsibility to observe applicable law.  What would this look like?  Let’s say the virgin is on diocesan committees, and she is immediately taken off of them and shunned in her parish/diocese.  Her volunteer efforts are spurned.  She is an “untouchable” despite the fact that no tribunal has judged and sentenced her according to due process, and she has been denied the opportunity to appeal to Rome.  The injustice is compounded if her livelihood is dependent upon employment with a Church institution and she is fired or laid off as a result of unproven suspicions.  Accused priests have often found themselves in limbo because their bishops refuse to be just and hold a fair and timely trial. They are instead kept away from ministry and under a perpetual cloud of suspicion despite a lack of evidence for their guilt.

Why?  Because bishops succumb to public pressure (or they give in to their lawyers who calculate risk) just like Indicia’s bishop did so long ago.  Bishops are not perfect, and virgins must not naively assume bishops are, or canonize their every action.  St. Ambrose rebuked Bishop Syagrius severely because he had, in fact, acted wrongly in the case of Indicia.  The bishop has no right to stop the virgin from “being an apostle in the Church and in the world” when she has not undergone due process.  This point cannot be over emphasized; many bishops will be tempted to treat the virgin as the enemy instead of as a spiritual daughter. They may try to informally “settle” cases to the detriment of the virgin, giving the clear signal she is guilty despite lack of evidence in order to please their risk-adverse lawyers or to bow to public pressure.  Clericalism can have a significant role as well.  To the clericalist mind, it is far better to uphold the “old boys club” than it is to worry about a “mere” non-ordained person.

The bishop does not have the right — ever — to require a gynecological exam of a virgin.  The virgin may refuse this point blank, always and under any circumstances.

The virgin has the right to a good reputation.  She has the right and sometimes the duty to sue those who unlawfully harm her reputation. It appears that St. Marcellina encouraged Indicia to take legal proceedings against her brother-in-law.  Saints do not spurn justice or law.  In an age when mercy is emphasized, it can be helpful to remember that God is just and that the Church and State would not have courts if it were wrong to seek justice.  Indeed, one of the Vatican courts has the phrase “Without Justice there is No Charity” carved in Latin over its entrance.  It is merciful for a sinner to be punished on this earth rather than in the next life.  Thus, the virgin is justified and can be virtuous in pursuing civil and canonical means of defending her reputation in the tribunals of Church and State.

Bishops and virgins are not the only ones who can benefit by Indicia’s story (the Latin version of her story is available in St. Ambrose’s Letter 5/6).  The faithful also are reminded of something very fundamental.  They must not indulge in rash-judgement.  To enjoy and believe lurid tales of such serious nature without sufficient evidence pointing to guilt is rash judgement, and can be gravely sinful.  It is also gravely sinful to be part of the lynch mob, so to speak, pressuring bishops to skirt justice and encouraging others to do likewise.  We have only to look at the problematic popular treatment of “credibly accused” priests to see the dangers here.

Shifting gears, I shall speak with a heavy heart concerning the current allegation that a consecrated virgin was the mistress of an archbishop.  I am deeply saddened and disappointed that, just as in Indicia’s case, there are no named accusers, no actual proof offered.  Yes, rampant speculation is cited, but not a shred of evidence has been proffered.  There are no emails, no receipts, no contracts, no copies of visas or video footage or anything else offered to the public.  Instead we have what appears to be the equivalent of office gossip being shouted to the rooftops regardless of whom it hurts. It is also disturbing that she was all but named in one version of the tale, but not her anonymous accusers.  Since when is it right or just to vilify a private individual, whose very identity and holy vocation is at stake, not to mention the possibility of grave risk to her life and/or livelihood in her war torn, non-Christian country by reporting what has not been demonstrated to be anything other than hearsay and pure speculation?

A person is usually considered innocent unless proven guilty.  Is it possible that this consecrated virgin is being falsely accused? It is alarming to recall that St. Ambrose punished the people involved in falsely accusing the holy virgin Indicia with excommunication and strict penance.  A “living image of the Church herself” should not be judged by unsubstantiated rumors published in the media, or by the online lynch mob, whipped into a frenzy because of other scandals feeding its lust for blood.  If unlawful material or moral harm should come to her as a result of what appears to me to be simply printed hearsay, I doubt that God would treat such an offense against His sacred spouse lightly.

