Monday, May 25, 2020

Letter to a Newly Consecrated Virgin

Dear sister in Christ,

Maybe we know each other in real life, or maybe we’ve only “met” over the internet, or maybe you’ve just stumbled upon this blog. We may have corresponded over many years, or we may have just exchanged one or two emails, or perhaps you don’t know me at all. Whatever the case may be, if you are a newly-consecrated virgin, I first of all send my warm and heartfelt congratulations. I hope your consecrated life brings you many years of joy and happiness, crowned with an eternal reward!

I know it’s usually presumptuous to offer unasked-for advice, but I remember when I was in your shoes—that is, newly consecrated and happy about it, but still trying to “find my feet” in a new vocation—and I think it would have helped me to have had some more honest insights about the lived reality of life as a consecrated virgin. My own thoughts at this point may or may not resonate with you, but after living more than a decade of consecrated life myself, hopefully I’ll still have something helpful to share.

And so here are some of the things I wish an “older sister” would have said to me all those years ago:

1. This is just the beginning of a new life.

Your consecration may have in some ways felt like a culmination, or like a conclusion of some sort, but it wasn’t; it was only the very beginning of a new life. This might be a bit more readily obvious to those of us who were consecrated in our twenties or thirties (though even for us younger ones, there still might have been a sense of “finally, I’m done discerning my vocation!”). But I think this is true for newly-consecrated virgins of all ages.

Consecrated virginity is unique among forms of consecrated life in that presumes that we have already been living an exceptionally chaste life for a number of years. Or really, it presumes that our entire lives have been virtuous in this way. Yet our consecration isn’t meant as a reward-like recognition or acknowledgment of this. Rather, as the Rite of Consecration tells us, it’s a call to continue living this life of virtue “with a new grace and [consecrated] to God by a new title.” In our consecration, the natural virtue of chastity, which even the classical pagans valued, takes on a new supernatural dimension as an eschatological sign of Christ’s love for the Church. And in addition to the universal call to holiness we received at baptism, in our consecration we are embracing a new, special, and privileged call to be a bride of Christ in a radical and more literal way.

Of course your consecration day itself will always be important in your memory. But I think you’ll find that if you live your vocation well, over the years the emotional and spiritual weight of the day will start to feel very secondary to the many years of fidelity you will have offered the Lord. In fact, I think there may be even greater joy in perseverance. Each passing year of your consecrated life becomes a self-gift you offer to your divine Spouse, a gift which is just as precious as that first self-offering you made on your consecration day.

2. Your life is different now.

Even if prior to consecration you were sincerely striving to “live the life of a consecrated virgin,” and even if your exterior life looks the same, the fact of the matter is that your life is different now. And so are you!

This isn’t talked about as much as it probably should be, and my impression is that many newly-consecrated virgins often feel a bit unsettled post-consecration without really knowing why. But I think this is due to the “growing pains” involve in adjusting to a new identity. It takes time to adjust to a new identity, but I believe that in most cases this struggle is normal and healthy. I actually think I would be more worried about a new consecrated virgin who didn’t struggle at all with this, because it would make me wonder if she was fully processing what had happened to her spiritually or if she was fully grasping the weight of what she had committed to.

On an interior level, among other things, you may find yourself being drawn to a greater spirit of simplicity or evangelical poverty—that is, a more profound detachment from worldly things. This is really a great grace!

Don’t resist this grace, even if it might conflict with your idea of what life as a consecrated virgin is supposed to be like. Maybe let go of some ideas, such as the thought that you’ll be something like “a normal woman living in the world like anybody else.”  Naturally, you probably will blend in a little better than a nun or fully habited Sister would, and the hope is that people will see you as approachable. But the consecration will make you different from laywomen, as well making you a bit weird from a worldly perspective. But let your “weirdness” unfold naturally according to the inspirations and providential circumstances the Lord sends you, so that this weirdness can serve His purposes.

There will also be some practical adjustments involved in assuming your new vocation, which may seem subtle from an outside point of view, but which will still require some careful discernment on your part. You are a public representative of the Church now, and we can rightly say you are now an icon of the Church, or an “image of the Church as Bride” (i.e., an “Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago”). To a significant extent, everything you now do should be an expression of what the Church would do. E.g., when you are kind and fair, even in the small interactions of daily life, this is a reflection of the Church as loving and just. Our sins are of course our own and nobody else’s, but the other side of this coin is that our lack of kindness, patience, courage, or any other virtue has the potential to reflect badly on the Church in the eyes of others. And in general, when you have entered a public state of consecrated life, the faithful will expect more of you…as they are indeed fully entitled to do.

Because of this, it may be necessary to re-evaluate certain aspects of your life. For example, you may find you need to be more reserved in some ways, or more selective about whom you let into your circle of close personal friends. There might be some social invitations that, while not sinful, you will need to gracefully turn down. Or on the other hand, you might also find you need to be more friendly or even “pastoral” to people you otherwise wouldn’t have talked to! You may even discern it’s necessary to start dressing or introducing yourself differently.

It can be a bit daunting at first, but be patient with yourself as you do this hard work of discernment. (And obviously keep in conversation with your bishop, spiritual director, and trusted mentors as you do this!)

3. Know that you’re still being formed.

At this point in history, it can more or less be taken for granted that a newly-consecrated virgin today (at least in the United States) will not have had a perfect formation experience. This makes sense when you consider how relatively recently the Ordo virginum was revived as its own distinct state in life.  Even in a best-case scenario, with an attentive bishop motivated to provide a decent structured formation program, as a contemporary Church we simply don’t have enough collective lived experience to provide formation that is perfectly comprehensive for all aspiring consecrated virgins everywhere. That is, it’s likely going to take us a while longer to figure out exactly what the specific formation needs of consecrated virgins are, along with the best practical ways to address these needs. (Though as a point of reference, consider that it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century that the Church adopted the first versions of our modern seminary system for the formation of priests!)

