In the film A Man for All Seasons, about the life and death of St. Thomas More, the saint’s daughter comes to her imprisoned father to ask him to swear the oath that the king of England is supreme head of the Church. Margaret More says: “Take the oath with your lips, but do not mean it in your heart.”
More replies: “What else is an oath, then, but words we say to God? When a man takes an oath, he is holding his very self in his hands like water. If he opens his fingers then, he may never hope to find himself again.”
Religious vows resemble oaths because they are also words we say to God. A vow is defined as: “A promise made to God of a better and possible thing.” Vows are actions in which a person places what is a matter of freedom for others (freedom to live where you want, the freedom to have private property and dispose of it and the freedom to marry) and sacrifices that freedom to God.
The people who surrender these freedoms for the sake of the kingdom of heaven enter what is known as the state of consecrated life. Traditionally there are monks, nuns, sisters, friars and orders of priests. Today, they include secular institutes and societies of apostolic life.
Many people who know nothing about consecrated life think religious do this because they are inept at using these freedoms or think the things involved are evil in some way: Why would someone embrace lifelong chastity unless he or she either could not marry or thought sexuality or the body was evil? This is not the case, though.
Consecrated people surrender these things to God not because they are evil, but because human beings after the Fall have a weakness about them, and they want to love God with an undivided heart. They have not lost something — they have found it.
Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law that demanded works flow from the inner life of the Holy Spirit. The Old Law could not give that Spirit or grace. Christ, on the other hand, bestows such grace on human beings — and so, the “New Law of Christ” is primarily an interior law of love in the Holy Spirit.
To live the new Law correctly demands doing so from a right intention: the love of God. To preserve that intention, the Lord himself added to the commandments the counsels of perfection: poverty, chastity and obedience. These are remedies “for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh (chastity) and the lust of the eyes (poverty) and the pride of life (obedience)” (1 John 2:16).
Christ recommends these counsels as the best way to ensure that one is truly living the life of the Holy Spirit. Neither he nor St. Paul requires these as a commandment, for they do not involve giving up something evil. They are recommendations to give up something good for the sake of something better. Moreover, they can only be lived from the right intention of love of Christ.
Consecrated persons place their surrender of these things under the virtue of religion: They have voluntarily, from love, sacrificed to God.
Since Vatican II, religious have become quite scarce in the Church. The Council was eager to emphasize that everyone was called to the depths of holiness. But the Fathers at the Council did not thereby wish to devalue the necessity of consecrated life for the health and well-being of the Church.
Many clergy and laity think of consecrated religious as merely inexpensive labor for schools and hospitals. Though the active apostolate is central to many communities, the value of this apostolate comes precisely from the interior communion of hearts with the Trinity, which characterizes the very nature of consecrated life.
Consecrated persons often live in community. This is both their crown and their cross. Living with others who are not your own and displaying a divine regard for them helps one to appreciate the mercy of Christ.
Constant adaptation of one’s desire to control the world and surrendering that freedom to others keeps one honest in one’s desire for an interior conversation with Christ; it allows one to live always available to his providence. “God-invaded” personalities have a way of affecting others just by friendly relationships. They exist not only for their own salvation, but to encourage others to desire heaven.
Happy consecrated persons show that one can control one’s desires for money, power, sex and freedom and still be a happy and well-adjusted human being. Again, one can only do this if one is called to it and one relies on the grace of God. Religious who experience this become signs, so that “people can sense with longing the attraction of divine beauty” (John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 20, 1996).
Pope Francis has called 2014-2015 the “Year of Consecrated Life” to highlight the central importance of this vocation as a sign of the next world and an encouragement in this one that the love of God makes one more human, not less. He has dedicated this year to encourage young people to think about this vocation and to call the Church to appreciate and support this vocation, so that those with this calling can live it as Christ willed it.
When Thomas More answers in A Man for All Seasons that an oath is words we say to God, his daughter Margaret exasperatedly responds: “But haven’t you in reason done already all that God can reasonably ask of you?” The saint responds, and religious must respond with him: “Well, finally, it is not a matter of reason. Finally, it is a matter of love.”
Dominican Father Brian Mullady has a doctorate
in sacred theology and is a mission preacher and
adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and
Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.