What's New with the Vows?

How might leaders assist their members to see the vows
in new and fresh ways as religious life continues its evolution?

Everything is in need of revitalization at this time – everything. This includes the vows and the vowed life. The essentials remain, but these, too, are at the service of this time in which we live.

It’s been a privilege for me to teach in graduate schools of theology over the past almost 15 years and for a good number of these years to also teach courses on religious life. There is something ever ancient, ever new, in the process. Ever ancient is realizing the great tradition of consecrated life that has evolved over epochs of history. Ever new is realizing how the Spirit continues to lead us to new ways of living the evangelical counsels, living the vows. This is where we are all learners, all walking together. Encounters with people from all over the world and from all walks of religious life teach me much. 

On any given day at Catholic Theological Union we have more than 40 countries represented and a similar number of congregations. Forty percent of our students are members of religious orders. Many are in degree programs, while others are in ongoing formation, on sabbatical, or preparing for formation ministry. While some have celebrated golden jubilees, many more are newer members, from all over the United States and the world.

I am learning much and what follows are simply a few of the learnings, from encuentros in and out of the classroom, in places that span Chicago to Bandung, Indonesia. These learnings are selections from a book I am completing, Religious Life For the 21st Century: Creating Communities of Hope on a Global Scale, which engages these areas and more in greater depth. May these brief offerings serve as catalyst for your conversations. At the end of each section I offer questions for reflection and conversation. 

Learning 1: People new to religious life want to be challenged by the vows. 

People want to be called beyond themselves to love and generosity as they respond to the cries of the people and the cries of the earth. Our religious life has to be worth one’s entire life – or it’s not worth it. Our vows must be a radical witness to love in the world. While it takes a lifetime of practice to give all to God’s mission, we do want to be called. Prayer and a deep interior life are essential. We also need to live this together, encouraging one another to live the vows as they call us forth, beyond what we imagine. This is not limited to new members, but sometimes we need new people in our lives who, by their striving, call us to this as well. 

Our vows are to be lived with the creativity that is a mark of our befriending Spirit. This is always a stretching process -- opening heart, mind, and will. While not necessarily an easy process, the graces include joy and peace, both of which the world longs to see in us. Sometimes we forget that the vows are to be Good News – for us and for those we encounter! Our participation in the Reign of God is through vowed life and love. 

How do the vows challenge and stretch you today? 

Learning 2: Charism makes a difference in how we live the vows. 

The Spirit given to our founders is a dynamic, creative Spirit. Charism gives us the feel and flow of our vows. For example, as a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, our charism, to discover God’s love and make it manifest in the world, leads me to the wounded heart of humanity and the wounded earth. Knowing God is already present in these spaces, my call is to witness to and make visible this Love, in particular and even systemic ways. Charism then shapes and flows love in the way my vows are lived. In this way, living obedience will call me to hear and respond to God’s voice alongside the cries of the people and cries of creation asking to be treated with dignity, respect, and love. Living poverty here announces the Good News of the abundance of Love present for all. Celibate chastity moves me then to the wounded heart of humanity and creation, making visible and offering God’s love and mercy through my presence and ministry. 

How does your charism impact your living of the vows? How might it? 
To what might the Spirit be inviting your congregation at this time? 

Invitation: Have a conversation with at least two others about how you
sense the Spirit calling forth different dimensions of your charism into the vows at this time.
Learning 3: Context is key in living the vows. 

I live in Chicago, a city that, in the midst of its magnificent diversity and friendliness, also has neighborhoods that struggle with poverty, gun violence, and gangs. Too many young people in some parts of the South Side of Chicago live with food scarcity, safety scarcity, educational paucity, and don’t have a sense of belonging to the wider community or even city of Chicago. Feeling a lack of belonging is probably more common than we realize, perhaps even among those near us. 

Within this context our vows must be a response to these unmet needs. Yes, we participate in how the scarcities can be met, but there is more. The vows must serve as a response (Good News!) to the needs for belonging around us. Living obedience requires that I listen deeply to persons on the margins of society in order to hear how my vows of poverty and celibacy can be Good News. Note: God is not silent on this and is quite directive. Living poverty in this context must witness that there is enough for everyone and all are welcome. Living celibate chastity would ask me to find a way to include young people in meaningful ways, a deepening of each one’s God-given right to belonging in our human community. This is a call to radical hospitality, and there is no limit to who this includes and from where. The vows are to be Good News, not only for us, but for all people and the earth. 

