Thursday, December 31, 2009

“Dedicated to the Service of the Church:” Responses to Comments, Part I

In my last post, “What Does It Mean to Be ‘Dedicated to the Service of the Church?’” I described some of the reasons behind my opinion that, whenever possible, consecrated virgins living “in the world” should ordinarily express their call to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” by working directly in a Church-related apostolate. And as I expected, I received some thoughtful comments.

Here are some points brought up by Anonymous commentator #3:

“Sponsa Christi: Would you care to elaborate on this statement of our Holy Father to consecrated virgins?:

‘However, your ideal, truly lofty in itself, demands no special external change. Each consecrated person normally remains in her own life context. It is a way that seems to lack the specific characteristics of religious life, and above all that of obedience.’

Did Our Lady have formal Temple service or did she spend most of her time in daily, ordinary, household labors? Did Jesus Christ disdain to be in the world, working as a carpenter for most of His life? Perhaps His brides should not be unhappy if He found it to be a holy occupation, if they are in a secular profession as well. Certainly one would not classify carpentry services as ‘ministry,’ ‘churchy’ activities, and yet the Son of God managed to do it and retain His service to mankind. Thanks!”

Dear Anonymous #3,

If I’m reading your comment correctly, it seems that you are addressing two sets of concerns, both of which could be taken to indicate that consecrated virgins living “in the world” would be best fulfilling their vocation if they retained a more secular lifestyle than what I have suggested in my previous post. The first concern is that it seems as though the Holy Father envisions consecrated virgins as normally living lives that outwardly resemble that of devout single laywomen; and the second is that the examples of Mary and Jesus show that a secular profession is compatible with a vocation to the consecrated life, and is perhaps preferable within a vocation to consecrated virginity in particular.

While I always appreciate well thought-out comments, I do disagree with both of these premises. I’ll explain why:

Regarding the quote from Pope Benedict XVI, it seems as though it’s being assumed that, because the Holy Father is apparently saying that consecrated virgins do not have the embracing of the evangelical councils a characteristic element of their vocation (i.e., in his statement that consecrated virginity “seems to lack the specific characteristics of religious life, and above all that of obedience”), therefore consecrated virgins are not called to dedicate their lives to full-time, direct service in a Church-related apostolate.

One point on which I think we both agree is that, for consecrated virgins, a life of direct service to the Church could be considered as a way of observing the evangelical counsels of poverty and obedience. Although I don’t think that a life of Church-related service per se and a radical living of the evangelical counsels are totally interchangeable concepts, I do think that it would be appropriate to identify a dedication to explicitly service of the Church as a clear expression of a life completely given over to Christ in poverty, chastity, and obedience. I could also see how, if it could be definitely proven that consecrated virgins are not called to any sort of observance of the evangelical counsels beyond a commitment to celibate chastity, that this could be used as an argument that consecrated virgins do not actually have literal service to the Church as a part of their vocation.

However, when you take the Holy Father’s quote in context, it does NOT seem as though Benedict XVI is tying to imply that consecrated virgins are not called to observe the evangelical counsels. In fact, it appears as though the Pope is saying exactly the opposite:

“However, your ideal, truly lofty in itself, demands no special external change. Each consecrated person normally remains in her own life context. It is a way that seems to lack the specific characteristics of religious life, and above all that of obedience. For you, however, love becomes the sequela: your charism entails a total gift to Christ, an assimilation of the Bridegroom who implicitly asks for the observance of the evangelical counsels in order to keep your fidelity to him unstained.” (Emphasis mine.)

In this passage, Pope Benedict says that consecrated virginity “seems to lack the specific characteristics of religious life, and above all that of obedience.” But, the word “seem” does not mean the same thing as “is” or “does,” and is even more different from the words “ought to” or “should.” Here, I think the Holy Father is using the word “seems” as a way to call special attention to his observation that, for consecrated virgins, Christ “implicitly asks for the observance of the evangelical counsels.” So while at times we may be tempted to describe consecrated virgins as being called only to celibacy, the Holy Father is stressing that this is not at all the case.

