What vows do religious take and what do they mean?
Most religious make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Some congregations make additional vows like stability or the performance of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy or the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of human life. Men and women who make profession in religious communities do so by making vows, solemn promises made freely and deliberately to commit themselves to God and to live in community with each other.
Poverty, there are two aspects to the vow of poverty: one is the leaving of all things to follow Christ, just as the apostles left their livelihood and all they had depended on up to that time; the other is giving all one has to Christ. When a religious gives up things he/she is free to give oneself to Christ, because it is usually things that hold one back from giving oneself. Both of these sacrifices require trust. The religious trusts Christ and for that reason does not seek his/her security or satisfaction in anything beyond Him. Since God gives talents and abilities, they are given back to Him for His use, not for ones own enjoyment and pleasure alone. Poverty brings peace into life and allows one to place no barriers to God's action and no limits to what He might ask.
Chastity, the religious is a spouse of Christ whom the Lord has asked to forego marriage and family life in order to belong to Him alone. And yet, while spousal love is for God alone, the energies of mind, heart, body, and spirit are directed to the whole Church and to mankind in an inclusive manner. The call to live an exclusive spousal life with the Lord along with an inclusive love for all of His people draws one to profess a vow of celibate chastity for the sake of the Kingdom.
Obedience, a religious desires above all that the will of God be accomplished in the world (Thy Kingdom come ...) and, therefore, submits his/her will to Him. The choice of loving obedience to God's representatives, given in community to those who serve as leaders, reveals God's will for the individual and for the community. The religious is bound to obey in all things except sin. If there are differences of view in a given area, the decision of the superior is to be obeyed with joy.