Q: I’m a priest of the diocese of X. Presently, I’m considering becoming a hermit according to canon 603. The process seems far more difficult than incardinating into another diocese or religious order…. Under what circumstances can the bishop refuse my request?
Being incardinated in the diocese, the bishop is responsible for my living; as a hermit, I should be responsible for my own. Is there a canonical process for releasing the diocese from responsibility for me while also remaining in said diocese as a hermit? –Father V.
A: In “What’s the Difference Between a Nun and a Consecrated Virgin?” we saw that the latter, centuries-old state of life is still very much with us today. Along similar lines, many/most Catholics have read about hermits in history books; but very few realize that hermits still exist! As Father V.’s question indicates, not only are there hermits in the contemporary Catholic Church, but there are canons in the code which directly apply to them. Let’s take a look first at what a hermit is, and what the Code of Canon Law has to say about them—and then we can examine the particulars of Father V.’s specific situation.
A hermit is a person—man or woman—who professes the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience like members of religious institutes (see “The Priesthood and the Vow of Poverty” for more on the evangelical counsels). But unlike sisters, nuns (see “What’s the Difference Between Sisters and Nuns?” for more on the distinction), brothers, and those priests who are members of religious institutes, hermits live a solitary life. Religious live in communities; but in contrast, hermits live by themselves, in prayerful seclusion. Vatican II’s Perfectae Caritatis, the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, specifically mentions hermits as living out one of the many ways of life dedicated to God through profession of the evangelical counsels (PC 1).
This form of life is almost as old as Christianity itself. The earliest known hermit was St. Paul of Thebes, also known popularly as “St. Paul the First Hermit,” who lived sometime in the 200’s/300’s A.D. We actually know quite a lot about him thanks to a brief account of his life written by St. Jerome in about 375 A.D., which declares that St. Paul found a cave in the Egyptian desert, where “in prayer and solitude [he] spent all the rest of his life,” living to the ripe old age of 113. Many people today assume that the story of a raven bringing him bread every day is nothing but a pious myth, but it’s interesting to note that Jerome (who was not known for gullibility!) accepted it as factually accurate.
Today’s hermits aren’t required to subsist entirely on bread and water, but they are expected to live a life of fairly rigorous prayer and penance. Canon 603.1 lays out the basics:
In addition to 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 the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance.
The term eremitic, found in this canon, is derived from eremita, the Latin word for “hermit.” And over the centuries, the definition of an anchorite has varied slightly, but in general today an anchorite is basically a hermit.
Canon 603, by the way, is not referring to the members of particularly strict religious institutes like Carthusians and the Camaldolese, who are with good reason often referred to as “hermits.” Depending on their own proper law, the monks/nuns who are members of such institutes may live individually, in separate little cell-houses, like those shown here at the Carthusian monastery in Pavia, Italy. These men and women may be described as living “an eremitical life,” but this is done within the parameters of their own community’s constitutions, and thus they are not governed by canon 603.
In fact, canon 603.2 points out one significant difference between a true hermit, and a member of a religious institute who lives an eremitical lifestyle. A hermit makes a public profession of the three evangelical counsels before the diocesan bishop, and hierarchically he/she is directly answerable to him. This is in marked contrast to (say) a Camaldolese monk, who is answerable to his religious superiors, and ultimately to the Pope—not to the bishop in whose diocese the monk resides. This “chain of command” was discussed in detail in “Notre Dame, Obama, and the Bishop’s Authority.”
As Father V. correctly notes, there’s another big difference between a hermit and a member of a religious institute: a hermit’s financial/material support is his own responsibility. While diocesan clergy are remunerated by their dioceses (cc. 281.1 and 384, and see “Who’s Supposed to Pay a Priest’s Salary?”) and religious are supported by their institutes, a hermit is not financially dependent on any ecclesiastical entity—not on his diocese, or a monastery, or a charitable organization, or any other Catholic institution. A hermit must either provide somehow for his own livelihood (maybe he inherited enough to live on from a family member, for example, or perhaps he is now retired and living on a pension), or he might have made some type of arrangement with relatives/friends who ensure his long-term financial support. In any case, no Catholic who is attracted to a life of solitary prayer should think that the Church will take care of him materially—because it won’t. Think about it: if the Catholic Church offered to provide adequate means of support for everyone with a desire to live alone with God … the world would probably be filled with hermits, many of whom might be drawn to it more for the free room and board and less for the solitary life of prayer!
Armed with all this general information, let’s now look at Father V.’s specific situation. Father V. is a diocesan priest, which means that as things stand right now, he is directly under the authority of his diocesan bishop, and is being financially supported by the diocese. If he is to become a hermit, Father V. will have to leave his diocesan ministry (we don’t know what his current assignment is, but odds are high that he’s ministering to the faithful at a parish). And if Father V. permanently leaves diocesan ministry to live the life of a hermit, he will no longer have a right to the salary he currently receives as a diocesan priest. It seems clear from his question that Father V. is already well aware of both these things.
An ordinary lay Catholic “just” has to ask his/her diocesan bishop if he/she can become a hermit; but Father V.’s request is far more complicated: he not only wants to become a hermit, but in order to do this, he must first ask his bishop to agree to release him from diocesan ministry. And as we saw in “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” priests can and often do obtain their bishop’s (or religious superior’s) acquiescence to do this … but they shouldn’t assume they will automatically get what they’re asking for.
As we Catholics are keenly aware, in most of the world today there is a dire shortage of parish clergy—and we may safely assume that Father V’s diocese is no exception. The bishop of his diocese may already be desperately short of priests to staff the parishes of the diocese, and if Father V. declares that he wants to leave to become a hermit, the bishop might simply say “No, Father, you may not leave. We need you here.” Note that while this may sound harsh to some, the bishop has every right to do this! After all, when Father V. was ordained a priest, the assumption was that he would serve his diocese, under the authority of his bishop, for the rest of his life.
That said, however, if the bishop is convinced that God is calling Father V. to a life of prayerful seclusion as a hermit, and the diocese can spare him on a permanent basis, he can certainly agree to allow Father V. to leave diocesan ministry and pursue the eremitical life. There will definitely have to be a written agreement that Father V. will no longer be financially supported by the diocese, although there is no special “canonical process” for this.
If his bishop agrees to all this, Father V. is then of course required to satisfy the bishop that he has another source of income, or enough funds already available to live on, long-term. In this he is just like any other Catholic who wants to become a hermit. It will then be up to the bishop and Father V. to hammer out all the details, possibly with some advice from the Vatican here and there if necessary. It’s worth noting at this point that Father V. isn’t asking to leave the priesthood (see “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” for more on this). Rather, it appears fairly clear that he wants to remain a priest, incardinated in his current diocese, although no longer engaged in ministry there (the concept of incardination was discussed in “Clerical Incardination: Priests for Life, Part I”). It’s an uncommon situation, to be sure, but it’s not canonically impossible—provided that the bishop agrees to it.
Our poor, sick world needs every prayer it can get—and so if someone is genuinely being called by God to live as a hermit, in prayer and seclusion, he/she can surely do the world a lot of spiritual good! Thus it’s entirely understandable that the Church provides for this form of life, even nowadays when secular hedonism seems globally to be the driving force. Let’s pray that Father V. and others like him are able to arrange to live quiet lives of prayer as hermits, if that is indeed what God wants of them.
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