Also, although you could perhaps argue that the Pope seems to be advocating a secular lifestyle for consecrated virgins by describing this vocation as one that “demands no special external change,” and in which each consecrated virgin “normally remains in her own life context,” I would respond by pointing out that these phrases are too vague to be taken as conclusive in this sense. That is, I don’t think that these words are specific enough to automatically rule out the possibility that consecrated virgins are called to a life of direct service to the Church.

If I had to give my own interpretation of these passages, I would say that “remaining in one’s own life context” is a reference to the fact that a consecrated virgin lives out her consecrated life from within her home diocese. In my personal experience, I certainly feel as though being a Catholic in the Archdiocese of New York (where I grew up) is my “own life context”—whereas in a certain sense I would be leaving my original life context if I joined a religious Order with its own particular history, spirituality, customs, and traditions.

Similarly, I don’t think that the description of consecrated virginity as demanding “no special external change” should be taken to mean that this vocation is categorically opposed to any type of change or adjustment in its aspirants. The fact of the matter is that entrance into a public state of consecrated life does demand that significant lifestyle changes be made at some point. In terms of consecrated virginity specifically, a woman hoping to become a consecrated virgin will ordinarily have to: make a conscious choice to stop dating and to put aside any thoughts of marriage; start praying the Liturgy of the Hours; get used to discerning major life decisions with her bishop or her bishop’s delegate; and so forth. And these are only a few examples of the ways in which a consecrated virgin would have to “transition” from life as a practicing lay Catholic to life as a consecrated person.

Even if these practices were adopted years before consecration to a life of virginity actually takes place, they still represent a change from a non-consecrated way of life. But naturally, they are not as glaring and dramatic as many of the external changes that may take place in entering religious life. For instance, consecrated virgins living in the world don’t adopt a detailed horarium; don a medieval-style habit, or take a new name. We do not become bound to observe enclosure, and we aren’t concerned with “fitting in” with a new religious community and adjusting to its rhythm of daily life. So I think that the Holy Father was correct in his observation of lack of dramatic external changes involved in consecrated virginity. Yet even with this in mind, I still don’t think that dedicating one’s life to direct service of the Church would fall into the category of a “special external change” proper only to religious life.

But without prejudice to everything I have written above, I think that in this passage the Pope is more focused on describing the present situation than he is on giving directives for the continued development of the restored Order of Virgins. And more importantly, even though these words are coming from the Holy Father, I doubt that they could be considered an authoritative document, and much less as a comprehensive theological treatise. This quote was taken from the address given by Pope Benedict to the assembled consecrated virgins at the 2008 International Pilgrimage (you can find the full English text of the address here, in the June 2008 issue of the USACV newsletter)—so I believe it was intended simply as a pastoral greeting and as a general exhortation to holiness, and not as the definitive word on the disputed elements of this vocation. (I’m hoping for an encyclical on consecrated virginity lived in the world just as much as the next consecrated virgin, but this greeting isn’t it!)

Of course, consecrated virgins should read this address carefully, take the Pope’s words to heart, and allow themselves to be inspired by it. BUT, this pastoral greeting cannot substitute for, or override, Canon Law and the other magisterial documents which the Church actually does consider authoritative.

Now with regard to viewing the lives of Mary and Jesus as an argument that consecrated virgins are not called to any sort of non-secular lifestyle:

Interestingly, the lives of Jesus and Mary have been traditionally held up as examples of a distinctly consecrated way of life. While of course Jesus and Mary exemplify virtues which should be practiced by all Christians, holding them up as a model of a specifically secular or lay vocation seems to be somewhat of a recent trend.

For example, the second-century work the “Protoevangelium of James” describes Mary’s life, with a special focus on her girlhood, youth, and the circumstances surrounding the Annunciation and Nativity of Christ. Although this work is NOT a part of the canon of divinely-inspired Scriptures, many scholars believe that, even amidst its more fanciful elements, the “Protoevangelium of James” still reflects venerable oral traditions. Among the Church Fathers, St. Ambrose, borrowing from an earlier pastoral letter of St. Athanasius, indirectly references the “Protoevangelium of James” when he holds up Mary’s life as the inspiration for consecrated virgins in De Virginibus.

