Monday, October 27, 2008

What Is Consecrated Virginity?

(about the image: this is a mosaic of some ancient consecrated virgin-saints found in the Church of St. Apollinaire in Ravenna, Italy)

As I am now beginning to send out invitations for my consecration (and yes, it still seems a little unreal!), I found it necessary to write up a one-page description of consecrated virginity that I can give to those family and friends who have never heard of this vocation. I decided to share it with you here.

I want this to be easy to understand for the average, educated Catholic who goes to Church on Sunday, but who generally doesn't read Canon Law. I would really appreciate comments if you see a way that this could be more clear or more helpful. Also, if any of my readers ever need a convenient description of consecrated virginity lived in the world, feel free to borrow this.
What is consecrated virginity?
Consecrated virginity is the oldest form of consecrated life in the Catholic Church, dating back to the time of the Apostles. Centuries before it was historically possible for a woman to become a nun, she could offer herself entirely to God by becoming a consecrated virgin. Very early in the Church’s history, a special rite was developed to establish a woman in this state in life, setting her apart as a “spouse of Christ.”

Some well-know consecrated virgin saints from the early Church include St. Agnes, St. Cecilia, St. Agatha, and St. Lucy.

Beginning around the fourth century A.D., The formation of religious Orders and the surrounding historical circumstances gradually put an end to the practice of consecrating women living “in the world,” or outside of monasteries. Despite this, the Rite of Consecration was preserved in tradition by a few religious Orders which continued to use the Rite of Consecration in conjunction with a nun’s final profession of vows.

In the 1963 document Sacrosanctum Concilium, the second Vatican Council called for a revision and revival of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for Women Living in the World, thereby restoring this ancient vocation to the life of the contemporary Church.

Modern consecrated virgins are solemnly consecrated by the local diocesan bishop (or by a delegated auxiliary bishop) within the context of the revised rite. The bishop is the one who grants permission for women to receive this consecration, as well as the one who determines the concrete circumstances under which they are to live their consecrated lives. Consecrated virgins remain directly under his authority, unlike religious sisters who are ordinarily accountable to the superiors of their religious community.

Besides life-long celibacy, the only formal obligation of a consecrated virgin is prayer, especially for the people, clergy, and bishop of her diocese. During the Rite of Consecration a consecrated virgin is also given the responsibility to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church.

While consecrated virgins are expected to live simply, they do not take vows of poverty and must support themselves financially. Because of this, they are not required to take on any specific ministry. However, they are still called to be “dedicated to the service of God and the Church.”

Consecrated virgins exist in the Church today for the same reason that consecrated people have always existed—to be a living sign and witness of the love Christ has for His people.

Friday, October 17, 2008

St. Ignatius of Antioch And "Diocesan" Spirituality

(about the photo: these is a mosaic from the Haggia Sophia depicting St. John Chrysostom on the left, with St. Ignatius of Antioch at right.)

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been working on a list of reasons to become a consecrated virgin in the world according to canon 604. (That is, elements which make canon 604 unique among other forms of consecrated life, as opposed to discussing the virtues of the consecrated life in general.) Yet I found that, as these thoughts are all very close to my heart, I had a lot to say about them. So I decided to discuss these things in a series of posts, of which this is the first.

But do keep in mind that my decision to embrace this particular vocation was based first and foremost on a simple, inexplicable sense of being called to consecrated virginity, and not any other form of consecrated life. Although I am listing aspects of canon 604 which attracted me, please don’t misconstrue this as a checklist of “discernment pros and cons.”

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr. According to the breviary:
“St Ignatius was a successor of St. Peter as the bishop of Antioch. Condemned to death by being thrown to wild animals, he was brought to Rome forexecution and was martyred there under the Emperor Trajan in 107. On the journey to Rome he wrote seven letters to different Churches. In these he discussed Christ, the structure of the Church, and the Christian life in a manner at once wise and learned.”
Most of what we know about St. Ignatius comes from these letters.

St. Ignatius is a meaningful saint for consecrated virgins for a variety of reasons. He was a bishop, and consecrated virgins are bound to pray for their bishops; he was also a martyr, and consecrated virginity always retains an intimate connection with martyrdom. And as far as I know, St. Ignatius was also the earliest writer to address consecrated virgins as a distinct group in the early Church.

Additionally, all of St. Ignatius’ precious letters are addressed to individual Churches. I think that this is particularly significant, as one of the most striking elements of consecrated virginity in the world is that it is one of the only consecrated vocations for women which entails an essential, explicit bond with the local Church.*

The local Church, or the diocese, is the fundamental organizational unit of the universal Church. Every individual diocese, comprising a specific geographical territory and headed by its own bishop, is like the Catholic Church in miniature. This structural system is clearly ancient, going back all the way to apostolic times. The local Churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, et cetera, who received epistles from St. Paul; the “seven Churches” of which the book of Revelation speaks; and the Churches to whom St. Ignatius addresses his farewell letters are all effectively equivalent to our modern concept of “diocese.”

