From Vincentian Encyclopedia

By: Michel Llortz, CM

[This is one of the 100 articles found in the publication, Diccionario de Expiritualidad Vicenciana, published by Editorial CEME in 1995. This article has been translated and made available in the on-line Vincentian Encyclopedia with the permission of Editorial CEME].


From a Vincentian perspective, what is the specific nature of the vows? There are many similarities between the vows of the Missionaries and the vows of the Daughters of Charity. Nevertheless, the history of the vows reveals and explains differences that are not only negligible but that also reflect how each of the Institutes has lived and is currently living the vows. There is no doubt that in this matter, as in so many others, the personality and the influence of Louise de Marillac* has been quite significant.

History of the Vows

In the Congregation of the Mission

It is surprising to see that as of September 9th, 1629, three years after the Congregation* had been approved by the Archbishop of Paris and now with only six members, the practice of taking private vows “of devotion”, renewable each year for three years, was introduced (CCD:V:318, 463-464). That fact shows the esteem in which Vincent held the vows and also reveals his desire to see the confreres secure in their vocation. Nevertheless, even after Rome approved vows for the Congregation, Vincent would not dismiss those who refused to pronounce vows.

After Urban VIII approved the Congregation (Salvatoris Nostri, January 12, 1633 [CCD:XIIIa:295-304]) official negotiations became more difficult and that reality reveals Vincent’s wavering in this matter even though his starting point was quite accurate.

Negotiations with the Archbishop of Paris

Between 1635 and 1638 (the two years of formation in the Internal Seminary had been established in June 1637; cf CCD:I:413, note #5) Vincent requested the Archbishop to approve:

  • good purposes of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability in the Congregation at the conclusion of the first year of the Internal Seminary;
  • simple vows with the same objective, to be taken at the conclusion of the second year of the Internal Seminary;
  • dispensation from the vows could only be obtained from the Sovereign Pontiff or the Superior General;
  • the vows would be taken in the presence of the superior who would listen to them but not receive them, thus preserving the Congregation as a group of secular priests (CCD:V:318-319; XIII:315-317).

A positive response did not arrive until October 19, 1641 and that response was renewed on August 23, 1653. In fact, since 1637 that custom had been practiced and when Vincent received approval he was quick to make that permission official through the taking of vows. Thus he, with many others, took vows on February 24, 1642 (it is interesting to note that Louise and four Sisters pronounced their first vows the following month, March 25th, 1642).

The Founder waited, but in vain, for some reconciliation between opposing positions (CCD:V:464). Since the Bull, Salvatoris Nostri, granted authority to the Archbishop to approve the Statutes of the Congregation, Vincent was convinced that the approval of the Archbishop was the same as Pontifical approval from Rome (other confreres, however, were not at all convinced about that matter). At the time of the General Assembly that was held on October 20, 1642, the Superiors decided that vows would be renewed at the conclusion of their annual retreat. The controversies did not cease, however, and Vincent entered into negotiation with Rome.

Negotiations with the Holy See

As of 1639 M. Lebreton was sent to Rome to negotiate the matter of the vows. During the next sixteen years several confreres would become involved in these negotiations, M. Portail, M. Dehorgny, M. Alméras, M. Berthe, M. Blatiron, M. Jolly. Different proposals would be presented, for example:

  • solemn vows to be pronounced at once or after having pronounced simple vows for some years (CCD:I:590, note #2);
  • obedience to the bishop of the place in which missions are being given (CCD:I:591, note #3);
  • making a vow of stability and with regard to the observance of poverty and obedience, to proclaim solemn excommunication against those who have money laid aside in their own keeping or elsewhere (CCD:II:37).

The vow of stability is viewed from a twofold perspective: fidelity to the Mission and to the mission of the Congregation.

Finally, on September 22nd, 1655, Alexander VII approved vows which have since that time been practiced in accord with the Brief, Ex Commissa Nobis (CCD:XIIIa:417-419). The following January 25th it seems that the whole Community took vows as prescribed. As we have already stated, certain members refused to take vows but they were not dismissed. Canonical law looks toward the future and is not retroactive unless explicitly stated.

