(About the image: This is a fresco of St. Agnes, one of the most famous consecrated virgin-saints of the early Church. This fresco looks like it was painted in the mid- to late Renaissance, and is probably Italian.)
After a brief absence from blogging, I’m finally getting started on the answers to questions:
I had never heard of a consecrated virgin…ever. Is this the same as single life? Like the three vocations: religious life/priesthood, marriage and single life? I know the name hints to its purpose but could you or someone explain?Thanks a lot! —16 yr. old girl
Thanks for your question! Since knowing something about consecrated virgins is a major pre-requisite for understanding this blog, I’ve already written a few previous posts explaining consecrated virginity and giving a concise description of this vocation. (I also wrote an article about my consecration for the blog “Roman Catholic Vocations.”)
Even if you have never heard of consecrated virginity as a state in life—which isn’t all that surprising, since this vocation is still relatively unknown, even to devout Catholics—I’m fairly sure you have heard of individual consecrated virgins before, though you may not have realized it. There are many famous consecratedvirgin-saints from the early Church, and often some of them have their names recited at Mass as part of the Eucharistic prayer. (More specifically, they are in the Roman Canon of Eucharistic Prayer I, in the part where you hear the priest pray: “For ourselves, too, we ask some share in the fellowship of your apostles and martyrs, with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints…” The women whose names I’ve put in bold type were consecrated virgins in addition to being martyrs.)
In the first centuries of the Church, consecrated virgins were women who promised to live a life of virginity “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven,” and who were therefore considered “Brides of Christ.” They were consecrated in a solemn liturgical ritual in which the local bishop, acting in the name of the Church, accepted their resolve to live a life of perpetual virginity, and established them as “sacred persons” through a special prayer of consecration. Later on, with the development of religious life (starting about the year 500 A.D.), the practice of consecrating women living “in the world,” or outside of monasteries, gradually fell into disuse until it was explicitly prohibited around the year 1100.
But in the second Vatican Council, the decision was made both to restore the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for Women Living in the World, as well as to re-instate consecrated virginity as a vocation within the contemporary Church. So, consecrated virginity is both an ancient tradition as well as something of a modern development!
If you were going to identify consecrated virgins with one of the three types of vocations that you mention here, they would fall into the “religious life/priesthood” category, and not into “single life.” However, if we’re going to divide the various kinds of vocations into categories, it may be more helpful to think in terms of the Church’s understanding of the three primary states in life—namely: the clergy, the laity, and consecrated people.
The clergy encompasses men who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders, and who therefore comprise the Church’s governing hierarchy. This includes bishops, priests, and deacons. Bishops are the successors to the original twelve Apostles with the mission to “teach, govern, and sanctify” the flock of Christ. Priests participate in the apostolic authority of their bishops through their preaching and sacramental ministry in parishes and elsewhere. Deacons, whether married or single permanent deacons, or transitional deacons preparing for ordination to the priesthood, are called to assist priests and bishops and to act as servants to the entire people of God.
“Consecrated life” is a broad category describing all the members of the Church who have decided to follow Christ in a radical way, and to imitate His life most closely. This radical following of Christ is typically identified in terms of the three evangelical councils of poverty, chastity, and obedience; all consecrated people embrace the evangelical councils either explicitly or implicitly.* Consecrated people include contemplative monks and nuns, religious with active apostolates, hermits, and consecrated virgins.
The laity is the largest category of the faithful. In the strong sense of the term, “lay people” are those who are neither clergy nor who have entered into a public state of consecrated life. (But sometimes the term “lay” can also be used in a technical sense to refer to everyone who has not received the sacrament of Holy Orders. So in this usage, even a strictly-cloistered nun would be considered a lay person!) Lay people can be married, single, or widowed. Everyone begins their life as a lay person, so in this sense the lay state is basically the “default” status of every Christian—although at the same time it’s important to remember that the Church does recognize the sacrament of Matrimony as a vocation. If we were to speak of the laity having a special mission in the Church, this mission would be to raise solid, loving families (or to participate in Catholic family life), and to sanctify the every-day, temporal, secular world through one’s work and involvement with society.
