Here is one of the first comments I received in my recent call for questions ("Mary's role in my life" is coming soon!):
“I do have a question I'd like you to cover. I have been discerning canon 604 in my own life, but have been a little baffled by the different opinions regarding wearing a veil and being called ‘Sister.’
A priest from EWTN encouraged it (not to mention that two consecrated virgins have or had a show and they wear habits and are called ‘Sister’), whereas the US Association of Consecrated Virgins says it's wrong to wear a veil or be called ‘Sister.’ Finally I wrote to the Vatican to find out what Rome says. They say it is legitimate to wear a veil and be called ‘Sister,’ it is just up to the Bishop.
Why is there such a strong push to say no veil or being called ‘sister’ here in America? It seems to me that each person should discern, along with the local Bishop of course, how they feel God calling them to live out their way of life as a ‘bride of Christ.’” --Anonymous
First of all, anonymous writer, I wish you all the best as you continue your discernment! I truly hope that you find peace as you seek to follow God’s will for you.
While I can certainly empathize with the frustration you feel regarding general lack of consensus on certain aspects of this vocation, I have to say that at this point I don’t really find the ambiguity all that surprising. The revival of consecrated virginity in the world as a recognized form of consecrated life is a fairly new phenomenon in the life of the Church. Consequently, there simply has not been enough time, interest, or precedents for the development of universally accepted practical norms.
Incidentally, this was one of the major human factors in my own discernment. I had to consider whether I was truly willing and able to live with all the questions and difficulties inherent in being a “pioneer.” (There were many, many times when I would catch myself praying: “Oh God, why can’t you just call me to be a nun?!”)
By setting up their own policies, the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins (USACV) is working establish some concrete guidelines amidst the confusion. I imagine that the USACV’s standards are the results of its members’ theological and historical research, as well as their years of lived experience. Because of this, the USACV guidelines should be given serious consideration.
However, the USACV is not (and doesn’t claim to be) an authoritative body of ecclesiastical lawmakers. Although the local diocesan bishop can choose to adopt the USACV’s recommendations, the exact conditions under which a consecrated virgin lives out her vocation are ultimately at his discretion.
So, I think you are correct in suggesting that a consecrated virgin should meet with her bishop (or likewise, her bishop’s delegate) to decide exactly how she will live her consecrated life. Actually, I would assume that this would be the standard practice—although I admit that I haven’t met enough consecrated virgins really to “compare notes.” I know that since I first started asking to receive consecration, I have been meeting with the Vicar for Religious in my archdiocese to discuss, among other things, my plans for my life. If an aspiring consecrated virgin felt that wearing a veil was a very important component of the expression of her vocation, I would think that she would have ample opportunity to ask permission for this.
My guess as to why there seems to be a reluctance to allow consecrated virgins in the United States to wear veils (or to be called “Sister”) is that perhaps people are concerned that consecrated virgins would be too easily confused with religious. While religious and consecrated virgins are in the same general category, the vocations are distinct. It may be necessary to forgo some of the exterior expressions of consecration in order to preserve this distinction, especially since consecrated virgins do not yet have a well-established cultural or social role in American Catholicism the way nuns and sisters do.
I think this reluctance may also be due in part to what I see as our lack of an adequate theology of consecrated virginity in the world as a state in life, particularly as it relates to the wider Church. Some people believe that canon 604 is a more “hidden” form of consecration, and that consecrated virgins are called to be subtle Christian witnesses from within secular society. Other people (and I would probably fall closer to this end of the spectrum) put more stress on the public and ecclesial nature of this vocation. Perhaps if more people fell into this latter category, we might see more consecrated wearing veils.
Of course, whether or not consecrated virgins should be called “Sister” or wear veils is a rather complicated question, which would probably require its own post
I don’t know if this helps or not, but my attitude to the whole situation has been to remind myself that the restoration of consecrated virginity in the world as a form of consecrated life is primarily God’s project (and not mine). I’m sure that if the Holy Spirit intends for consecrated virgins to have a more visible role in the Church, then this will certainly be accomplished in His time.