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The Fourth Vow - Going the Extra Mile

Updated: May 19, 2020

There are many news reports and words of thanks to our first responders and other heroes during this pandemic.

And they are certainly well deserved.

But did you know that members of Catholic religious orders are also exemplary in their lives of service? We know about their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Did you know that some orders take a fourth vow, which is a further step toward Jesus Christ and service toward others?

Our Lord’s words, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13), is often quoted to describe the most heroic sacrifice a person can make for another.

And yet Jesus Christ asks us to follow the same path He took - in one way or another - to draw others closer to God - even if it means great sacrifice. We all know stories of the saints who seem to do so much out of love for God and their fellow human beings.

The fourth vow is nothing less than going the extra mile - as practiced among the religious orders and congregations. This vow is directly related to the charism of the group.

Aren’t three vows are enough?

In his apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, Pope St. John Paul II mentioned the three vows, or evangelical counsels, saying,

In every age there have been men and women who, obedient to the Father's call and to the prompting of the Spirit, have chosen this special way of following Christ, in order to devote themselves to him with an "undivided" heart....

In speaking of the evangelical counsels, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,

The religious state is thus one way of experiencing a “more intimate” consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God. (N. 916)

In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, the late eminent theologian Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. defined a vow in general as,

A free, deliberate promise made to God to do something that is good and that is more pleasing to God than its omission would be. … Vows ... unite the soul to God by a new bond of religion, and so the acts included under the vow become also acts of religion. Hence they are more meritorious.



Jesuits 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 is that of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, based in Alma, Michigan who 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 Charism

The fourth vow is not common among religious orders but it does reflect a special intensity of the order or congregation that reflects the historical events 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 Mediterreanean 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, the son of a merchant, who no doubt had a practical wisdom and understood the art of negotiation, 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.

Fr. David Spencer, O. de M.

What does the fourth vow mean to today’s Mercedarian friars? One such friar from the United States, Fr. David Spencer, who serves as one of the order’s parochial vicars in Rome, recalls his thoughts on entering the order,

I remember when I entered the Order as a postulant. Having read a little of the history of the community and the fourth vow, I was enamored with it and, perhaps, I held on to a grandiose image of its realization: imagining the various friars in the past centuries who suffered martyrdom in giving of themselves so that a Christian might not abandon the faith. I wanted to be a part of that tremendous story.
After 15 years in the community, being a brother and a priest, I realize more and more that the fourth vow anchors my daily living with the brethren, in my daily duties in the parish, even in my academic obligations.

Fr. James Mayer, O. de M.

Another priest, Fr. James Mayer, stationed at St. Rocco’s parish in Cleveland, recalled,

What motivated me to join the Mercedarians? Simply, I grew up in the oldest Mercedarian parish in the USA; the friars taught religion in our parish grade school and the friars were always present in the school yard, and at parish activities. It was their fraternal, family life that attracted me to want to seek and join them. Growing up, I knew nothing of any fourth vow or charism.... We were taught to pray the weekly Novena to Our Lady of Mercy. All of us knew that her statue in church was the "Friar's Madonna." ...
The Mercedarian Friars have a "Shema" prayer, that we are to love the Blessed Mother with all our being, all our person, all our strength and to do nothing that would be unpleasing to Mary. I believe this is the essence of how our fourth vow is lived and exercised. As with all religious congregations with a fourth vow, it is that vow that defines the other three evangelical counsels.



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 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, 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. Thus the Mercedarian friars were required by their fourth vow to even physically exchange themselves with the suffering Christians, allowing their freedom. Through this special consecration, the Order dedicated all of its energies and possessions towards this same goal -- the liberation of captive Christians.

In a document of March 28, 1219, which was the first manuscript referring to him after the Order’s foundation, Brother Peter Nolasco was called the “procurator of the alms of captives.”
The Order’s documents clearly state that the purpose of the Order is visit and to free Christians who are in captivity and in the power of the Saracens or of other enemies of our Law…. By this work of mercy … all the brothers of this Order, as sons of true obedience, must always be gladly disposed to give up their lives, if it is necessary, as Jesus Christ gave up his for us.
(cf. The Order of Mercy: A Historical Profile, p. 4)

Another interesting aspect of the Order is that of its Marian roots. One of the early names of the order was Order of Saint Mary of Mercy. This name was,

...the result of a process in which they discovered that their work of Mercy was linked very intensely with Mary, so that She comes to appear as Mother of Mercy, and the Mercy of Mary is defined as the work of Mary. The Mercedarians could have redeemed captives without calling on the Mother of Jesus or kept the two elements separate (Marian devotion and liberating action). But they linked them together in a joyful, committed way, so that Mary and liberty appear united in the title of the Order of Mercy.
(cf. Mercy in the Liturgy, p. 330)

Today's 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 include prayer, meditation, Holy Mass, recreation, and apostolate. Their life is based on the Rule of St. Augustine and the Constitutions of the Order.

The Order exists today in more than twenty countries, including Spain, Italy, Brazil, India, and the United States. In the U.S., its student house is in Philadelphia, and it also has houses in New York, Florida, and Ohio.

Overall, the Order of Mercy commits itself to give testimony to the same Good News of love and redemption that it has shown since the beginning of its history. The fourth vow is a focus of attention on their entire charism.


Men, is God calling you to become a friar or the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy? Check out how to become a Mercedarian. Or see what we're up to on our Facebook page. Contact our vocation director Fr. Daniel Bowen, O. de M. at


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