The vows are meant not only to be a sacrifice, but a full acceptance of a life dedicated to God.
When men and women are accepted into a religious community, they will typically profess three primary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (also known as the “evangelical counsels”).
Why is that?
The primary champion of these vows was St. Francis of Assisi, who wrote in his Rule, “The rule and life of the lesser brothers is this: To observe the holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, living in obedience without anything of our own [poverty], and in chastity. Brother Francis promises obedience and reverence to the Lord Pope Honorius and his canonically elected successors, and to the Roman Church; and the rest of the brothers are obliged to obey Francis and his successors.”
Ever since many other religious communities have followed suit and profess similar vows.
A perfect explanation behind these vows can be found in the Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata, by St. John Paul II.
The three disciples caught up in ecstasy hear the Father’s call to listen to Christ, to place all their trust in him, to make him the centre of their lives. The words from on high give new depth to the invitation by which Jesus himself, at the beginning of his public life, called them to follow him, to leave their ordinary lives behind and to enter into a close relationship to him. It is precisely this special grace of intimacy which, in the consecrated life, makes possible and even demands the total gift of self in the profession of the evangelical counsels. The counsels, more than a simple renunciation, are a specific acceptance of the mystery of Christ, lived within the Church…By professing the evangelical counsels, consecrated persons not only make Christ the whole meaning of their lives but strive to reproduce in themselves, as far as possible, “that form of life which he, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world.”
By imitating Christ’s poverty, they profess that he is the Son who receives everything from the Father, and gives everything back to the Father in love (cf. Jn 17:7, 10).
By embracing chastity, they make their own the pure love of Christ and proclaim to the world that he is the Only-Begotten Son who is one with the Father (cf. Jn 10:30, 14:11).
By accepting, through the sacrifice of their own freedom, the mystery of Christ’s filial obedience, they profess that he is infinitely beloved and loving, as the One who delights only in the will of the Father (cf. Jn 4:34), to whom he is perfectly united and on whom he depends for everything.
Practically speaking, these three counsels allow a religious man or woman a certain freedom to follow Christ and proclaim him to the world. Without any possessions, a poor religious can freely go about the world, detached from any worldly desires, and preach the Gospel by their lives.
By professing a vow of chastity, a religious can dedicated their full attention to God, their true “Spouse.” In this way they foreshadow Heaven, where there is no longer marriage, but a profound union with God and each other (cf. Matthew 22:30).
Obedience is a vow that sees the will of God in the actions of the superior, who is called to be an instrument of God’s providential care.
The evangelical counsels are a beautiful gift to religious, one that is designed to bring them closer to God and help them be authentic witnesses to the Gospel.