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Why do nuns profess vows twice instead of once, like married people?

Podcast Recorded: September 2, 2021
 Why do nuns profess vows twice, instead of once like people who get married?
Description

A listener wonders why nuns profess their vows two times when entering religious life, instead of just one time, as with marriage vows. Hear the full Ask Sister episode AS235 at aNunsLife.org. Hosts: Sister Maxine and Sister Shannon. You can read the transcript of this podcast below. We invite you to subscribe to our newsletter and check out lots more podcasts!

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Show Notes

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Transcript (Click for More)+

Sister Maxine  

Shannon, we have one more question, and it comes in from Thomas, in California. Thomas writes, “Although we're not Catholic, my wife and I were invited by a family friend to attend his daughter's ceremony for becoming a sister. I was surprised to learn that her vows are only for a couple of years, and after that she decides if she'll make a lifetime commitment. I guess I was thinking it would be more like marriage. When my wife and I got married, our vows were for the rest of our life. We didn't have the choice to start off with a few years and then decide. I could see advantages to doing that and some disadvantages too. What is the reason for doing vows two times, and do all Catholic sisters, do that?”

Thomas, congratulations to your friend's daughter! A profession is a great event, not only in her life but also in the life of her religious community and of the whole Church. So the context of your question is the vows, and you compare them to the marriage vows—Shannon, there are some valid comparisons here, so maybe we can talk a bit about how the stages of entering religious life may or may not compare with the stages of getting married.

Sister Shannon  

It's a great thought. When I read this question from you, Thomas, the first thing that I thought about was the whole notion of engagement. Our experience of temporary vows--those early years before we enter into perpetual vows or final vows as they're sometimes called--is a way for us to get to know the community and for the community to get to know us as individuals, to enter into ministry to begin to live the life of a religious, and to discover all the impact of what that means, which I think is the same thing that happens in engagement.

Sister Maxine  

Yes! Also, the steps in religious life aren’t exactly the same for all religious communities but very close. Generally, it starts with being a candidate or some would say a postulant. That can be one or two years, and then you enter into the novitiate: in my experience, it was two years, one of which was a canonical year of prayer and study and then a ministerial year. And then, first vows.

Sister Shannon  

During that novitiate time, you learn the history of the community, the charism of the community, and how it was founded so that you really have a clear understanding of what you are entering into.

Sister Maxine  

You learn some of the prayers that are meaningful in the congregation. 

Sister Shannon  

Indeed. And then those temporary vows that you begin when you enter into a vowed relationship with God, that is the final stage of getting to know the community and the community getting to know you.

Sister Maxine  

And it's an intentional path. It's not like where you go through all of this--because there's already a few years of where you get to know the community--and then you hit this point and you can just leave. The intent is to continue on.

Sister Shannon  

The word that we use for it traditionally in religious life is formation. Throughout our life as consecrated women we have formation as a part of who we are. So, those early days of formation are typically like in a relationship where you're getting to know somebody, you begin to date--what do you like, what foods do you like, what movies do you like, what genres do you like. It’s that kind of just getting to know you and then you want to go deeper. The novitiate provides an opportunity for us to go deeper in that relationship. And it helps to form our character so that we in fact can live out the vows in religious life. And we study the vows that we're going to be entering into, which is a really important part of this entire process, because when you make a perpetual commitment, you're entering into a lifelong relationship with your community and with your God.

Sister Maxine  

As you were talking about that whole process of relationship, how in those early stages it’s like a couple getting to know each other, that's when you meet the parents and you meet the siblings and you meet the aunts and uncles. In religious life, you continue to go through processes like that because you're getting to know a whole community, and with a marriage, you're getting to know a whole family. Whatever size that family may be, you're marrying into a whole family.

Sister Shannon  

The moment of engagement is the moment of commitment that I think parallels very closely temporary vows: you've decided to set aside the other relationships of dating and you've concentrated your life on one person in particular. You receive or give a ring as a part of that commitment, and that means you begin to belong to one another. And so the level of relationships starts to deepen even more.

