Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What If Serving the Church Is Seriously Inconvenient?

As regular readers of this blog well know, one facet of consecrated virginity which I find particularly meaningful is a consecrated virgin’s call to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” (a phrase taken verbatim from the Catechism of the Catholic Church from Canon Law).*

The topic of my Master’s thesis, as well the topic of many previous blog posts, was why I feel that it is most appropriate to interpret this call to service literally—i.e., that “dedication to the service of the Church” should be taken to mean that, barring extraordinary or extenuating circumstances, consecrated virgins should be committed to service which is visibly and directly Church-related on something like a full-time basis.

In a nutshell, my reason for arriving at this conclusion is that, if you interpret consecrated virgins’ call to service in a non-literal way, you’re left with two very imperfect options for understanding this aspect of the vocation: either being “dedicated to the service of the Church” means that consecrated virgins are to strive to imbue the secular “marketplace” with Christian values, making the vocation of consecrated virginity most similar in nature to membership in a secular institute; OR “dedication to the service of the Church” means that consecrated virgins are supposed to do whatever volunteer Church-related service they can fit into their schedules during their free time, making this vocation most similar in nature to membership in a secular Third Order or a in lay parish group like the Altar Rosary Society.

Understanding consecrated virginity as being most similar to secular institute membership is theologically problematic because this is an unwarranted and unjustified** superimposition of secular institutes’ specific and very modern charism (i.e., that of being a “hidden leaven” in the world) onto what is an ancient and entirely different form of consecrated life.

Seeing consecrated virginity as being most similar to membership in a secular Third Order or to a lay association is theologically problematic because it suggests that consecrated virginity is not a commitment which is significant enough or in such a way as to warrant any major changes in one’s exterior life. This is at odds with the Church’s understanding of consecrated life in general as involving a complete and total gift of self and a more radical observance of the evangelical councils than would be possible or advisable for most lay people.

But even after establishing some solid theological and canonical grounds for a literal interpretation of what it means for consecrated virgins to be “dedicated to the service of the Church,” often questions arise which relate to the purely practical aspects of this assertion. Here is one such question from a regular reader:

I have a question about working for the Church to directly advance her mission. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but not all of us live in the Archdiocese of New York, where there are numerous Catholic institutions. What about women who live in small, or even large, rural dioceses? These dioceses tend to be poorer, without a lot of resources and with few Catholic institutions. In my diocese, for instance, there is not a single Catholic health care facility. Would a consecrated virgin who was a nurse have to go to another diocese to work in a Catholic sponsored hospital? Or should she quit nursing to become a teacher in one of the few Catholic schools in the diocese, even though she has neither the interest or ability to be a good teacher? —Curious

This question is somewhat complex, in that it touches on several related but distinct issues at one time. But in my reading of this comment, is seems to me that the central question being asked here is whether or not a consecrated virgin would be obligated to serve the Church in a full-time and direct way even in situations where this would be seriously inconvenient.*** (With apologies to “Curious” if it turns out that I’m misunderstanding.)

Given my reading of the question, and assuming that it references a hypothetical situation, my own thought is that the short answer would have to be a qualified “yes.”

That is, in my own OPINION, a true “dedication to the service of the Church” in one’s home diocese is so intrinsic to the vocation of consecrated virginity “lived in the world,” that an aspiring consecrated virgin should be willing to undertake even substantial inconveniences in order to live out this aspect of her calling, or else reconsider her vocation entirely.

Further, as I see it, in order to serve one’s local Church effectively—as well as to emulate the sacrificial love and self-emptying which the Church holds as the ideal for all forms of consecrated life—it’s necessary to take into account the actual needs of one’s diocese, even if these needs do not dovetail perfectly with the kind of work which one would find the most personally fulfilling.

So, speaking purely in principle, if there was an aspiring consecrated virgin who was trained as a nurse, but who lived in a diocese where a nursing apostolate was truly and absolutely impossible, my thought would be that she should either:

- consider some other type of apostolate;
- consider moving to a diocese that did need nurses;
- consider whether or not she might actually be called to some sort of dedicated lay life (e.g., private vows); OR
- consider whether or not she might be called to some other form of consecrated life besides consecrated virginity (such as an active religious community traditionally dedicated to nursing).

But with all that being said, I have to point out that these kinds of abstract considerations are just that—considerations in the abstract. Real-life cases often have nuances which can’t be adequately taken into account within the context of a hypothetical situation.