Although this does put us at an obvious disadvantage, I think much of the disadvantage of having had a less-than-perfect formation experience can be mitigated by simply being aware of and accepting the reality of the situation. Being aware of our areas for potential or needed growth can help us take care to make up for what is lacking, and “knowing what you don’t know” is crucial for avoiding mistakes that our possible blind spots may cause.

Also keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is the best of all formators, and He will help us in the ways we need, but only if we are truly docile and open to Him.

And alluding to my earlier point, receiving the concretion itself is a highly formative event. No amount of prior study can compare to the experience of actually being consecrated. So even if you were blessed enough to have had an excellent formation program, know that post-consecration you are still being formed by both your lived experience of consecrated life and by the graces you received in your consecration. God willing, each passing year as a consecrated virgin will make you an ever more fitting spouse of Christ.

4. You’ll have share in the cross in a new way.

The Church describes even natural human marriage as “a partnership of the whole of life.” (CIC canon 1055 §1) Spouses are called to share everything, including all their joys and sorrows. This is true also for those of us who have Christ as our spouse. In a mysterious way that words can’t quite describe, your consecration will give you a new and more intimate window into Christ’s suffering and passion.

This is not just pious sentiment. In my own experience and having talked with numerous consecrated virgins over the years, it seems to be quite common that new consecrated virgins will encounter some sort of new and extraordinary—and at times even uncanny—suffering shortly following their consecration. This might be the result of exterior life circumstances, a purely interior spiritual trial, or some combination of these.

Of course, suffering by definition is never pleasant, and I certainly wouldn’t wish it on anyone, much less my sisters in the Ordo virginum. But if there is a consolation in this, to me when a newly consecrated virgin does encounter some sort of unexpected trial, paradoxically I’m inclined to see this as a positive sign in her vocation. That is, it can be a sign that her consecration really “worked,” and that Jesus took her at her word when she said “yes” to His call to a life of greater union with Him.

The old saying that God can never be outdone in generosity is certainly true. And for the sake of a healthy spirituality in consecrated life it’s important to remember that while God at times permits suffering for a greater good, He does not actively desire us to be in pain—and in fact, it’s God’s will to bring us to a place where “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.” (Revelation 21:4)

But for those of us who have committed to remaining with Jesus “wherever He goes,” (cf. Revelation 14:4) we can look on it as a privilege when He invites us to remain with Him so personally in His darkest but most triumphant hour.

5. Your happiness, even in this life, will depend on your generosity.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing to understand about living out a vocation to consecrated virginity is that there really are no half-measures. A consecrated virgin either gives the Lord absolutely everything, thereby receiving everything (and more!) from Him in return; or else her life becomes empty, silly, and fruitless.

I think this point is worth spelling out, because a common misconception among women first discerning this vocation is that consecrated virginity is sort of a way to have one’s cake and eat it, too—as in, a way to nominally “give everything to God” while still maintaining all of one’s worldly interests and activities as usual, or as a way to receive the graces and honors of consecrated life in the Church without having to make the often painful sacrifices inherent in joining a religious community.

This fundamental misunderstanding of our vocation is insidious because it contains a small grain of truth. For example, consecrated virgins generally don’t have a moment equivalent to crossing the threshold of an enclosure like a postulant in a cloistered monastery does, nor do consecrated virgins typically make a point to limit contact with family and friends or restrict their communication with “the world.”

Yet readily apparent or not, consecrated virginity still demands a radical shift in perspective and attitude from “worldly” orientation to one deeply informed by the Evangelical counsels. This is not just something the Church specifically asks of us—although she does (see ESI 27)—but it’s something built into the very nature of our commitment.

Marriage natural parenthood are so deeply inscribed in the human heart that the act of altogether renouncing these things leaves a void. The idea in consecrated virginity, or even consecrated celibacy in general, is that we allow Christ to superabundantly fill this void. But the catch is that He can only do this is He is the only one we allow to fulfill us in this way.

If we try to fill the void with other human things, even other intrinsically good human things, inevitably such things will come to be seen and understood as trivial in the at least the big picture. Devoting ourselves to things other than Jesus Christ and His body, the Church is what will leave us a the sad and gloomy old maids that Pope Francis warns against (cf. his May 8, 2013 address to Superiors General) instead of the radiant brides of Christ and spiritual mothers that we are called to be.

Obviously, as a newly-consecrated virgin you are far past the question of discerning your state in life, and thus beyond the concerns and misperceptions of those who are first inquiring. But sometimes, in the midst of the fatigue that can come about in the day-to-day life of a consecrated person, it can be easy to forget about the joy of a total self-gift. When God seems silent or the Church seems unsupportive, it can be tempting to grasp at consolation wherever we can find it, even in the passing things of this world. But we need to remember, as the Prophet Isaiah wrote: “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2)

In all circumstances of life, including the challenging ones, the surest way to happiness is to turn your heart ever more intently towards your Divine Spouse.

Our holy sister St. Agnes was said to have gone to her martyrdom more joyfully than most people go to their weddings. If we imitate the single-hearted intensity with which St. Agnes gave herself to the Lord, I am certain that we will also share in her deep and astonishing joy.

With love, in Christ,
Jenna

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Thoughts on Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, Paragraph 88


Overall, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI), the fairly recent Instruction from Rome’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Life, was a much-needed document that clarified many aspects of the vocation of consecrated virginity, ranging from lofty elements of its spirituality to more down-to-earth questions such as the need for formation. But regrettably, most of the news coverage from ESI’s publication last year focused on the controversy surrounding ESI paragraph 88, which supposedly suggested that consecrated virgins need not be virgins at all.

