Every August, Jesuit novices in the United States and Canada take first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the Society of Jesus. Among other aspects of religious life, the vows tend to generate a lot of curiosity and are frequently the subject of excellent questions from family, friends, and colleagues. As we eagerly anticipate receiving these new men into the Society, it feels particularly appropriate to spend some time exploring the most essential elements of our vows. For instance, what are vows? What do they do? What role do they play in the life of a Jesuit and how do they factor into the processes of personal, spiritual, and religious formation? In the course of this article, we’ll look at these and other aspects of the vows, including why they are so essential to religious life.
What are vows?
The first and most natural question is what a vow even is. How is a vow different from a promise or an oath? A preliminary clue can be gleaned from Catholic canon law which states that a vow is “a deliberate and free promise made to God about a possible and better good fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion.”1 There’s a lot to chew on there, but this definition helps to identify that a vow is made directly to God rather than to a human person or organization.
Jesuit vows are taken in the context of a special Mass following the Eucharistic consecration just before the distribution of Holy Communion. It is at this point in the Mass that the offering of bread and wine has been transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesuits take vows by kneeling in the literal presence of Jesus and offer their lives to God using the following formula:
Almighty and eternal God, I, Benjamin James Joseph Francis-Maria Jansen, understand how unworthy I am in your divine sight. Yet I am strengthened by your infinite compassion and mercy, and I am moved by the desire to serve you. I vow to your divine Majesty, before the most holy Virgin Mary and the entire heavenly court, perpetual chastity, poverty, and obedience in the Society of Jesus. I promise that I will enter this same Society to spend my life in it forever. I understand all these things according to the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Therefore, by your boundless goodness and mercy, and through the blood of Jesus Christ, I humbly ask that you judge this total commitment of myself acceptable. And as you have freely given me the desire to make this offering, so also may you give me the abundant grace to fulfill it.
To briefly summarize, vows are not made to a superior, an organization, or even to the Church Herself. They represent a free, deliberate promise made solely to our Lord and Creator for the dual purposes of developing the deepest possible relationship with God and enabling apostolic availability for ministry to our earthly sisters and brothers.
What purpose do vows serve in the life of a religious?
The shortest and simplest answer is that the vows facilitate truly authentic personal freedom to the greatest possible degree. This explanation might understandably seem paradoxical from a worldly perspective in that the vows could appear to be restrictive or limiting and I frequently receive excellent questions about the vows and the things that they preclude. My vow of poverty means I’ll never own my own house, car or business. My vow of chastity means I’ll never have a family. My vow of obedience means that I have perpetually surrendered the ability to make unilateral decisions regarding my personal and professional trajectory. How then, one might ask, do the vows entail freedom in any respect when I have apparently surrendered autonomy in every critical area of my life?
The key to this conundrum is essentially perspectival in nature and hinges on properly framing a single penultimate consideration: What is the goal of human existence and what really constitutes success in life? The freedom that the vows facilitate becomes clear when one recognizes that the reality of human life is that we are heavenly pilgrims on an earthly journey. Each and every single one of us have been crafted as individual masterpieces destined to live in eternal, blissful, intimate union with God. Seeking relationship with God in all things is the ultimate, overarching objective of earthly life. Recognizing this singular truth, the vows enable us to free ourselves from attachments that might otherwise hinder us in the pursuit of fullness of intimate relationship with God and the ensuing capacity we gain to love and serve our fellow brothers and sisters.
How do the vows facilitate this kind of radical freedom?
I would posit that the freedom facilitated by the vows is comprised by two distinct tiers. The first is the freedom to live wholly and fully in authentic, loving relationship with God. The second is the freedom of apostolic availability necessary for our mission of caring for souls.
The vows are first and foremost a critical component of our relationship with God because they help us to give ourselves most fully to it. True intimacy in any relationship occurs when neither party withholds any part of their being from the other. Rather, each party gives unreservedly of themselves while selflessly willing the good of the other in an endless positive feedback loop of mutual life-giving self-giving. This is the type of loving relationship that God desires with each and every one of us.
The reality of earthly life, however, is that there are so many things that can distract or impede us from ever really seeking God with this type of single-minded devotion. The overarching intention of the vows is to free ourselves for a relationship of totally receptive total self-giving in which we recognize that we are wholly dependent on God for everything, including our very existence moment to moment. In recognition of God’s infinite love for us, we seek to unreservedly offer back every facet of our hearts and lives.
Beginning with the vow that is perhaps most obviously relational in character, religious chastity involves far more than a lack of physical intimacy. It is the reservation of all one’s love, affection, desires, and passion wholly and solely for exclusive relationship with God. As such, this entails an intentional dedication to purity of the mind, the heart, and the will. It should justly be acknowledged that human intimacy is a beautiful and worthy entity designed by God to be enjoyed as a good in its own right within the proper context. At the same time, it must also be recognized that human relationships are never intended to exist as ends unto themselves but rather as instruments through which participants come to greater love, union, and perfection in relationship with God. Moreover, even as beautiful and fruitful as human relationships can be, they are necessarily inherently finite and have distinct limitations.
Through the course of my personal life experiences and discernment, I’ve come to recognize the presence of a God-shaped hole in my heart. There is, in the deepest recesses of my soul, a desire to be known and loved and to love and give in return in an aforementioned cycle of mutual self-giving that far exceeds the ability of any other human being to fulfill. These deepest and most fundamental longings can only be satisfied through relationship with God.
It is crucial, absolutely crucial, that chastity not be perceived as a state of sterile lovelessness. Western popular culture continues to propagate the fallacy that love and sex are synonymous entities and this could not be further from the truth. Authentic life-giving love does not necessarily entail a physical component and I would actually counter that the state of perpetual chastity renders one more capable of intense, selfless, heartfelt, passionate love than any other. Consider, for instance, the sentiments of one of my favorite saint friends (and Doctor of the Church) St. Catherine of Siena, who in her book The Dialogue 2 recounts her own personal experiences in prayer:
“Then the soul [Catherine] was restless and aflame with tremendous desire because of the unspeakable love that she had conceived in God’s great goodness when she had come to see and know the expanse of his charity…as a flame burns higher the more fuel is fed it, the fire in this soul grew so great that her body could not have contained it. She could not, in fact, have survived had she not been encircled by the strength of Him who is strength itself…as she felt her emotions so renewed in the eternal Godhead, the force of her spirit made her body break into a sweat for her union with God was more intimate than was the union between her soul and her body.”
Catherine is one of many saints and mystics whose lives powerfully witness to the incredible potential for intimate relationship with God that is available even in this mortal life for any and all willing to seek it.
From a practical standpoint, chastity facilitates apostolic availability in that we are not tethered to any single, exclusive relationship with any other person. Rather, we are free to love, care for, and accompany all those we encounter each and every day in a way that reflects the tender, compassionate, self-disinterested love we have received from God and that subsequently overflows from our personal relationships with Him.
To be clear from the outset, obedience does not mean blindly abandoning one’s own inclinations or desires and becoming a lifeless robot without an individual will or identity. In order to really understand the character of religious obedience though, it is necessary to revisit the question posed earlier: what is the goal of earthly human life and how does one get there? Our ultimate end as created children of God is the complete union of heart, mind, and being with our Creator in an unending relationship of unimaginable bliss. God infinitely desires our goodness in every aspect of our temporal earthly lives as well as our eternity. As such, we recognize that true fulfillment of the goodness that we are destined for can only be achieved by willing the will of God with our whole hearts, our whole minds, and our whole souls. 3
The pursuit of total conformation to the will of God comes with several obvious challenges, however, not least of which is figuring out God’s will for one’s individual life in the first place. There are so many things that we think we want (or should want) for so many reasons and so often we strive to steer the course of our lives to achieve these ends by planning days, months, and even years ahead of time.
Our reality though (if we’re being truly honest with ourselves) is that we often can’t even predict what’s going to happen to us five minutes into the future. Moreover, the movements of our hearts are often fickle and we often have desires for things that either aren’t truly good for us or at least aren’t the best thing for us in the long run. God, on the other hand, always wills the best for us and does so from a boundless, omniscient perspective from which He instantaneously comprehends the entire scope of our mortal and eternal existences with a clarity and fullness utterly impossible to the human mind.
This is where the vow of obedience becomes invaluable. Recognizing that God wills our infinite good and will bring it about with our cooperation and consent (because He will not violate the free will that He has gifted us without our assent), we seek to actively discern which of our desires are from God which are not. We do this by spending daily time with Him in prayer and then fully, openly, and honestly manifesting the resulting movements and desires of our hearts with our spiritual directors and superiors who mutually pray with and for us and who help us to further scrutinize the origins and nature of our desires to better understand what is authentically from God and what is not.
Thus, rather than depriving us of our personal desires, the vow of obedience actually brings them into sharper relief because we constantly work at dissecting out what they are, where they’re coming from, and why with a very intentional, methodical focus ultimately geared towards the communal discernment of the will of God for the life of each individual man.
At the end of the day, obedience is all about trust. God is omnipotent and omniscient and His desires for my goodness and fulfillment are infinitely greater and better than my own. Thus, I trust He both can and will influence the people He has placed in my life to place me into precisely those situations which will not only be to my greatest benefit but also to those whom I encounter.
Obedience comes with several pragmatic, apostolically relevant benefits as well. I need not obsess over my next career move or painstakingly plot out a 10-year plan. I need not worry about political machinations or campaigning for assignments I think I would like. Through obedience, all of the time, energy, and emotional currency that I would otherwise have spent attempting to manipulate the outcomes of my future life are freed up for mission and my relationships with God and others.
In the vow of poverty, Jesuits renounce personal ownership of created temporal things and hold that all material goods are owned collectively by the community. We are granted habitual personal use of items like clothing and cell phones with the understanding that these things are not truly ours but rather are communally owned. The vow of poverty consists of far more than merely not possessing certain material goods, however. The ultimate goal is intentional cultivation of a spirit of indifference by which we prefer nothing to the love of Christ and discerningly make use of material goods only insofar as they are beneficial to our relationship with God and others.
Poverty is grounded in the recognition that we literally were created from nothing, have received everything that we are and have solely from God, and are constantly sustained in existence by this same loving Creator every moment of every day of our lives. As such, we can and should rest in the confidence that God knows our individual needs and will never fail to provide for us in every aspect of our lives if we but let Him 4. There’s an incredible, life-giving freedom in the realization that God will always give us precisely what we need when we need it.
Moreover, if we recall that the ultimate goal of human life is the deepest and most intimate possible union of heart, mind, and soul in relationship with God, it becomes inherently necessary that we do all that we can to remove any other attachments or impediments that could get in the way. One can never give one’s heart fully to God if that same heart is encumbered by attachments to material things 5. As such, in addition to having complete trust in God’s desires and Providence for us, it is also critical that we actively strive to detach ourselves from anything that could distract or detract from our relationship with God.
From a practical standpoint, poverty enables us to be maximally available for mission. The fact that we don’t personally own cars, property, businesses, etc. makes us very mobile. I could quite literally pack the clothes and other items that I have personal use of in a couple suitcases and move anywhere on the globe in a moment’s notice. In a similar vein to obedience, poverty facilitates freedom for mission in that all of the time and energy I would otherwise expend taking care of material goods can instead be reallocated to the needs of the mission and my personal relationships with God and others.
More than anything, the vows are designed to facilitate the freedom to pursue fullness of relationship with God and a capacity to love and care for souls that simply would not be possible otherwise. There’s so much more that deserves to be said on this topic and this article is only a brief introduction to the unbelievable richness of vowed religious life.
Join us in praying for the men who will take vows next week!
Photo from the author’s own vows last August!
- “Code of Canon Law – Book IV – Function of the Church (Cann. 1191-1204),” 2022, https://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/eng/documents/cic_lib4-cann1191-1204_en.html. ↩
- Saint Catherine of Siena and Suzanne Noffke. The Dialogue. Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1980. ↩
- Mt. 22:37 ↩
- Mt. 6:25-34 ↩
- Lk. 16:13 ↩