Monday, September 15, 2008

A Great Picture From an Old Roman Pontifical

A couple of weeks ago, I was having fun looking through the stacks at the library of my new university, and I found an old copy of the Roman Pontifical, published in 1895. The entire book was written in Latin, including the publishing information. It contained Rites such as Ordination to the Presbyterate, Episcopal consecration, the dedication of a Church, and the blessing of an Abbot or Abbess.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that it also included the older version of the Rite of Consecration to A Life of Virginity (or as it was written here, “De Benedictione et Consecratione Virginum,” which more literally translates into “On the Blessing and Consecration of Virgins”).

Although the Rite had fallen into all but total disuse for several centuries, there was a movement in the late nineteenth-century to restore the usage of the Rite for cloistered, solemnly professed Benedictine nuns. My guess is that this particular edition of the Roman Pontifical reflects this trend.

Women who were not members of religious Orders would not be permitted to receive the Rite of Consecration until the Second Vatican Council, after the Council document Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a revision of the Rite. When this was done, the Rite was revised into two versions, one for nuns and one for women “living in the world.”

I find it quite meaningful to note that the both modes of living consecrated virginity have the same liturgical “ancestor”—noting also that consecrated virginity in the world is the ancestor to religious life itself. Even now, the dissimilarities between the two contemporary forms of the Rite are fairly minor; I think the biggest difference is that the Rite for nuns anticipates the solemn profession of religious vows to occur within the same ceremony, where conversely the Rite for women in the world containes more elements in which the candidate publicly states her intention to be consecrated.

From my point of view as a soon-to-be consecrated virgin in the world, this commonality re-enforces the understanding of consecrated virginity as an especially radical commitment to Christ, as well as highlighting the contemplative dimension of this vocation.

The image I share with you here depicts the “calling of the candidates.” This is an important part of the Rite because it is here that a consecrated virgin actually receives her vocation in the canonical, ecclesial sense—in fact, this IS the “vocation” itself (the word of course stemming from the Latin “vocare,” to call), in which Christ and the Church, through the person of the Bishop, call the candidate to consecration. There are parallel “callings” in other vocationally-oriented Rites, such as the Ordination rituals.

The chant written at the top of the page, “Prudentes virgines, aptate vestres lampades, ecce sponsa venit, exite obviam ei,” translates to: “Wise virgins, prepare your lamps, behold, the Bridegroom comes, go out to meet him.” Clearly an allusion to the Gospel story of the wise and foolish virgins, this antiphon, along with the carrying of candles illustrated here, was almost directly adopted in the revised Rite as one of the options for the “calling of the candidates.” You can see this for yourself in the Rite of Consecration, number 13.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Prayer of Pope Benedict XVI At Ground Zero

God of love, compassion, and healing, look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions, who gather today at this site, the scene of incredible violence and pain.

We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here—the heroic first-responders: our fire fighters, police officers, emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel, along with all the innocent men and women who were victims of this tragedy simply because their work or service brought them here on September 11, 2001.

We ask you, in your compassion to bring healing to those who, because of their presence here that day, suffer from injuries and illness. Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy. Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.

We are mindful as well of those who suffered death, injury, and loss on the same day at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Our hearts are one with theirs as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.

God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world: peace in the hearts of all men and women and peace among the nations of the earth. Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred.

God of understanding, overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy, we seek your light and guidance as we confront such terrible events. Grant that those whose lives were spared may live so that the lives lost here may not have been lost in vain.

Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope, and give us the wisdom and courage to work tirelessly for a world where true peace and love reign among nations and in the hearts of all.

--Pope Benedict XVI, New York City, April 2008

(Image taken from ""; text taken from "Whispers in the Loggia.")

