To say that consecrated virgins are called to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” is actually not to make a statement which would be in any way debatable, as the phrase “dedicated to the service of the Church” is taken verbatim from the sole canon which explicitly deals with consecrated virgins in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (that is, can. 604). Very similar wording is also used in the other authoritative magisterial documents that mention consecrated virginity.
And perhaps most significantly, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself acknowledges, in several places, the connection between consecrated virginity and service to the Church. For instance, in the general introduction to the two forms of the Rite of Consecration, we read that, “Those who consecrate their chastity under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit do so for the sake of a more fervent love of Christ and of greater freedom in the service of their brothers and sisters. They are to spend their time in works of penance and of mercy, in apostolic activity, and in prayer, according to their state in life and their spiritual gifts.”*
In terms of the actual words of the liturgy, in the Rite’s suggested homily the bishop says of the virgins to be consecrated: “God has called them to be more closely united to himself and to be dedicated to the service of the Church and of mankind.” And then to the virgins themselves, he exhorts them to: “Never forget that you are given over entirely to the service of the Church and of all your brothers and sisters.”
This call to service is further emphasized in the examination immediately following the homily, where the consecrating Bishop, in front of the entire assembly, asks the candidate: “Are you resolved to persevere to the end of you days in the holy state of virginity and in the service of God and his Church?” Then following the actual prayer of consecration, both of the possible formulae for the presentation of the veil contain a reference to the newly consecrated virgins’ dedication to the service of the Church.
Finally, the Rite of Consecration concludes with a solemn blessing, of which one formula echoes this theme of service by including the words:
May the Holy Spirit,
by whom the Virgin Mary conceived her Son,
today consecrate your hearts
and fill you with a burning desire
to serve God and his Church.
Given all this, it would be hard for me to imagine how anyone could reasonably conclude that a consecrated virgin would somehow NOT have service to the Church as a fundamental aspect of her vocation. What’s more, these passages indicate that consecrated virgins are not only called to serve the Church, but to be dedicated to this service. And at least according to my understanding of the word “dedication,” this should be taken to denote a special commitment of one’s entire life.
Consequently, it seems to me that a consecrated virgin is not called to help the Church by merely performing a set amount of good works, nor is she called simply to set aside some time every day or every week to engage in intercessory prayer or charitable activities. Instead, I believe that a consecrated virgin is called to pour out her whole self in fulfillment of this call to service, by letting it shape and demonstrably influence every facet of her life.
While it’s necessary and beneficial to discuss the significance of being “dedicated to the service of the Church” in general and abstract terms, still in another important sense these words are only meaningful insofar as they find a concrete expression. Yet as far as I know, the universal Church has never given us an authoritative interpretation of what this “dedication to service” means for consecrated virgins on a practical level. So without prejudice to an individual bishop’s prerogative to define with authority how this call to service is to be lived out concretely by the consecrated virgins of his own diocese (I explain this concept in more detail in this recent post), the actual meaning of “dedication to service” is one of the components of the vocation of consecrated virginity which is still open for discussion.
And so after studying and praying about the question for some time, I have arrived at my own OPINION on this matter: I think that consecrated virgins living “in the world” should ordinarily express their call to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” by working full-time in a Church-related apostolate (or else perhaps by contributing a truly comparable amount of volunteer time to the Church directly, around which they are willing to order their lives).**
My reasoning for this is that, first of all, direct and full-time work in a Church-related apostolate*** seems to be the most literal and readily obvious reading of canon 604 when it describes consecrated virgins as being “dedicated to the service of the Church.” As I see it, the very fact that Canon Law—which is notably brief in its treatment of consecrated virgins—would take care to mention “dedication to the service of the Church” as an essential element of consecrated virginity can be taken to indicate that a consecrated virgin’s commitment to serving the Church should be more explicit and on a more radical level than that of a devout laywoman.
Also, it seems to me that asking consecrated virgins to serve full-time in a Church-related apostolate would be most in keeping with the Church’s theology of consecrated life in general. I think it would be accurate to say to describe the Church’s understanding of consecrated life in a nutshell as “a complete gift of self,” in which one is “set apart” for God’s purposes alone. And in many ways I believe that for a consecrated virgin, devoting one’s life to Church-sponsored work is the clearest manifestation of this, primarily because it would allow her to put the needs of the Church above her own interests and concerns.
It also seems to me that full-time work for the Church would be the occupation most consistent with a consecrated virgin’s status as “sacred person.” As an individual in a public state of consecrated life, a consecrated virgin’s vocation does not “belong” primarily to her, but to the Church. A call to consecrated virginity is not only a grace for the woman consecrated, but also a gift for the entire people of God. So I think that by working to further the Church’s mission in a full-time and direct manner (or at least by demonstrating a sincere and eager willingness to do so), a consecrated virgin would be most clearly, visibly, and unambiguously expressing her call to be totally given over to Christ, and His body the Church.
