(Note: Yes, I am back-dating this. I meant for it to be posted for Sts. Timothy and Titus, but it took me longer to write than I thought. Readers, bear with me!)
Today is the feast of Sts. Timothy and Titus, both of whom were young bishops appointed by St. Paul to lead some of the early local Churches. Most of what we know about them comes from the Pauline epistles of which they were recipients.
Even though this isn’t one of the Church’s more major or famous commemorations, it has always been a notable feast for me. For one thing, it’s a day that I take to remember young clergy especially in my prayers (and now it’s also a day to remember the new Archbishop of New York, as it’s his patronal feast). But I also look at the commemoration of Sts. Timothy and Titus as sort of a feast day for “young vocations,” since it was St. Timothy who was once told by St. Paul: “Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.”*
I have heard many times that young vocations really are not all that exceptional, in the sense that people with vocations to priesthood or consecrated life often remember “knowing” from a very young age that they were called to give their life entirely to God and the Church. For example, our Archdiocesan Vocation Director once told me that among men entering the seminary, roughly fifty percent began thinking about priesthood in grade school, twenty-five percent in high school, twenty percent in college; and only around five percent found that the idea of becoming a priest first occurred to them as adults, after having had a secular career.
Of course, years may elapse between the time when a man first begins to wonder if he has a priestly vocation and the time when he actually decides to do something about it—it’s fairly common knowledge that people often “fight” or ignore a sense of vocation, putting the idea aside in favor of other pursuits. Still, a true “delayed vocation” seems to be a relatively rare occurrence. And while I don’t have anything like my Vocation Director’s statistics on feminine vocations to consecrated life (though if any female vocation directors are reading this, I would be interested in hearing their view on these “percentages”), I imagine that men and women probably aren’t all that different in this regard.
For this reason, the idea of waiting years or decades to begin to respond to a vocation never made much sense to me. Presuming that the person discerning is a legal adult and has sufficient emotional and intellectual maturity, once you know you’re called, why put off seeking Goodness itself? St. Augustine’s plaintive cry of “Late have I loved You…” may be beautiful and poignant, but I highly doubt that St. Augustine intended this sentiment to be the paragon of vocational discernment.
I think most devout Catholics sense this, which is why the Catholic world (or at least the Anchoress and the rest of the Catholic blogging world!) is always ready to rejoice when young people chose to give their lives to the Church. In parishes, it’s not unusual for the general intercessions to include petitions for “young people discerning priesthood and religious life to have courage in embracing God’s will for their lives” or something similar. There are many Catholic organizations (including smaller groups on a parish or diocesan level) which encourage vocations among young people or that help support young seminarians and religious. And most diocesan vocations websites are designed to be attractive to younger viewers.
But for whatever reason, right now this attitude of encouragement often doesn’t seem to apply to consecrated virgins. Of course, this could largely be due to the fact that at present consecrated virginity is still somewhat of an obscure form of consecrated life. Still, in my experience, it seems that many times even people who should be especially knowledgeable about consecrated virginity discourage younger women from seriously discerning this vocation.
And although there is no canonical age requirement for receiving the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, many vocation-promotional materials and newspaper articles written about consecrated virgins seem to imply that this vocation is not an option for women under the age of thirty-five or forty. For example, here is a quote from the Episcopal Delegate for Consecrated Life in the Archdiocese of Washington DC, commenting on a consecration that was celebrated in that archdiocese last year:
“[name]’s vocation to consecrated virginity is very rare, said Franciscan Sister Rebecca Burke, the archdiocesan delegate for consecrated life. …Sister Burke said she does not recommend this vocation for someone in their twenties or thirties because it might be hard to project how to fulfill the vocation over a lifetime, she said. Consecrated virginity is fitted for someone…who is old enough and mature enough to have discerned that they definitely don’t have a vocation to marriage or a vocation to the religious life, she said.”**
While I don’t doubt that this Delegate for Consecrated Life was speaking out of sincere concern for the well-being of aspiring consecrated virgins, I do disagree with her. In fact, my own OPINION is younger women should be the ones who are normally encouraged to discern vocations to consecrated virginity.
This is NOT to say that I think older women should be automatically turned away from this vocation. I’m well aware that the Holy Spirit is free to call whomever He wants, whenever He wants; and I understand that there are circumstances which could legitimately delay a response to a genuine call from God.
However, I think that in promoting this vocation, it might be helpful to consider “older” vocations (i.e., over forty or fifty years of age) as the exception rather than the rule. And in terms of women discerning consecrated virginity, I think that aspirants should be encouraged to receive the Rite of Consecration while they are still young—as opposed to being told to wait for ten, fifteen, or twenty years before taking concrete steps towards making a public commitment to a life of virginity.