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

I was pleasantly surprised at Mass this afternoon to see that two of the three readings—1 Corinthians 7:25-31; and Psalm 45:11-12, 14-15, 16-17—are among those listed as options for a Mass of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. (The Beatitudes are also listed for a Consecration Mass, but those are taken from Matthew and not from today’s Gospel, Luke 6:20-26.) It would take more space and time than I have here to reflect on both readings, but I can at least begin the discussion by reprinting the selection of the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

Brothers and sisters: In regard to virgins, I have no commandment from the
Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. So
this is what I think best because of the present distress: that it is a good
thing for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek a
separation. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife. If you marry,
however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but
such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like
to spare you that.

I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those
having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those
rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as
not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away.

This is one of the most frequently cited texts in the New Testament in defense of Christian virginity as a permanent state in life. In it, St. Paul gives us an unambiguous endorsement of celibacy, even while clearly explaining that this recommendation does not now render marriage sinful. (You can see this passage echoed in part of the Consecratory prayer in the Rite of Consecration which states: Among your many gifts you give to some the grace of virginity. Yet the honor of marriage is in no way lessened. As it was in the beginning, your first blessing still remains upon this holy union. Yet your loving wisdom chooses those who make sacrifice of marriage for the sake of the love of which it is the sign.)

I have to admit that I although I have always had respect for this section of Corinthians as the inspired word of God, I never used to find it particularly interesting. From my very subjective perspective as one raised Catholic, it seemed to be stating the obvious. Of course, I was glad that the practice of consecrated celibacy was in Scripture, but it seemed as perfunctory to me as “You shall not kill”—i.e., in the Bible, yet at the same time sort of a theological no-brainer.

But hearing this reading at Mass today, I was struck by the profundity of this epistle. Virginity as a permanent commitment represented a major paradigm shift for the faithful in the ancient world. As Pope Benedict mentioned in his address to consecrated virgins last spring, Christian celibacy was completely novel. In the Judaism of the time, barrenness was seen as a tremendous curse.

Likewise, there were no precedents for a life of virginity in the pagan world. Although the Vestal virgins and the Stoic philosophers are often held to be early precursors to Christian celibacy, these are not truly good comparisons. For the Vestal virgins, virginity was a temporary state, and the Stoic philosophers were celibate in order to maximize their receptivity to natural pleasures—hardly a motivation approximating that of Christianity. My understanding is that even in contemporary Protestantism, life-long celibate chastity is seen as something one endures if Providence does not provide a spouse, as opposed to a way of life which one would freely embrace.

Then and now, consecrated virginity is shocking to natural sensibilities because it strikes at the heart of the deepest and most enduring source of human joy and fulfillment, namely, human love and the family. By presenting virginity as a recommended option, St. Paul was teaching his listeners that they could live for something altogether greater than anything in the created world. Even today this remains an awesome concept, but imagine being among those who were hearing it for the first time in history!

St. Paul elaborates on the eschatological dimension of consecrated life in the famous passage which ends by telling us that “the world in its present form is passing away.” Like the original recipients of this letter, we live in an age which is not prone to rumination on the “last things.”

Yet this is at the core of any consecrated vocation, though perhaps I could say that it finds a particularly striking manifestation in consecrated virginity lived in the world. To use a translation different from what we have here in the Lectionary, saying that “the world as we know it is passing away” serves as a very good explanation of why the consecrated life exits.

The world, as created by God, is not evil—far from it!—but it is temporary and fleeting. We can come to know and love God through the created order, but everything good in the world is there for the purpose of bringing us to the ultimate Good. We come to love created things in order to look beyond them, and we become attached to people only in order that we might one day love them disinterestedly in God.

To put it in broad terms, consecrated people “skip” a lot of the passing beauty and goodness of human life (that is, they are “…using the world as not using it fully…”) because they are already starting to love the Eternal. This is obviously a marvelous thing for consecrated people themselves, but it is not only for them. The presence of consecrated celibate people in our midst should be a chance for all of the faithful to come to a better (albeit never perfect in this life) understanding of what it means to love in heaven.