On August 12th, 1659, Alexander VII, through the brief, Alias Nos, gave precision to the fundamental statute of poverty in the Congregation. In essence, all of its provisions were included:

  • in the Constitutions* approved by Pius XII on July 19, 1953. The vows are classified as not public, privileged, perpetual, dispensable only by the Sovereign Pontiff and the Superior General (Constitutions, #161.1).
  • in the Constitutions approved by the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes on June 29, 1984. The vows are classified as perpetual, non-religious, reserved to the Sovereign Pontiff and the Superior General. It is also stated that the vows must be faithfully interpreted according to the intention of St. Vincent and as approved by Alexander VII (Constitutions, #55.1, 2).

In the Company of the Daughters of Charity

Here the history is quite different because the taking of vows, that became obligatory, was regulated for various centuries by purely internal legislation (For more details on this history see, Instruction on the Vows of the Daughters of Charity, 1989). It was only in the Constitutions that were approved on June 1, 1954 that we first find mention of the vows in some ecclesial document. Again the vows are explained in the Constitutions approved by the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes on February 2nd, 1983. In the Constitutions of 1954 there was an attempt to redact Constitutions that would be harmony with the Code of Canon Law that had been published in 1917. The 1983 Constitutions are an attempt to participate in the “aggiornamento” that had been requested by the Second Vatican Council and by the new Code of Canon Law

During the time of the Founders

Even though the Daughters had been established on November 29th, 1633 and were under the direction of Louise de Marillac, it was not until July 1640 that we find the first mention of the possibility of taking vows. On the one hand, Vincent spoke about the state of perfection and specified that this also pertained to the vocation of the Daughters of Charity although they do not have vows (CCD:IX:13). On the other hand, Vincent referred to the Hospitaler Monks of Italy who took the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service on behalf of the poor (CCD:IX:22), and in responding to some of the Sisters he stated that such could be the vows of the Daughters but with one difference: the Daughters would not take solemn vows.

As we stated above, on March 25th, 1642, Louise de Marillac and four Daughters took their vows for life. Little by little, the other Sisters followed their example. The Founders* were very prudent and also mindful of the unique character of the new Institute which would not be approved by the Archbishop of Paris until November 20th, 1646. In her correspondence there is no explicit mention of the vows until 1648. At the same time there is an openness to different forms of taking the vows without, however, making the vows obligatory: perpetual vows, annual vows that are followed by perpetual vows. Louise always asked Vincent for permission for vows.

Louise was inclined toward annual vows that would be renewed. There is no doubt that she wanted the vows to be distinct from public vows and at the same time she wanted the Daughters of Charity* to be recognized as a Confraternity. Also the unstable situation of some of the Sisters had to be kept in mind. There is no doubt, however, that the Founder saw the vows as beneficial to the development of the spiritual life of the Daughters of Charity. Louise, who was in favor of the vows, explained that this is more pleasing to God than would otherwise be the case because at the end of the year you will be free and can offer your will to him anew (SWLM:357 [L.306b]).

Later development of the vows

Father Alméras maintained March 15th as the day for the annual renewal of vows, thus remembering the first Daughters who took vows on that day in 1642 (Conference of Fr. Gicquel, Director of the Daughter of Charity, March 16th, 1669). The taking of vows gradually became more generalized. Father Bonnet, in the Statutes of 1718 and faithful to the thoughts of the Founders, explained and specified everything concerning the vows, especially the fact that vows are to be taken for the first time between the fifth and the seventh year of vocation (Statutes of Fr. Bonnet, #7).

On November 1, Father Brunet, Vicar-General, wrote from Rome: After five years a Daughter of Charity is not allowed to refuse to take on the accustomed commitment in the Company. That commitment must then be renewed each year (Circular letter of Father Brunet, November 1, 1801).

At that time the Sisters were living in the midst of the French Revolution but it is also clear that the vows were viewed as an indispensable condition for membership in the Company and for remaining in the Company.

Throughout the history of the Company, the Superiors have been careful to see to it that the nature of the vows of the Daughters Charity is respected. This faithfulness was finally recognized and officially preserved by the Church … we saw this in the approval of the Constitutions of 1954 and 1983.