I have several reasons for thinking this:
1. Christ is worth the offering of one’s whole life, including the gift of one’s youth.
This statement should speak for itself. Could anyone or anything be as deserving of such a gift as Christ?
As far as my own situation is concerned, one of the greatest blessings I have ever received is the privilege of being consecrated at age twenty-three, because this means that virtually my entire adult life will have been dedicated to Christ in a profound and explicit way. I only wish I could express the depth of the joy I feel at this thought!
2. The theological significance of consecrated virginity is more clearly expressed when a virgin is consecrated as a young woman.
The most obvious image that comes to mind when considering consecration to a life of virginity at a young age is the offering of the “first fruits” of one’s life to God—since a young consecrated virgin not only gives God everything she has, but also dedicates her entire potential to Him.
Similarly, consecrated virginity is (in a nutshell) about living in a spousal relationship with Christ, by means of “choosing Him above all things” and “renouncing the joys of marriage for the sake of the love for which it is a sign.”*** Through this, a consecrated virgin is a witness to the reality of the Resurrection and the life of the world to come, and serves as an image of the love God has for His Church.
But, to me it seems that the central sacrificial dimension of this vocation is most clearly expressed when a candidate is still of child-bearing age. So I would think that, if it were normative to consecrate only those aspirants for whom family life was no longer a realistic or viable option, this would be running the risk of making consecrated virginity seem like a sort of “consolation prize;” or like devotional exercise intended solely for the personal encouragement of pious, older, single women. While such “pastoral” motives might be very well-intentioned, they do not adequately reflect the theological identity of consecrated virginity as a deliberately-willed, radical gift of self.
3. Consecration at a young age has a special witness-value, and allows a consecrated virgin to offer the Church more years of fidelity and service.
Likewise, by renouncing the world’s greatest joys while they are still fully open to her, a young consecrated virgin can bear an especially powerful witness to the fact that God alone is enough to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. And, like the early virgin-martyr saints, a young consecrated virgin “bets her life” on the reality of Heaven in a particularly striking way.
Also, a young consecrated virgin, because she has a chance to live out the majority of her years as a consecrated person, can witness to the possibility of life-long fidelity. The only thing more beautiful than “young love” is “old love”—which comes to full bloom in those who have the chance to live faithfully for decades as solemnly consecrated brides of Christ.
4. Younger people are naturally more receptive to formation, and are better able to interiorize a new identity as a consecrated person.
This is actually the stated reason why most religious communities have an UPPER age limit of around thirty-five or forty.
I think it’s generally accepted that once a person reaches age forty or so, his or her personality is fairly “set.” But, becoming a consecrated virgin entails a major shift in identity. Without trying to get into too many details about my own personal experiences, it was a HUGE adjustment for me to begin to see myself as a “real” bride of Christ after my consecration a year ago (and this was even after desiring to be consecrated for nearly half my life).
I admit that it was often a struggle to learn to relate to other people, to myself, and to God in my new life as consecrated person. But in many ways, it did seem like a more or less natural process.
A normal part of being young is having to figure out who you are. And because young people are supposed to be in this frame of mind to start with, I would think that beginning to understand oneself as a consecrated person would come much more readily to a younger woman than it would to an older one (who, prior to being consecrated, may already have had a well-defined concept of her personal identity—which could be difficult to adapt or chance appropriately).
Further, I think most people would agree that it’s much easier to learn new habits and ways of doing things when you are younger. And so I think it would make sense to apply this insight to the discernment of vocations to consecrated virginity. That is, in general I think it would be less difficult for a younger woman to start living the life of a consecrated virgin (e.g., praying the Divine Office and attending daily Mass, living in a spirit of evangelical poverty, planning one’s life around the needs of the Church, et cetera).
5. Consecration at a younger age allows a consecrated virgin to build her life around her vocation…
…whereas it seems that older consecrated virgins would likely experience the challenge of needing to fit their vocation into an already-full life.
Similar to my previous point, when you’re young you are still “building” the structures of your exterior life. For example, young people are still in the process of choosing and training for a career, deciding where to live, forming major relationships with other people, and so forth.
Part of being in a public state of consecrated life (and there is no question that consecrated virginity is indeed a public state of consecrated life) is living in such a way that your exterior life clearly reflects your interior spiritual commitments. A consecrated virgin should be able to make her vocation her first priority in every area of her life, and she should also be able to live in such a way that she can express her vocation in visible ways which help to build up the Church. (N.b., this is part of the reason why I believe that consecrated virgins should ordinarily work full-time in a Church-related apostolate).
For religious, I think that achieving a harmony between their interior and exterior life would not normally be as much of an issue, since for the most part religious essentially have their lives planned out for them in their community’s rule and constitutions. But, much more care and concern is required on the part of a consecrated virgin living “in the world” to ensure that she is living a truly “consecrated” lifestyle.