If a potential consecrated virgin who was in the situation which “Curious” describes came to me asking for advice, I would ask her the following questions or make the following points:

1. Are you absolutely sure that there is no possibility whatsoever of you using your gifts as a nurse within some sort of Catholic institution in your diocese?

With all due respect, to be honest, I guess I have a hard time imagining that in a rural, economically poorer diocese there would be zero need for nurses—if anything, as an outside observer, it seems like such a diocese would needs nurses even more urgently than a place like New York!

Even if there aren’t any Catholic hospitals in your area, is there any other Church-related organization that could use a nurse? Maybe a crisis pregnancy center, or a nursing home, or in one of the many kinds of programs run by Catholic Charities? Is there a Catholic school that needs a school nurse? Or would you be qualified to teach nursing at a local Catholic college? Does your nursing background make it possible to become an NFP instructor? Or could you see yourself transitioning into an apostolate the focused on educating the faithful on Catholic medical ethics? (These are just a few ideas I’m coming up with off the top of my head—I’m sure there are even more possibilities.)

And, in the event that none of these “creative options” involved a paid position, would it be possible for you to work just enough hours in a secular (but Catholic-friendly!) institution to support yourself in a very simply lifestyle, while you devoted a truly substantial amount—perhaps the majority—of your time to pro bono nursing work?

2. Keep in mind that it is theoretically possible to work for the direct advancement of the Church’s mission without necessarily coming under the formal auspices of a Catholic institution. My thought is that a consecrated virgin who, with the approval of her bishop, gave herself over entirely or near-entirely to prayer or charitable works would be indisputably “dedicated to the service of the Church,” even if she wasn’t considered an official diocesan employee.

For one thing, sometimes institutions are not considered “Catholic” or “diocesan” simply because of an administrative technicality. As one example, the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School is a girls’ high school in Washington, DC, which is run by the Visitation nuns of Georgetown. Even though the students there take theology classes, learn about Catholic values, have the opportunity to attend daily Mass, and see plenty of fully-habited nuns on campus, the school is not considered a “Catholic school,” but a “private school in the Catholic tradition.” However, this distinction is due only to comparatively minor administrative details, such as not being bound by the local diocesan-wide academic calendar.

In other words, you could hardly argue that the Visitation nuns were not serving the Church simply because their educational apostolate doesn’t include a “Catholic school.”

Likewise, the apostolates of many active religious congregations wasn’t considered an “official” work of the Church at the time of their foundation, since as emerging communities they were not recognized as being formal representatives of the Church.

E.g., when Bl. Theresa of Calcutta first went out to serve the poorest of the poor, initially she was simply performing acts of mercy on what was essentially, from a canonical point of view, her own initiate. The corporate apostolate of the Missionaries of Charity wouldn’t be recognized and formally endorsed by the Church until many years later. Yet, since Mother Theresa’s intention in working among the poor was to manifest the love of Christ, and since this can rightly be considered an extension of the Church’s charitable mission, it would be wrong to say that Mother Theresa was doing anything other than serving the Church in a direct and literal way.

Also, some forms of service don’t really lend themselves to “institutionalization.” For instance, I think it would be perfectly legitimate (albeit not very practical in a lot of cases) for a consecrated virgin to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” through an apostolate of full-time prayer in the context of a contemplative, semi-eremitic lifestyle. Yet, embarking on this particular way of life is a far cry from being hired by an institution.

Similarly, I think there are many conceivable situations where a consecrated virgin could—with the approval of her bishop—take the initiative in developing her own apostolate. I could easily imagine a consecrated virgin serving the Church through something like making vestments, tutoring disadvantaged children, writing books and free lance articles on Catholic spirituality, creating Catholic art, using her professional legal training to do advocacy work for the poor, studying psychology to become a Catholic counselor with her own private practice, and so on.

3. In some ways, to me it seems like it might actually be easier for a consecrated virgin from a small rural diocese to find a way to be directly and explicitly “dedicated to the service of the Church,” than it would be for a consecrated virgin from a large metropolitan See.

As much as I absolutely love being a part of the Archdiocese of New York, to be honest I have to admit that there are drawbacks as well as benefits to being a consecrated virgin in such a huge urban-centered archdiocese. While I appreciate, among other things, the vibrant and diverse Catholic culture here, our rich historical background, the great number of solid local religious communities, and the many nearby cultural and educational resources, at the same time the sheer size of the Archdiocese could tend to make it easier for a consecrated virgin to get “lost in the woodwork.”