Trying to put the various vocations into categories may at times seem confusing, because these categories can overlap in many ways. For example, we usually think of marriage as something only applying to the laity, but if a married man is ordained a permanent deacon, then he actually becomes a part of the clergy. Also, men who live consecrated lives as members of religious Orders often become priests as well. And in the case of certain types of vocations—such as that of members of Secular Institutes or those of lay people who have made private vows to observe the evangelical councils—it becomes difficult to classify an individual’s state in life because the “consecrated” elements are not expressed outwardly. I.e., many people who are “lay” according to Canon Law see it as their vocation to live the evangelical councils in a hidden or secret way; so these people could be considered consecrated in a “spiritual” sense, but not an “official” one.
That being said, as far as I know the Church does not consider “the single life” to be a vocation in the same way that priesthood, marriage, or consecrated life are vocations (even though the single life is often discussed in discernment/vocation promotion literature). The reason for this is that vocations, properly speaking, necessarily involve a permanent, stable commitment. This is readily apparent in the vocation to marriage, where the spouses promise to be faithful to each other for the rest of their lives; and also in priesthood and consecrated life, where the ordained or consecrated dedicate themselves to the service of God and the Church until the end of their days. However, the single lay life is very different from these vocations because it is open-ended and does not entail any similarly “final” choice or commitment.
Of course, it could happen that an individual, after much prayer and careful discernment, sincerely feels that they can serve God best if they simply remain single. If this person also senses a call to sacrifice marriage out of love for God, then my thought is that this person would be living something close to a consecrated life, albeit in a private and un-official sense.
It could also happen that someone feels called to remain a single lay person because they are involved in some significant work or form of service which is demanding to the point of making it difficult to sustain a spousal relationship or to properly raise children. In this case, that person may indeed have a personal vocation to the work they were doing, and consequently to the celibacy that that work requires. However, it would be between that person and their spiritual director to discern such a vocation, and not the institutional Church. Because of this, that person’s celibacy would not be an “official” or canonical vocation.
Similarly, a person could live life a single lay person because they were not fortunate in finding the right person to marry, or because some catastrophic situation made marriage impossible. In instances such as this, we could tentatively suppose that this person was truly “called” to live a single and chaste life, since God’s will can often be discerned through His Providential ordering of circumstances. But once again, while it might be helpful for such a person to adopt some of the spirituality of consecrated life, we would not consider this type of singlehood a “vocation” in the full sense of the word because the person concerned did not make deliberate choice or commitment to the life of celibacy that he or she happens to be living (and further, this person might remain open to marriage should it suddenly present itself as a viable possibility).
So in a nutshell, consecrated virginity is very different from the single life. Because unlike single lay people, consecrated virgins have made a public, solemn, total, and permanent commitment to God and the Church, and this sets the focus for their whole lives. They are “consecrated” in such a way that sets them specially aside for God, and which goes beyond the baptismal consecration common to all Christians.
But even in saying all this, I do want to point out that there have been saints from every imaginable circumstance and state in life. ALL Christians, without exception, all to strive for holiness in whatever official or even un-official vocation to which they are called—whether that call was formally confirmed by the Church, or simply heard in the quiet recesses of their heart.
It would take much longer to explain the purpose of consecrated virginity (“prayer and witness” would be an accurate description, but I don’t know if it’s a very complete one). I’ll have to save that for another post!
* An example of an explicit acceptance of the evangelical councils would be religious in a community where the formula for the profession of religious vows specifically mention “poverty,” “chastity,” and “obedience.” And example an implicit acceptance of the evangelical councils could be said to occur in the case of religious in an Order where the wording of the vows is formulated differently—for instance, Dominican nuns vow only obedience, but naturally this obedience includes poverty and celibacy. Benedictines follow an older tradition of vowing “obedience,” “stability,” and “conversion.” Similarly, while consecrated virgins simply state their resolve to live a life of perpetual virginity (technically, this isn’t considered a vow), they should also be committed to live in a spirit of evangelical obedience and poverty.