Reading this paragraph as a canon lawyer, I believe it is a mistake to interpret ESI 88 in this way. Still, since I occasionally continue to receive questions about ESI 88, I think it might be helpful to have a more in-depth discussion on this point.

Some historical context

When the revised Rite of Consecration to aLife of Virginity was promulgated in 1970, the praenotanda of the Rite indicated that women are eligible for the consecration of virgins if they had: “never married or lived in public or open violation of chastity.”[i] For a time, this somewhat vague wording led some to suppose that, as long as there was no danger of scandal, the Rite perhaps only demanded “spiritual virginity” or “second-chance virginity” (i.e., in which a non-virgin sincerely repents of her past sexual sin and lives a life of fervent chastity from that point forward).

Eventually, at least in the United States, there came to be a more or less general consensus that literal virginity was a key requirement for becoming a consecrated virgin. Or in other words, women who have knowingly and freely engaged in an act of completed sexual intercourse are not eligible, even if they have sincerely repented or have embraced a devotional practice of “secondary virginity.” There were some offical-ish, though not absolutely authoritative, clarifications in this regard, such as letters from Roman Dicasteries addressed to individuals who had written with this question.[ii]

Yet even more than that, I suspect this sensus fideli arose from just plain common sense in reading the pertinent source material. That is, this vocation is referred to verbatim as “the consecration of virgins” and “the Order of Virgins.” Likewise, the Code of Canon Law describes the women who embrace this state in life as “virgins.” (cf. can. 604) Thus, arguably it doesn’t take a great feat of scholarship to conclude that the Church expects that women in this particular state in life to be really virgins in the usual sense of the term.

But even with this fundamental distinction more or less settled, the wording of the eligibility requirements in the praenotanda in the Rite of Consecration still left us with a lot of questions in terms of how to evaluate certain real-life cases and situations. Specifically, it was not clear whether the word “public” in this sense was intended to indicate something along the lines of “widely-known and notorious,” or if it was instead meant to be read in a more restrictive technical sense of “not being a strictly a matter of the internal forum.” Or in other words, would it take an exceptionally well-known lack of chastity for a woman to be disqualified from the consecration of virgins, or would she be ineligible simply if she had committed an unchaste act that was outwardly verifiable by a third party?

Similarly, especially among consecrated virgins themselves, it was often hotly debated whether the phrase “violation of chastity” was meant as a euphemism for the completed act of intercourse, or if it referred to any serious sin against the sixth Commandment.  And even if one presumed that a “violation of chastity” encompassed those sins of unchastity which stopped short of “the marital act” itself, there were still a number of questions regarding exactly where and how the line should be drawn when determining which specific sins were grave enough to render an woman ineligible for the consecration of virgins.

What ESI actually says

As was expected for this long-anticipated instruction on the Ordo virginum, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago does indeed provide some elaboration on the requirement of chastity stated in the Rite’s praenotanda.

ESI 93 briefly, but usefully, clarifies that the “public” violations of chastity mentioned in the praenotanda are those acts which are de facto widely known, as opposed to known by only at least one other person. In a lot of way this clarification is not too surprising, given that a more literal translation of the typical Latin text of the eligibility criterion in question mentions a “…public or manifest” (“publice seu manifeste”) violation of chastity.

“Manifest” in a canonical context means something along the lines of “obvious” or “readily apparent.” When something is manifest in canon law, this generally indicates that it needs little or no investigation to be proven. And so a manifest violation of chastity would be one where there was no reasonable doubt that it occurred.

However, ESI’s commentary on this aspect of candidates’ eligibility for the vocation is most fully—and, as it were, most controversially—set out in paragraph 88. Since the question at hand is very context-dependent, I’m quoting ESI 88 in full here, but highlighting the controversial lines in bold:

88. In vocational guidance and when there is need to describe the characteristics of this vocation and the requirements for admission to consecration, the condition of virginity will be presented starting with the rich symbolism of its biblical foundations, within the framework of an anthropological vision solidly based on Christian revelation. On this basis the different dimensions, physical, psychological and spiritual, are integrated and considered in their dynamic connection to the lived history of the person and in openness to the unceasing action of divine grace that directs, guides and invigorates her on the path of holiness. 
As a treasure of inestimable value that God pours into clay vessels (cf. 2Cor 4:7), this vocation is truly an undeserved gift. It encounters the person in her actual humanity, always in need of redemption and yearning for the full meaning of her existence. It finds its origin and dynamic center in the grace of God, who unceasingly acts with the tenderness and the strength of his merciful love in the often complex and sometimes contradictory events of human life, helping the person to grasp her uniqueness and the unity of her being, enabling her to make a total gift of self. In this context it should be kept in mind that the call to give witness to the Church’s virginal, spousal and fruitful love for Christ is not reducible to the symbol of physical integrity. Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practiced the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way, while of great importance with regard to the discernment, are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible.  
The discernment therefore requires good judgement and insight, and it must be carried out individually. Each aspirant and candidate is called to examine her own vocation with regard to her own personal history, in honesty and authenticity before God, and with the help of spiritual accompaniment.

Once again, I’ll point out that this paragraph discusses many things other than the “dividing line” of what makes woman eligible for the consecration of virgins. Namely, ESI 88 begins by highlighting the value of virginity and its centrality to this vocation, and concludes by strongly emphasizes the importance of individual discernment.

How this should be interpreted?

And so, we can see that ESI 88 is actually communicating quite of bit of very nuanced and valuable information. Unlike the clarifications ESI gives us on other issues, we can’t reduce ESI 88 to a simple soundbite or yes-or-no answer.

