Monday, February 14, 2011

How Do I Make a Private Vow?

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

Dear 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.)


Shana said...

I have a related question which we could discuss later personally but I thought I might as well post it here. And you may not really have a formed opinion on this or know how to respond anyways.

OK, so my question is, what do you think the appropriate charism is for a woman in private vows as far as how open they are to others about their spousal relationship with Jesus? I guess it could differ from woman to woman. Do you think it would be somewhere between a woman in a secular institute and a woman in a public form of consecrated life (i.e. consecrated virginity or religious life)? What do you think it would look like in relation to these two vocations?

Speaking personally, I'm not even under private vows, temporary or permanent, at the moment yet in certain circles I am very open about how I am in love with Jesus that I believe He wants my total and exclusive love (i.e. to forsake marriage to an earthly spouse. On the other hand while in other circles and situations I won't hide it if someone presses me yet I don't broadcast it as much (I think this is mostly to give me some measure of privacy in my discernment...not to build up an audience in such a way where I'd feel pressured to fulfill certain expectations. I'm guessing if I were to discern that my vocation was to make private vows I'd be more apt to be more open about my exclusive love for Christ in all situations.

I guess what I'm asking is would a woman's inclination, in your opinion, to be over the top open and broadcasting unabashedly her exclusive love for Christ from the mountaintops, be an indactor that she's not called to make private vows but rather to a public form of consecrated life or would it be a more neutral factor? It seems as if the woman who's blog you linked to is very open about her exclusive relationship with Christ but that other women who make private vows might feel called to be more discreet about it and I guess this is what throws me off a bit.

I know you recently wrote a post on discerning consecrated virginity vs. private vows and you sort of touched on this I think in saying that different women live out private vows in different ways but I'd be interested in hearing a bit of an elaboration on this point!

Happy Valentines day by the way! Doesn't Jesus make the best valentine!? <3

a consecrated virgin said...


Jesus certainly is the best Valentine!

My own thought is that women who feel called to live as privately-vowed laypeople should probably err on the side of being discreet about their commitment. Mainly, this is because I think it’s important not to confuse the faithful, and someone who was very open about making a private vow could easily tend to give the impression that she was in some sort of canonical state of consecrated life.

However, I think a lot would depend on the individual woman, her circle of friends and co-workers, and the particular situation at hand. Unlike the policy of some secular institutes (which, by the way, are basically organizations of laypeople who make private vows), I don’t think that a woman who makes a private vow on her own should feel quite as strictly obliged to keep her vocation to her self.

When discussing private vows as a vocational option, it’s really crucial to understand that private vow are NOT the same thing as a recognized state of consecrated life. This means that there is no “charism” of private vows as a general category, since every woman who makes a private vow is simply making a personal, individual response to a personal, individual experience of God’s love. As I said in an earlier post, there can be as many ways to live a privately-vowed life as there are women who choose to make private vows.

If a privately-vowed women feels called to tell her family and friend about her commitment, that’s perfectly fine. If she doesn’t want anyone to know other than her spiritual director, then that’s equally acceptable. Unlike those in public states of consecrated life—who have, by virtue of their vocation, an obligation to the wider Church to be a visible Christian witness—those in private vows have no obligations other than the moral obligation of fulfilling the specific matter of their vow.

If someone asked me, I would say that a young woman who feels called to shout her exclusive love of Christ “from the housetops” is probably called to a public state of consecrated life. But it’s never really possible to discern vocations in the abstract, and once again, a lot would depend on the woman herself.

As a side note, I don’t think I agree with everything “Mulier Fortis” writes or does regarding her private vow (although naturally I would hate to criticize someone I’ve never met!). Still, I linked her blog because I think she’s a great example of someone who recognized that she was called to private vows, and actively accepted this in a positive way as God’s will for her.

And I’m glad that there is someone like her writing a blog, because (in my opinion) there are a lot of problems which have resulted from situations where women who were probably called simply to make private vows wound up requesting and receiving the Rite of Consecration, due to a mistaken impression that the Rite was somehow necessary to make their commitment to Christ “real.” I think that “Mulier Fortis” shows that a private vow can be a true response to God’s call and a defining life commitment.

Karen said...

Thank You for answering my question on how to make a Private Vow.

I have a couple more questiions.

In making a temporary vow, do I write the temporary vow out using the words I am making this temporary vow of virginity and the reason why ie until I become a consecrated virgin and if renewing the vow to then say I will renew this vow next year if not yet a consecrated virgin?

Does a Private vow have to be made in front of a witness in order for it to be a valid vow. Could I have the written vow approved by the SD and pray the vow in front of Jesus Exposed in the Blessed Sacrament with no human witnesses to make it truly private.

God Bless You

Hannah said...

I am very open to making a private vow at some point in my life, as right now I see a lot of value in my academic work and my relationship with God. I cannot get enough of Jesus. He is the only One who makes me happy deep down. But how do you know that this is God's will and not just a desire? The desire to belong only to God is good in itself, and I think that evangelizing a la St. Francis of Assissi ("Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.")in my academic and social life is doing God's work, even if it's very very subtle, but I really want to know if that's what He wants. I am concerned because I have always liked being single and have done so for the most part because I study a demanding subject and I would not be at all surprised if this preference influenced my desire.

Mac McLernon said...

Thanks for the link!

I have to admit that I did wonder about the renewing of my vow each year - this is, however, on the advice of my SD, who thinks that it's good to witness in this way to the vocation of vowed single life. It happens to coincide with our Parish Missa Cantata as well, and so I open up the party to anyone who's attending that Mass - we'd normally have a bit of a celebration after the Missa Cantata anyway.

Moniales said...

We Dominicans stress the consecratory nature of profession. We never even say the word vow. Within our profession of obedience are the 3 vows but it is a profession to live a whole way of life. Dominicans don't have the tradition of the Consecratory prayer as following St. Thomas we see the consecration happening as we make profession. Until 1999 we had to use the Roman rite of profession until ours was approved and now that it is approved we don't use the prayer of consecration as beautiful as both options are.

Because it is a consecration Dominicans teach that while the Church has the right to dispense with the obligations of the vows (St. Thomas didn't believe one could be dispensed from perpetual continency) one's consecration can't be undone. It is a total and complete holocaust.

It's good that you point out that the consecration of virgins is not making vows which again points out that is IS different from a marriage to another person. I think often people, even consecrated virgins, think of it as analogous.

For this reason Dominicans (friars and nuns) don't have a tradition of "renewing vows" yearly or even at jubilees because the consecratory nature means that it is a dynamic ongoing reality. It's not something that happened in the past but something that is ongoing.

Anonymous said...

sorry ,but I write in german:
ich habe auch vor,ein privatgelübde abzulegen,denn es ist ein mehr an liebe zu Christus und eine stärkere Anbindung an die kirche. ich möchte es in die Hand meines bischofs ablegen und danke für die gute seite,liebe sponsa christi. virgo consecrata und PG sind wie zwei Schwestern oder zwei flügel eines vogels....zwei sich ergänzende Berufungen innerhalb der gesamtkirche.