You Are My Witnesses

Just before his ordination, a prospective priest instructs his congregation on the meaning of the vows he is about to take.

The following address is my own creation; it has never been actually been delivered to a live audience. But it could be, and should be. With appropriate changes, it could be used with equal effect by someone entering into matrimony, or military service; the same principles apply.

Thanks to you all for coming today as witnesses to my vows of priestly chastity. I’d like to take this opportunity to explain briefly what a vow means and why your witnessing this profession is essential.

First of all, as a free man with a free will, there is no act enjoined by the vow that I couldn’t perform perfectly well without it, no act proscribed by the vow that I couldn’t avoid perfectly well if I’d never professed it. So why take it at all?

No one takes a vow to eat when hungry or to drink when thirsty. All vows (oaths, promises) involve commitment to duties that, at least on some occasions, are difficult to fulfill. No one is obliged to assume such a commitment, and no blame attaches to the man who judges the prospective hardship too great for him and declines to embark on it. But I’ve noticed that a life free of commitment is also devoid of meaning, and, conversely, those whose commitments entail the gravest hardships are precisely the persons whose lives really matter. It’s a risk I’m free to decline, but a risk I’m willing to take.

My rights and yours

Now pay attention: I’m staking my reputation on the undertaking that I’ll keep my vow, even where it’s difficult to do so. And that’s where you come in.

Every person, the Church teaches, has a right to his good name. And I claim that right from you as fellow human beings. In concrete terms, I ask for the ordinary freedom from slander, detraction, and rash judgment that you should extend to any person. And since I’m embarking on a commitment that is potentially difficult to keep, I’m asking for your good will, and the benefit of the doubt, in situations where gossip or ambiguous circumstances link my name with infamy.

However, by my vow I am indemnifying you against the eventuality of your backing me when I’ve let you down. I am hereby forfeiting my right to a good name if I break the commitment to which you are witnesses today. Should I ever break this vow, I give you my permission to treat me with contempt, to hold me up for ridicule, to broadcast my iniquities on television, radio, or the Internet. You may decide to forgo any or all of the above, but should you take them to the furthest extent, you do me no injustice.

Hold me to it

I can’t pretend that I’m not anxious at the prospect of becoming the object of scorn. But this very anxiety will help me keep my commitment—and that’s part of the reason I’m not making this vow in secret but have invited you here of my own free will. Further, I promise to defend your prerogative to exercise your right of contumely, if—which God forfend—I default on the undertaking you are about to witness. If I let you down, you then take a can of spray-paint and write FATHER X SOLICITS MOLDAVIAN STEAMFITTERS TO ACTS OF UNNATURAL VICE in DayGlo orange letters on the side of my rectory. And if our bishop rebukes you, I promise to take your side against the bishop’s. You’d be acting within the entitlement I give you today. The bishop, who will hear my vows today, knows that and should act accordingly.

I ask for your prayers as I pronounce this vow and continued prayers as I struggle to keep it. Any doubts about what we’re here for? Then do your job.

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