The “Protoevangelium of James” goes into great detail about Mary’s dedication to a life of virginity at age three (an event commemorated in our liturgy with the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on November 21), and how subsequently her childhood was spent in residence at the Temple. At Mary’s betrothal, St. Joseph was introduced as a protector and guardian of Mary as a consecrated virgin, and not as a husband in the normal sense. The general theme of the “Protoevangelium of James” is that Mary’s life was demonstrably extraordinary from beginning to end. Here, Mary is not portrayed as model of what we would now call “lay spirituality.”*

From this, I certainly don’t think we should therefore conclude that extraordinary signs and miracles are necessary hallmarks of true Christian holiness. But, I also believe that the tradition captured in the “Protoevangelium of James” is a strong argument against using Mary’s humble life as “proof” that consecrated virgins are not actually called to embrace a lifestyle which is more visibly “set apart” for God.

In terms of non-apocryphal, Scriptural evidence, we do know that “secular” activities did not constitute the entirety of the outward expressions of Mary and Jesus’ vocations. Yes, Jesus was a carpenter for the majority of His adult life; and yes, you could rightly say that through this He sanctified human labor; but Jesus’ mission in the world was not advanced through carpentry alone. Jesus spent the last three years of His life preaching and healing—a true ministry.

Additionally, when Jesus called the first twelve Apostles to follow Him, and later to continue His saving ministry on earth by means of what would become the episcopate and priesthood, He did ask them to leave their previous occupations in order to devote themselves full-time to the work of the Church.** I think it’s also reasonable to speculate that, because after the crucifixion Mary lived with the Apostle John for the remainder of her earthly life, she most likely would have had a very special role in caring for the infant Church directly.

Finally, I actually don’t think that it’s altogether fair to hold up the lives of Jesus and Mary as an exact, practical “blueprint” for any one vocation within the Church. This is because the example of Jesus and the vocation of Mary are both universal as well as extremely special. They are “special” in the sense that no one else in history will ever be called to redeem humanity as the Incarnate Word of God, or to bear the Incarnate Word in one’s womb. But the examples of Jesus and Mary are also universal in the sense that all Christians are called to share in the Divine life, and to be perfectly surrendered to God’s will.

But, these kinds of general “vocations” can be expressed in almost any set of concrete circumstances. All Christians are called to “the imitation of Christ,” whether or not they are called to very specific type of imitation found in the ministerial priesthood. Likewise, everyone is able to follow Mary in her love, fidelity, and obedience to the will of God, whether they are married with children or committed to a life of celibacy.

Because of this, I think it would be wrong to argue that consecrated virgins would best imitate Mary through employment in a secular career—this would be like arguing that a Carmelite nun does not follow Mary as closely as a Catholic suburban mom does. It is already presumed that consecrated virgins are called to imitate Mary. The question is how best to imitate Mary in the specific context of a public state of consecrated life.

*But this is not to say absolutely that Mary should not be considered a model for single or married laywomen. As I’ll explain later, I do believe that Mary’s life should be an inspiration for all women universally. But my point here is to show that in many traditional sources of Marian spirituality, Mary was NOT considered to be someone who exemplified the outward lifestyle of the “rank-and-file” faithful.

**See, for example, the episode recounted in Matthew 4:18-22:

“As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you take the "service to the church" thing so literally - you seem to think the only way to really be serving the church is to be working for the church directly somehow. I'm still only discerning my vocation of course, but somehow as I was reading the information about consecrated virginity on the USACV website I got the impression that serving the church meant that you use whatever talents the Lord has given you to build up the local church as well as you can. And if a consecrated virgin's talents could be put to better use by getting a secular job, witnessing to the faith in it, and then donating a substantial portion of her income to support the church, this would not make her exempt from serving the parish or diocese with works of charity, etc but surely it would still be considered as service to the church? Otherwise we are assuming that all women called to consecrated virginity are going to have pretty much the exact same talents - things that make them good at parish ministry, running homeless shelters, etc. And I'm not sure that it's fair to expect the local diocese to employ all of the consecrated virgins as the "ideal" situation. What if far more women find they are called to this vocation?

It seems to me the really important thing is that the local church must come before the secular job. A consecrated virgin cannot have a secular job that requires to have the same level of commitment to it "career woman" would have.

But again, I'm only just discerning and trying to make sense of how these things all fit together.