Hermits and Vows

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

JEANNE LEBERFive to fifteen minutes total of the time I spent in canon law classes for my licentiate in canon law were spent on canons 603 and 604. Why?  Because they either considered too rare of a vocation, or because there is a lot of jurisprudence and history that must go into the proper interpretation of these canons.  A good interpretation of these two canons, which deal with hermits and virgins respectively, can take volumes and much research and familiarity with the development of the vocations, significant legal history, concrete lives of those who lived it in earlier centuries, etc.  I should know.  My first approved subject for my doctoral dissertation was on diocesan hermits.  I wrote extensively before I discovered that someone else had gotten to my conclusion first, and my topic could no longer be considered a significant contribution to the field. 

My second (current) subject of my dissertation is on sacred virgins.  It always amazes me how little native English speakers think there is about this vocation because they cannot read other languages.  The bibliography of just one of my sources contains 50 pages of books, articles, and other treatments on virginity that are utterly unknown to these virgins who rely mostly on religious life to give them guidance instead of their own patrimony.  It is embarassing and scandalous.  If 5 or 10 minutes total is all a priest hears about hermits in all of his formation as a priest and in canon law, then he is simply not an expert on the vocation.  Yet, unfortunately, that is the most that 99.999% of priests and chancery officials know about the hermit vocation.  This is why many make serious blunders when it comes to hermits (and virgins).

At any rate, I am returning to the topic of hermits and vows yet again because in the last few months I have seen 3 separate “professions” of hermits that have sparked grave concern about the direction the eremitic vocation is going in, and part of this concern is linked to errors surrounding the nature of consecrated life and the role and nature of vows.  (I do not think any of the three were valid.)

Let’s begin with the hermit vocation.  The Church recognizes in law, only hermits who are validly consecrated according to the provisions of canon 603.  But wait, what about the “private hermit”!  Isn’t that a vocation?  No.  Simply put, it is not a vocation (if you want to know why, read my upcoming dissertation). It is a lifestyle that is adopted by some members of the faithful who feel called to imitate Catholic hermits who are professed according to canon 603, but who do not conform to canon 603 completely themselves.  Retired clergy and single lay persons can live “like” hermits: they can devote hours upon hours to prayer and penance.  They can live in the “solitude of silence”, segregated from normal society for the most part.  They can -but shouldn’t- even mouth off words of vows, sign made up vows on the altar, and wear costumes.  But they do not have a hermit vocation.  In other words, they can be “hermits”, in the sense of living a lifestyle of prayerful seclusion, but they are not recognized as such by the Church.  

The Church is the protector and clarifier of vocations.  People are expected to conform their lives to the vocations they have been accepted into, and not define a vocation by their own individual lifestyle.  In other words, there are objective standards to which those who are authentically called must live, and definitions which they have no ability to change because to do so would change the nature of the vocation.  In an earlier post, I pointed out that Covid 19 has made a lot of people “recluses”, locked into their homes.  But being mostly confined to the home and being a devout person does not constitute a person a hermit.  The vocation is deeper than a superficial resemblance caused by global lockdowns.  To pretend that all a hermit is is a single person in a household who rarely goes out is to completely miss the point of the vocation to the eremitic life.  Canon 603 merely scratches the surface of what it means to be a hermit, and to be quite frank, it is a pity that it is the only canon on the vocation as this really trips chancery officials who do not know how to interpret it and come up with all kinds of crazy abuses.

A real hermit is one who has thoroughly discerned, internalized, and acted upon the call to be alone with the Alone, in the “silence of solitude”, in strict withdrawal from the world.  A real hermit is one who conforms to the values of the eremitic vocation but does not necessarily adopt all of the means.  E.g. The making of vows and the writing of a rule of life that has been approved are “means” to an end; years of studying about the vows, writing a rule of life that is sensible for living out a genuine eremitic lifestyle, having accountability to God and the Church, these are all ways intended to foster and protect authentic expressions of the eremitic vocation.  Without other people to intervene, a twisted, false ecclesiology, a lifestyle of isolation, unhealthy prayer or penitential practices, and possibly danger to mental health can blossom and grow if the individual is not well balanced, knowlegable, “mature” in faith, etc.  Thus, a hermit is a member of the faithful who conforms to the essentials of the eremitic lifestyle: assiduous prayer and penance “in the silence of solitude”, in “stricter withdrawal from the world”.  The hermit is not a person who is active in priestly ministry, campus ministry, or who otherwise engages in interfacing with people on a regular, sustained basis.  

