Religious Vows: Committing To Life And Love
Religious vows are sacred promises. They reflect a life orientation and profound loving commitment. After a period of formation (click here to find out more about becoming a religious) members of religious communities, Sisters, Brothers and those becoming Religious Priests, publicly profess such vows of poverty, celibate chastity and obedience. Religious vows joyfully free a person to live for God and through that first love to serve others with love and to witness to God’s faithfulness, compassion and care for all.
By their vow of poverty religious promise to live a simple life. They commit to share their resources and their time and talents within their communities and with those in need. A vowed member of a religious community does not have personal possessions but like the early Christians they “place all things in common” (Acts 2: 44). This means that any money earned or gifts received are for the good of the whole. But a vow of poverty today is so much more. In our societies where consumerism is the norm, across our world where there are huge disparities between rich and poor and where greed is destroying our Earth, a vow of poverty stands as a witness to God’s gifts to be shared by all, the value of relationship over possessions, respect and care for God’s good creation, concern for and solidarity with the poor. To vow poverty in a religious community does not mean embracing the wrongs of material poverty from which so many people suffer but it must be connected to that suffering in our world. A vow of poverty must remind us that we are completely dependent on God’s gifts, we are interconnected with all peoples and with the Earth and so a vow of poverty is in many ways a “vow of gratitude”, gratitude that gives rise to solidarity, sharing and service.
A vow of celibate chastity seems counter-cultural and especially difficult in todays’ world and yet it is a vow of deep loving commitment. Religious are not married and they do not enter into sexual or exclusive relationships but they do have the gift of being “lovers of God and lovers for the world”. They are heart-freed by their vow to be open, like Jesus, to loving all to whom their lives call them. Freedom from exclusive relationships enables them to be sent out for others, available, and to grow in their freedom of heart. A vow of chastity is not “anti-marriage, anti sex or anti-family”! Rather it recognizes the gift and beauty of all of these and so the loving value of letting these go for the sake of a different way of loving. Professing a vow of celibate chastity, as Pope Benedict XV1 has so beautifully put it cannot mean “remaining empty in love, but rather must mean allowing oneself to be overcome by passion for God.” Or, as Sister Elaine Prevallet, S.L. has said: “The heart of the matter is a desire to dedicate oneself and all one’s life-energies to God”. She adds: “the infallible sign of the authenticity of celibate dedication will always be the presence of compassionate love directed toward the needs of the neighbour and the world, as was Jesus’ own.” Making a vow of celibate chastity does not isolate but is sustained healthily through entering deeply into community, forming a wide and supportive circle of friendship and family and gifting oneself in return.
In the Gospels we read that Jesus went away sometimes to quiet places to pray. That is, he went away from the crowd to pray to know his “Father’s” will for him. Then, as we see from his example, he responded in love by carrying out the will of God in his life. So obedience has a lot to do with listening and responding. But it is hard to be still and listen in our noisy world today. The vow of obedience that religious profess calls them to listen. Religious through their vow of obedience are called to listen to God, that is, to pray. They are called to listen for God’s will in all things. To do that, they are to listen to “the signs of the times”. They are called to be attentive to the needs of the world in the here and now, faithful to the charism of their particular community and to discern the work of the Holy Spirit in their individual heart and at work in their communities. This means that they will enter into mutual discernment with their community, offering their gifts in service for others. Obedience honours both the personal gifts of the individual members and the commitments of the community. Sister Elaine Prevallet, S.L. says: “Our fundamental task in obedience is to become who we are, finding the appropriate niche where the potential that lies within us can be placed at the service of Life. By the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we will as our lives unfold, find our deepest happiness when we are just where we need to be, having our gifts elicited, knowing ourselves playing a role as contributing members of the community, no matter how insignificant that role may seem.”
All religious profess the vows of poverty, celibate chastity and obedience either directly by these names or included in their profession of vows by differing names. Some communities take additional vows that relate directly to their special charism or way of living out religious life.