The Constitutions of 1954 state: the Vows are not public in the canonical sense, but private, privileged, and recognized by the Church (#45)

It is understood that the vows are not professed in the presence of a superior or received (accepted) in the name of the Church, but rather they are made in accord with the Constitutions. Furthermore, only the Sovereign Pontiff and the Superior General have the right to dispense from these Vows (#49)

The Constitutions of 1983 present the vows as non-religious, annual and always renewable and the Church recognizes them as they are understood in the Company, in fidelity to its Founders (Constitutions: Practice of the Evangelical Counsels, #2.5)

We can immediately see the importance of those words since they impel us to return to the thinking of the Founders.

Specificity of the vows

This matter has been discussed in the article on the evangelical counsels*. The “Vincentian” vows, by their nature and scope, are essentially a confirmation of the commitment that was made when one entered the Institute. In one form or another Vincent frequently stated that, at least for the Missionaries, that he wanted the vows because they would provide greater stability (CCD:XII:304).

In fact, we are dealing with a form of love that seeks to achieve a more radical expression of one’s vocation. Their obligatory and juridical nature as a condition for membership in the Congregation of the Mission or the Company of the Daughters of Charity and as a condition for certain rights and obligations, do not minimize their theological dynamism but rather gives them greater significance.

Vincent’s thoughts with regard to the vows of the Missionaries

In volume XI and XII of Coste’s work we find numerous references to the vows. Here, however, we will summarize the content of the letter that Vincent wrote to Étienne Blatiron on February 19th, 1655, a few months before Pontifical approval was granted (CCD:V:314-322) and the November 7th, 1659 conference on the vows that was given to the Missionaries (CCD:XII:297-306).

Simple vows

In accord with the language of that era, the vows were called simple vows in order to distinguish them from solemn vows. The members of the Congregation are not religious but are secular priests, members of the religious life in the line of Saint Peter. The Pontifical approval of the vows explicitly confirms that reality and at the same time exempts the Congregation from being submissive to the Ordinary of the place, except for the situation when giving popular missions. Saint Vincent, for certain important reasons (CCD:VIII:38), would have preferred that the two were separated.

It should be noted that the priests have promised chastity and obedience to their ordinary and for greater stability [in our vocation], we have added the vows. From this perspective poverty was added because of the passion and desire for possessions, much greater in the clergy than in lay persons … [the clergy] are harder on the poor and have less compassion in seeing to what they need … in the beginning, everything was in common, and each was given only what he needed. Oh, how the Church was flourishing at that time and how virtuous and holy the clergy were … Oh blessed and most rich poverty, which Our Lord practiced so excellently and admirably (CCD:XII:304). It is clear that benefices and other similar benefits were a true plague on the Congregation.

A reaffirmation of one’s vocation

We have highlighted this fundamental point on several occasions. Vincent was convinced that those whom Providence had called to be the first members of a nascent Company usually strive to put it in the state most pleasing to God as possible (CCD:V:315) and those who have given themselves to God in this way work much more faithfully at the acquisition of the virtues that tend to the perfection of their vocation than those who do not tend toward the blessed state of life that Our Lord embraced (CCD:V:315). But above all God has willed to strengthen persons of every state in their vocation by the expressed or tacit promises they make to God to live and die in that state … That being the case, is it not just that the Congregation of the Mission should have some bond that attaches the Missionaries to their vocation forever (CCD:V:315-316). The word bond reminds us of Canon 731.2, Section II: on Societies of Apostolic Life which states: Among these societies are some in which the members, through a bond defined in the constitutions, undertake to live the evangelical counsels. Vincent added that despite the unreliability of the human spirit there is a question of applying oneself to harsh and difficult things, such as the works of the Mission (CCD:V:316).

Therefore, it can be said that the vow of stability is central in this regard. God has placed us in that state in which he placed his own Son, who himself has said, pauperibus evangelizare misit me … to evangelize using the same weapons, contending with the passions and desires of having possessions, pleasures and honors (CCD:XII:299). The vow of stability has as its objective the mission as such and emphasizes that which is more specific to one’s vocation: the state of charity.

