Finding a Foundation: The Gift of Consecrated Life
How our vows support the consecration and mission of the ordained priesthood
How do the vows of religious priests help diocesan priests? When I was interviewing to become a Dominican, I was stumped by this question.
My interviewer, a professor at the Dominican House of Studies, looked at me with unblinking eyes, waiting for an answer. I struggled, though, to articulate any difference between the lifestyles of religious priests and their diocesan counterparts. I knew that the three vows religious take are poverty, chastity and obedience, but these all seemed to apply to diocesan priests as well. After all, diocesan priests don’t earn much, are celibate and are required to practice chastity and promise obedience to their bishop.
Seeing me flounder, my interviewer relented and helped me find an answer. Religious live poverty, chastity and obedience more explicitly than diocesan priests and, therefore, help witness to their value in following Christ.
Since that interview, I have learned more about each of those vows and how to live them daily. I’ve come to understand that although they are often not apparent on the surface, they do form the foundation of a religious priest’s identity. They give assurance that following Christ and imitating him is the center of one’s life, and they help support the consecration and mission of ordained priesthood both for oneself and for the priests in a diocese.
The Accidental to the Essential
In the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy that is dear to Dominican hearts, the difference between the accidental and the essential recurs in a variety of contexts. We learn to think in these terms about everything from natural substances to our own way of life.
In initial formation, the accidental features of religious life stand out more than the essence: living in common, following a horarium, wearing the habit and learning about the colorful saints who emerged from our order in the past.
We study the vows also, but we experience them more as prerequisites for entering into religious life than as personal sacrifices. The cost has already been paid upfront when careers or dreams of marriage are left behind to enter novitiate. What matters most is getting up for meditation and prayer in the morning, trying to avoid dropping spaghetti sauce on the habit, and holding back irritable words for a brother who talks too loudly or arrives late to meetings.
That is not to say that studying the theology of the vows is not important. We need preparation for making both simple vows and solemn vows so that those sacred moments can be intentional and free, true offerings of the whole self to God. We need to know that the evangelical counsels were given by Christ as means to fulfilling the law of charity, as aids to growing in the perfection of love for God and neighbor (as St. Thomas describes in Summa Theologiae II-II, Question 184, Article 3).
We need to know that the spirit of the counsels is obligatory for all Christians, but that their concrete observance must be voluntarily embraced. We need to know that they function by setting aside legitimate goods that are often obstacles to growth in charity. We study the vows so that we can embrace them as the foundation of our lives both for a limited period in simple vows and for our whole lives in solemn vows. I was well prepared for my own vows, and when a younger brother asked me afterward what my solemn vows had been like, I could honestly tell him that it had been the happiest day of my life.
Understanding the essential character of the vows is important for religious who are in formation. But observing the vows is bound up with the pressures of getting through formation requirements in the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral areas, so they tend not to be at the forefront of consciousness.
In many ways, diocesan seminary life is similar to life in a large religious house. So it’s not surprising that religious who are candidates for the priesthood focus their attention on the same things that diocesan seminarians do.
The essential elements of religious life, the three vows, emerge more clearly for the religious after initial formation ends, whether that is as a lay brother or as a priest. Once he is no longer up for votes and has more freedom in how he spends his time, observing the vows is more likely to feel like a sacrifice. At different moments, the renunciation of property, sexuality and self-determination emerge from the background and remind the religious, as well as those around him, that they radically shape his life.
Learning Obedience Through Suffering
I have been ordained for less than three years, but the radical nature of the three vows has already begun to emerge for me. My provincial’s approval letter for my first vows was somewhat prophetic for me: He told me that the demands of the vows become more rigorous over time, often in ways that we do not expect. After my initial formation, I looked forward to a happy first assignment in one of our parishes, but instead ended up feeling like God had yanked the rug out from under me.
I spent my summer as a transitional deacon at our parish in Columbus, Ohio — St. Patrick — so I was overjoyed when our provincial told me that he wanted to assign me there after my studies were complete. I had spent my first year of priesthood finishing the license in theology, so while I had some pastoral work and more independence than before ordination, I was still a full-time student living in a house of formation.
Arriving at St. Patrick was a chance for a new beginning and the full exercise of my priestly ordination. I quickly became immersed in the weekly pattern of a parochial vicar’s life: administrative duties, daily Masses and confession slots, hospital calls and exciting but exhausting Sunday mornings. I appreciated that I was a member of a religious community, but my focus was mostly on my priestly identity.
“In 1997, Pope Saint John Paul II instituted a day of prayer for women and men in consecrated life. This celebration is attached to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2. This feast is also known as Candlemas Day; the day on which candles are blessed symbolizing Christ who is the light of the world. So, too, those in consecrated life are called to reflect the light of Jesus Christ to all peoples. The celebration of World Day for Consecrated Life is transferred to the following Sunday in order to highlight the gift of consecrated persons for the whole Church.”
— USCCB website, “World Day for Consecrated Life”
Despite this focus on priestly ministry, I was in a much better position to understand the difference between being a religious priest and a diocesan priest than as a vocation candidate.
I had gotten to know some diocesan priests well over the years, and I knew that our observance of the vows was demanding in many ways. Although a priest’s salary is modest, it is still his salary and does not go straight to a community. One can accept gifts and keep them without asking a superior, and there is no one to turn over monetary offerings to. It is possible to accumulate possessions, own a vacation home and spend a fair amount of money on hobbies.
Perpetual continence is as absolute as it is for religious, but there are more ways to go astray when living on one’s own instead of in a community. Obedience to the bishop concerns the conduct of ministry and pastoral assignments but does not extend to the details of daily life. There is no constitution to follow and no immediate superior to ask permission from or accede to in practical matters.