Personally, knowing the sole woman who fits the identifying description given in one of the articles, and knowing that some of the things claimed as “facts” are to my knowledge not facts based upon pertinent conversations I’ve had with her over the years “in tempore non-suspecto”, I have no reason to find the published speculation about her to be credible.  My argument is that if I have reason to believe that so-called “facts” are factually wrong and can be easily proven to be wrong, then why should I place my belief in the suppositions and conjectures of angry employees and former employees of the archbishop?

While I do not know all the facts of the case, it is my hope that people will disregard published rumors of this woman’s alleged “affair” because what has been published to this point does not appear to me to establish any reasonable “evidence” of wrongdoing on her part.  E.g. How does one know

  1.  what the actual text(s) say if they even exist(ed),
  2. who the true recipient(s) of the text(s) were – mother?  sister?  lover(s)? prospective lovers? employees?  others?
  3. whether the alleged texts were actually romantic,
  4.  what the context of the text(s) was – perhaps something was being quoted for an innocent purpose but is being cited as proof of wrongdoing (e.g. someone acting in a play could be photographed and the picture given to a fiancee as “proof” of infidelity),
  5.  who the actual “author” is…  is the authorship of the alleged text(s) genuinely the person being accused or is it someone who has had access to that person’s phone.

Likewise, a “romantic relationship” or being a “lover” requires reciprocity.  Where is the proof of that?  Why has this one particular woman been flagged rather than scores of other potential people?  What value can we really give to the words of angry persons who have not provided proof of their speculation?

I call upon people to pray for this virgin and for the Christians who are rapidly diminishing in number in her country.  As for the archbishop, I will say that he, too, enjoys the right to a good reputation but I would guess that he has better resources to defend this right.  Pray for him and for all who are involved in this story.

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Announcing New Webinar on Dating!

WebinarEventSweet

 

“I didn’t think it would last.  They were too …” 

Have you ever thought this when you got the news that a friend was getting a divorce?  Hindsight is always 20/20, of course.  But while it is easy to talk about what led to a divorce, it can be a lot harder to tactfully warn a person first in love and ready to march to the altar that they might be in an unhealthy relationship.  Harder still, is to recognize when the person in the unhealthy dating relationship is yourself.  Why?  

At times, serious red flags can be subtle.  They sneak up on you, as it were.  

Other times, we do recognize a red flag but minimize its importance and negative impact on marriage.  Sometimes this is because of inexperience.  Or, in other cases, it can be the result of an overly optimistic hopefulness.

Frequently, our friends or family members can spot potential problems but they don’t feel comfortable in being the “wedge” between you and the person you are dating, and hold their tongue.

The list can go on and on.  But, the bottom line is that with the divorce rate skyrocketing, we need every help we can get to beat the odds and go for a healthy, long-lasting marriage with a well-rounded spouse.  Yet, we do a lot to sabatouge this for ourselves.  

In today’s world, we spend a huge amount of time and attention to planning romantic dates or a vacation or even a wedding.  Sadly, most people take little time or effort to seriously discern whether to get married, to prepare themselves to be a good spouse, and to realistically assess the other person’s attitude and readiness for a mature Christian marriage.  This of course leads to problems down the road.  

Many of these problems could have been prevented or nipped in the bud if people knew the red flags to look for while dating! 

If you are dating, thinking about dating, or know people who are dating, you are cordially invited to a free webinar hosted by Mother Therese Ivers.  Her guest speaker will be Ms. Rose Sweet who will be giving an in-depth look on some of the red flags to be watching out for when dating.  Ms. Sweet has gained a lot of insight into how romantic relationships can be quickly soured by unhealthy dynamics in her apostolate of working with divorced people. Ms. Sweet is a recognized author and speaker, and she has graciously agreed to participate in a question and answer period after her presentation. 

You can join M. Therese and Ms. Sweet on March 19 at 4pm PST (7 pm EST) by signing up at this link here.

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