Additionally, from what I have been able to gather from my (albeit not yet totally exhaustive) reading of the Church Fathers on consecrated virginity, it appears that full-time, direct service to the Church on the part of modern consecrated virgins would be most in accord with the Patristic understanding of this vocation.
Of course, the Church Fathers do not specifically address the issue of whether or not consecrated virgins should typically be engaged in secular careers. Such a question probably would have seemed somewhat nonsensical to them, as it would have been highly unusual for even a laywoman of that historical period to have had an outside career of any sort.
However, one theme that reoccurs in virtually all of the Fathers’ writings on consecrated virginity is that a consecrated virgin should be living what we would call a non-secular lifestyle. The ancient consecrated virgins were admonished to live in a spirit of detachment from worldly things, to forsake even non-sinful pleasures, and to be very selective in choosing which situations merited them leaving their homes. They were also encouraged to spend apparently all of their time in prayer, study, works of charity, and in the kinds of manual labor that would allow them to maintain a spirit of recollection. Although I would argue that it is neither possible nor desirable for modern consecrated virgins to attempt to follow a Patristic-era consecrated virgin’s daily schedule in exact detail, it seems to me that full-time work for the Church would be the closest approximation the early consecrated virgins’ ecclesial role.
And finally, I think that for today’s consecrated virgins, working full-time in a Church-related apostolate would be a good idea for several pragmatic reasons. For one thing, it would eliminate a lot of the difficulties in assuming one’s identity and relating to others as a consecrated person, since a consecrated virgin working directly for the Church would probably find it a lot less awkward to open about her vocation at all times and to everyone she meets. Having a Church-related, service-oriented job could also make it easier for a consecrated virgin to stay focused directly on God throughout her day. And working in a Church-sponsored institution would probably best allow a consecrated virgin to give priority to her obligation of prayer—e.g., a Church-related apostolate seems more likely than a secular career to allow a consecrated virgin to attend daily Mass, make an annual retreat, and so forth.
But before I conclude this post, I want to give a few disclaimers:
1. I absolutely do not intend the opinion that I’m expressing here to be a commentary on the lives of any specific consecrated virgins—the personal holiness of individual consecrated virgins is NOT the issue I’m calling into question! I’m sure that the vast majority of consecrated virgins, however they understand their vocation to service, are living out their consecrated lives in good faith and to the best of their ability. (And, I’m fully aware of the possibility that a consecrated virgin who disagrees with me could be much closer to God than I am.)
2. In proposing that consecrated virgins should understand their call to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” as ordinarily indicating full-time and direct service, I am only trying to comment on circumstances that could be considered truly “ordinary.” Exceptional circumstances are, by definition, exceptional—which means that they should not be the standard by which we seek to define the rule. Thus, I have deliberately put beyond the scope of this post what I would call extraordinary cases, such as: consecrated virgins who remain in or undertake a secular occupation in response to their diocese’ real pastoral needs, and at the specific request of their bishop; consecrated virgins who are burdened by physical or mental handicaps; or consecrated virgins who cannot work for the Church due to reasons of true financial necessity.
3. This post is also not intended to cause scruples or to trouble anyone’s conscience. There may be cases where a consecrated virgin is, for reasons beyond her control, genuinely unable to serve the Church in the way that she has concluded is most appropriate for her vocation. Obviously, a consecrated virgin who finds herself in this sort of extraordinary circumstance should not feel guilty and is not culpable for her perceived lack of service. While I’m tempted to emphasize that none of us (no matter what our vocation) should ever let ourselves “off the hook” too easily, at the same time I want to point out that God can only ask that we do the best we can with what we have.
4. In sharing my opinion, I am not trying to be polemical—I just think that the question of what “dedication to the service of the Church” means for consecrated virgins on a practical level is very important, and that it deserves much more thoughtful study and discussion than it has been given up to this point.
* See The Rites of the Catholic Church, vol. II, page 157.
** N.b., I strongly believe that prayer can be a full-time apostolate in service of the Church, if one actually prays full-time. So I am not trying to suggest that cloistered contemplatives aren’t serving the Church because they don’t have an active apostolate! But at the same, while I believe that prayer is the primary and foundational means by which a consecrated virgin serves the Church, I don’t think that formal prayer on its own could ordinarily suffice as fulfilling the vocation to service on the part of a consecrated virgin living in the world, unless she discerns with her bishop that she is called to do something like follow a quasi-monastic horarium.
*** I’m using the word “apostolate” to mean what is colloquially meant by the word “ministry”—i.e., work that directly advances the Church’s charitable, evangelical, catechetical, or missionary efforts. However, I’m trying to avoid using the word “ministry” in this context, because technically “ministry” refers only to the teaching, sacramental, and administrative actions proper to those who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.