a primer on vows

By Diogenes (articles ) | Dec 01, 2005

Here's an address I've never heard a new priest give, but wish I had. With appropriate changes, it applies equally to marriage promises and military oaths of loyalty.

Thanks to you all for coming today as witnesses to my vows of priestly chastity. I'd like to take this opportunity to explain briefly what a vow means and why your witnessing this profession is essential.

First of all, as a free man with a free will, there is no act enjoined by the vow that I couldn't perform perfectly well without it, no act proscribed by the vow that I couldn't avoid perfectly well if I'd never professed it. So why take it at all?

No one takes a vow to eat when hungry or to drink when thirsty. All vows (oaths, promises) involve commitment to duties that, at least on some occasions, are difficult to fulfill. No one is obliged to assume such a commitment, and no blame attaches to the man who judges the prospective hardship too great for him and declines to embark on it. But I've noticed that a life free of commitment is also devoid of meaning, and, conversely, those whose commitments entail the gravest hardships are precisely the persons whose lives really matter. It's a risk I'm free to decline, but a risk I'm willing to take.

Now pay attention: I'm staking my reputation on the undertaking that I'll keep my vow, even where it's difficult to do so. And that's where you come in.

Every person, the Church teaches, has a right to his good name. And I claim that right from you as fellow human beings. In concrete terms, I ask for the ordinary freedom from slander, detraction, and rash judgment that you should extend to any person. And since I'm embarking on a commitment that is potentially difficult to keep, I'm asking for your good will, and the benefit of the doubt, in situations where gossip or ambiguous circumstances link my name with infamy.

However, by my vow I am indemnifying you against the eventuality of your backing me when I've let you down. I am hereby forfeiting my right to a good name if I break the commitment to which you are witnesses today. Should I ever break this vow, I give you my permission to treat me with contempt, to hold me up for ridicule, to broadcast my iniquities on television, radio, or the Web. You may decide to forgo any or all of the above, but should you take them to the furthest extent, you do me no injustice.

I can't pretend that I'm not anxious at the prospect of becoming the object of scorn. But this very anxiety will help me keep my commitment -- and that's part of the reason I'm not making this vow in secret but have invited you here of my own free will. Further, I promise to defend your prerogative to exercise your right of contumely, if -- which God forfend -- I default on the undertaking you're about to witness. If I let you down, and if you then take a can of spray-paint and write FATHER X SOLICITS MOLDAVIAN STEAMFITTERS TO ACTS OF UNNATURAL VICE in day-glo orange letters on the side of my rectory, and if our bishop rebukes you -- I promise to take your side against the bishop's. You'd be acting within the entitlement I give you today.

I ask for your prayers as I pronounce this vow and continued prayers as I struggle to keep it. Any doubts about what we're here for? Then do your job.

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 03, 2005 12:54 AM ET USA

    Don Vicente: Are these vows, or are they promises that one makes during Holy Orders? As was pointed out, the twain differ in that a vow is very much more binding than the other(depending upon context, of course). One other question, please: Why is the vow/promise of obedience repeated during priestly ordination, whilst the vow/promise of chastity is not? Is there some doctrinal rationale? Anyone, please?

  • Posted by: Don Vicente - Dec. 02, 2005 10:16 AM ET USA

    An interesting sidelight: The committment to celibacy and also to obey your Bishop are both taken solemnly at ordination to the Diaconate. When the transitional deacon is later ordained to the priesthood, only the promise to give the Bishop "obedience and respect" is repeated -- the committment to celibacy is not repeated. (I know; I've been there.) After 28 years as a priest, I am beginning to realize that obedience may be the more difficult committment. Just a thought. Happy Advent.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 02, 2005 4:20 AM ET USA

    I've noted that the modern patois now refers not to a "vow" of celibacy or chastity, but rather the tepid "promise" of the same, usually appearing in the form of some bishop's comment on a priest who has failed to abide his vows/promises. I suppose the unspoken rationale is that promises are somehow less serious undertakings than vows, and the consequences for breaking them correspondingly less grave. Vows are forever, I guess, while promises disappear in the wind.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 01, 2005 9:43 PM ET USA


  • Posted by: - Dec. 01, 2005 7:50 PM ET USA

    Is Uncle Di's excellent mind at work here or is this an authentic quotation? From whom?

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - Dec. 01, 2005 6:20 PM ET USA

    Excellent reflection! One question though: are MOLDAVIAN STEAMFITTERS from Moldova, or is that the name of the union or company? LOL

  • Posted by: - Dec. 01, 2005 2:58 PM ET USA

    Crimminy! After reading that *I'm* ready to enter the Diaconate and enter the priesthood if my wife (God forbid) predeceases me. Well Done!