- The fourth vow in Oblate history
- Perseverance in traditional philosophy
- Perseverance in developmental psychology
- Perseverance in process spirituality
The Oblate vow of perseverance has, besides a witness value, two effects: the stability of the individual and the survival of the Congregation. In traditional philosophy, perseverance is a virtue supportive of other virtues. In developmental psychology, it is what transforms a new step into a new path. In process spirituality, it is a firm commitment to a specific process of growth.
The fourth vow in Oblate history
What you are about to read may come as a surprise. The fourth vow is not unique to us. We borrowed it. It is not redundant. The effects are distinct from those of the other three vows. And it is not a bondage to a fixed spiritual program. By it we are committed to co-create an evolving process of community and mission.
A. IT IS NOT UNIQUE We are indebted for it to the Redemptorists. From St. Alphonsus the Founder took verbatim the formula in use from 1818 to 1982: Pariter iureiurando voveo ad mortem usque perseveraturum in sancto Instituto et in Societate Missionariorum Oblatorum Sanctissimae et Immaculatae Virginis Mariae. Sic Deus me adiuvet. Amen. [I also swear and vow perseverance unto death in the holy Institute and Society of the Missionary Oblates of the most Holy and Immaculate Virgin Mary. So help me God.] 
B. IT IS NOT REDUNDANT
There are two effects distinct from those of the other vows: stability of the individual in the Oblate family and survival of the Oblates as a group. Or, as Father Joseph Reslé puts it: “Perseverance in the Congregation and perseverance of the Congregation” .Let us look at this further.
– Stability: Although an Oblate may be dispensed from the vows altogether or be permitted to observe them in another religious congregation, by his vow of perseverance he commits himself not to ask the Holy See for a change. In effect, a dispensation from the fourth vow is the key to dispensation from the other three.
– Survival: Obviously the survival of a congregation is dependent on the perseverance of its members. If we all became Trappists, there would be no Oblates in the Church. De Mazenod had not forgotten the dissolution of the Jesuits (1773 to 1814) when he adopted this vow.
“Our members, by this vow, expressly bind themselves to remain until death in the Congregation, even in those circumstances in which, by some unforeseen event, the Congregation should be obliged to disperse, for then by this very means it would not suffer dissolution. In this case, a special statute would be drawn up prescribing the kind and manner of relations to be maintained, either among the members themselves or with the Superior General and the whole Society”.
C. IT IS NOT A BONDAGE TO A FIXED SPIRITUAL PROGRAM
The vow of perseverance commits Oblates to merge their paths in life. “We come together in apostolic communities of priests and Brothers, united to God by the vows of religion. Cooperating with the Saviour and imitating his example, we commit ourselves principally to evangelizing the poor” (C 1).
Note that the Rule does not say that an individual “joins the Oblates”, but that “we come together”. We do not enter a system or subscribe to a method; together we create a process. A contemporary pastoral theologian describes this “coming together” process:
“Each person is a summation of a whole history of families, friends, experiences, influences and values. As…persons continually combine their differences and find ways of harmonizing their diverse energies, they are generating new experiences and new possibilities for future experiences, for themselves, for others, for God” .
The single pilgrims, with their stories, form a group pilgrimage, with its story and constantly pick up new members and stories along the road. Sharing experiences and gifts they work out solutions as problems arise. The vow of perseverance does not commit them to apply the solutions of kilometer 1826 to the problems of kilometer 1996 but rather to harmonize their gifts within the Founder’s charism and generate new solutions.
In this sense, an Oblate who clings to obsolete forms of community, mission and prayer when the Congregation has moved on to new ones, may well be failing against the spirit of the fourth vow.
D. A CLARIFIED STATEMENT OF THE VOW
Perseverance is a public vow of commitment to the evolving process of Oblate community and mission.
2. HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE VOW
A. THE OBLIGATION OF THE RULE
A Rule obligation of perseverance actually preceded all four vows. On January 25, 1816, the initial group of Oblates, not yet under vows, accepted a rule which was approved four days later by the Vicars General of Aix: “The missionaries ought to resolve, when they enter the Society, to persevere in it for their entire lives” .
It should be noted that Liguori and his first companions also began with a promise of perseverance in 1740 and only took the other vows in 1743, but de Mazenod was not aware of this fact in 1816. He only saw the Redemptorist Rule in 1818 . The CSSR promise still shows the oath-vow formula (cf. no. 3 below).
B. THE VOW
The obligation of perseverance became a vow in the Rule of 1818. Poverty and chastity were not vowed. In 1818, some of the Oblates were not yet prepared to accept religious poverty; and at any rate it would have been difficult since the laws of France, a legacy of the Napoleonic period gave to individual French citizens an inalienable right to dispose of their property but did not grant property rights to religious institutions.
And since every member in 1818 was a priest bound by the law of celibacy, the first Oblates did not vow chastity. Obedience and perseverance were deemed sufficient to form the bond of the Missionaries of Provence.
Father Théophile Ortolan explains the mind of the Founder at the time:
“Absolute detachment, so useful for personal holiness, was less indispensable for the prosperity of the Work…. To assure the continuance of the popular missions the vows of obedience and perseverance were enough” .
But the Chapter of 1821 approved the vows of poverty and chastity, and the Oblates first professed them, along with obedience and perseverance, on November 1 of that year.
On February 17, 1826 the Holy See raised the Congregation to Pontifical status and approved its Rule, including the vow of perseverance. Every edition since then has retained the fourth vow.
C. THE SUPPLEMENTARY OATH
The Latin formula selected by the Founder for the vow of perseverance was taken verbatim from St. Alphonsus. It consisted of a vow strengthened by an oath iureiurando voveo [I swear with and oath], an oath the other vows did not have.
When de Mazenod presented the Rule to the Holy See in 1826, Cardinal Pallotta asked why the oath was added to this vow but not to the other three calling it “insolito…superfluo” (unusual…superfluous). De Mazenod responded that he had taken verbatim the Redemptorist formula composed by Blessed Alphonsus Maria Liguori. Pallotta was satisfied .
He could have also have argued from St. Thomas Aquinas: “An oath is added to a vow so that by two immovable things there may be greater firmness” . The stiffening oath was in use from 1818 until 1982.
The formula proposed in the CC and RR of 1982 omits for the first time the oath. The French text, approved by the Holy See and retained as official in the archives of the Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes gives the text: “Je fais pareillement voeu de perséverer jusqu’à la mort dans le saint Institut et la Société des Missionnaires Oblats de la très sainte et immaculée Vierge Marie. Ainsi Dieu me soit en aide. Amen”. Or, in the official English text: “I also vow perseverance unto death in the holy Institute and Society…” (C 62).
The supplementary oath, therefore, is now obsolete.
All congregations founded after the 16th century take simple instead of solemn vows. Until Pentecost 1917, when the Code of Canon Law was promulgated, the local Ordinary was empowered to dispense from simple vows. A religious merely applied to the local chancery office for permission to return to the lay state. It was rather like easy divorce and led to many abuses.
The 1818 Rule, through the vow of perseverance and the related texts, obliged Oblates not to seek a dispensation from the bishop but only from the Superior General or the Pope .
Canon 638 of the 1917 Code made this superfluous by reserving to the Pope any dispensation from the vows of a pontifical congregation. Accordingly, the Oblate Rules of 1910 (in anticipation) and 1928 dropped all reference to the old procedures and simply stressed perseverance. Unfortunately, both editions explained the fourth vow as redundant:
“Although perseverance is included in the perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, nevertheless our members by this vow expressly bind themselves to remain until death in the Congregation, etc” .
The false impression that nothing new is added by the fourth vow, if it was not already common among Oblates, became widespread after the publication of this text.