Sister Maxine  

And it's a public statement too, because it's going to take the support of an entire community--a relationship exists within a community. And so that public statement of intent is both for the couple, and in our case for the woman who is professing the vow, and also for the community.

Sister Shannon  

Even in a marriage relationship or an engaged relationship, you may feel a strong attraction one to the other, but there's a kind of fit that comes into a family life. Sometimes where that doesn't work as well, it can become a problem and it's problem for a long time. When you can enter into a relationship with the entire family--that begins on both sides of course--it begins to pave the way for a rich and flourishing relationship that's healthy.

Sister Maxine  

I like your comparison of what some people call first vows or temporary vows to that time of engagement. When we were chatting a little bit before the podcast, you raised the issue of temporary vows being kind of an oxymoron.

Sister Shannon  

I made first vows in 1971. As I mentioned earlier, it's 50 years this year. We were given the option after the Second Vatican Council to consider making that commitment as a promise or making that commitment as a temporary vow. We entered into all kinds of conversation about that as a group. There were 12 in my group at the time, and we kind of split down the middle. Six of us made promises for the next three years and six made temporary vows. For me the question was, Can you make a vow for only a short time? I really felt strongly that in those early years of formation, I was promising to take on the life and ministry of the Sisters of St. Francis in Sylvania, Ohio, to live it out as best I could, as they got to know me and I got to know the community more deeply, and when I was certain, then my perpetual vow would in fact be final.

Sister Maxine  

So the set of promises were: I am moving in this direction I'm going to move more deeply into it, and I'm going to do my best.

Sister Shannon  

And I promised to live poverty, celibacy, and obedience. So I entered into a relationship with my community and my God. That meant I was committed to that in much the same way as if I'm a person who gets engaged to human person-- I'm turning my attention and my commitment totally to that person. And that eliminates some other relationships that might look attractive to me. I'm making a choice that I want to give my life to this.

Sister Maxine  

That choice is articulated in first vows, as we said earlier, with the intent to move forward in relationship with the community. And for us, IHM Sisters, the time of first vows is at least three years, although it can extend up to ten years. Other congregations may have different time frames for that.

Sister Shannon  

We can extend to nine years.

Sister Maxine  

Then there's final profession, with the words “for the rest of your life.” In our vow formula, we vow celibacy, poverty, and obedience for the next three years in first professed, and then it's the same formula, except for “the rest of my lie.” I know that my sisters and my brother talk about that too in their wedding vows. When you when you get to that point, it's breathtaking!

Sister Shannon  

It is breathtaking. Thomas, let me add this little piece because you mentioned in your note that you and your wife are not Catholic. Catholic tradition is governed by Church law as well as our traditions. There is a segment in our canonical law that talks about the nature of religious life, vowed life and the designations that we've been talking about, Max and I: postulancy, novitiate, first vows or temporary vows,  and then final vows. That is outlined in Church canon law as the wisdom of the entire Church, so that when a person is making their final vows, to the best of their ability they are able to make that commitment for life.

Sister Maxine  

As we talk about that lifelong commitment, I think about your 50 years as a Franciscan sister and the kind of commitment that that takes. Is there any encouragement or advice you might offer to people who, let's say they hit those difficult days--relationships being what they are have many good days but also those days that a really tough?

Sister Shannon  

A couple of things come to mind right away. There's a line in the scripture that talks about the peace that passes understanding. And I think when you have entered into a commitment, a final vow commitment, and you mean it from all your heart, then there is a certain element of peace that remains there. For me, the test is if you're happy. I don't mean in a frivolous kind of way but a genuine, authentic happiness that keeps you committed to the relationship. And then, what happens for me anyway, is that the yes to God and the yes to this commitment comes every day. I choose to live this life and all that it means.

This transcript has been minimally edited for readability.

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