The Hermit in Roman Catholic Canon Law

Up to the time of the Second Vatican Council, it seems to have been assumed that (individual and solitary) Hermits had essentially disappeared from the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed the 1913 edition of “The Catholic Encyclopaedia” declared:

“We see, therefore, that the Church has always been anxious to form the hermits into communities. Nevertheless, many preferred their independence and their solitude. They were numerous in Italy, Spain, France, and Flanders in the seventeenth century. Benedict XIII and Urban VIII took measures to prevent the abuses likely to arise from too great independence. Since then the eremitic life has been gradually abandoned, and the attempts made to revive it in the last century have had no success.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/HOMELIBR/HERMITS.HTM
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There were (and are) communities of Hermits sharing varying degrees of solitude and community, as, for example, the Carmelites. Obviously, there had been, and are, individual man and women within the Roman Catholic Church who lived, to varying degrees of strictness, the eremitical life. Some were within (or one might more correctly say, on the edge) of existing religious communities, and entered the eremitical state with the approval of their superiors. Some were neither monks nor nuns, but lived the eremitical life, sometimes with, and often without, the blessing, or even the knowledge of even their Parish Priest, let alone the relevant Bishop. Some received informal approval and blessing. If they were clergy or religious, their standing in existing Roman Catholic Canon Law was as clergy or religious. No such canonical status for Hermits existing under the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
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“Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, there has been a renewed interest in the ‘eremitic life’ of hermits and solitaries. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church comments on the eremitic life as follows: “From the very beginning of the Church there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate him more closely, by practicing the evangelical counsels. They led lives dedicated to God, each in his own way. Many of them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became hermits or founded religious families. These the Church, by virtue of her authority, gladly accepted and approved.” (§§918-921)

Such people have always existed throughout the history of the Church, but the 1983 Code of Canon Law made particular provision for men and women who feel a calling to consecrate themselves to God through the eremitic or anchoritic life without necessarily being a member of a religious congregation or institute.

Canon 603 states: §1 Besides institutes of consecrated life the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance. §2 A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels [i.e. chastity, poverty and obedience], confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.”
http://www.carmelite.org/index.php?nuc=content&id=165
code of canon law
Canon 603 from the revised Code of Canon Law 1983 addresses the eremitical life:

§1. Besides institutes of Consecrated Life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance.
§2. A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a Consecrated Life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.
http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG0017/_P1X.HTM

See John P. Beal “New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law” (2000):767-768
Commentary-on-the-Code-of-Canon-Law-
Thus, those Roman Catholics desiring to live as Hermits may seek to acquire a canonically defined status, although the exact means whereby they can do so is not precisely defined by Canon 603. Different dioceses and different Bishops have discretion to define the terms and conditions, provided that they conform to canon law generally and Canon 603 specifically.

Modern Roman Catholic Hermits would therefore seem to fall into a number of categories, some of which (whether by Canon 603 or otherwise) have canonical status:

1. Those living an eremitical life with the approval of their religious superiors while remaining members of a religious community (for example, the Benedictines): they do not seem to be able to simultaneously be recognised as Hermits under Canon 603, and their canonical status is defined by their existing religious status.

2. Those living the semi-eremitical life within existing and approved religious communities (for example, the Carmelites): they do not seem to be able to simultaneously be recognised as Hermits under Canon 603, and their canonical status is defined by their existing religious status.

3. Those living the eremitical life but who are ordained Deacons or Priests: the canonical position in these cases is unclear. As clergy their status, rights and obligations are defined by the canon law relating to clergy. Whether they can either (i) add to that the provisions of Canon 603, or (ii) surrender their clerical status and take on that provided by Canon 603 is uncertain, although there are Priests who declare themselves to be canonical Hermits so it must be assumed that, at least in some dioceses, the canonical status of both the Priest and the Hermit can be combined.

3. Those living the eremitical life under the provisions of Canon 603 (which assumes the recognition and approval of the relevant Bishop);
4. Those living the eremitical life without the recognition of Canon 603 but with some form of recognition, approval or blessing from the relevant ecclesiastical authorities (for example, the Parish Priest or relevant Bishop): their canonical status is not defined by Canon 603, but by the canon law applicable to lay people.

5. Those living the eremitical life without the recognition of Canon 603 and without any form of recognition, approval or blessing from the relevant ecclesiastical authorities (for example, the Parish Priest or relevant Bishop): their canonical status is not defined by Canon 603, but by the canon law applicable to lay people.

Some additional complexities arise because the new Code of Canon Law also recognises another form of the religious life, in addition to Hermits, not recognised by its predecessor: Virgins (Canon 604). Can, for example, a Virgin also be a Hermit? It should be noted that only women can be Virgins.

The vagueness of Canon 603 does lead to the possibility of difficult questions arising: can a Bishop simply refuse to consider any request for admission to eremitical status on the ground that he disapproves of the status (rather than the applicant)? can a Bishop impose unrealistic or unreasonable conditions for admission to eremitical status? what happens if the original Bishop is succeeded by one who either disapproves of Hermits in general or seeks to impose unrealistic or unreasonable conditions on exiting Hermits? how and why and by whom can a Hermit be removed from canonical status? what, if any, appeal rights exist?

“There are two types of hermits. The first is the privately dedicated individual who makes private vows. The other is the canonical (diocesan) hermit who makes public vows. Since both of them live in solitude, it may seem on the surface that there is little difference between living in public or private vows. This, however, is not the case, and we will go through some of the differences between the private hermit and the canonical hermit.
The private hermit makes vows. These vows can be made alone or before a priest (the priest merely witnesses the vows; he does not accept them in the name of the Church). The hermit who wishes to profess a vow of obedience should find an individual who would be suitable as a superior or moderator and who agrees to function as such. Normally, it is best if the superior is not his spiritual director unless exceptional circumstances call for it and if the extent of the obedience owed is clearly spelled out in the hermit’s rule of life. Otherwise, the private hermit should not make a vow of obedience but should content himself with the vows of poverty and chastity. The vow of obedience more properly belongs to the applicable canonical forms of consecrated life, not to private individuals who are not living in community or under hierarchical authority.