For me, one of the most helpful things about having been consecrated at a young age is that it allows me to plan my studies, choose a career, and otherwise determine the shape of my life around what would be most helpful and appropriate for my vocation as a consecrated virgin. Additionally, being younger has also made it easier for me to foster supportive friendships with people who understand my calling in the Church.
In contrast, one fear I would have for women consecrated in mid-life or later (speaking hypothetically—I’m not writing here about anyone I know personally) is that the concrete expressions of their vocation would, out of necessity, turn out to be something reserved to their spare time. For example, if a woman was consecrated who already had a full life of secular commitments, would she be able to spend enough time in prayer every day? To make an annual retreat? To serve the Church in any direct way? To study the faith? Would her earlier relationships be a help to her new vocation? Or would uncomprehending friends present her with crosses or stumbling blocks?
I’m NOT trying to argue that any of these things would be insurmountable obstacles for an “older vocation.” But, they are still serious issues that should be taken into consideration. Likewise, I do think that it would be foolish to ignore the advantages that consecration at a younger age would present in regard to these kinds of concerns.
6. Consecrated virginity is not a “last resort” vocation.
I wish this could go without saying, but unfortunately I think this one of the more common misconceptions about the vocation of consecrated virginity. A woman should become a consecrated virgin, not simply because she is ineligible (or even just “not a good fit”) for any other form of consecrated life within the Church, but rather because she feels a positive call from God to the vocation of consecrated virginity specifically.
Very often, I read and hear people present consecrated virginity as an “alternative” for women who are unable to enter religious life due to health problems, personality issues, an inability to live in community—or, most pertinently to this post, because they are over the age limit of most religious institutes. But while I believe that it could be possible for a woman who would not ordinarily be able to enter religious life to have a genuine vocation to consecrated virginity, in this type of instance her vocation would be DESPITE these impediments, and not BECAUSE of them.
If consecrated virginity was truly a “last resort” vocation, then it would make perfect sense to dissuade women who still had other options open to them from becoming consecrated virgins. But if consecrated virginity is a worthy and valuable vocation in its own right (as I obviously believe it is), then shouldn’t it seem correspondingly ridiculous—if not somewhat “worldly” and anti-supernatural—to discourage young women from offering their lives to Christ in this way?
7. Many young people ARE capable of making life-long commitments.
Oddly, when I sometimes speak with other consecrated virgins (or with other people knowledgeable about consecrated virginity) about the desirability of receiving the Rite of Consecration at a younger age, my above-mentioned points are often met with some variation of the response, “Yes, but the culture is so messed-up, that these days young people really don’t know how to make a permanent commitment to anything.” (I have been told this almost verbatim—and without any irony—by several different people.)
The reason why this argument against young vocations to consecrated virginity seems so odd to me is that it simply can’t be true! Or at least, the Church has never formally acknowledged that the youth of any one particular era were categorically incapable of making irrevocable life choices. If the Church did believe this, then the magisterium would be discouraging couples from marrying until both partners were middle-aged!
The most recent Code of Canon Law sets the lower age limit for entering the novitiate of a religious community at age eighteen, which I believe would set the absolute minimum age for solemn profession of vows at age twenty-two. Men aspiring to the priesthood have to be at least twenty-four, and even here I think that a dispensation for Ordination at a younger age might be theoretically possible in special circumstances. In terms of marriage, the canonical age requirement is a minimum of fourteen years for women and sixteen years for men (although Canon Law does oblige pastors to dissuade couples from marrying until they have reached the age that is legal and customary in their own cultures). And of course, individuals can choose to receive the Sacraments of Initiation—by which they are permanently incorporated into the Catholic Church—at any time in their life.
Obviously, our culture certainly is troubled (though whether or not it’s any more troubled than that of any other period in history is highly debatable). And it is true that, because there is no possibility of dispensation from consecration to a life of virginity, any women aspiring to this vocation should have a suitable and adequate period of serious discernment, and needs to be emotionally and intellectually mature. I would even be inclined to agree that, because consecrated virginity provides so few natural satisfactions, and because consecrated virgins don’t automatically have the supportive structure of a religious community, it might be prudent to require even an above-average or exceptional level of maturity from aspirants to this vocation.
But this sort of maturity, even if it might be relatively rare, is still very, very possible! If God can call a woman to the awesome privilege of being His bride, and can give her the gift of desiring to renounce the highest forms of earthly happiness for His sake, how could anyone then argue that the level of purely human maturity necessary for such a choice is nevertheless a de facto impossibility for young women who might feel thus called?
* 1 Timothy 4:12
** Source: “Catholic Standard;” March 10, 2009. Read the full article here.
*** Cf. the central Consecratory prayer in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity.