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Religious Profession

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Profession may be considered either as a declaration openly made, or as a state of life publicly embraced. The origins of religious profession date from the time when Christians were recognized in the Church as followers after perfection in the practice of religious life. We meet them in the third century, under the name of ascetics, called in Greek asketai , and in Latin confessores . Eusebius (Hist. eccl., III, xxxvii) numbers among the ascetics the most illustrious pontiffs of the first ages, St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp, and others. After these, in the fourth century, come the hermits and monks, followed in the eleventh century by the canons regular, in the thirteenth century by the mendicant orders, in the sixteenth by the clerks regular, and lastly by the members of religious congregations. Profession for a long time was made by clothing with the religious habit: the aspirant could personally put on the habit or receive it, with or without ceremony, from the abbot or from the bishop. This clothing laid upon him the obligation of poverty and chastity more as a natural consequence of a donation or consecration to God than as arising from formal vows, which did not exist at that time (cf. St. Basil, Regulæ fusius tractatæ resp. ad 14 interrogat. in P. G., XXXI, 949-52).

The community life, established under Schenoudi, the great disciple of St. Pachomius, added an explicit promise of fidelity to certain precepts. St. Benedict added an express promise of stability, and obedience to the superior. These last promises denoted obligations created in addition to those implied by taking the habit. The first formula, which expressly mentions poverty and chastity, is that of the Constitutions of Narbonne, promulgated in 1260 by St. Bonaventure for the Friars Minor ; then the constitutions of the Minims and clerks regular expressly mention the three essential vows of the religious life, as well as those which were superadded on account of the special ends of their orders. This discipline is common to religious orders and congregations. Finally the regulations (Normæ) of 1901, published in explanation of the present practice of the Holy See, do not permit in new congregations any but the three essential vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

In the Decretal, "Quod votum," unic. De veto et voti redemptione (iii, 15) in 6°, Boniface VIII declared authoritatively that the vow of chastity, consecrated by the reception of major orders, or by religious profession in an approved institute, created a diriment impediment to marriage. Some communities of tertiaries not belonging to an approved order were the first to introduce profession accompanied by simple vows, which is now the ordinary practice in the more recent congregations.

The Annals of the Order of St. Benedict (vol. I, p. 74) in the year 537 recognized among the Greeks three classes of religious: the novices, who wore the simple tunic ; the perfect, clothed with the pallium ; and the more perfect invested with the cuculla , or hood attached to a short cloak, covering the shoulders, which was considered the special emblem of the religious life. In certain monasteries of the East, a distinction was made between persons wearing the short habit, mikroschemoi , and those wearing the long habit, megaloschemoi , a distinction against which St. Theodorus the Studite protested in his epistles (I, ep. x, in P. G., XCIX, 941-2) and which is still found among the Schismatic Coptic monks (see Kathol. Missionen 1 Oct., 1910, p. 7 sqq.). St. Ignatius of Loyola laid down that in his order there should be a simple profession, followed by more or less frequent renewal of vows until such time as the candidate should be prepared for the solemn or definitive profession; this under Pius IX and Leo XIII has become the common law of all religious orders.



According to the existing law, religious profession denotes the act of embracing the religious state by the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience according to the rule of an order canonically approved; it involves then a triple vow made to God, and binding oneself to the rule of a certain order. Very often the rules or constitutions of an order or congregation (approved before the Normæ of 1901) add to these essential vows certain special vows inspired by the purpose of the order: thus the Friars Minor make a vow of special obedience to the pope and the Roman Church ; the Poor Clares, a vow of enclosure; the Mercedarians, a vow of devoting themselves to the redemption of Christian captives, even giving themselves as hostages; the Minims, a vow of strict abstinence ; the Carmelite Sisters and discalced Augustinians, a vow of humility ; the first profession in the Society of Jesus implies a vow of indifference in regard to final vows, i.e. whether they be solemn or simple; the solemn profession adds a vow of obedience to the pope for missions, and five simple vows in order the better to ensure the observance of poverty, and the eschewal of ambition ; the Brothers of St. John of God make a vow to serve the sick; the Clerks Regular of the Pious Schools, a solemn vow to educate children, and also three simple vows relating to poverty and the shunning of ambition ; the religious of Penitence (Scalzetti), a vow to defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception ; the Passionists, to promote devotion to the Passion of Our Lord ; the Brothers of the Christian Schools , vows of stability and of gratuitous education of children; the Little Sisters of the Poor , a vow of hospitality.


Profession was express, when made with the usual ceremonies ; tacit, or implied, when the reciprocal engagement between the order and the religious was proved by outward acts; it was sufficient for this purpose to wear the habit of the professed members for some time openly and without objection being made in any one. Pius IX abolished the tacit solemn profession for religious orders (11 June, 1858) and it has fallen into disuse altogether.