All lay people are more or less automatically a part of the diocese in which they live, coming under the pastoral authority of their local bishop. When a man becomes a diocesan priest, he makes a promise of obedience to his bishop, which is also an implicit commitment to spend his life serving the faithful in that bishop’s diocese.

But broadly speaking, individuals lose their association with their diocese when they enter religious life. Where the ecclesial “home” of a lay person is the Church of the area in which he or she lives (or for a diocesan priest, the local Church in which he is incardinated), a religious is at home in his or her Order or congregation, which is not typically thought of as being defined by geography. And while religious, like all Catholics, are bound to obey the bishop of the place where they are actually present, a religious is more directly under the authority of the superiors of his or her institute.

In some ways this dynamic is more pronounced in male, clerical religious institutes, since questions about Ordinations and incardination highlight the different roles of the local bishop and the religious superiors. Yet these issues still apply to women religious, as the only distinction the new Code of Canon Law makes between the two genders in religious life are certain additional laws and provisions regarding religious priests and clerical institutes.

But unlike a religious who necessarily “leaves” her local Church upon joining her community, the vocation of a consecrated virgin is directly connected to her diocese—most notably in that she is admitted to this consecrated by the diocesan bishop.

Although on the surface this may appear to some as canonical hair-splitting, the distinctions between “diocesan” and religious vocations for women are based on very real and meaningful (though perhaps not blatantly obvious) realities.

First, as an entity a diocese is every bit as noble and distinguished as a religious Order. Actually, the world’s many dioceses are even more fundamental to the structure of the Church than are the variety of religious institutes. While the consecrated life as a general category is essential to the Church, the Church could still exist (albeit not without losing untold blessings and benefits) without religious life per se. This is not to undermine the tremendous gifts to the Church which are religious institutes, but rather to point out that a call to priesthood or consecrated life outside of religious life is a valid and valuable vocation.

And while I do believe that a consecrated woman in the world should be have a lifestyle that is distinct as being consecrated (i.e., in many ways different from that of the average devout lay person), a woman consecrated according to canon 604 has the unique advantage of being able to pray for the people of whom she is a real part. I think of the line from the suggested homily in the Rite of Consecration, “They come from God’s holy people, from your own families. They are your daughters, your sisters, your relatives, joined by the ties of family or friendship.”

In a sense, consecrated virginity within a diocese makes the joy and love of an individual woman’s total gift of self especially “accessible” for all the people of her local Church.

Similarly, I would venture to say that belonging to a diocese can make the prayers of a consecrated virgin for the local clergy especially effective. Many of the famous male clerical religious Orders have a female branch of contemplative nuns who support their brothers’ apostolic activity through their lives of prayer and penance. This is the express purpose of the second-order Dominican nuns, but I this that this is also true for the Franciscans and the Poor Clares, for the Redemptorists and Redemptoristines, the Passionist fathers and nuns, and the brothers and contemplative sisters of the Congregation of St. John.

I believe that consecrated virgins could fulfill a similar role for the clergy of their diocese.

* The other forms of “diocesan” consecrated life being can. 603 eremitic life, and possibly life in a religious congregation of diocesan rite—although diocesan congregations often seek and obtain pontifical status.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Five Reasons NOT to Become a Consecrated Virgin

First of all, I apologize for the slow posting. (Graduate school is challenging and I always have a lot of homework!)

I was working on a list of some of the aspects of consecrated life unique to my vocation, which was to be titled “reasons to become a consecrated virgin.” But while I was writing, this other list suggested itself to me. These five “non-reasons” all reflect common misconceptions which I would like to clarify. And although you don’t see many instances of “apophatic” vocational discernment, sometimes reflecting on what a particular vocation is not can help us when we consider it in a positive manner.

1. You don’t want to make all the sacrifices which are demanded in religious life – Love and sacrifice are inseparable. To put it in ultimate terms, you cannot make a complete gift of self without first “losing” yourself in a very real sense. Yet over and above the first magnanimous choice of a state in life, the interconnectedness between love and sacrifice is also manifest in countless and ever-present more ordinary ways.

Without a willingness to make sacrifices, it is impossible to live any vocation well. This is certainly the case with marriage. But it is especially true in reference to the consecrated life, the heart of which is a closer following of the Christ who told us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross...”*

I think I would be justified in saying that a love for the cross is even more necessary for consecrated virgins than it is for women in religious life. Finding joy in renunciation is as central to the consecrated state as it is incomprehensible to our natural ways of thinking. Religious have the support and structures of their community to help them in this area, but (to borrow from St. John of the Cross) in her day-to-day life a consecrated virgin has no other light to guide her other than the one that burns in her heart.

