Ask a Priest

Private Vows

Mar 26, 2013

Lately I’ve heard of people taking private vows. Is this in itself a vocation, or the precursor to a vocation to the religious life or priesthood?
What would make private vows valid, or invalid, and how does one make a private vow?
Thank you in advance, and God Bless.

Asked at 01:00 am on March 26th 2013

Dear Cameron:

The Church recognizes both public and private vows. The former is when the vow is received in the name of the Church by someone in authority, for example a bishop or a superior of a religious community. You can make a private vow without it being a step to a religious vocation.

There is a section in the Code of Canon Law on vows that explains some of what you are asking about and goes into how they can be made and suspended.

This more general article on vows, although written before the current Code of Canon Law, might also be of interest.

Replied at 01:29 am on March 26th 2013

Dear Most Rev father John.
What Public Vows and Private Vows are generally made, can I have a brief list of such vows being made till date falling into these two categories and of being simple and solemn?

Replied at 03:10 am on March 27th 2013

Dear Reji:

If you read what I referred to earlier you will see that the public vows are those accepted by a bishop or a superior in a religious order. As such in most cases they are the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Some religious orders may have additional vows, such stability in the case of a monk, or obedience to the Pope in the case of the Jesuits.

Private vows are obviously by their nature private and could take a wide variety of forms depending on the circumstances of each person who makes such a vow.

Replied at 04:37 am on March 27th 2013

Thanks Father, Pray for me to lead a Penitenitial Life style according to the Rule of St.Francis. The Rule of 1221. Further I am required to take private vows, please keep me daily in the Holy Mass.

Replied at 05:01 pm on March 27th 2013


What is the difference between simple and solemn vows?
Are they just others names for private and public vows?


Replied at 01:00 am on April 01st 2013

Dear Anthony:

There is some overlap here as this dictionary entry explains. There is however a difference as this following entry explains in terms of acts against the vows and whether they are illicit or invalid.

Replied at 05:58 am on April 01st 2013

Hi Cameron,
I notice that you posted this a few months back so I’m not sure if you’ll get this message. I hope your discernment is progressing well! I was interested to see someone else enquiring about private vows and I was curious to know whether you progressed in this direction or not.
I have been living under private vows of chastity, poverty and obedience for almost 2 years now and I have so far found it to be a very interesting challenge, much more difficult than living in community (which I have also experienced).
Private Vows may seem like an easy option, but in fact they are among the most challenging vocations available in the Church and in the world if they are taken seriously. Strictly speaking, Canon Law makes this option available to clarify that any person is free to make promises to God, but when vows are private, this means that the Church and her related institutions do not acknowledge any obligation to offer spiritual guidance or (more specifically) material support (such as assistance obtaining employment) to support you in living out your vows, even if you make the standard promise to structure your life on the foundation of the Evangelical Counsels.
There are a lot of inherent contradictions in the option of private vows that can be confusing and very difficult to reconcile in practice – but that is part of the challenge that a person takes on when he/she choses this option.
At the same time, Private Vows offer certain advantages, for example:
1. By making private vows, you can ensure that you are entering into your vows on your own free will, purely for the love of God and not just because it is traditional (“the done thing”) in a community that you would like to be a part of.
2. The vow of poverty is all the more authentic for not benefitting from any privileges (such as a recognisable social status or a position of employment in the Church or one of her institutions), and the fact that you may not expect any preferrential treatment or extra spiritual support (such as the appointment of a regular confessor or spiritual counselor to guide you in living out your vows).
3. They allow you to make it more clear to God that your promises are motivated purely out of love for Him and for the Church without expecting anything particular in return.
4. They are one of the few options available to people who want to transcend the perceived conflict between marriage and religious life. For instance, a person can decide to live a consecrated life without precluding the possibility that God may lead him/her into a marriage, just as He may call him/her to enter a monastery. Under these circumstances, a private consecration can significantly support discernment and progress into either state of life, however as a rule, a person under vows should only enter a marriage if it is conducive to the greater fulfillment of the vows, just as one should only enter a monastery if one feels that the life of the chosen community best supports one to live one’s vows more authentically and productively.
For someone considering marriage, private vows can be a very romantic option because there is no clearer or more profound way to demonstrate to your future spouse that he/she is second only to God in your life. You can also make private vows to God for your future spouse (in expectation of him or her), in which case the vow of chastity becomes an incredibly romantic gift that allows you to tell your soulmate: “I loved you before I ever met you”. How many people can say that in a way that allows the other person to see and feel that it is true? A vow of chastity pronounced in a private Mass in front of witnesses is one way to be able to do that.
Having said that, while this is not clarified in the Code of Canon Law, I feel there is a significant difference between standing in front ot the Blessed Sacrament (exposed or in the Tabernacle) and making a silent promise to God and professing private vows in a Mass in front of witnesses. In Monastic professions, it is customary for a chart naming the vows and the person entering into them (including the duration of validity if they are temporary) to be drawn up and deposited on the altar. This is normally the only occasion when it is permissible to deposit anything on the altar besides the bread and wine. The person approaches the altar prior to the Eucharistic portion of the Mass and declares his/her promises so that everyone present hears. The knowledge/memory that other people have heard your promises and can testify to them before God is extremely helpful at times when you may be tempted to act as though you had not made them. The deposition of the “chart” on the altar represents the person’s deposition of their life on the altar and their “sacrifice” or “personal offering” is then joined to the sacrifice of the Mass and offered up to God with it (this is the consecration part of a profession). If you chose to replicate monastic traditions in your private profession, you will perceive greater benefits.
Private vows may be a good sping-board into a more public religious profession and can greatly help discernment to the priesthood or religious life as well as a more serious approach to courtship and support a more God-centered marriage. However, there are also reasons why professional religious undergo a period of formation and testing of their vocations in community before they make even just temporary vows. Private vows are actually more controversial than they seem and many publicly professed religious (i.e. religious who professed vows as a condition to adherence to a community or as a condition for ordination i.e. the appointment to a professional station in the Church) do not look favorably on people who choose this option. In that regard, I would say that Private Vows should be approached and discerned as a vocation with its own, distinct charism. They can be a precursor to a more traditional religious profession but not necessarily. In fact, I would say that monastic experience or experience in a more traditional religious profession should be a precursor to private vows. Living private vows can be very similar to a heremitical vocation – but it is all the more challenging because they are entered into without any guarantee of recognition or support of a broader religious community or diocese.
I hope that my comments have not been too intrusive or forward and that you may find them helpful. I would enjoy hearing more reflections on this topic as it is so rarely openly discussed (perhaps that is a side-effect of the privacy clause!).
Best wishes.

Replied at 12:05 pm on July 24th 2013