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In times past, respecting solemn vows was commonplace. The great Fr. John Hardon defines a vow as, "A free, deliberate promise made to God to do something that is good and that is more pleasing to God than its omission would be." But many are now giving in to omission. Recall how St. Paul reminded himself to keep a vow he made to God by shaving his head in Cenchrea (Acts 18:18). But nowadays, taking a vow and remaining true to it seems to be on the endangered species list.
Public figures, for example, may be required to take an oath of office, but how do their actions measure up to their words? They may utter the words "I do solemnly swear" to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," but how much preserving, protecting and defending do they do?
For many years now, married couples who keep their vows are becoming the exception rather than the norm. An estimated 50% of marriages end in divorce in the United States. This figure doesn't account for those who live together but do not make marriage vows or for the increasing number of unwed mothers who are unable or unwilling to make a marriage vow. The numbers are also high for the clergy as well — with 26% of the ordained leaving the priesthood.
These statistics represent something unimaginable compared to just a couple of generations ago.
To turn this depressing situation around, let's ask a few questions: What makes it possible for one person to keep his vows and not just give them lip service? What graces are necessary? How do we receive the necessary graces? And how do we support one another in keeping the vows we make? Before we answer these questions, let's look at what's playing out today.
Recall the recent sexual misconduct of Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, former secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2021, it was reported that Burrill used the gay hookup app Grindr. According to the report, he used it for years, even while he served as USCCB secretary and helped to coordinate the bishops' response to sexual abuse scandals.
Burrill was ousted from his USCCB position but was soon appointed by Bp. William Callahan as pastor of St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish in West Salem, Wisconsin. Few in the mainstream media sanctioned Burrill for his scandalous breach of his vow of chastity. In fact, the media outlets that outed Burrill were seen as the bad guy.
In his letter to parishioners, Bp. Callahan noted that Burrill "has recently come off an extended leave from active ministry," making no mention, of course, of Burrill's nearly decade-long sodomy fest.
The bishop continued, "Monsignor Burrill engaged in a sincere and prayerful effort to strengthen his priestly vows and has favorably responded to every request made by me and by the diocese." St. Teresa's parishioners were not told what those requests were. Perhaps they were something like "Don't get caught again."
But Callahan did offer, "The diocese of La Crosse has received no allegations of illegal misconduct of any kind by Msgr. Burrill" and that he has "every confidence" that Burrill has the "ability to accompany the people of God of this great parish, as together you journey toward a deeper, more meaningful relationship with the Person of Jesus Christ."
No word about Burrill's grievous and continuous betrayal of his sacred promise to priestly continence. Until recently, when a priest was caught in such a public scandal as Burrill's, it would have resulted in an almost instantaneous defrocking.
Burrill, unfortunately, is just one example of a priest living a lifestyle that flouts his vows. Disregarding sacred vows is not important for many Catholic priests, judging from the number of them who have been accused, not to mention have committed, sexual improprieties.
Let's hope and pray that Burrill has learned from his fall from grace and is now keeping the vows — chastity and obedience — that he made when he was ordained.
In the Middle Ages, if a monk broke his vow of chastity with a woman, he would be excommunicated from the Church and expelled from his monastery. He would only be restored after serious penances were completed. If a monk broke his vow of chastity by sodomizing another man, penalties were much more severe. In some cases, the penalty was even death.
In these "enlightened" days, penalties for clerics breaking their vows of chastity are pretty much nonexistent. If they don't get promoted, most clerics receive a "slap on the hand" for breaking this vow. One recent change to this "slap on the hand" penalty for clerics who jettison chastity has been the so-called Dallas Charter, instituted in 2002.
Since the charter, the Church is beginning to take action against clerics who abuse children. An internal report from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, obtained by the Associated Press in January 2014, indicates that Pope Benedict defrocked 400 priests in a two-year period for their predation upon children. This is evidence of the Church taking a stand against a prior laissez-faire attitude among some bishops towards predatory clerics.
However, the charter totally ignores predatory clerics who prey on adults. It basically gives a free pass to clerics who break their vow of chastity with adults, consenting or otherwise.