Poverty*, chastity* and obedience* are the means (CCD:XII:300) which enable people to enter into the state of perfection (the perfection of charity) in the manner that they are meant to live it. Thus we find ourselves in that state in which Our Lord and the Apostles were, of having renounced everything in order to carry out the mission and to work for the conversion of souls … is a state of being consecrate to him in order to continue the mission of his Son and of the Apostles (CCD:XII:301, 302).

Therefore, the Missionaries are to live the full radical dimension of their baptismal commitment. The vows are a new Baptism; they bring about in us what Baptism did (CCDL:XII:302). Furthermore, to have made and lived the vows is a continual martyrdom … the executioners’ torments last a short time in comparison to the entire life of a man who has taken those vows, for which he constantly mortifies himself and destroys self and his own will … the persons who have pronounced vows offer God a holocaust of themselves (CCD:XII:302). While it is clear that “simple vows” are being referred to here, such vows should not be viewed as less meritorious. Rather just as the celebration of Baptism, without all the solemnity, confers on the individual the fullness of grace (the same graces as solemn baptism), just as those who assist at Mass participate, with the priest, in the sacrifice of Christ and even participate in it more than him if they have greater charity than the priest (CCD:XII:305), so too, taking simple vows is just as meritorious as the profession of solemn vows.

Vincent and Louise’s thoughts with regard to the vows of the Daughters of Charity

We have seen that from 1640, Vincent animated the Sisters with the desire to take vows. At the same time, however, he showed great prudence and flexibility. We have already stated that Louise had a great devotion to the vows, and while she had the same reservations as Vincent in this matter, she was also more explicit about this concern.

Nature of the vows

Again it is clear that we are dealing with “simple” vows. Vincent told the Sisters who had been sent to Nantes: The Bishop is saying that you are nuns because someone told him that you make vows. If he speaks to you about them, tell him you are not nuns. Sister Jeanne, who is the Sister Servant, said to him, “Éxcellency, the vows we take do not make us nuns because they are simple vows that may be taken anywhere, even in the world” (CCD:IX:520).

Louise wrote similar words to L’Abbé de Vaux who was concerned about the Sisters in Angers: I greatly fear that our good Sister Jeanne spoke of the vows in a way which does not make it clear that they are something other than what is professed by the devout laity. Again let me say that they are not the same, for the laity usually pronounce them before their confessor. We must honor the plans of God and bless Him constantly (SWLM:293 [L.481]). It can be presumed that after the events in Angers and Nantes, Sister Jeanne learned her lesson.

Those “cautions” were not intended to minimize the scope of the vows --- quite the contrary. It is important that the vows be understood in light of the primary purpose of the Company: the total gift of self to God in order to serve God in the person of those who are poor. Such service was to be done with humility*, simplicity* and charity*. The vows confirm the specific commitment of the Sisters and should be seen as a way of achieving with greater surety the primary purpose of the Company. From the time that the Sisters enter the Company they make a lifetime gift of themselves to God: the vows and their annual renewal, according to the intentions of the Founders, allow the Sisters to receive new strength and new graces in order to persevere in their vocation (CCD:IX:278).

Therefore, the vow of service* on behalf of the poor* is a special vow, a vow par excellence. From this perspective, the primitive formula of Louise is very clear: I vow poverty, chastity and obedience … in order to give myself, for the whole of this year, to the corporal and spiritual service of the sick poor, our true Masters (SWLM:782 [A.44b]). On February 1st, 1841, Mother Carrére, Superior General, wrote: We are for the poor, my dear Sisters, and Saint Vincent intended us for them, and for them alone has God called us and assembled us together, and it is because the poor represent Him that we make a Vow to serve them. I shall speak to you principally of that Vow in this Circular, because all our obligations are contained therein and because it is the regulator of our conduct even with regard to the other Vows, which are to us but as the Rule and the support of this one.

It is possible to speak about the chastity of a Daughter of Charity or about the poverty of a Daughter of Charity or about the obedience of a Daughter of Charity. These vows are truly vows of the Company. In recognizing them as such, the Church guarantees the identity of the Company and reaffirms the demands that must fulfilled in total fidelity to the thinking of the Founders and in accord with their charism.