The Rule of 1966 reads about the same:
“To the vows of chastity poverty and obedience the Oblates add that of perseverance. By this vow they intend to bind themselves more explicitly to the Congregation” .
The 1982 Rule, approved by the 30th Chapter is better:
“Although the determination to persevere is already included in the three vows made and received in the Congregation we add a vow of perseverance, thereby publicly attesting our attachment to our religious family and our definitive commitment to its mission” (C 30).
It says, in effect, that the virtue of perseverance is implied in the first three vows, but the vow of perseverance adds something new: a witness to the world that nothing can separate us from each other or from our mission.
Of course, the Founder knew that the virtue of perseverance was implied in all vows. He adopted the fourth vow to discourage the seeking of dispensations, a practice which he abhorred.
De Mazenod himself believed that the bonding of priests, especially through obedience and perseverance, achieves more than the priests can do individually. He did not believe there is any valid pastoral reason for leaving a congregation.
In the 1818 Rule, he wrote a text that remained with us until omitted by the 1966 edition: “For no one must ever be allowed to enter our Community for the sake of experiment, and without having made beforehand a firm resolution to remain in it until death” .
His letter to Father Joseph Martin, dated January 9, 1837, expressed puzzlement that anyone would even dream of quitting:
“Priests who are free are looking for religious communities because they realize that all their efforts of zeal done alone and in isolation, bear no results; and those who are fortunate to live in a Congregation would like to get out of it to do more good?” 
And he concluded: “Dispensations can free the individual in conscience only when there are serious reasons which did not exist at the time of profession and which the person concerned did not foresee which will appear all of a sudden and make it impossible for him to fulfill his commitments. Even in such a case the person concerned should accept the dispensation only with regret and with the sincere desire of removing the obstacle preventing him from remaining in the Congregation to which he had committed himself. The presumption is that this obstacle is quite independent of his will” .
De Mazenod’s personal assessment of Oblates who asked for dispensations was quite severe:
“The power of dispensing from vows is a two-edged sword which usually kills the individual in order to save the family. All the members of our Congregation who have been dispensed to date are, in a very true sense, real apostates, because there is not a single one of them who had valid reasons to offer…” .
Perseverance in traditional philosophy
Cicero defines the virtue: Perseverantia est in ratione bene considerata stabilis et perpetua permansio; or in English: “Perseverance is a stable and lasting persistence in a well thought out plan” .
For St. Thomas Aquinas, “Perseverance is a special virtue whose function it is to sustain the long duration of (temperance and fortitude) and the other virtues” . “It is joined to fortitude as a secondary to a principle virtue” .
Perhaps Marcus Aurelius explained best the traditional virtue of persevering in good. “If you see your way clear, go happily forward without looking back. If your way is not clear, stop and get some good advice. If the obstacles come from outside you, go ahead as best you can keeping an open mind while aiming for what you judge to be right. For it is better to reach a goal you have honestly set for yourself, or, if you are going to fail, to do so trying” .
Perseverance in developmental psychology
Much of our contemporary understanding of the human person comes from developmental psychology. Perhaps the best known authors are Daniel Levinson, Lawrence Kohlbert, Robert Selman, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget and James Fowler.
Father Kelly Nemeck, O.M.I., and Marie Theresa Coombs, Hermit, have studied them in the light of the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. They conclude that the developmental psychologists offer “insightful parallels” to various aspects of the spiritual journey.
1. PSYCHOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT BY ASCENT-DESCENT
“Carl Jung, the father of developmental psychology, observes three basic stages in a person’s life. The first two of these – which comprise infancy to mid life – he compares to an ascent. Jung likens these two stages to the sun rising tin the morning, then steadily climbing until it attains its zenith at high noon. From that point, it descends. From mid-life onward, we too commence to go down” .