For most people, it is far easier to be a canonical hermit than a lay (or clerical) hermit at least in theory.  This is because, in theory, the Church assists diocesan hermit candidates in discerning and embracing what is truly eremitical and jettisoning what is an obstacle to that lifestyle.  The vows and rule of life help provide a meaningful way to ascertain whether a person is actually living a life that is suitable for those desiring consecration.  The consecrated state is not merely a “legal” state.  It is an ontological reality to which greater responsibility on the recipient is attached.  Years are spent in formation, in which the theology of the vows should have been assimiliated, the virtues understood and practiced.  Layers of self-deception and walls to grace should have been peeled away in formation and the resulting rule of life should reflect a clearer reflection of the hermit’s understanding of self and the road to greater conformity to Christ.  

Those who do not wish to (or cannot) pursue formation and profession as a hermit under canon 603 have a much harder time of it.  To be faithful to the eremitic lifestyle, they must forgo certain things that could be of great help.  They may not wear a habit, because the habit is a public sign of consecration, and they have chosen a path outside of consecration.  To wear a habit would be to wear a lie, deceiving the faithful about their true status as regular members of the faithful (or clerics).  They may not make vows at Mass because without a legitimate superior, they have no one to receive their vows.  They cannot sign vows on the altar, because that is reserved to those who are liturgically allowed to do so (namely, those who are in approved institutes of consecrated life or those in the process of becoming so with appropriate permission, or those who are professed in the hands of the bishop in accord with canon 603).  Any rule of life that they might have will probably have to be worked out alone without the assistance of canon lawyers and others who might be experts on this lifestyle.  They cannot expect formation or continuing formation from the diocese in the eremitic lifestyle.  This means that often, lay “hermits” will actually not be living authenticly as hermits because they can’t or they won’t or they don’t know how.  E.g. The married husband or wife raising a family is not a “hermit” no matter how devout they are or how many hours they spend in prayer to the detriment of their actual vocation.  The college professor or the activist priest are no more hermits than the local news reporter.  The hermit vocation is not about being a “single religious” living independently, with or without other people, with bits of prayer sprinkled in their day.  It is far richer than that, and that is why most people are not called to this lifestyle, much less vocation.  Humans are social and this is why it is a rare vocation.  God rarely calls people to the hermit life.

Now, a word about vows.  Vows should be studied for years before making them.  There is no point in a private vow of “obedience” as there is no legitimate authority to obey.  Real experts should be consulted for valid vow formulae.  Recently, there was a ceremony with invalid vows for a “diocesan hermit”.  Because the vow formula was invalid, the individual is not a hermit until/unless that is rectified.  

Lastly, let’s briefly discuss private vows.  Private vows do not a hermit make.  Private vows should never be made in a way that gives the impression that the Church accepts or approves those vows, particularly at Mass.  No priest should preside at any Mass or ceremony that looks like the profession of vows for a hermit, because by so doing, he is mocking the actual vocation of diocesan hermits, violating liturgical directives, and in general confusing the faithful about the consecrated state.  It could safely be considered sacriligious to do so as he does not have the authority and it would be simulating a real sacramental (eremitic profession).

St. Paul the First Hermit, pray for us!

P.S.  In case you are wondering, I have studied way more than 5-10 minutes on hermits!!!  I probably have one of the best private collections on hermit books, treatises, and articles in the Americas.  I have also studied for years on consecrated life, the eremitic life, and yes, I do possess a diploma from the Vatican on the Theology and Law of Consecrated Life, making me a perita (expert).  That is why I am writing now.  To share with you so that invalid ceremonies do not continue to harm the dignity of the vocation and make a mockery of the consecrated life.