Let's return to the questions posed earlier. As to what makes it possible for some men and some women to keep their vows, for starters, grace is needed — and in large doses. Grace is needed in order to turn away from the temptation to break our vows when the tempter comes our way.
If you look closely at the lives of the great saints who took vows of chastity and kept them, you see that they were tempted like every other person, but they succeeded in keeping their vows — through grace that came through prayer and penance.
When St. Francis of Assisi was tempted in his early religious life by sins of the flesh, he dealt with them by rolling naked in the snow and even in thorny rose bushes or by practicing other forms of penance and mortification. The extent to which he went to avoid serious sin may seem strange to modern man, but St. Francis succeeded in keeping the vow he made to live chastely, thereby receiving God's subsequent outpouring of grace.
As a young cleric, Saint Anthony of Padua also suffered severely from temptations of the flesh. But because of his numerous penances and fervent prayers, God gave St. Anthony the grace he needed to chase temptations away and keep his vows.
Saint Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney, also known as the Curé d'Ars, was noted for his life of prayer and penance, which he offered to God for the salvation of his parishioners. In his biography of the great saint, author Abbé Francis Trochu noted the Curé's penances:
This first period of his work at Ars was assuredly the most austere of his whole life. At that time, he lived practically alone, and he took full advantage of his independence. Sometime he would let two, or even three, days go by without touching any food. One Holy Week — possibly that of 1818 — he only ate twice. After a time, he ceased to take in provisions, and he never thought of the morrow.
Saint Jean Vianney offered all of these penances for the salvation of his parishioners in the hope that God would pour out His graces upon them, and God did so abundantly. The prayers, penances and atonements offered by St. Jean Vianney changed Ars phenomenally, and the backwater village became world renowned for its Catholicity and the genuine piety of the parishioners. His penances gave him the grace to keep his vows to God, and he taught his parishioners to do the same.
The saints understood the horrors of what sin does to souls and that sin offends the infinitely good God. They loved God with such intensity that they chose to chastise themselves rather than risk decreasing in or losing His friendship and love.
Prayer, penances offered and atonements all make it possible for ordinary men to keep their vows. Moreover, St. John Vianney's example of piety, in offering up multiple penances and atonements, had an extraordinary synergistic effect. His visible holiness rubbed off on all those he encountered, giving weak men and women the nudge they needed to practice the Faith. In a few short years, Ars went from being a backwater faithless village in post-Revolutionary France to a model village of faith-filled Catholics.
Lost to too many contemporary Catholic men and women is the knowledge that prayer and penance make all the difference in making and keeping vows as well as overcoming the temptations that accost us.
As to how we can support others, I can speak from my own life experience. During a rugged time in my life, I felt like throwing in the towel. A fellow priest friend saw my desolation and sensed I was on the verge of just walking away from my priestly vocation. He told me to stay strong. When I asked why I shouldn't give up, he said, "Because I am praying for you." His words and prayers saved me and remind me to this day to do the same for others.
In fact, God promises that if we but ask for the graces to be faithful to our vows, He will respond in abundance.
Prayers, penances and atonements all make it possible for ordinary men and women to keep their vows — even to become saints. To avoid becoming a statistic, as just another person with broken vows, take to heart the examples of the saints. Give it a try.
Offer up to Heaven prayers and penances to rid yourself of temptations that come your way. Keep true to your marriage. Remain a priest. Vows can be kept — and you can even become a saint in the process.
I'm certain that if St. John Vianney would visit us in our earthly realm, he would agree and tell all of us to turn our post-Catholic world around — just as he did in the village of Ars. He would say, "Get down on your knees. Pray, fast, and make reparations."
Saint John Vianney was known to quote frequently from Mark's Gospel where our Lord responds to disciples who could not exorcise a man possessed by an obdurate spirit. Jesus said, "This kind can go out by nothing but prayer and fasting" (Mark 9:28).
Think of how phenomenal this is. Evil spirits, it is seen, can be cast out through simple methods. What's so hard about praying a Rosary to reboot your marriage? What's so difficult about skipping lunch to keep your priesthood intact and to thwart the devil's temptations?
The moral of this story: Vows can — and must — be kept; evil spirits and temptations can be put to the side, and you can even become a saint in this process.