2. THE SPIRITUAL LIFE BY IMMERSION-EMERGENCE
“In the normal course of human events, we must first increase so that Christ can increase. We develop our talents. We take advantage of the opportunities that come our way. We build up as rich a personhood and as productive a life as circumstances permit” .
“If we are true to life and to grace, we cannot continue indefinitely in the direction of full human development of our energies and talents… The inevitable experience of human life is that we have hardly arrived at the zenith of our accomplishments when we are ready to leave them, retire and move on”.
“Having taken our fill of the world and of ourselves, we discover one day that we are possessed by an intense need to die to self and to leave all self-interest behind. Moreover, for one faithful to life and grace this predilection for detachment is not the consequence of failure or of despair, but rather the normal development of effort and of success”.
“So begins the next threshold and stage of our formation in Jesus Christ: that of passing all the way through creation (or of emergence) with him” .
“All human life between inception and death is characterized by this two-fold rhythm: immersion in creation for Christ and emergence through creation with him. These are but two phases of a single movement: like breathing in and breathing out: like the arsis and thesis of a musical measure” .
De Chardin writes: “All the different shades of holiness are contained in the innumerable permutations of these two aspects of the breath by which the soul lives: first taking its fill of possessing things, and then sublimating them in God” .
3. PERSEVERANCE IN THESE CONTEXTS
How does the vow of perseverance relate to the ascent-descent of Jung and the immersion-emergence rhythm of Chardin? By being a definitive choice. Perseverance transforms a vow event, which after all could be temporary, into what Nemeck and Coombs call a fork in the road, a commitment.
“A threshold [in spiritual growth] frequently possesses the characteristics of a crossroads, of a fork in the road. It calls forth a fundamental option and commitment of oneself to a particular direction” .
Perseverance in process spirituality
Influenced by the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, contemporary Catholic writers are developing a process theology and a corresponding process spirituality.
Kathleen R. Fischer, S.T.D., explains it this way in Mending Broken Connections: A Process Spirituality:
“In the past, perfection has been equated with the static and unchanging, a stable condition untouched by the change and turmoil which mar our daily existence. Many Christians still think of perfection as a state at which they will arrive, or where others have arrived, finally free from the unexpected turns and new challenges, the brokenness and incomplete quality of their spiritual lives”.
“This notion of Christian perfection undergoes dramatic revision in a process spirituality where change and becoming are recognized as more fundamental aspects of existence than the static and unchanging, where to be is always to become” .
An openness to constant change means that “the worship of God is not a rule of safety – it is an adventure of the spirit” . By analogy perseverance in religious vows is not a guarantee of sameness but an ongoing spiritual adventure, leading constantly to risks. Think of the nihil linquendum inausum of the Founder’s Preface to the Rule.
Perseverance, in the context of process spirituality, is a commitment to directions and patterns rather than to specific solutions. This fits in well with the Oblate tradition of spirituality, which has always been responsive to change.
For example, the Rule until 1966 prescribed that chastity be preserved. “They will be most diligent in their efforts to preserve it. Wherefore, in treating with persons of the other sex, they will use the utmost reserve. They will not enter their houses or the homes of any outsiders without urgent motives…” (CC RR 1928, C 219 ff.).
Today’s Rule calls for chastity to be shared. “Consecrated celibacy calls us to develop the riches of the heart. It is an affirmation of life and love; it expresses our total gift of self to God and to others with all our affection, with all the life-giving powers of our being. Our celibacy allows us to be present where the most urgent needs are to be found..” (C 16).
Perseverance, therefore, is a firm commitment to an evolving process. Concretely for Oblates today, it is an engagement to respond wholeheartedly to the challenge of the 1986 General Chapter, “an invitation to action, a call to a renewed missionary dynamism in today’s world” .
The vow of perseverance is “the unreserved gift we make of ourselves in our oblation, an offering constantly renewed by the challenges of our mission” (C 2).
WILLIAM L. WATSON