2. You want to be consecrated, but you don’t want anyone telling you what to do with your life – It is true that a consecrated virgin does not make a formal vow of obedience, and this does mean that she has a great deal of freedom in determining concrete circumstances under which she will live her consecrated life. But beyond the obedience which all baptized Catholics are bound to show their bishops, consecrated virgins are also explicitly called to be “dedicated to the service of God and the Church.”**

As I see it, if you take this seriously there is no way that it could NOT determine the course of your whole life. Every significant choice you make would have to be in reference to this element of your vocation. Ordering your life around this sort of commitment is—or at least should be—a far cry from “doing whatever you want.”

3. You would have wanted to be a religious, but have not been able to join a religious community – First, some qualifications: I do believe that a woman could have a genuine vocation to consecrated virginity even if there are some impediments (such as certain health problems) which would have ordinarily kept her from entering a convent. I also think it is theoretically possible that God’s providential ordering of circumstances could lead a woman who was not successful in religious life to find, as a consequence of this disappointment, her true vocation to consecrated virginity in the world.

However, a call to consecrated virginity has to be much more than an ecclesial process of elimination. I am firmly of the opinion that there needs to be a positive attraction to this form of consecrated life as it stands by itself. If a woman is to live this vocation joyfully and well, she has to have a real appreciation of the charism specific to consecrated virgins.

Additionally, many situations which would preclude a woman from entering religious life could also make living as a consecrated virgin either difficult or impossible. For example, an inability to relate well with people would be disruptive for life in a religious community, but it could also undermine the evangelical witness of a consecrated virgin in the world. Overwhelming illness or family obligations may present an obstacle for the intense prayer life proper to a consecrated virgin. And because all forms of consecrated life presuppose a major shift in perspective and identity, an older woman who has been living a conventional, worldly (but not necessarily sinful) life may struggle in interiorizing the asceticism and detachment implicit in this vocation.

Basically, we should remember that consecrated virginity is just as much of a real, total vocation as is a call to religious life—so it should not be seen as a last resort for when all else fails!

4. You just don’t want to be married – Marriage is the primordial human vocation; it even says this in the Rite of Consecration itself. Therefore, people discerning vocations need a definite, surpassing reason for embracing a life of voluntary celibacy if they are to live this sort of calling in its fullness. There is a lot of truth to the old maxim that grace builds on nature, and this instance is no exception.

Practically speaking, an aversion to marriage could indicate a serious emotional or developmental problem—obviously not solid grounds on which to build a major life commitment. But on a deeper level, the Rite of Consecration mentions several times that consecrated virgins “renounce marriage.” This would seem to highlight renunciation as a central aspect of this vocation.

“Renouncing marriage” does not necessarily mean that a woman has to turn away scores of adoring suitors, or that she runs away the night before her wedding. Probably for a lot of woman (myself included) who have spent a length of time considering a vocation to the consecrated life, there simply will not happen to be any prospective mortal spouse in the picture.

However, even if marriage is not an imminent option, it must be a viable one. Consecrated virginity is about taking your capacity to give yourself in love completely to another person (i.e., your capacity for marriage) and offering it wholly to God. A person clearly cannot do this if that capacity is not there in the first place.

5. You love the idea of wearing a wedding dress and being a “bride of Christ” sounds so romantic – Granted, I do think that wearing a wedding dress to your consecration is a nice custom, and if I did not whole-heartedly believe in the spousal dimension of this vocation I would not have titled this blog “Sponsa Christi.”

But while it is essential that an aspiring consecrated virgin be fundamentally attracted to, and capable of, human marriage, it is important to realize that the two vocations are still very, very different. And for a lot of reasons, I think it is extremely dangerous to confuse them.

In a good marriage there is a great deal of self-sacrifice. But as the original human vocation, on an immediate level marriage is oriented to tangible satisfaction for our built-in longings for love and companionship. Conversely, consecrated virginity provides NO fulfillment of emotional or sexual desires. Rather, it is a call to move beyond them by the grace of God.

This is not to say that say that consecrated virginity is an altogether unfulfilling, joyless vocation. On the contrary, it is very joyful, but it must be understood that this joy comes from God alone.

The trick is not to confuse sublime earthly joys (like pleasures of romantic human love) with spiritual fulfillment. Oftentimes, God’s greatest gifts can look like punishments to our natural ways of viewing things. We can see this in the beatitudes, where Christ refers to the blessed as “poor in spirit,” “meek,” “those who mourn,” “hungry,” and “persecuted.”

A woman who looks to consecration to provide consolations similar to that of human marriage will be severally disappointed. It is only by embracing this tremendous “lack” that a consecrated virgin can accept her vocation to be a living anticipation of the love of Heaven.

* cf. Matthew 16:24-28
** See n. 923 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; and canon 604 in the Code of Canon Law.