Priests are called to the perfection of holiness by their ordination (cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, No. 12), so they still have to keep the goods of this world from becoming obstacles to charity. They are obligated to observe the spirit of the counsels, and the observance of religious priests, as well as religious brothers and sisters, helps remind them of these counsels.
I tried to be an obedient religious in my community and a charitable brother to live with, but this still did not prepare me for the full cost of obedience less than a year into my assignment.
Along with two other members of the community, I contracted COVID-19 in December 2020. My symptoms were fairly mild, and the worst part of it was being quarantined in my room during Christmas and New Year’s. I had some chest pain that lingered after other symptoms went away, but I returned to ministry.
In the excitement of being able to receive the vaccine early in the rollout, I received my shots only a couple of weeks after my illness. At the time, doctors thought this was fine, but it caused a spike in my chest pain. Some initial medication seemed to make it better, but it returned after my second dose. Although I tried to work through it, I gradually realized that my body was not recovering on its own. I had always been fairly healthy and enjoyed exercise, so I had been confident that I would heal on my own eventually.
By mid-March, my chest pain had become severe and constant enough that I could not work full-time anymore. My superiors and I decided I should take a few weeks off to focus on rest and medical care, and I did not imagine at the time that I wouldn’t celebrate a public Mass again for five months.
My doctors tried valiantly to find a measurable source of the pain without success. Many people in the parish, as well my brother Dominicans, were praying for me. I thought that I might take an extended vacation somewhere, but I envisioned myself staying out the full term of my assignment in Columbus.
It was late April when I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. Our provincial (a different one than in my novitiate) called and told me that he wanted to reassign me to our parish in Youngstown. The words hit me like a blow, even though I recognized that he had good reasons for it: the parish there was fully staffed without me, so I could take as long as I needed to recover without feeling anxiety over the burden I was placing on my brothers or unfinished projects.
One member of their community was moving to a nursing home, so they needed a replacement, and there were apostolic opportunities in both the parish and the diocese for when I recovered. The exercise of obedience in the Dominicans is not strictly top-down, so I could have raised objections. But I didn’t think I had any that were solid enough, so I simply agreed to the reassignment.
I cried after that phone call more than once. I had grown attached to my community, to my roles in the parish and to many of the families there. This is when the words of my approval letter for simple vows came back to me: the demands of the vows grow more rigorous over time, often in ways that we do not expect. A seemingly full and predictable life changed completely because of one essential feature: the vow of obedience. I knew that this was the foundation of my life, but since I had anticipated all the stages of formation ahead of time, including my first assignment, it was the first time that obedience was repugnant to my natural will.
I had to trust in God’s providence and imitate Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: “Not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39). The purpose of obedience is to conform us to Christ in his offering to the Father, and with this sudden reassignment, I was beginning to learn what this meant.
As is fitting for both a religious and a priest, God was making me more like his Son, who learned obedience from what he suffered. Even more than my chest pain, the surrender of my will was a suffering for me.
My story has a happy ending: I recovered enough in Youngstown to undertake a new ministry at a Newman Center. God’s providence has not failed, and as part of it I hope my exercise of obedience was a witness to the people of St. Patrick and the priests I had met.
I understand better now that diocesan priests can undergo great difficulty in their own reassignments. I am grateful for the gift of religious life that keeps the necessity of sacrifice before my eyes, but I am also aware that professing the counsels as vows does not mean a religious is any holier than a diocesan priest.
They are aids that we embrace in our quest for the perfection of charity, but a diocesan priest who observes the spirit of the counsels can surpass a tepid religious. What matters are the acts we make to grow in charity.
The mutual reinforcement of religious consecration and priestly identity between religious institutes and diocesan priests is a good willed by the Father of all. St. Thomas says that the diverse states of life in the Church contribute to her beauty and dignity (cf. Summa Theologiae II-II Question 183, Article 2), and this is true in a particular way for religious orders and diocesan priests.
Without the profession of poverty, chastity and obedience by religious, the evangelical counsels would fade into the background of the Church’s life. Without diocesan priests and bishops, there would be no pastoral care for religious to participate in. When both religious and priests are faithful to their states in life, the Church becomes more beautiful, and the foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem are strengthened.
FATHER NORBERT KELIHER, OP, is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph and is the director of Campus Ministry at the Newman Center at Youngstown State University in Ohio.
Our Gaze Is on Christ
Meeting with consecrated brothers and sisters on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the 24th World Day for Consecrated Life, in 2020, Pope Francis, in his homily noted:
“Because you fell in love with Jesus, you saw everything in him, and enraptured by his gaze, you left the rest behind. Religious life is this vision. It means seeing what really matters in life. It means welcoming the Lord’s gift with open arms, as Simeon did. This is what the eyes of consecrated men and women behold: the grace of God poured into their hands. The consecrated person is one who every day looks at himself or herself and says: ‘Everything is gift, all is grace.’ …
“For God loves us always, and gives himself to us, even in our poverty. St. Jerome offered much to the Lord and the Lord asked for more. He said to the Lord: ‘But Lord, I have given you everything, everything, what else is lacking?’ ‘Your sins, your poverty, offer me your poverty.’ When we keep our gaze fixed on him, we open ourselves to his forgiveness that renews us, and we are reassured by his faithfulness.
We can ask ourselves today: ‘To whom do I turn my gaze: to the Lord, or to myself?’ Whoever experiences God’s grace above all else can discover the antidote to distrust and to looking at things in a worldly way.”