I married relatively late in life (age 50) to my wife who had been widowed in her 20’s. Both of us had developed professional lives over the years and had achieved a strong measure of personal autonomy and self-assurance. At the time of our marriage we each owned our own homes. By objective measures, we could have progressed as single people in the world. But for all of that, the strange works of Providence brought us together at a Friday evening wedding Mass in October 1998. When doing our “paper work” for the wedding with our pastor/vicar general, he stated that in his judgment the pre-Cana program of the diocese would not significantly raise our marital/spiritual IQ, and he recommended instead that we consider a spiritual retreat of several days with the Trappists at Mepkin Abbey outside of Charleston, South Carolina. We did, and we will be returning to Mepkin in a few weeks, coincidentally in the year of our twentieth wedding anniversary.
I remember the day of my wedding, sitting in my own house and attempting to study for my state medical licensure exam a week later. But my mind was understandably elsewhere, and I had the chance to reflect upon the vow I would be taking that evening. I remember that afternoon as one of the most enlightening in my ongoing spiritual journey. For I realized that I would be taking a vow with significant implications for myself, my wife, and my God. In very practical terms I understood that my daily lifestyle was no longer exclusively mine. There would be no more walking in the door from work and flipping on ESPN. Meals would be healthier, at regular times, and prepared with more than a passing nod to nutrition.
But beyond that was the greater sense of the sacrament itself. I reflected that I was committing to create an environment where my wife would experience the presence of God. I knew in her heart that she shared her vow in the same way. I admit that I had taken vows before in my lifetime; when I was 24 I took solemn vows with the Franciscan Order. I must own that failure for the rest of my life, despite Rome’s permission for “exclaustration” or release from vows. But I would say that looking back, I was much younger and the language of the vows for religious life was quite broad. I knew the act of making the vows was “grave matter” as the Catechism and Canon Law would say, but the target commitment was to a broad spectrum: God, the Church, the thousands of Franciscans around the world who wore the same habit. I see today that solemn vow classes in my old order are quite small; perhaps the formation for vows commands more of a candidate’s focus than it did of mine. And, in my day, the solemn vows made by a seminarian were often viewed as a step on the ladder to ordination to the priesthood, as much as we tried to put that out of our heads and reflect about our pledge of a common life to the brothers.
Para. 2101 speaks of making solemn promises/vows to God. It is interesting that the paragraph speaks of sacraments as the primordial vows or promises. Theologically speaking, when a religious man or woman makes solemn vows, he or she is taking an oath before God to intensify his or her earlier Baptismal vows into an intensified way of life under the rule of an established religious order/community and its duly authorized superiors. Living the vows should be quite specific: foregoing intimate personal relationships to focus upon the spiritual and practical needs of one’s designated fraternity, for example, or accepting work positions consistent with the intentions of the founder and the official rule. Members of religious orders have vowed themselves to a rigorous specific lifestyle as a powerful sign to the Church and the world at large that baptism leads to glory and reward beyond the grave. The variety of religious orders bears witness to the many ways the baptismal life can be intensified—from strict cloister to the soup kitchen. Consider the unique charism of Mepkin Abbey.
The old catechisms spoke of sacraments as “giving grace;” this phrasing was removed from modern catechetics for its overly mechanical tone. And yet any basic mental health text speaks of “concreteness” as an essential quality of the therapeutic process. To promise to do good sounds a lot like “I need to lose weight” or “I need to cut back on my drinking.” A health care provider will likely respond with a request for a concrete plan of action with a measurable outcome, usually called a “treatment plan.” The patient and I may agree that he attend four AA meetings in the coming week; if he fails this plan, we would need to examine exactly why he missed and what is his true state of mind about sobriety. The general intention always sounds worthy, but the devil “and all his pomps” are in the details.
Just as religious take vows in the context of their common life, the same would be true in the sacrament of marriage. The theological definition of marriage vows is virtually the same as the popular understanding. The vows are made by each party to each other. Sacramentally, the couple executes the sacrament; the priest is present as an official witness. [Interestingly, the Church recognizes the validity of marriage between two baptized Protestants.] The vow is made to God with the understanding that in baptism the reality of God already exists in the wedding couple.
The Church assumes that the vows made at Baptism [and their “subset” in religious life], Confirmation, Eucharist, Marriage and Orders are lifelong. While this may seem a mighty challenge, a married couple does take comfort in the assurance of long-term personal, conjugal, emotional, and material support. I have been advocating for more intense counsel and input on the lived dynamic of marriage for engaged couples since I was ordained 44 years ago. Church programs or pre-Cana squander too much precious time on Church teachings regarding contraception, in vitro fertilization, etc. to a captive audience. The art of compromise, making decisions, hashing through disagreements, use of substances, managing money, etc. become true game breakers. Each area of distress deserves concrete attention and skill building. Preparation for all vows must keep in mind the last sentence of para. 2101, “Fidelity to promises made to God is a sign of the respect owed to the divine majesty and of love for a faithful God.”
Baptized Catholics can make other vows and promises to God, as per 2101, which I would classify as intensification of the vows of sacraments. In the Middle Ages Christians vowed to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land as part of their penitential [Penance] experience. Today such personal vows, which may include perpetual virginity, are made with the blessing of the Church, and are best initiated with discernment of a spiritual director or confessor.