Profession, Purpose, and Promise

Fr. Felice Cangelosi OFM Cap continues his discussion on profession in the Secular Franciscan Order.

Now we come to the meaning of the terms profession and purpose, or intention, and of the expression promise to live the gospel life, found in the Rule, the Constitutions and the Ritual of the Secular Franciscan Order. They indicate the effort and commitment Secular Franciscan take on when they make profession.


In Italian, the term Profession is a noun corresponding to the Latin professio which in turn derives from the verb profiteor, composed of pro and fateor.

The intrinsic meaning of profiteor is “to speak out loud”, publicly, to proclaim, to make a declaration, but it also means to promise, to commit or oblige oneself to another person.

The connotation of something official and public is also inherent in the word, so that Profession means, first of all, a public declaration of something, especially an idea, an opinion, a sentiment, or the fact that one belongs to a religion or an ideological current, or something similar.

In particular, the Profession of Faith is a declaration, mostly in an obligatory formula (e.g. the Credo or Apostles’ Creed) that a person or a community belongs to a particular religion, and, by extension, an avowal of moral, political or artistic convictions, etc

The second meaning of Profession refers to an intellectual or manual activity, exercised for profit.  Broadly, a profession indicates any habitual employment, although more strictly it refers to an intellectual activity for which a degree or particular skill is required.

In the religious sphere, Profession normally indicates the act by which a baptised person publicly and in a stable manner embraces a state of perfection in conformity with the evangelical counsels, which he or she commits him/herself  to follow by pronouncing the three vows of  chastity, poverty and obedience (profession of vows), and becomes an effective member of a religious Order or Congregation. In ancient monastic usage, the term professio was also applied to the various “states of life” and to various categories of Christians, whether they were or not consecrated in a special way. Finally, the term professio was applied to the “status of public penitents”, which is not without significance with reference to the Order of Penance.


Literally it means “that which is laid before me». In fact the Latin verb pro-ponere, from which it is derived, means “to place in front of, to put before”.

Purpose commonly means the deliberate will to do something, to behave in a certain way. In a more general sense a purpose or proposal means an intention, a plan. or project. In the Latin versions of the bible, propositum even indicates the plan (design or project) of salvation..

In primitive monasticism, propositum meant a firm decision to adopt a particular style of life and persevere in it. In the middle ages, expressions such as regulare propositum, propositum sacrae religionis, propositum monachorum, etc., were used, indicating a will to dedicate oneself to a religious style of life. It is found in many documents concerned with the Order of Penance.

In summary, the noun propositum stresses the decision of human freedom, but without eliminating the aspect of a vocation, gratuitously given by God.


The Latin verb promittere basically means to send out. Later it acquired the meaning of “to make a thing go, to move it forward, to pour out, and then, to let go.” In a figurative sense it is the equivalent of “to raise hopes”, and hence derivers its usual meaning of  “to promise”, to commit oneself to, to ensure, to guarantee, to promise by vow etc.

Sacred Scripture often speaks of promises; but it more often means divine promises, which are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, rather than human ones. In biblical usage, the word promise underlines the total sovereignty of God in deciding to choose His own people, to justify human beings through faith in Jesus Christ, to destine them for life, to give them the Spirit, etc., in contrast to all those who believe they can achieve these things by means of the works of the law. The ministry of Jesus was precisely the fulfilment of God’s promises.

In the history of religious life also, the term promise is often used to indicate a person’s commitment to assume monastic and religious obligations. Thus for example in the Benedictine Rule, the word “promise”, both as noun and verb designates a monk’s definitive commitment, which today we call “profession” and “perpetual vows”.

Both Francis and Clare attribute the same value to the verb “to promise”. In the writings of Francis the term “profession” is not found, neither is the noun “promise”. However, he does link the verb “to promise” with obedience, with the gospel, the Rule, poverty, in the sense that these are what is promised.  The same is true of St Clare, although she does speak of “profession”.  

Today, we attribute a different value to promises.  We distinguish between a vow and a promise, even when the latter means the same as a vow to observe the gospel counsels. A promise, in this view, is less significant than a vow, it is understood as being made more to the Institute than to God, and as such does not produce consecration. Its binding force comes from the virtue of fidelity, not from the virtue of religion.       

Obviously not everyone agrees with this kind of interpretation, even if, as far as its juridical value is concerned, the distinction between a vow and a promise is generally accepted.  Indeed, what significance can promises have that are not made to God, but to human beings, especially when those promises concern the gospel counsels? , Chastity, poverty and obedience are not promises that concern human interests, they are always directed to God, made for God, and therefore are always “religious”; their observance is always required not only out of fidelity to human beings, but to God. Hence, it is always a case of religious fidelity.

For this reason Vatican Il preferred to bring in a change of terminology. Lumen Gentium in fact speaks of  “vows or other sacred bonds, similar in nature to vows” (LG 44), including under the term “sacred bonds” the promises made in secular institutes.



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