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Members of religious orders take three vows - but some take a fourth vow.
What is the fourth vow, and why is it taken?
The three traditional vows are poverty, chastity and obedience. The fourth vow is directly related to the charism of the group.
You might ask - aren’t three vows enough?
The fourth vow is not common among religious orders. It reflects a special intensity of the order or congregation that reflects the apostolic needs of the time.
Jesuits, Missionaries of Charity and Others
One such well-known order that takes the fourth vow is the Jesuits, who take a fourth vow of obedience to the Roman Pontiff. Another is that of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, who take a fourth vow of “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.”
Still another example is that of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, based in Alma, Michigan. They take a fourth vow of service to the poor, sick, and ignorant. And the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, based in Frigento, Italy, take a fourth vow where they consecrate themselves to the Mother of God.
Fourth Vow Reflects the Charism
The fourth vow reflects a special intensity of the order regarding the needs of the time. The Jesuits were begun in the midst of a world rocked by the Protestant revolt of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Protestants do not believe in the authority of the pope, and thus the Jesuits’ fourth vow reflects their unflagging loyalty to the leader of Christ’s Church. The fourth vow of the Missionaries of Charity reflects their charism of helping the poorest of the poor, who are so numerous today. And so on.
Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy
Another, perhaps lesser-known order, whose friars take a fourth vow is that of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy. It was founded in 1218 by St. Peter Nolasco in Spain. The fourth vow of the Order of Mercy is to give everything, including one’s life, should it be necessary, for the redemption of captives and the oppressed. It is sometimes known as the blood vow. (See video, “The Blood Vow” about St. Peter Nolasco.)
For this order, the fourth vow sprang from its very mission during a time when Catholics in Spain and other Mediterranean areas were captured as slaves by Muslims. The order began when St. Peter Nolasco, a young man and a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic, was saddened with pity at the sight of captured Christians who often gave up their faith to become Muslims to save their lives from their captors’ swords.
Peter saw an opportunity to bring his fellow Catholics out of danger by offering ransom money in exchange for the captives. His friars begged from others to raise the funds for them.
But sometimes it took time to gather the funds. If the captors became impatient, the Mercedarian friars would offer their own lives in exchange for those of the Christians. If the money did not come in time or was insufficient, or if the promise was simply broken, the friars might be put to death.
For hundreds of years, Christians were redeemed in this way that was reflective of Christ’s redemptive death on the cross. Between 1218 and 1301 over 11,615 captives were redeemed! Today there are more than two hundred martyrs in the Mercedarians’ history, many of which are awaiting canonization.
Charism of the Order of Mercy
The purpose of the Order's founding was to ransom those Christians who were held captive because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Often in prisons, these Christians suffered greatly until they publicly renounced their faith in Christ, thus committing apostasy. Saint Peter Nolasco, inspired by our Blessed Mother, along with his followers, saw an urgent need to put into practice the words of Jesus: "I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Mt 25:36).
There were other religious communities and organizations within the Church dedicated to this redemptive work. However, what made the Mercedarians unique among them was their Marian spirit and imitation of Christ the Redeemer. Through this special consecration, the Order dedicated all of its energies and possessions towards this same goal -- the liberation of captive Christians.
Today’s Mercedarian Apostolate
Today, friars of the Order of Mercy around the world continue to rescue others from modern types of captivity, such as social, political, and psychological forms. They work in jails, marginal neighborhoods, among addicts, and in hospitals. In the United States, the Order of Mercy gives special emphasis to educational and parish work.
The spiritual and communal life of the friars includes prayer, meditation, Holy Mass, recreation, and apostolate. Their life is based on the Rule of St. Augustine and the Constitutions of the Order.
Read the complete article, “The Fourth Vow - Going the Extra Mile,” on the website of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy.
Men, do you think you might be called to rescue others whose faith is in danger of being lost? You might want to check out the Mercedarian friars. Take the quiz, “Is God Calling You?” Or visit their Facebook page. Contact their vocation director, Fr. Daniel Bowen, O. de M. at firstname.lastname@example.org.