The “Fourth vow” is a religious solemn vow that is taken by members of various religious institutes of the Catholic Church, after the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It usually is an expression of the congregation’s charism and particular insertion in the apostolic field of the Church. The Order of the Ministers of the Infirm (Order of St. Camillus) takes a fourth vow of service to the sick even at the risk of one’s own life.
Having a fourth vow, along with the other evangelical counsels, was not unknown in the sixteenth century Religious Orders. There were other religious institutes that adopted the practice of taking a fourth vow, for example the Brothers of the Order of St. John Of God, Order of Clerks Regular Theatines founded by Cajetan of Thiene, The Barnabites, Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the Somascans Fathers, founded by Jerome Emiliani, The Minor Clerks Regular Caracciolines founded by Francis Caracciolo, The Order of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools (Scolopi). Chronologically, Ministers of the Sick was the seventh Order which received Papal approval to take the fourth vow.
Unlike the other Orders and congregations, The Order of the Ministers of the Infirm takes the fourth vow as the foundational charism and sole objective of the institute. The Bull of Pope Gregory 14th granted solemn Profession to the Ministers of the Infirm in 1591, and states that Camillus and his companions are granted the faculty of “taking the essential vows of religious life, that is the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and of perpetual service to the sick in the essence of the prescribed formula”. (Ref: Emidio Sogli:, Charles Dyer translated, Bangalore, India 1994). The formula of life states that “the Ministers of the Sick would solemnly bind themselves by the profession of the vows of Poverty, Chastity, Obedience and perpetual service to the sick which is the principal aim of this institute”.
The initial inspiration of Camillus was to form a society of generous souls to try to nurse the sick in St. James’ Hospital, Rome, where he was the ‘house master’. But God had a different plan as his biographer, Father Cicatelli observed. “His idea was to set up a loose form of congregation without vows: but it was God’s plan to have something stable and lasting”. The first rule that Camillus put together did not include service to the sick as a vow. Camillus wrote “…..if anyone desires to practice this charitable work, he should realize that he must observe perpetual poverty, chastity, obedience and service to the sick, without, for the time being, making a vow. Such a disposition, however, is not intended to deprive anyone of his free will; that is not allowing him to make private vows if he wishes. In this matter, I want to let the grace of the Holy Spirit work freely”.
It is important to note that the first approval Camillus obtained from the Holy See was to form a group of lay men, but stressed the necessity of having priests to administer sacraments to the sick and organize congregation’s activities and function as the superior ( Ex omnibus by Pope Sixtus 5th, 1586). For Camillus, there was no question of making a public vow, primarily because of his humility, and secondly due to the ecclesiastical sanctions on religious in post reformation Church. But things changed rather rapidly as Cardinal Paleotto had personally observed how Camillus and his companions served the sick and was deeply impressed. He pleaded with Camillus to open a house in Bologna, his home city. Camillus explained his lack of resources, and not having enough members and priests to open a new house along with lack of sponsors to get the members ordained. The Cardinal took the matter up immediately and after having discussions with Cardinal Mondovi, decided to raise the society into a status of an Order in order to spread the Order throughout the world.
Once Camillus had obtained the profession of the vow, his fervor in the practice of holy charity towards the sick burned brighter than ever, and he declared that he was bound by the vow to do what previously he had done only out of charity. The fourth vow was the axis on which the community of Camillus revolved with greater zeal and was proved during the outbreak of plague in Nola and Savoy. Numerous priests and brothers laid down their lives in nursing and caring for the plague–stricken with the medical and hygienic conditions of the sixteenth century. Whenever the plague struck, the Ministers of the Sick were at hand. As a result, from 1607 to 1634, they paid a heavy price for their heroism; 13 died at Palermo, 10 at Mantua, 16 at Milan, 9 at bologna, 4 at Borgonova, 5 at Florence, 37 at Naples and 14 at Genova. In Rome, the Superior General, Fr. Marco Albiti, died of plague on Christmas day 1656. (Ref: EmidioSpogli).
Mario Vanti writes, “In such exceptional circumstance of plague, the community began to appreciate how well the fourth vow had prepared its members for the task ahead. Indeed starting with major superiors who were the first to offer their service to those suffering from the plague, the members competed for one with the other to be the first to be chosen and sent to where the needs were the greatest. In doing so they fulfilled the vow they pronounced, “ I promise God… to serve in perpetuity the sick poor, even the plague–stricken“.
The fourth vow as the “principale institutum” guided the life and the activity of the Order of the Ministers of the Infirm (Order of St. Camillus) from its very inception until the present day. Camillians were the pioneers to care for the modern plague, like the recent epidemic of Ebola in Africa and AIDS in different countries.
-Fr. Naveen Pallurathil