But in my professional opinion as a canonist, I think the practical bottom line here is: for women whose virginity is questionable—with “questionable” meaning: “there really is a sincere question here”—their eligibility for the consecration of virgins is to be carefully discerned on an individual basis.

Practically speaking, this means that victims or rape or abuse, or conversely, women who may have repented of sinful sexual acts that stopped short of intercourse, are not automatically prohibited from discerning this vocation. On the other hand, this also doesn’t mean that they are to be automatically admitted to the Order of Virgins, either! Rather, it means that the Church does not exclude them from an honest and realistic conversation about the possibility that they might be called to this state in life.

So what ESI 88 is not saying is: “virginity is no longer required for consecrated virgins.” First of all, as per my point above, if a woman can be readily described as a non-virgin, then her virginity is no longer “questionable” or a gray area. That is, it’s clear that a non-virgin is not a virgin, full stop. The virginity of an obvious non-virgin is no longer questionable, because that “question” is already fully answered in the negative. A woman who has no need of discerning whether or not she is a literal virgin because she already knows with certainty that she is not one is clearly not an individual whose situation ESI 88 was intended to describe.

Likewise, the reaffirmation of the eligibility requirements as originally phrased in the Rite in ESI 84 already sets a fairly high standard even by itself. While having “never married or lived in public or open violation of chastity” isn’t absolutely comprehensive, it seems generally unlikely that a woman who was unquestionably not a virgin would also somehow measure up to this standard. Granted, scenarios where something like this might be the case are not impossible and do happen. Yet it’s still important to note that, unlike what some of the more provocative headlines and media talking points would suggest, ESI 88 is not suddenly opening the Ordo virginum to obvious non-virgins or to women have repented from lifestyles of manifest sexual sin.

But more importantly in my mind, it is clear from the wording of this very paragraph, let alone the context of the rest of the document, that the Church still sees virginity as a foundational element of the spirituality of this vocation. ESI 88 begins by stating that “when there is need to describe the characteristics of this vocation and the requirements for admission to consecration,” the appropriate way to respond is by presenting and referring to “the condition of virginity” in light of the “rich symbolism of its biblical foundations.” Here, ESI 88 tells us that virginity with all its meaning and significance must be presented as the key for discernment. Since virginity is specifically named as the fundamental reference point for discerning eligibility, it doesn’t make sense to argue that ESI 88 is somehow doing away with the requirement of virginity altogether.

A note on some popular terminology

At this point, it might be good to address one potential point of confusion, which is the term “physical virginity.” Among English-speaking consecrated virgins, this term tends to be used as shorthand for something like: “really a virgin in the true sense of the term, as opposed to the merely ‘spiritual virginity’ of a repentant non-virgin.”

However, I find the term “physical virginity” to problematic in discussions like this, since it ignores the distinction between what I’ll call “literal virginity” versus a strictly biological virginity. While a woman is biologically virginal if her body has never experienced sexual intercourse in any way, shape, or form; she can rightly be called a literal virgin if she has never engaged in sexual intercourse with full knowledge and freedom.

This is important, because the Church traditionally understands virginity as a moral and spiritual state as opposed to a medical or simply biological one. That is, a woman is a virgin is she intends and has resolved to remain chaste and continent before marriage; or in the case of dedicated or consecrated virginity, if she is resolved to remain chaste while forsaking the potential for legitimate intimacy with a mortal husband, for the sake offering herself more wholly to God. As such, the Church regards virtuous rape victims as truly and fully virgins, regardless of whatever traumatic violation their bodies may have experienced.[iii]

Of course, physiological bodily integrity is not totally irrelevant to the virtue of virginity, but we should understand a biologically virginal body as being only a fitting sign of the spiritual reality of a truly virginal soul. Therefore, as ESI 88 points out, we can and should appreciate the sign-value of bodily wholeness without incorrectly reducing the entire concept of “virginity” to this mere sign.

Also too, there is a sense in which any literal virginity—i.e. the moral state of virginity, with or without bodily “intactness”—is also a kind of “physical virginity,” since a woman’s free choice and perseverance in a life of virginity makes her body consecrated and holy, regardless of what might have happened to her body against her will. As St. Augustine notes: “the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact.” (City of God, BookI, chapter 18)

So, in some contexts it might be accurate to speak of “physical virginity” when we are referring to virginity as something like a resolve to persevere in virginal chastity that is manifested by one’s concrete choices. But at the same time, the term “physical virginity” is often used in a way that would seem to be synonymous with “biological virginity,” and we should be mindful that this can add an inaccurate or confusing note to discussions such as this one.

Why ESI 88 makes sense

Turning back to ESI 88 specifically, speaking personally, like many others I at first found the vague wording of ESI 88 to be a bit frustrating. But the more I considered it, the more I realized that ESI 88 probably handled the question of this specific eligibility requirement in the most sensible way possible. I believe this is the case for a few reasons.

First of all, as was suggested above, defining virginity can be surprisingly difficult, even aside from the relatively clear-cut distinction between moral/literal virginity and strictly biological virginity. This is evident especially in the fact that our current canon law we have no straightforward definition of what precisely constitutes “virginity” in even a simple material sense.[iv] As in, even in scenarios of where we can presume the woman’s full knowledge and consent to grave sins of unchastity, we don’t have any clearly established canonical line demarcating the indelicate details of exactly “how far is too far.”

For example, it does seem clear that willful completed intercourse would establish an individual as having lost his or her virginity in any scenario, but what about cases where a couple did almost everything, but stopped just short of the marital act itself? Or a case where a woman had lived in a sexually active lesbian relationship? In many such cases, knowledgeable people could have different reasonable opinions on whether or in what sense the women in such cases were truly “virgins”—or at least “virgins” in a robust sense of the term, i.e. in a way that was compatible with the overall vision of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. Even if it could be argued that such women were virgins in a legalistically strict sense, the appropriateness of women in such situations dedicating themselves to the Lord via a public commitment to virginity per se remains seriously questionable.

