Final Vows? What's That?

If you’re at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York on Sunday, and able to dodge the marathoners, you’ll see something that few people ever see: a Jesuit final vow Mass.

After 21 years as a Jesuit, I've been "invited," as we say in the Society of Jesus, to pronounce final vows.  The “vow formula” goes as follows:


I, [name] make my profession, and I promise to Almighty God, in the presence of the Virgin Mother, the whole heavenly court, and all those here present, and to you, Reverend Father [provincial's name], representing the Superior General of the Society of Jesus and his successors and holding the place of God, perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience; and, in conformity with it, special care for the instruction of children, according to the manner of living contained in the apostolic letters of the Society of Jesus and its Constitutions.  I further promise a special obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff in regard to the missions according to the same apostolic letters and the Constitutions. 

After "solemn" vows, the "fully professed" take five "simple" vows, privately--after Mass, in a side chapel or a sacristy.  These vows show how well St. Ignatius understood human nature.  First, we vow never to change anything in the Jesuit Constitutions about poverty--unless to make it "more strict."  Second, a vow never to "strive or ambition" for any dignity in the church, like becoming a bishop.  Third, never to "strive or ambition" for any high office in the Jesuits.  Fourth, if we find out that someone is striving for these things, we are to "communicate his name" to the Society.  (A friend calls this the vow to rat out someone, but it's another indication of how much Ignatius wanted to eliminate ambition, as far as possible, from the Jesuits.)  Finally, we take a vow that, if we are somehow made bishop, we will still listen to the superior general.

And, by the way, you’ll notice that the famous “fourth vow” to the pope is regarding “the missions,” reflecting Ignatius’s understanding that the pope had a better view of where in the world the Jesuits were needed.  As John W. O’Malley, S.J., has written the fourth vow, often misunderstood in Catholic circles, is about worldwide mobility. 

Even lifelong Catholics have a hard time understanding what all this means.  "Didn't you take vows after two years of novitiate?" "Aren't you ordained already?"  "Don't you live according to poverty, chastity and obedience anyway?"  The answers to those questions are: yes, yes and yes.  So final vows deserve a little explanation.

Essentially, Jesuits take "simple vows" or "first vows" after they have completed their two-year novitiate.  And indeed we vow to be poor, chaste and obedient, in imitation of Christ.  But in those first vows we promise that we "will enter" the Society of Jesus.  In a sense, it's an offering to God, which we hope will be confirmed.  "[A]s you have freely given me the desire to make this offering,” we say in first vows, “so may you also give me the abundant grace to fulfill it."

After completing the many years of Jesuit training and, for some, after ordination, a Jesuit is invited into the final stage of his training, called "tertianship," which includes making the full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, a.k.a. the Long Retreat.  After this, many Jesuits fill out evaluations of your suitability for final vows (called informatios), answering several broad questions.  ("Does his life as a Jesuit give witness as a man consecrated to God?")  The evaluations are sent to your home province, and from there to Rome, where the superior general of the Society of Jesus approves (you pray) "full incorporation" into the Jesuits. 

Several analogies are helpful, but imperfect.  It's somewhat like making tenure (you're already a professor but now a "full" one).  It's somewhat like making partner (you're already a member of a law firm, but now a "full" one).  Or, more indelicately, it's somewhat like becoming a "made man" in the Mafia (cf: "Goodfellas"). 

A better way to say it is this: the Society of Jesus is accepting that offer you made all those years ago as a novice.  As another Jesuit said, at First Vows, you accept the Society; at Final Vows, the Society accepts you, "for better or worse."

For me, this means that all those years of discerning and thinking and wondering and talking and and writing and struggling and rejoicing about being a Jesuit have been confirmed.  And not just confirmed by my own prayer and experience--but by the Society of Jesus.  

In this world, there are few things that you can be sure of.  But after 21 years as a Jesuit, and confirmation from the Society of Jesus, I'm sure of my vocation.  And as God has given you the grace of your own particular vocation, may God also give you the grace to fulfill it.

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James Lindsay
9 years 10 months ago
Congratulations and Blessings! All Saints is an apt day for such an event.
9 years 10 months ago
Congratulations, Fr. Martin!  :)
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 10 months ago
What a noble calling.  What a blessing to hear that calling and to follow. 
There is a unique statue of Ignatius at the Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario.  The statue gives one the impression of a small, intense, almost frail man.  He clutches letters in his hand, and pushes forward in the wind.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.  - Ignatius of Loyola, translated by J. Peter Nixon

Congratulations, Fr. Jim!
Patrick Fairbanks
9 years 10 months ago
Congratulations Jim.  On All Saints Day nonetheless.  I am gathering a group of candidates at Loyola this weekend, many inspired by your works.  We will keep you in prayer as you pronounce vows.  Dominus tecum.
9 years 10 months ago
Congratulations and blessings to you, Father Martin, on your taking of Final Vows. I continue to pray for you at Daily Mass and in Oct. prayed for all Jesuits At the Gesu in Rome.  Janice Johnson
Brendan McGrath
9 years 10 months ago
Congratulations, Father!
Gina Cattalini
9 years 10 months ago
Congratulations, Fr. Jim!  I don't think you've broken the record for elapsed time between first vows and final vows, though...:-)
God bless,
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
9 years 10 months ago
Fr. Jim- all blessings and prayers for you on this great day! It is interesting to learn more about the path of a Jesuit.
9 years 10 months ago
Congratulations Fr. Martin, and a thousand thanks for all you do to keep us informed and sensible Catholic Christians! And what a perfect day for you of all people to make your final vows in The Society. You're another saint on this side of the grass! I wish you every blessing and many more years of fruitful ministry.


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