On the other hand, it seems to me that an aspiring consecrated virgin from a small rural diocese would be more likely to have a vibrant, personal relationship with her bishop. This in turn could foster a more in-depth, carefully considered and truly mutual discernment of the aspiring consecrated virgin’s gifts and skills vis-à-vis the needs of the diocese.

4. Speaking as respectfully as possible, is there some aspect of your discernment you might need to reconsider?

Are you really sure that you couldn’t fulfill God’s will for you in any apostolate besides full-time nursing? When you’re being as honest as possible with yourself and with the Lord in prayer, do you feel that nursing is truly your vocation, or does it just seem to be the most logical way to use what you perceive as your gifts? While it’s important for us to be good stewards and to employ our best human judgment in using the gifts we have been given wisely, sometimes there can be a bit of a gap between what God actually does want of us and what we think would make the most sense for God to want of us.

If nursing was utterly impossible in your diocese, would moving really be all that bad? Is their another diocese where you could imagine feeling just as “at home” as the place where you live now? Or do you think God could be calling you—almost like a missionary—to pack up and move in order to love and serve Him in a place where your gifts are most needed?

Or are you sure that you’re called to be a consecrated virgin in the first place? If being a nurse is such a central component to your experience of vocation, perhaps that’s a sign that God is actually calling you to be a Sister in a congregation with a nursing apostolate. (And there are some great ones out there, like the Hawthorn Dominicans and the Little Sisters of the Poor). Or, maybe you’re called to join a secular institute, or else to make a private vow on your own.

5. Even if your diocese’s greatest, most pressing need was for Catholic school teachers, you wouldn’t necessarily have to become a teacher if you were sincerely convinced that teaching would be a completely horrible “fit” for you. While I believe that consecrated virgin are, with very few exceptions, indisputably called to be literally dedicated to direct service of the Church, I think it would be wrong to assume that consecrated virgins are necessarily called to any one specific type of apostolate (even within a particular diocese).

And although I personally don’t think that I would, in my own life, have a problem if I were asked to serve the Church in the context of a religious life-type structure of formal obedience (i.e., where you go where you’re sent, regardless of how you happen to feel about your assignment), on a theological level I actually don’t think this is the most appropriate system of ecclesial service for consecrated virgins “in the world.”

The Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself seems to envision a sort of mutual discernment between the bishop and the consecrated virgin in determining the exact way in which the consecrated virgin is to serve the Church. In number 2 of the gereral introduction of the Rite, it states that consecrated virgins are to “spend their time in works of penance and of mercy, in apostolic activity, and in prayer, according to their state in life and spiritual gifts” (my emphasis).

The bottom line is that, while certainly consecrated virgins should always be willing and even eager to “empty themselves” by putting the needs of their diocese above their own personal preferences, I don’t think that consecrated virgins’ call to service should ever be misunderstood as an obligation to undertake a type of work for which one is totally unsuited, unqualified, or incompetent.

Above all, we would be wrong and terribly mistaken if we were to understand a call to a life of direct, Church-related service as being anything at all like (as has at times been suggested) a way for the hierarchy to obtain cheap labor from an unquestioning celibate workforce. The theology of consecrated life, especially as it pertains to service, is so much richer than that!

As I see it, a consecrated virgin’s vocation to service is first and foremost a vocation to manifest, in a concrete manner, her spousal love of Jesus and her maternal love of the souls in her diocese. (And could anyone really argue that it would be inappropriate for a consecrated virgin to make sacrifices and “spend herself” for the sake of souls, since everyday we see natural mothers “spending themselves” for the sake of their natural children?)

A call to be “dedicated to the service of Church” is undoubtedly a call to generosity and self-sacrifice; it is emphatically NOT a call to abandon human prudence and common sense.


* See CCC 923; canon 604.1.

** I know “unwarranted” and “unjustified” might sound like inflammatory words, but I truly don’t mean them to take on this sort of tone. All I’m trying to say is that there isn’t anything in the Church’s history, tradition, or current authoritative documents which actively suggests that consecrated virginity should have a spirituality or charism similar to that of secular institutes.

*** But in referring to “seriously inconvenient” circumstances, I’m not talking about matters of life or death! If a consecrated virgin really and truly were to have absolutely no other options besides working in a secular job in order to support herself in the basic necessities of life, then of course I would not fault her for this.