Things get even more complicated when you throw questions of full knowledge and free will into the mix. For instance, can a fourteen-year-old victim of statuary rape, who thought she consented at the time, rightly be thought of as having lost her virginity? Or what about an adult woman who engaged in frequent oral sex, but did so with the distinct thought that by refraining from intercourse she was thereby retaining her “technical virginity”? Does such an intention to remain a virgin modify the spiritual impact of acts that many would see as incompatible with virginity? And how much weight does one give to certain psychological states (for example, drunkenness) that may have negatively impacted, but not necessarily totally destroyed, one’s sense of personal freedom in making sexual choices?

Clearly, the more one tries to draw a theoretical line, the more difficult and sensitive the questions become.

My point here is not to propose answers to such questions, but rather to point out how near impossible it is to come up with a canonical definition of virginity that would adequately address all hypothetically possible cases. Any attempt by canonists to do this would not only have to be exceedingly detailed and extensive, but also quite graphic. And it’s likely that such an attempt still probably would not address all potential scenarios.

Given this, I think ESI’s approach to these eligibility questions is actually the most helpful and appropriate one. And indeed, it may very well be the only one that is realistically possible. ESI puts the onus on personal discernment in individual cases, while still underscoring certain principles and re-stating some general hard boundary lines (e.g., an aspiring consecrated virgin can never have been married or have lived in manifest unchastity).

Discernment is not a cop-out

I suspect that one reason why ESI in general, and ESI 88 in particular, were not always popularly well-received initially was because many commentators interpreted this emphasis on personal discernment to be sort of loophole or cop-out; or as sort of a winking way, stemming from a laxity or lack of zeal, to allow for non-virgins to be consecrated.

Yet when understood properly, real discernment is nothing like this! Personal discernment in general is not only a serious spiritual undertaking, but is also an essential part of Christian life. Many saints in the Church’s history have written at length about discernment, its necessity, and how to discern serious life choices properly.

What’s more, in terms of discerning one’s basic eligibility for consecrated virginity, ESI and the Church presume that the question will be approached in good faith and with common sense. That is, ESI was written with the overall expectation that women aspiring to become consecrated virgins are at least fundamentally seeking to love the Lord and follow His will for their lives—as opposed to expecting, for instance, that women considering this vocation will be mostly something like legalistic connivers intent only on having their own way, etc.

The value of ESI 88

One reason we can all appreciate ESI 88 is because, if nothing else, it at least answers a frequently asked practical question. Whether or not we ourselves would have written ESI 88 in exactly the same way, this clarity is still helpful in real-life pastoral situations.

But I also think ESI 88 has the potential to be helpful on a deeper level, since it has the potential to promote a healthier understanding of the Ordo virginum’s central charism of virginity.

Underscoring the essentially moral and spiritual nature of virginity is a good witness to the dignity of women in general. That is, it supports the truth that women have intrinsic worth and moral agency; that women’s identities are determined by the choices we freely make for our lives, rather than what may or may not have be done to us without our consent; and that the Church never sees us as “damaged goods” (or “used gum,” or whatever other denigrating terms may have been used to describe non-virgins.)
                                                                                                           
And for us consecrated virgins, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that virginity as such, while a crucial element of our charism and spirituality, is ultimately only the starting point for a truly consecrated way of life.  Our call is not simply to virginity by itself, but a life of virginity that is dedicated to prayer, service, and Christian witness.



[i] In the typical Latin edition of the Rite of Consecration—i.e., the “master copy” from which all translations are made—this is written as: “…ut numquam nuptias celebraverint neque publice seu manifeste in statu castitati contrario vixerint.”

[ii] For example, the USACV website makes reference to a letter Raymond Card. Burke received from the Congregation for Divine Worship in April of 2007 which gave an answer to this effect: https://consecratedvirgins.org/discernment (accessed October 12, 2019)

[iii] As one reference, St. Augustine discusses this somewhat at length in Book 1, chapters 16-18 of City of God.

[iv] I have read and heard that some older canonical commentaries, though not the law itself, have endeavored to give a exact definition of material virginity in the context of some very particular technical questions in marriage law (namely, questions of marital invalidity pertaining to “error of quality of person” when virginity was the quality “directly and principally intended). From what I understand, they generally tended to indicated completed intercourse as the canonical dividing line between virgins and non-virgins. But, right now I don’t have a specific source I can cite—though readers who do have a handy source are welcome to submit one! Also, I think it is important to point out that commentaries on marriage law in the now obsolete 1917 Code of Canon Law aren’t always going to be directly applicable to questions relating to the post-Vatican II Ordo virginum.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Tenth Anniversary Reflection


Better late than never!

This past January, I celebrated my tenth (!!!) anniversary of consecrated life. It has been an interesting ten years—since my consecration day, I have spent three years living in Rome, finished two graduate degrees, written a book and several popular articles, served as a parish director of religious education and as an ecclesiastical tribunal Judge, made numerous wonderful friends, and have grown in many other ways personally and spiritually. Over all, I am grateful to God for the gift of perseverance!