Profession is either simple or solemn. Solemn profession exists at present only in the institutes approved by the Holy See as religious orders. It is always perpetual, and dispensation from it is difficult to obtain; a religious who has been dismissed from his order is still bound by the obligations of the religious life ; the same is the case with one who obtains from the Holy See the indult of perpetual secularization ; professed who have left their order owe to the bishop of the diocese in which they reside the obedience which they formerly owed to their religious superior. Solemn profession implies a reciprocal engagement between the religious and his order, which undertakes to maintain him, and treat him as a member of its household; except in case of special privilege, it can dismiss a professed religious in canonical form only for incorrigible persistence in some grave public fault. The professed religious who is dismissed is ipso facto suspended, and the suspension is reserved to the Holy See (see the recent decree "Cum singulæ" of 16 May, 1911). According to existing law, solemn profession annuls a marriage previously contracted, but not yet consummated, and creates a diriment impediment to any future marriage; and also renders the professed religious incapable, without the permission of the Holy See, of acquiring or of possessing and disposing of property. In Belgium, and probably in Holland, profession no longer involves this disability.

Simple profession is sometimes perpetual and sometimes temporary, and therefore imperfect. At the end of a term of temporary profession, a religious is free to go back to the world, and the order has power to dismiss one who has not shown himself worthy to renew his profession, or to make a subsequent profession; but a physical infirmity which was caused after the vows, or the cause of which was known at the time of the vows, does not justify the dismissal of a religious against his will. In congregations which have no solemn vows, the Holy See ordinarily prescribes a term of temporary vows, varying from three to six years, before the perpetual vows. There are however some congregations, such as the Nuns of the Sacred Heart in which all the vows are perpetual; and pious societies without perpetual vows, such as the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul ; or even without vows, like the Missionaries of Africa, or White Fathers, who have only an oath of obedience. The Holy See insists that on the expiration of temporal vows, these should be either renewed or converted into perpetual vows, as the case may be, without allowing any interval of time, during which the religious would be free from his obligations.

Simple profession sometimes is a preparation for solemn profession, and sometimes has a distinct character of its own. In all religious orders, three years at least of simple profession are a necessary condition for the validity of solemn profession (see NUNS), and for lay brothers, six years of simple profession and an age of at least thirty years are required ( Decree of 1 Jan 1911) This time of simple profession may be considered as a second term of probation; it is not difficult for the religious to obtain a dispensation from his vows, and, on the other hand, the order may dismiss him for any grave cause of dissatisfaction, the sufficiency of which is left to the judgment of the superior. The dismissal of nuns, however, requires the consent of the Holy See ; religious with simple or even temporary vows, who have received major orders in their institute, are in the same position, in regard to dismissal, as those who have made their final profession. Generally speaking, simple profession does not prevent a religious from retaining or acquiring property ; the administration and disposition of property alone are forbidden. Except in the Society of Jesus it is no longer a diriment impediment to marriage, and it never annuls a marriage already contracted.

Conditions of Validity and Form

It is essential in all cases for the validity of a religious profession that the candidate should be at least sixteen years of age and have passed one year in the novitiate. Persons who, under the provisions of the Decree "Ecclesia Christi" of 7 September, 1909, cannot be validly admitted to the novitiate without the consent of the Holy See, cannot without the same consent make a valid profession. Admission to profession, especially to the first, is generally decided by the chapter. Profession made or permitted under duress is null and void; and the Council of Trent passes sentence of excommunication on all persons who compel a young girl to enter a monastery by solemn profession, or who forcibly prevent her from doing so. Although tacit profession, which has been expressly abolished for religious orders, has fallen into disuse everywhere, no particular rite or formula of profession is essential, unless distinctly required by the constitutions. A general Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites of 14-27 August, 1874, indicates the manner in which profession should be made during Mass. Since the Decree "Auctis admodum", simple but perpetual profession creates the same bond between the religious and the congregation as solemn profession does in a religious order. Such a religious can be dismissed only for incorrigible persistence in some grave public fault. Even when congregations with simple vows have the power to dismiss a religious, they have not the power to dispense him from his vows : this is strictly reserved to the Holy See.

Common Effects of Profession

Every perpetual profession admits one to the religious state and consequently creates an obligation to aspire after perfection. This obligation is sufficiently fulfilled by observing the vows and rules, so far as they bind the conscience. All previous vows, provided they do not prejudice the right of a third party, may be changed into religious profession, as into something of a distinctly higher character ; and this may be done by the religious himself, or by some person who has power to commute the vows. If the profession be solemn, these previous vows are annulled by canon law. Theologians generally teach that, when made in a state of grace, this absolute surrender of self procures for the religious a remission of all the penalties due to past sins. The generally accepted opinion, by which religious profession was compared to a new baptism, induced St. Pius V to permit novices in houses of Dominican nuns to make their profession when in danger of death even before completing their years of novitiate (Constitution "Summi sacerdotii", 23 August, 1570). This has since been extended to all religious orders; but restoration to health deprives the profession made under such circumstances of all canonical effects.

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