The Vow (Solemn Promise)
1. A vow is a promise voluntarily made to God, to perform some good action.
The vow is a promise made to God. We call upon God implicitly, if not explicitly when we say: My God, I promise that I will do this or that. A simple intention is not a vow; no one, not even God Him self, can require anything of us because of it. A vow is a promise made of our own free will: no one is bound to make it (Deut. xxiii. 22), and no one can be compelled to make it. A vow made under compulsion is invalid; not so one made under apprehension of danger, or stress of want, for then the act is voluntary. We must only promise what will be pleasing to God; not anything wrong, as did Jephte who, before going to battle, vowed to the Lord that if he was victorious, he would offer as a holocaust whosoever should first come out of the doors of his house. His only daughter came to meet him, and she was sacrificed (Judges xi.). Such a vow is foolish and displeasing to God (Eccles. v. 3), and ought not to be accomplished. Usually something is promised which is not of obligation, a pilgrim age, for instance; but one may also promise something which one is otherwise obliged to do, e.g., to observe the fasts of the Church, to keep the holy-days, to be temperate in eating and drinking. In this case failure to keep one’s promise is a twofold sin. The owner of a factory, whose only child was dangerously ill, promised before God if she recovered, that he would never have work done on Sundays and holy-days. She got well and he kept his word. He was then doubly bound to observe the holy-days.
Vows are sometimes accompanied by a condition.
A kind of bargain is made with God. Jacob promised to give tithes of his possessions to God provided He brought him back prosperously to his father’s house (Gen. xxviii. 20-22). The processions on the Rogation days originated through a vow made about the year 500 by St. Mamertus, Bishop of Vienna, in time of famine; and about a century later the procession on St. Mark’s Day was instituted in consequence of a vow made by Pope Gregory the Great while the plague was raging. The inhabitants of Ober-Ammergau pledged themselves to perform the Passion play every ten years in 1633, at the time of an epidemic. St. Louis of France promised, if he recovered from a severe illness, to undertake a crusade (1248). In the present day many persons promise, in illness or affliction, to visit some place of pilgrimage, to make an offering to some church, to give a statue, to fast on certain days, etc. The celebrated sanctuary of Maria-Zell, which attracts so many pilgrims, is due to a vow made before a battle with the Turks by King Louis I. of Hungary, (1363).
2. The most important vows are the religious vows, that is to say the solemn promise made voluntarily by persons entering a religious Order, to follow the evangelical counsels.
Poverty, chastity, and obedience, are the three vows taken by Religious. They are very useful, for by them a man entirely gives up the world, in order to serve God better. These vows are most pleasing to God, for those who take them consecrate not only all they do, but their ownselves to God. As St. Anselm says, he who gives the tree gives more than he who only gives the fruit of the tree. Many persons offer oblations to God; a vestment, for instance, candles or flowers; but a better, more perfect oblation is to give one’s self to God. The vows of religion are either solemn (so called because the obligations incurred are greater), or simple vows. Solemn vows are those in which there is an irrevocable consecration of one’s self accepted by the Church, on the part of one who takes them. What is consecrated to God can never again be employed for secular purposes; with that which is simply dedicated it is otherwise. Thus any one who takes the solemn vows is irrevocably consecrated to the service of God. The Pope alone can release from solemn vows, and that only for weighty reasons. Before taking the solemn vows, i.e., being professed, it is necessary to have spent a year in the novitiate, and have been under the simple vows for at least three years (Pius IX., March 19, 1857). Bishops, or the superior-general of an Order can generally release from the simple vows, and for a less grave cause.
3. A vow renders the good action which we pledge ourselves to perform more acceptable to God. Consequently by means of a vow we obtain a more speedy answer to prayer, and make more rapid progress in the way of perfection.
By a vow we prove our fidelity to God. We also make an offering to God because we thereby bind ourselves to the performance of a good work. Thus, for instance, one who fasts in fulfillment of a vow performs a more perfect action than he who fasts without a vow. Hence it is that the prayers of those who make vows are more speedily granted. After the inhabitants of Ober-Ammergau had made the promise already mentioned, not one more fell a victim to the pestilence. The pious Anna made a vow to the Lord, when she prayed that a son might be granted to her, and she became the mother of the great prophet Samuel (1 Kings i. 11). Why do we see so many ex-votos in places of pilgrimage, so many votive offerings in churches? Vows enable us to attain more quickly to perfection (St. Francis of Sales). We thereby gain strength in the practice of virtue, because our will is fortified by the vow. The thought: I have promised my God to do this, is a powerful incentive to the performance of good actions. Many persons of great sanctity have taken vows, as a useful restraint to keep themselves in the fear of God. We may obtain special graces from God by pledging ourselves to make novenas in honor of the saints, to be particularly devout to the Mother of God during the month of May or of October, to perform certain mortifications or good works.
4. He who does not keep a solemn promise, offends against God; and so does he who needlessly postpones the fulfillment of his promise (Exod. xxiii. 21).
If we are bound to keep our word to our fellow-creatures, how much the more ought we to fulfil the promise made to God. “ It is much better not to vow, than after a vow not to perform the things promised” (Eccles. v. 4). The debtor is compelled by the law of the land to pay his debts, and can it be supposed that he will go scot free who withholds from God what is His due? The non-fulfilment of a vow may be either a venial or a mortal sin, according to the importance of the matter in question. The guilt is doubled, if at the same time we transgress a command and show disrespect to God, as for instance by violating a vow of chastity. If we are unable to fulfil a promise we are exempt from blame, provided we do our utmost to perform the thing promised.
5. Therefore any one who is desirous of taking a vow, ought to consider well beforehand whether he will be able to keep his word.
A man who wishes to build, first makes an estimate of the cost, to see whether his means will allow him to complete the structure (Luke xiv. 28). No one ought to make a promise for his whole life, without first testing his ability to keep it. St. Francis of Sales made a vow to say the Rosary every day of his life; he often regretted having been so hasty in that promise. In any serious matter it is advisable to consult an experienced priest. For this reason the Church has made the rule that every one who wishes to take the vows of religion, should have a twelve months noviceship. During that time he can make up his mind as to whether he has a real vocation to the religious life. If he takes the vows without feeling certain about his vocation he has only himself to blame.
6. A Religious who finds himself unable to keep his vows must apply to his Superior to be released from them or have them commuted.
Our Lord said to His apostles: “Whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt. xviii. 18). Hence the bishop or other superior is authorized to absolve from vows. The vow is usually commuted for some good work more conducive to the spiritual weal of the individual. There are five vows from which the Holy Father alone can dispense: The vow to enter a religious Order; the vow of lifelong chastity; the vow to visit the tombs of the apostles in Rome; and the vows to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the holy places) or to Compostella (the tomb of St. James). Under certain circumstances the bishop also has power to dispense from these vows: If they have been made conditionally; under some measure of compulsion; without mature deliberation, or in ignorance of what they involved. In a time of jubilee every confessor has power to commute vows for some good work of another nature. One may always do more than one has promised: God will not be displeased, any more than an ordinary creditor, if He is paid more than what is due to Him.
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