Here is the anniversary reflection I wrote for the February 2019 issue of the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins' newsletter, “The Lamp”:

***

After a life-long friendship with God, I first felt called to be a bride of Christ when I was twelve years old. I just fell completely in love, once and for all. At eighteen I began visiting religious communities, and while I met a number of admirable nuns and religious Sisters, none of the communities I visited completely resonated with the specific way I felt called in my heart. When I was nineteen, a local priest gave me a copy of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, and upon reading it I knew instantly that this was my vocation. In particular, I was drawn to the central charism of a spousal relationship with Christ; to the spirituality of evangelical virginity; to this vocation’s special bond with the local diocesan Church; toward the Rite’s emphasis on praying the Liturgy of the Hours; and especially to the fact that this vocation was a call to follow in the footsteps of the Church’s early virgin-martyr saints, like St. Agnes and the other women mentioned in the Roman Canon at Mass.
           
Initially I was turned away from the consecration of virgins for being too young, but after two more years of visiting religious communities, I tried approaching my home Archdiocese of New York again, and at that point I was accepted as a candidate for consecration. I was solemnly consecrated to a life of virginity at Sacred Heart Church in Newburgh, NY on January 3, 2009, when I was twenty-three years old and a recent college graduate.
           
I can honestly say that I am even happier to be a bride of Christ now than I was on the day of my consecration. Although there have been many challenges over the past ten years, they have only made my vocation more precious to me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found I have a new sense of glad astonishment that God would be so gracious as to call me to this kind of relationship with Himself.
           
As I reflect on my tenth anniversary of consecrated life, one image that has been frequently coming to mind is the Lamb of God. Most obviously, consecrated virgins are called to be “the Image of the Church as Bride”; that is, the “Bride of the Lamb” mentioned in Revelation 21:9.

But more personally, the Gospel for the actual day of my tenth anniversary was John 1:29-34, where John the Baptist points to Jesus and declares: “Behold the Lamb of God.” I was reminded by the priest celebrating a Mass of Thanksgiving that day that this is my mission, too—to be a witness pointing others towards Jesus, who is the Lamb.

I was reminded as well that as lambs were used for sacrificial worship in Old Testament, Jesus is the Lamb of God because he offered Himself as a sacrifice.  On the day of my consecration it was very much my hope and intention to offer myself as a living sacrifice to the Lord in the same spirit that saints like Agnes offered their lives. It can be easy to forget the joy that comes with a spirit of radical self-offering, but ten years after my consecration I’ve realized how important it is to continually renew this resolve in my heart.

Finally, my consecrated life has brought me to places I never would have guessed, including three years living in Rome as a canon law student; and then later, an unexpected but clearly providential call to serve the Church in the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota as a staff canonist and coordinator of the marriage tribunal. Even amidst the difficulties of leaving home and family for a new and unfamiliar place, there’s a greater peace in recalling that virgins are the ones who “follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” (Revelation 14:4) My prayer after ten years is that I will always be given the grace to follow the Lamb wherever He leads me.

January 3, 2009

January 3, 2019 - after a Mass of Thanksgiving, in the very same Church!


On the feast of St. Agnes, a second Mass of Thanksgiving in Minnesota,
in our Diocesan Office chapel with local diocesan priests.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A First Look at Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago


As probably anyone familiar with this blog already knows, on July 4, 2018 the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in Rome published a new document on the vocation of consecrated virginity, an Instruction titled: Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (which roughly translates into English as: “The image of the Church as Bride.”)

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI) is by far the longest and more detailed document on the Ordo virginum that the Church has given us since the second Vatican Council. And so obviously, there is a lot to unpack here! I do hope to write on specific facets of ESI in greater detail over the next several months. But to start, here is a basic overview based on my own first thoughts and impressions.

The nature of an Instruction

To start, an “Instruction” is a type of magisterial document which provides clarity on earlier existing laws, especially ones which may have been vague or may have had disputed interpretations. As such, by their very nature Instructions aren’t the sort of document that can change or override laws that already exist. However, as canon 34 in the current Code of Canon Law states, Instructions can also: “clarify the prescripts of laws and elaborate on and determine the methods to be observed in fulfilling them [i.e., the prescripts of laws].” So even while, very strictly speaking, an Instruction doesn’t create new “laws” per se, arguably Instructions can and often do create new obligations, at least insofar as they direct the law to be carried out in a more substantial practical way than was the case previously.

Often Instructions pertain to the law contained in a single source or document, but ESI is somewhat exceptional in that it serves as a commentary on the entire body of existing law on the Order of Virgins, including canon 604 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity and its praenotanda, and the brief references to the Ordo virginum in various other documents such as Pastor Bonus and Apostolorum Successores.

Instructions are technically “given for the use of those whose duty it is to see that laws are executed and oblige them in the execution of the laws,” (can. 34) rather than for the direct use of those who are to be bound by the laws. So again, very strictly speaking, ESI is most primarily meant for the bishops who are responsible for the guidance and oversight of the consecrated virgins entrusted to their pastoral care. Yet given that ESI not only spells some of the specifics of consecrated virgins’ practical obligations, but also delves deeply into the spirituality and theological nature of this vocation, it’s safe to say that consecrated virgins themselves should be familiar with this document and can profit from a careful reading of it.

Filling in gaps

As has been noted before, in the Church’s body of laws it is possible (if not somewhat inevitable…) to have gaps, or lacunae, in the law. Because the drafters of the law, being merely human, cannot always foresee every question that might be asked or every scenario when a law might be tested, there can be situations in which law is simply silent on a given issue. Although the current Code does give us some guidance on how to deal with such situations as they arise (cf. can. 17), occasionally an additional clarifying magisterial document is needed.

Since the Ordo virginum has been one of the most lacunose topics in the Church’s law today, ESI was clearly meant to take this role. Some lacunae which ESI now fills, or at least takes some serious steps forward in filling, are:

ESI clarifies, in at least a fundamental way, the tone and tenor of a consecrated virgin’s way of life.

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago envisions consecrated virginity as a life informed by the Evangelical counsels, and as an all-encompassing state in life radically oriented around prayer, service of the Church, and public witness; as opposed to this vocation being akin to something like a purely private vow or membership in a secular Third Order.