The vows must also be lived communally, as communities and congregations; we do this together. The particular living of the vows in light of our contexts, locally, nationally and even internationally, must be discerned communally. And clearly, we can only begin to discern if we are close enough to and in relationship with persons on the margins and edges. Proximity matters.

What is the deep unmet need where you live? 
What manifestation of the vows is calling? 
How might you witness to this communally?

Learning 4: We must link our local and global contexts with how we are living the vows.

The United States is situated in a context in which truth is challenged by “alternate facts” and a desire by some to be nationalistically-oriented. The Dominican call to “seek truth” is particularly needed at this time. The vow of obedience can offer a lens then, through the morass of our debilitated public capacity for deep dialogue, and can assist us all as we seek to deepen our dialogue and offer some clarion responses through the lens of gospel values. This calls us all to a deeper living of veritas, truth. 

Obedience also calls us beyond our immediate circumstances and geographic realities, linking us across continents. We find ourselves linked to our sisters and brothers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, struggling with a political regime that resists term limits. 

We learn from one another. How you live the vows impacts how I live my vows. We are linked. Our living the vows where we live is linked to the Good News lived in other places. All parts of the world – each of us – teach one another, link one another in God. This linking is how religious life also moves forward.

How is my living the vows linked to the shape of the vows lived in other countries?
What is the shape of the vows? 

Invitation: Connect with someone outside your geographical region
for conversation about how the vows are lived in another region and reality.
Learning 5: Living mission interculturally will shape how we live the vows.
Engaging our diversity will deepen and widen all areas of religious life, including how we live the vows.

When we deeply listen to one another’s stories of life and journey, we have opportunities to grow in compassion and appreciation for one another’s calls from varying backgrounds and cultures. We begin to see how the Spirit is clearly moving in our midst. Diversity in our congregations IS a manifestation of “See! I am creating something new!”  Our different contexts invite us to see how different cultures listen to the Spirit and how the imagination works through cultures’ diverse communal and personal lenses.

At a basic level we may see how our different cultures’ individual-centric or socio-centric backgrounds impact our ways of seeing life and relationship. Even deeper, delving into the diversity present in our congregations can help us come to new ways of understanding the vows. Recognizing the “dignity of difference”1 and engaging one another deeply helps create the new that is emerging but not necessarily seen. Our senses are opened, and this is gift. 

And there is so much more! How we live into this has significant implications for our ministries and parish communities as well. There is a needed deep witness offered when we strive to go from being multicultural to intercultural communities.  

Our learnings and efforts can also be an offering to a US church of increasing diversity (well beyond ethnic parishes) in parishes, schools, and gatherings. We go then, with the humility that lived efforts and experience give us, outward and toward the people of God who reflect God’s diversity, open to encounters, encuentros

How are the vows you live shaped by your culture? 
What gifts does your culture(s) contribute to a deepening of each of the vows? 
How might you find ways to ask for and welcome narratives
from among the graced diversity present in your community/congregation? 


We know that living what is calling us is only possible to the extent that we steep ourselves in spaces of silence and prayerful attentiveness, giving God our desires and efforts. This is a time of radical surrender, self-giving, openness, de-linking.2 We are also in a time of creativity, innovation, and new emerging. We are called to live the vows deeply. 

Living our vows and charisms for this time is part of this this journey in God and with all of God’s creation. It is from this holistic Heart space that creativity opens up our vows and what is asked of living vows. We are called to live the vows widely. 

I invite you and your members, individually and communally, to take time to look at the vows within their contexts and charism, and from this to share what each person senses is calling you in the world today. Wisdom is present and will arise among you. 

Yes, the Spirit is moving all, seeking to transform all, and the possibilities are limitless. So, we go! 

Maria Cimperman rscj

**Re-published with permission from the author and LCWR Occasional Papers -- Winter 2018, with file photos from rscjinternational.org

1 For an excellent resource on dignity of difference and interculturality, see Anthony Gittins, Living Mission Interculturally: Faith, Culture, and the Renewal of Praxis (Liturgical Press, 2015).
2 "De-linking" is a reference to Constance FitzGerald’s outstanding work, From Impasse to Prophetic Hope: Crisis of Memory (CTSA Proceedings, 64 (2009) 21-42.