Year of Consecrated Life 2015: Understanding of the Vows in the Jesuit Way

The following article first appeared in the September 2014 edition of Today's Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kuching.

The Year of Consecrated Life as announced by Pope Francis will begin on the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady on 21 November 2014 and end one year later on 21 November 2015. These are reflections by the Jesuits in Kuching on their religious vows.

Fr Francis Lim Chin Choy, SJ, Principal of St Joseph’s Private Secondary School, Kuching

For Ignatius, a Jesuit should always have one foot firmly planted on the ground while the other foot slightly lifted, a sign of readiness to move forward to where there is a need. The Jesuit is one who is securely rooted in his place of mission and at the same time ever ready to go to newer missions when there is a greater need.

For the Jesuits, the religious vows are apostolic, which means that these vows are outward looking. These vows are primarily meant to serve other people. No doubt the understanding of one taking the vows is to progress in one’s own salvation, that is, to help in the saving of his soul. However, the Jesuits see their vows as apostolic.

These vows rather than disallowing the Jesuit to do certain things, they allow him to do certain things.

The vow of chastity is not meant that one cannot get married or have sex; this vow does not merely inhibit one to love someone special, rather the vow of chastity gives one the freedom to love, that is, to love greatly without limitation everyone regardless of distinction. Thus, the vow of chastity frees the Jesuit to love. This love should be trustworthy. People can trust us because of our vow of chastity without being afraid of abuse or their love taken for granted.

We fail to live up to the vow of chastity when we fail to love and when we lack in affection towards others.

In the same manner, the vow of obedience does not mean that one cannot disobey his or her superior. Rather the vow of obedience gives one the freedom to respond, that is, to respond to the greater need in whatever mission the superior sees fit and is for God’s greater glory. The vow of obedience frees us to say yes to God’s mission as concretized in the will of the superior.

We fail in our vow of obedience when we pull back where we are most needed in mission/ministry or whenever we are attached in what we are used to doing and cannot change and move to newer missions/ministry. Thus we are not free to obey.

The vow of poverty is not so much that we cannot possess material goods, but the vow of poverty is the freedom to listen to the poor and give ourselves to them. When we take the vow of poverty, we listen to the needs of those in need and avail ourselves to those needs.

We fail in our vow of poverty when we are so attached to what we have and pull back from the giving of my resources to help others. It is also when we start to hoard stuff, and not only things but also time and energy for ourselves. It happens also when we are not good in the stewardship of resources entrusted to us. The failure of the vow of poverty shows the lack of trust that God will provide for our ministry and need.

Fr Alvin Ng Sze Syn, SJ, teacher at St Joseph’s Private Secondary School, Kuching and Director of Kuching Archdiocesan Migrant Ministry

Until we are fully professed, our vows are called "simple" and "perpetual" precisely because that is what they are. Rather than promises that limit one's freedom, I strive to see the evangelical counsels as affirmations that set a person truly free. It is the freedom to be missioned anywhere (vow of obedience), freedom to love (yes, love!) everyone I meet with the love of Christ (vow of chastity) and the freedom to trust fully in God to provide for all my material needs (vow of poverty, which indeed God has, time and time again). I will be the first to admit that I struggle many times to keep them but this struggle is really a struggle against my own self-centredness. The vows are there to help me get out of myself and get into the world - it is all about mission. And I don't believe that the vows are professed only once or twice in one's life; rather I believe that vows are professed every day when at the start of each new day, I tell God that "today Lord, I still want to be obedient, chaste and poor for your greater glory" echoing Mary's words at the Annunciation and Jesus' words at Gethsamane - "Not my will Lord, but yours be done." It's all about surrendering and therein lies true freedom!

Scholastic Stanley Goh Yu-Ming, SJ, regent at St Joseph’s Private Secondary School, Kuching

The vows have a somewhat paradoxical meaning for me - they are external restrictions that allow for greater inner freedom. The external 'restrictions' have to do with how I lead my life in relation to people and things around me - of the need to be reliant on God for all things, simple and loving to all I meet and obedient to God through my superiors. I realise that these apparent restrictions, when lived with the Lord at the centre, allow one to live a more authentic and free life for God and others. Authenticity comes because I feel more myself when I am able to live more simply and focused on doing the Lord's work in my life as a religious. Freedom comes from not having to worry about temporal or relational needs (Luke 12:22-31) so that I can be more focused on working with and being loving to others. 

Fr Larry Tan Cheong Kee, SJ, Assistant Parish Priest of St Joseph’s Cathedral, Kuching

We live in a world where the powerful influence of money, power, and sex on our lives is unmistakable. If ever an antidote were found to these three, it would most likely be the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience, and chastity.

Living out a life of the evangelical counsels is not without challenges.  The challenges are best seen in the form of a paradox. On the one hand, the evangelical counsels bind me.  On the other, they set me free.

Poverty binds me to a life of simplicity and solidarity with the poor, yet liberates me from undue concern with money.

Obedience binds me to seek the will of God in my superiors, yet sets me free from attachment to a will for power.

Chastity binds me to honour my body as temple of the Holy Spirit, yet liberates me from misusing my sexuality for pleasure.

Ultimately, the binding-freeing paradox of the evangelical counsels as a possible antidote against money, power, and sex frees me for service to humanity by a radical imitation of Jesus Christ, who is poor, obedient, and chaste.