The Mysticism of the vows

It is Louise who offers us some insights. Like Vincent, she insisted on the baptismal roots of the commitment of the Daughters of Charity: this requires strong characters who desire to reach the holiness of true Christians and who want to die to themselves by mortification and a veritable act of renunciation, which they already made at the time of their holy Baptism, so that the Spirit of Jesus Christ may abide in them and grant them the strength to persevere in this way of life which is totally spiritual, although they will be employed in exterior works which appear lowly and despicable in the eyes of the world but which are glorious in the sight of God and his angels (SWLM:674 [L.651]).

The vow formula begins with the words: I, the undersigned, in the presence of God, reaffirm the promises of my Baptism. The present formula is directly inspired by the baptismal commitment (I … renew the promises of my Baptism) and expresses the same sense of baptismal consecration and the same sense of ecclesial membership that has to be lived out perfectly as a Daughter of Charity.

Louise was very sensitive to this aspect of “free offering”. Vows give the soul the freedom to enter into a familiar conversation with God, to enter into a covenant with God in which one party promises and is obliged and in which the other party, God, accepts the promises and is also obligated. Men and women promise and commit themselves to a love which is most pleasing, to a love in which they give themselves totally and unconditionally to God. God, in turn, reciprocates, by bestowing upon those individuals all God’s gifts.

From the moment that one feels called to give oneself in dedicated service on behalf of the poor, why should one not want to make the fullest commitment possible? The first Daughters expressed the desire to pronounce vows in terms of a spiritual journey that was recognized by the Founders*. If the present Constitutions provide for a period of five to seven years before taking first vows, it is done in order to achieve the following perspective: it is necessary that one achieve a certain degree of maturity which can be affirmed by the individual Sister and by her superiors with whom she shares, in complete simplicity, all her dispositions. It is in this spirit that a new Instruction on the Vows of the Daughters of Charity, has been redacted: a document that is addressed to all the Sisters and not just to those Sisters who are beginning their formation. This Instruction is intended to deepen the Sisters’ understanding of the vows and to encourage renewed reflection on both a personal and a community level.

From a juridical perspective, membership in the Company is not in itself determined by the vows. This sense of belonging, like everything else that is part of the life of the Daughters of Charity, is in some way ratified and confirmed by the vows. One is able to speak about a true “spirituality of renewal”, namely, a time in which each Daughter of Charity is able to deepen her self-offering and her sense of belonging to the Company, with all its demands. The vows are taken in accord with the Constitutions and in the Company of the Daughters of Charity. It is in this sense that we should understand the obligation to sign a statement that testifies to the fact that one has taken vows.

Signing such a statement is a return to a custom that was established during the time of Louise and is echoed in the words of the traditional formula: I … the undersigned. That demand certainly has a juridical aspect because one should always know the status of each Sister with regard to the Company. But above all else this demand should be viewed as a personal and profound expression of an ideal that one is committed to live to the fullest in the Company. This, then, is the community dimension of the vows that creates a bond with the Lord and a bond between the Sisters themselves. This is a sacred bond to live more perfectly and to live on every level their identity as a Community.

In conclusion, this is not the time to enter into detail about all the juridical aspects foreseen by the Constitutions* and Statutes of the Congregation of the Mission and of the Company of the Daughters of Charity. With regard to the Daughters, on several occasions we have referred to the Instruction that was published in 1989 and which, in substance and in form, is a totally revised edition of the 1701 Instruction and has been reedited since then with some additional adaptations,

The history of the vow formula --- as well as its content --- is also of much interest. It can be affirmed that the essentials have always been preserved and that the various legislative groups have been concerned about returning to the sources while at the same time mindful of the contemporary situation and the present canonical demands.


All the references to the writings of Vincent de Paul are taken from:

VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-14), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11, 12 and 14).

All the references to the writings of Louise de Marillac are taken from:

LOUISE DE MARILLAC, Spiritual Writing of Louise de Marillac, Edited and Translated from the French by Sister Louise Sullivan, DC, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1991.

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM