Here is a question I received in the comment box of my recent post, “Consecrated Virginity versus Private Vows”:
I would like to make a private vow of virginity before making my Consecration [of] Virginity vows and was wondering if there are any private vow prayers that are already written out that I can pray. And what would you suggest of what one can do to live their private vows?
Thank You and God Bless You! —Karen
First of all, forgive me for correcting one small detail in your original question: I just have to point out that the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity doesn’t actually involve a vow per se.
Consecrated virgins do publically state their resolution to persevere in a life of perpetual virginity (this occurs twice in the Rite of Consecration: in the examination following the homily, and in the formula for the “renewal of intention” which is spoken by the candidate immediately before the central consecratory prayer). However, this commitment is not technically the same thing as a vow, although I think it would probably qualify as one of the “other sacred bonds” that Canon Law frequently mentions.
Still, the constitutive action in a solemn consecration to a life of virginity is the candidate’s RECEPTION of the prayer of consecration from a bishop. A consecrated virgin is consecrated passively by an action of the Church, much in the same way as a Church building is passively consecrated. This is in contrast to (for example) professing religious vows, as the making of a vow is an action which the candidate actively does.
Of course, there is a “passive” element in the consecration which occurs through the profession of religious vows, in that the Church must formally receive them through the witness of a duly authorized representative (such as a religious superior) in order for such vows to be valid. But in one sense, through their active profession of vows religious could almost be thought of as “consecrating themselves.” Likewise, the profession of any type of vow or promise—including private vows—is a similarly “active” action.
Even though consecration to a life of virginity does not number among the seven Sacraments, because of its “passive” nature it could perhaps be thought of as “working” like one. This is why it is generally understood that there can be no true dispensations from consecration to a life of virginity—the Church can’t “un-consecrate” a virgin anymore than she could “un-bless” a sacred object or “un-do” a Sacrament. However, a religious can in some circumstances be dispensed from his or her vows, because the Church is able to release individuals from the promises they have made and can relieve them from the obligations which these promises have subsequently imposed.*
Because the passive dynamic of consecrated virginity is so different from the active dynamic of professing vows, I would be concerned if the making of a vow per se (i.e., in the more limited technical definition of the term “vow”) was assumed to be an intrinsic part of the charism of consecrated virginity “lived in the world.” To me this would seem to run the risk of tying to fit consecrated virgins inappropriately into a paradigm proper to religious life, which could tend to undermine the uniqueness of consecrated virginity as a distinct vocation within the Church. Because of this (among other reasons), I don’t think that the profession of a private vow should ever be regarded as a mandatory step in the process of becoming a consecrated virgin.
But with all that being said, I do think that many aspiring consecrated virgins could find it spiritually and humanly helpful to make a private vow at some point in their discernment.
On a very personal note, when I was still in college I made a private, temporary vow of virginity under the guidance and with the support of a spiritual director. My motivation for doing this was mostly that, since I was absolutely head-over-heals in love with Jesus and (having been endowed with all the patience of a young twenty-something! ;-) ), I just couldn’t stand the thought of waiting any longer to make at least some sort of commitment to Him. But for other women, I can imagine how a period of living a privately-vowed commitment to dedicated virginity could be helpful as a means of testing or strengthen their resolve, or of discerning in a more concrete, practical way whether or not they truly feel called to a spousal relationship with Christ. (And my thought is that the best way for an aspiring consecrated virgin to “live out” a private vow is simply to live, as fully as possible, the lifestyle she intends to have after receiving the Rite of Consecration.)
However, I think that the decision to make a private vow as a preparation, whether remote or proximate, for receiving the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity should be between the aspiring consecrated virgin and her spiritual director. While it most cases it might also be appropriate for the aspirant to discuss this step with whoever is officially responsible for the formation of consecrated virgins in her diocese, because a private vow is essentially a matter of conscience, I don’t think there should ever be pressure to make a private vow from the “outside” (that is, in what we would call the “external forum”).**
For a woman making a private vow specifically as a preparatory step for receiving the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, my own opinion is that they should profess this vow in a very low-key kind of way. I.e., I think it would be best for her to have only a handful of witness (if that many), and to be somewhat selective with whom she shares her decision to make a private vow. My thought is that a large, festive celebration connected with a private vow might tend to undermine the actual Rite of Consecration as the principal vocational commitment in a woman’s life. Also, I would be concerned that, if aspiring consecrated virgins were very open about living under private vows, this could cause confusion among the faithful or blur the distinction between private devotional commitments and the public liturgy of the Church.
For women who do not intend to become consecrated virgins, but who choose to make a private vow of chastity or virginity because they feel called to live as privately-vowed laywomen, I think the situation is somewhat different. If your main vocation in life is to make a private vow, then by all means you should celebrate it! I think it would be very appropriate for a woman in this situation to invite her family and friends to witness her private vow, to have a party immediately afterward, or perhaps even to wear a wedding dress if she felt drawn to this. (As one example, the author of the blog “Mulier Fortis” describes her profession of private vows here.)***
For both cases—that is, aspiring consecrated virgins who make private vows during their formation or discernment, as well as women who feel called to private vows as their main vocation—here are a few points to keep in mind:
1. Private vows are private and thus non-liturgical, so the Church does not provide any pre-written formula for private vows. If you feel called to make a private vow, I strongly recommended that you write your own formula. I think this would be the most fitting course of action, anyway—since private vows are a form of personal devotion, I feel that it’s best for the words used in a private vow to come straight from the heart of the individual who will be making the vow.
2. If you need inspiration for what to write in your own private vow formula, one starting point might be to look at the various formulae used for religious vows in different communities. However, in composing a private vow formula, you should NOT include anything that suggests that your private vow is being officially accepted by an authorized authority, or in the name of the Church. It should be clear from the wording of your vow that you are engaging in what is simply a private act of personal devotion.
3. Another place to find inspiration might be in some of the writings of the saints who made private vows. But, when you write a private vow, be very honest with yourself and make sure that you’re not promising anything that’s beyond your capacity. (For example, do not read Come, Be My Light and decide to imitate Bl. Theresa of Calcutta by vowing “never to refuse God anything” under pain of mortal sin. Mother Theresa was capable of keeping this vow. Most Catholics—myself included—are not.) It’s best to show your proposed private vow formula to your spiritual director before you actually make your vow.
4. In some instances, in might be possible and desirable to make a private vow right before or right after a Mass. Especially in the case of a woman who is making a private vow as her main vocational commitment, it might even work out that she could profess her vow immediate following a small, “invitation only” Mass offered for specially her and her intentions as she comes to such a definitive point in her spiritual life. But, a private vow should NEVER be made during Mass, or in the course of any of the Church’s liturgies. This is because the Church is, as a rule, opposed to the combining of liturgical prayer and private devotions.
5. If you make a private vow, remember that while you are not canonically bound to observe it, you are still morally bound. In other words, while the laws of the Church do not specify any consequences for failing to keep a private vow, a private vow is still a serious promise made to God. Therefore, a private vow is a step which should be discerned carefully. In particular, one element which needs to be discerned is whether you should make a life-long vow, a temporary vow, or a temporary vow which will be renewed periodically, or a temporary vow which will eventually lead into a life-long vow. If something unforeseen happens in your life where you find yourself unable to honor a private vow, should you take the step of having the vow properly dispensed—which is fairly simple, since many clerics (such as the pastor of whatever parish is geographically closest to you) have the authority to dispense a member of the faithful from a private vow.
* But with all this being said, I don’t want to undermine the fact that professed religious are indeed truly and fully consecrated by their vows! If any religious would like to elaborate on the consecratory nature of the vows in the combox for this post, their input would be very welcome here.
** For those unfamiliar with this terminology, in questions and practices relating to formation, there is a distinction which always needs to be made between the “internal forum” and the “external forum.” The internal forum is basically an individual soul’s personal, interior relationship with God—i.e., the internal forum involves the kinds of things that would be discussed in spiritual direction or in the Sacrament of Penance. The internal forum is always supposed to be treated with strict—and in some cases, absolute—confidentiality. On the other hand, the external forum has to do with a person’s manifest attitudes and observable behavior. E.g., the question of whether or not someone shows up at Mass everyday is something which can be asked in the external forum; the kinds of spiritual consolations that person experiences while at Mass is something which should be discussed only in the context of the internal forum.
Because the internal forum represents the area where we are all at our most vulnerable, those in authority who would make the decision as to whether or not a candidate is to be ordained, consecrated, or professed are typically forbidden from having access to information proper to the internal forum. For example, in seminaries, the priest-professors who vote on whether or not a seminarian should go on to priesthood are not allowed to hear seminarians’ confessions under any circumstances other than danger of death.
*** I think “Mulier Fortis” is a good blog for those who are discerning life-long private vows as a vocation. But one of the only things I have a reservation about is the way that the author describes having a somewhat elaborate ceremony to renew her private vows every year. Naturally I don’t want to criticize this if it works for her and her parish, but my recommendation for someone with a vocation to life-long private vows would be to have only one vow ceremony (with possibly some commemoration of the anniversary.)