Who, then, is a private hermit? A hermit under private vow(s) is lay (unless he is a cleric). As a privately dedicated individual, he should not style himself “brother” or wear a habit of a particular order. Since he is not a member of the consecrated state, he should refrain from speaking of himself as a Catholic hermit as that implies canonical status as such. Rather, he should explain to those he may encounter that he is a lay person drawn to solitude with its implication of prayer and penance.

The diocesan, or canonical hermit, on the other hand, is an individual whose superior is his local bishop. He receives formation suitable for his calling and if his call is genuine, he may make his profession in the hands of his bishop. Frequently, the canonical hermit wears identifiable garb. The cowl is traditional for hermits. He has a superior in the form of his bishop, and he lives out his vow of obedience as spelled out in the rule of life which he wrote and was accepted by the bishop. He may call himself “Brother” and may refer to himself as a canonical hermit or a hermit by right of his profession.

Discernment on the part of both the hermit-candidate and the bishop can be helpful in pointing out the will of God for the discerner. The period of testing and formation can help bring the candidate into a fuller understanding and appreciation for his vocation as a public witness to Christ through a life of solitude, prayer, and penance. Further, the acceptance of the person as a canonical hermit gives the blessing and recognition of the Church upon him and acts as a sacramental.

As a publicly consecrated eremetic person, the canonical hermit usually enjoys the privilege of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in his hermitage. This privilege is not normally given to private hermits because they are not recognized as hermits under the law. The reservation of the Eucharist is permitted to the diocesan hermit by some bishops because of his unique vocation of assiduous prayer and penance. It is similar to that privilege given to consecrated virgins by virtue of their being the brides of Christ who keep Him as their center of life, and of religious for their chapels to assist them in their vocation.

Some people are called to be private hermits. Others are called to be canonical hermits. Either way, the differences are not slight.”
http://doihaveavocation.com/blog/archives/108
hermit little rock 2
From the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis:

“Canonical hermits are men and women who publicly and perpetually consecrate their lives in a special way ‘to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.’ Like other forms of consecrated life, the hermit professes the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

For a Catholic hermit, withdrawal from the world is not an escape from life or the ills of the world, but rather a special calling to deepening communion with God and others through intense prayer, simple living, and sacrifice. Despite its hidden dimension, eremitical life is an ecclesial vocation, one ordered to fortifying the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.

The Church does not provide one standardized rule of life for all hermits, because it is recognized that each hermit has unique circumstances. A hermit, therefore, has freedom to order his or her life so as to be available to God in prayer and daily living, always acknowledging the responsibility to remain firm in his or her intention to live the eremitical life. Each canonical hermit writes his or her own plan of life (‘rule’) as a method of nurturing values (prayer, penance, solitude, silence, poverty, chastity, obedience) that open the soul to greater praise of God and communion with all people.

Consecration as a hermit does not confer an office or appointment to a professional service within the Church. Canonical hermits exist in relationship to the local Church, yet they are free to move elsewhere. The local bishop offers spiritual support for the hermit’s vocation, but consecration as a hermit does not establish a claim for maintenance or employment by the Church. A hermit must be self-supporting, and must have appropriate arrangements for health care and retirement income.

Public commitment to eremitical life is usually not conferred before the age of thirty. In addition, an individual desiring consecration as a hermit must have experience at living some aspects of a solitary life, be currently living in ordered circumstances, and possess a mature spiritual life. A valid marriage bond is an impediment to receiving consecration as a hermit.”
http://www.archspm.org/departments/delegate-religious/other-consecrated-life.php
Arena: Sister Wendy and The Art of the Gospel
Much interesting and useful discussion relating to these issues can be found on the blog of Sister Laurel O’Neal, a diocesan Hermit under Canon 603: http://notesfromstillsong.blogspot.com.au/ She regularly receives and responds to questions regarding the canonical status of Roman Catholic Hermits and those who seek to be Hermits. For example, she recently responded at length to a question regarding the relative advantages and disadvantages of canonical recognition: http://notesfromstillsong.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/on-canon-603-hermits-and-some-supposed.html Her blog contains considerable useful reflection on Canon 603: http://notesfromstillsong.blogspot.com.au/search/label/Canon%20603

Some useful resources are available both on-line and in print. From the ever valuable Raven’s Bread – http://www.ravensbreadministries.com/resources.html – can be obtained:

“The Law of Consecrated Life: Commentary on Canon 603” By Jean Beyer, SJ, Published Paris: Tardy 1988; translated from the French by W. Becker, 1992. 14pp. $3.00

“Hermits: Juridical Implications of Canon 603” by Helen L. MacDonald (1992) This thesis examines the description of eremitical life as found in Canon 603, considers how a bishop ascertains a genuine eremitical vocation, explains his responsibilities toward the hermit and what responsibilities the hermit has toward the bishop. 30pp. $5.00

“Marabou’s Canonical and Legal Reflections” by Fr. R. B. Williams, OP, JD (1994-1997) Both Church and secular legal matters that pertain to solitary living are discussed in simple and practical terms. 11pp. $4.00

The on-line resources from the Diocese of La Crosse (USA) are helpful: http://www.dioceseoflacrosse.com/ministry_resources/consecratedlife/hermits.htm

It might be said that defining Canon Law for Hermits is as practical as defining Canon Law for or herding cats (a theme to which this blog will return).

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