For example, ESI 40 tells us that a consecrated virgin should choose her professional career specifically in light of her vocation and her call to service, and ESI 28 indicates that a consecrated virgin’s major life decisions should be co-discerned with her bishop. The Instruction also reaffirms a consecrated virgin’s duty to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, (ESI 34) and directs consecrated virgins to attend daily Mass when they are living in locations where this is possible. (ESI 32)

It is also noteworthy how ESI 27 indicates that, through their propositum of perpetual virginity, consecrated virgins commit to a way of life that encompasses all of the traditionally-formulated Evangelical counsels. That is, while in an extremely black-and-white, literal sense some might regard consecrated virgins as only making a commitment to evangelical chastity via virginity, the Church sees consecrated virgins as being called to some form of evangelical poverty and obedience as well.

ESI establishes some clearer criteria for the discernment of vocations.

For instance, ESI 82 sets a firm lower age limit of eighteen for women to begin formation for consecrated virginity, and names twenty-five years as the usual normal minimum age for receiving the consecration itself. This is significant, since in the past there were questions as to whether the requirement that candidates have sufficient maturity (i.e., as per the praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration: “…that by their age, prudence, and universally approved character they give assurance of perseverance in a life of chastity dedicated to the service of the Church and of their neighbor”) meant that aspiring consecrated virgins should simply have attained the level of personal human development necessary to make a responsible adult life decision, or whether a candidate should actually be relatively advanced in years—as in, being at least thirty-five or forty years old. ESI 82 makes it clear that consecrated virginity is a vocation which young women are invited to discern.

This Instruction also sheds additional light on what is required for candidates in terms of virginal chastity. Previously, it was posited—but not confirmed—that the prerequisite of “never having lived in public or manifest violation of chastity” meant that a woman must not have ever committed serious sins against chastity in the presence of another person. However, ESI 93 clarifies that a life of “public” unchastity should be interpreted as a widely-known habitual state, rather than simply an act committed in the presence of a witness. Likewise, while I believe the document does reiterate, in many places, the expectation that candidates will indeed be literal virgins, ESI 88 clarifies that rape victims and women who have committed sins of unchastity that stopped short of actual intercourse are not automatically prevented from discerning a vocation to the Ordo virginum.

While I know many consecrated virgins, especially perhaps in the Unites States, are disappointed with this more “generous” standard—and even while I myself was more sympathetic to arguments requiring a stricter interpretation of what exactly constitutes “virginity” for the purposes of receiving the consecration—I do think that having this greater clarity is a good thing.*

ESI discusses the importance of formation and gives us an outline of what this should look like.

Prior to ESI, it was at least theoretically possible to argue that no formation should be necessary for consecrated virgins, since this was not mentioned anywhere in the existing law. Even in those places where the importance of having some kind of formation program for aspiring consecrated virgins was acknowledged as common sense, the practical expression of this could vary widely from diocese to diocese. For example, some dioceses might have an aspiring consecrated virgin set a date for her consecration less than a year after her initial request, while other dioceses might have a candidate meet with a structured formation team for many years.

Additionally, the lack of guidance on what formation for consecrated virginity should look like often led to some problematic situations, such as the entirely of formation being entrusted to a confessor or spiritual director (leading to a potential conflict of fora); or a candidate being “in formation” for years on end without a clear timeline, or even without any sense of whether or not her consecration was actually likely to happen.

While there is still a lot of work to do on the local level in terms of creating helpful formation programs for consecrated virgins, ESI 92 - 103 gives us some solid preliminary framework. Specifically, formation is to be carried out in two stages: a preparation period of one or two years when the aspirant focuses on learning more about the Ordo virginum and the dioceses learns more about the aspirant; and ordinarily a two or three-year formation period wherein the candidate is formed in her identity as a future consecrated virgin. ESI 92 - 103 gives us an overview of the content of a good formation program, with ESI 102 emphasizing the need for theological formation.

ESI describes the relationship of a consecrated virgin to her diocese.

I have always thought that it was possible, even based on the limited sources, to discern that consecrated virginity as a state in life has a uniquely diocesan character. Yet even if the overall diocesan “flavor” of the Ordo virginum could in this sense be taken for granted, that still left us with many questions in need of answers. Among other things, we didn’t have a word to describe a consecrated virgin’s connection to her diocese (which led some to argue that there was not in fact any meaningful bond there); and we didn’t have any guidelines for how to handle situations when a consecrated virgin might need to relocate.

Happily, ESI confirms and expounds on the diocesan nature of this vocation in many places throughout the document. In particular, in ESI 51we are given a term for a consecrated virgin’s relationship her diocese, that is: “inscription.” ESI 60 also clarifies that a consecrated virgin may move out of her diocese of consecration, but only for an appropriately serious reason (“…reasonable and proportionate motives”); and ESI 61 tells us that a consecrated virgin may reside in a different diocese without permanently transferring, meaning that she still maintains her bond with the original diocese of her consecration. But ESI 62 also does provide for the possibility of a permeant transfer in which a consecrated virgin is inscribed into a new diocese, and it sets out the conditions under which this may occur and the appropriate process to be followed.

On a related note, ESI 67-68 discusses the possibility of a consecrated virgin joining a secular Third Order or becoming involved with one of the newer ecclesial movements. While a consecrated virgin is free to make use of the spiritual assistance these groups provide, ESI 68 indicates that she must give first priority to her vocation to consecrated virginity. She does so by discerning the extent of her involvement in such groups with her bishop, and by only participating in the group’s activities insofar as those commitments don’t interfere with her obligations within the local diocesan Ordo virginum.

ESI also discusses departures from the Ordo virginum, which is a broader category than one might expect.

As a preliminary note to this, based on the way the terms are used in ESI, it seems that the Ordo virginum and the consecration of virgins per se might be conceived or understood as two slightly different things. That is, the consecration of virgins is the spiritual reality, while the Ordo virginum is the term for consecrated virginity as a juridically-recognized state in life.** Perhaps the closest parallel would be the way in which a man’s sacramental identity as a priest is not always the same as his belonging to the clerical state—i.e., a priest can leave the clerical state and live as a layman while still actually being a priest in a theological sense.

From all appearances, ESI 75 indicates that that the consecration itself is truly permanent (“The grace of consecration in the Ordo virginum defines and shapes the spiritual features of the person in a permanent way”). However, for grave reasons a woman may be dispensed by her bishop from the obligations of the Ordo virginum (cf. ESI 70).  In my reading of ESI, I take this reference to dispensable obligations to mean the concrete external obligations inherent in belonging to the Order of Virgins, such as: the responsibility to be a public witness and present oneself as a consecrated virgin, the commitment to diocesan service or other apostolates, the obligation to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and attend daily Mass, and so forth.  

According to ESI 71-72, a consecrated virgin can also be dismissed from the Ordo virginum, but only for attempting marriage, notoriously defecting from the faith, or for obstinately persevering in “very serious external and imputable crimes or failings against the obligations arising from her consecration.” In order for such a dismissal to be valid, a consecrated virgin would need to be given a chance to defend herself and informed of her right to appeal the decision, and the dismissal would need to be confirmed by the Holy See in order to take effect.***

The question of an already-consecrated virgin potentially discerning a vocation to religious life, to membership in a secular institute, or to membership in a society of apostolic life is also treated under the heading of “departures” in ESI 69. In discerning a new vocation to religious life or to another form of consecrated life, a consecrated virgin would need to prayerfully discern this matter in conversation with both her bishop and the superior of the institute in question. Her bishop would then transmit her request to the Holy See in Rome, with the Holy See arranging the specifics on a case-by-case basis.

Interestingly, ESI speaks of a consecrated virgin’s potential “transfer” to an institute of consecrated life, whereas previous commentators reasonably presumed a consecrated virgin would need to enter an institute in the normal way through the novitiate. It is also interesting that a consecrated virgin can only join a secular institute by leaving the Ordo virginum (even while a 1971 response from the Congregation for Divine Worship in the publication Notitiae allowed secular institute members to receive the consecration of virgins),**** as this brings a new perspective to discussions of exactly how compatible the two vocations of consecrated virginity and secular institute membership really are.

Going forward

So what do we make of ESI overall? Speaking for myself, although of course ESI isn’t absolutely perfect—and it would be unrealistic to expect any document of this nature to be—I think ESI as a whole is a very good thing for the Ordo virginum in the Church today. Besides the not-insignificant fact that the clarifications on disputed questions are helpful on a practical level, in my mind the greatest benefit of this document is how it communicates the idea that a call to consecrated virginity is a “real vocation” that’s worth taking seriously.

I think all too often in the past, consecrated virginity has tended to be regarded as either a vocational “last resort,” as a kind of pious hobby, as a purely personal commitment with no real pertinence to the wider Church, or (perhaps more benignly, but no less inaccurately) as a modified form of religious life designed to be less demanding. But with ESI’s focus on the necessity of substantial formation, along with its directives regarding the importance of a real commitment to prayer, service, and the Evangelical counsels, ESI makes it clear that a call to the Ordo virginum is meant to be—even in the concrete details of a consecrated virgin’s day-to-day lifestyle—just as much a radical offering of one’s whole self as a call to religious life or priesthood should be.

Undoubtedly, ESI leaves us with many salutary challenges. Of course, dioceses are challenged to flesh out the directives of ESI in the practical ways that will best fit the circumstances of the local Church, which I imagine will be somewhat of an ongoing journey of learning and discernment for all involved.

But for those of us who are already consecrated virgins, I think ESI presents more of a personal challenge. That is, we are now called to consider how well we’re living up to the newly-articulated high standards of our vocation to the Ordo virginum. The might sound a bit stern, but I see this as a beautiful season of growth for all of us. 

In short, it’s an exciting time to be a consecrated virgin!




Notes:

* I do plan on commenting on the controversy surrounding ESI 88 at greater length in a later post. In the meantime, here is an article with an interview I gave to Catholic News Agency on this issue: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/read-vatican-guide-to-consecrated-virginity-with-discernment-canonist-says-34049

** I had always assumed that the Ordo virginum properly referred to any woman who had received the consecration of virgins, including cloistered nuns who received the consecration as part of the long-standing tradition of their Order. However, ESI seems to use the term “Ordo virginum” to refer specifically to consecrated virgins “living in the world.” I’m not sure if this was an intentional change or a new further specification; or if, alternately, it might have been somewhat of an oversight due to our lack of a more extensive terminology.

*** While some of my canonist colleagues have noted that the rules for dismissal are extremely minimal, I actually see this as a huge step forward that a we have a process in the first place—before ESI, there was some thought that a bishop could dismiss a consecrated virgin at any time for any reason totally at his own discretion!

**** I have not seen a copy of this 1971 response, but Sr. Sharon Holland refers to it in her 2002 article “Consecrated Virgins for Today’s Church.” UPDATE 9/24/2018 – Many thanks to reader Gloria ExGana for sharing a link to a digital copy of the issue of Notitiae where this question is addressed: http://www.cultodivino.va/content/dam/cultodivino/notitiae/1971/62.pdf ; and also to reader Bernadette Chen for sharing a link to an English translation of this response: http://notitiae.ipsissima-verba.org/show/279