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Traditionis Custodes: Religious Institutes and the Ordo Virginum

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

 

Shepherdess St. Genevieve of Paris being consecrated a virgin by the bishop.
Shepherdess St. Genevieve of Paris being consecrated a virgin by the bishop.

The long-expected Motu Proprio from Pope Francis has been promulgated today concerning the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Latin rite for Mass.  Religious Institutes are now forbidden to celebrate the extraordinary form of the Latin rite unless they receive explicit permission from the Holy See, from the Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.  As the permissions from John Paul II, and Benedict XVI were directed towards the Roman rituals and not the proper rituals of those Orders whose distinct rituals date from 1395 or earlier, religious Orders who do possess their proper rituals that were not suppressed by the Tridentine reforms may continue to use them.  This means that any religious liturgical ritual utilizing and incorporating extraordinary form celebration of the Mass are forbidden without express permission.  Permission must be obtained even if a community has already been given this permission previously unless the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life announce otherwise.  While the Motu Proprio does not specify whether the pre-Vatican II Divine Office may be celebrated, it is evident that its usage is not encouraged.

Likewise, as the solemn consecration of virgins occurs through the ministry of the bishop in accordance with the ritual contained in the Roman Pontifical (not merely the Roman Missal), the celebration of the ritual in accordance with the extraordinary form (1962) is prohibited as of today, July 16, 2021 for all secular virgins, and virgins among the professed nuns of the cloistered communities who have no pre-1395 Ordo of their own.  Or, put in another way, without express permission from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, no virgins may be consecrated using the 1962 Roman Pontifical because it requires the use of the 1962 Roman Missal.  All consecrations of virgins living in the world, virgins who are members of secular institutes, and virgins who belong to cloistered communities who use the Roman Pontifical must use only the 1970 Roman Pontifical (again, the only exceptions being those religious communities who have their own Ordo dating from 1395 or older or those who receive permission after today from Rome).

On the one hand, this may be very disappointing news to candidates who may have desired to be consecrated in this form of the ritual.  There are some candidates and communities who have immersed themselves in the attendance of the extraordinary form of the Mass, and who perhaps also recite the pre-Vatican II Divine Office.  

On the other hand, the prohibition of the 1962 Roman Pontifical’s use for communities and individual virgins will ensure that no liturgical abuses will occur with this particular form of the ritual.  Some of the abuses that will now be abolished include:

  • The reprehensible practice of some of mixing the extraordinary form Mass with a portion of the 1970 Roman Pontifical’s rite of consecration of virgins.
  • Secular virgins having veiled heads throughout the celebration of the extraordinary form’s Mass when the ritual clearly calls for bare heads for the beginning of the Mass so that the virgin is veiled later by the bishop.
  • Virgins not presenting the bishop with the candles or receiving the crown because they are unaware this is part of the extraordinary form of the Mass.
  • Virgins not being called forth from the assembly correctly (from nave to choir to sanctuary) and instead having them seated in the nave for the duration of the Mass when they are supposed to be present within the sanctuary starting from the calling of the bishop.
  • Secular virgins not going to the top step of the altar to receive the Eucharist at the hands of the bishop before the other ministers.
  • Priests celebrating the extraordinary form “low Mass” instead of the bishop celebrating the extraordinary form“Solemn Pontifical High Mass” because the bishop is unable or unwilling to do the Solemn Pontifical High Mass.
  • The abuse of tweaking the ritual for secular virgins as their vocation does not include reception of the habit or profession of vows that the ritual entails for professed nuns.

I am not aware of any consecrations done within the extraordinary form in the last two decades that has not had its share of liturgical abuses.  The principal reason for this is that the virgins are not familiar with the ritual done in the extraordinary rite and there are few living bishops who are capable of celebrating a solemn Pontifical Mass with all that it entails properly today.  Thus, I believe that forbidding the extraordinary form is a good step for the Church and the Ordo Virginum when it pertains to the solemn consecration of virgins.  Until Bishops are familiar with and are able to celebrate the Solemn Pontifical High Mass in accordance with the extraordinary form, it is pointless to desire the return of the extraordinary form of the consecration of virgins.

 

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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.

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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.

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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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