The vows that we make to ourselves

By Fr. John Girotti | For The Compass | April 2, 2020

In the parish where I celebrate Mass there is a new crop of altar servers. The young children are, shall we say, varied in their serving abilities. Sometimes the book arrives for the opening prayer, sometimes it does not. Sometimes it comes upside down! But they are learning. I just look at them and smile because I understand. I understand, completely.

I never was an altar server growing up. My mother had asked me if I wanted to attend the training classes, but I was hesitant. I remember giving her all sorts of excuses, but the real reason was that I was deathly afraid of the priest. He was always angry and continually scolded the children at Mass. Why on earth would I want to serve for someone so mean? So I decided that I didn’t want to be an altar server and that was that.

But I was eventually called to serve at the altar in a somewhat different capacity. I experienced a call to become a priest and after discerning the matter for a number of years, I entered the seminary. And so it came to pass that in my early 20s I had to learn, for the first time, how to be an altar server. I felt foolish since most of my fellow seminarians had been serving since childhood. I eventually did learn, but something happened inside of me. I made a vow to myself — that if I ever became a priest, I would never yell or become angry with the altar servers. I recognized how much an angry priest had affected me as a child and I vowed that I would never let that happen again. Never.

All of us, without exception, have made such vows to ourselves. Perhaps you grew up in an abusive home and you vowed that if you ever had children of your own, you would never hurt them. Or maybe you had a beloved family member who struggled with an addiction and who died of it. And you vowed to yourself that you would always help those who had similar struggles. Or you might have grown up in poverty or chaos and you vowed to yourself that you would never live like that again.

Vows we make to ourselves — and to God: “That will never happen to me again.” “I will never do that to another person.” “I will never live like that.” There is something holy about these solemn and often hidden promises we make to ourselves. Of course, occasionally these vows are frivolous and immature, but I have found that usually these promises we make to ourselves are very sacred and very holy. God is often near here. Do we see him working?

But life is hard. Sometimes it is very, very hard. There do come times when the vows which we made when we were younger are violated — sadly, by ourselves. Often in life, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” What we had held so dear at one time in our lives, we now sacrifice on the altar of time, expediency, relationship or fatigue. But we must never do this! Remember the sacred, silent vows that you had made. And return to them again. I am convinced it is here that we will find God.

A few years after I was ordained, I happened to meet the priest who I was afraid of while growing up. He was now an older man, humble in spirit, who was a wonderfully successful pastor in a diocese far from here. To my surprise, I quickly learned the reason for his anger so many years ago. He was an alcoholic. And at the time when I was young, he was in the depths of despair.

Happily, he told me that he later came to sobriety and that he has helped many people to do the same over the years. “I just made a vow to myself that I would never be that kind of angry, bitter person again,” he told me. I looked at him and smiled and told him that I understood. I understood, completely.

Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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