Likewise, with the popular understanding of consecrated virginity being what it is right now, I think that those virgins who were consecrated when they were in their fifties, sixties, and seventies are now called simply to do the best they can in striving to live a life of service. While I personally belive that it would be commendable for an older consecrated virgin to prayerfully discern changing careers in order to devote more time to direct service of the Church, I do appreciate the fact that in many cases it may be prohibitively difficult or else gravely imprudent for middle-aged or elderly woman to seek to make such a radical change.


Maria said...

Have you been appointed by the Church as the national expert?

Elizabeth said...

Maria, I think your comment is unwarranted. Our host is sharing her well-thought out opinions about a dimension of this form of consecrated life. Nowhere does she set up her opinion as definitively encompassing, exhaustive or authoritative. You are reading into this post, and others (on my blog) things which are not there.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I disagree with you on this one, Sponsa Christi. I never used the word "inconvenient" in my question. I think there are many legitimate reasons that go beyond inconvenience for a consecrated virgin to not work for the Church. Also see another comment on this at:


Anonymous said...

Sometimes following up your advices and comments here I would like to remind you of one aspect which in my eyes steps behind : Being consecrated means balancing the contemplative and the active aspects in following Christ. I mean to say that looking for activities as fulfilment of the vocation is one side of the medal the other is living as bride in a praying, contemplative, silent manner. Giving advice to anyone I would always put emphasis on balancing the consecrated life between contemplation and activity. If this balance gets out of sight I see the risk of loosing the Christo-centric attitude in what is expressed in "living in the world" but not becoming part of the world.

a consecrated virgin said...


I know you didn’t actually use the word “inconvenient,” but this seemed like the best word to sum up the situation you described.

The Collins English dictionary defines the word “inconvenient” as meaning “troublesome, awkward, or difficult.” In general parlance, we can also use the word inconvenient to mean something like “less than optimal.” In my mind, feeling called to be a consecrated virgin and a nurse in a diocese that seemed to have no need of nurses would be “troublesome, awkward, or difficult” or at least “less than optimal.”

I did read the post you linked to, but with all due respect, I didn’t see the point it was trying to make (that is, I couldn’t figure out what the “thesis statement” was). The thesis statement of THIS post is:

1. Given that dedication to the service to the Church is an intrinsic part of the charism of consecrated virginity;

2. And assuming I’m correct in stating that we have no reason to suppose that the Church intends for us to interpret this call to service in anything other than a literal fashion;

3. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that consecrated virgins—as women called by God to the direct service of the Church—may need to make significant sacrifices at times in order to fulfill this aspect of their vocation.

Anonymous on March 7:

I agree with you that it is important for consecrated virgins to realize that the contemplative and apostolic dimensions of their vocation are two sides of the same coin, and that it would be problematic if a consecrated virgin was focused on practical apostolic works to the point of neglecting her prayer life.

The only reason I focus so much on apostolic service to the Church is that this is the aspect of consecrated virginity which seems to be most misunderstood or underappreciated. As I see it, there is not quite as much of a need for me to spend a great deal of time discussing the contemplative dimension of consecrated virginity, since many people have written about this in other places.

For anyone who’s interested, I did write a post on “Being vs. Doing” about a year ago: http://sponsa-christi.blogspot.com/2010/03/being-versus-doing.html

Anonymous said...

Dear Sponsa Christi,
many thanks for your reply on my topic "being and doing" as two sides of the same coin. I would like to add one aspect to your picture of the tree that bears fruit. From the fruit it bears you can tell about the tree. I agree with that. But in my eyes "living in the world as bride of christ" as charism the "doing" can be regarded in different ways. Doing in terms of deeds in care, social, catechetic etc. fields or doing somehow as the charism of putting Christ in presence of the people by living the virtues his mother who lived as pattern for us and he taught us to imprint those virtues on our hearts and to take into our minds.

Take the gospel of today - ash wednesday and add the aspect of Paul telling "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." Gal 2,20.

I want to point out that doing in our modern society is oftentimes limited to deeds that you can count or clarify as profession. The charism of doing i.e. living in the world as bride of Christ in my eyes lies in a deeper level. It starts at being changed from inside by HIM towards living in daily life the virtues and thus changing all we do from each and every small aspect of daily life to the few unusual deeds by the way of being and thus living. Loving the church, loving the neighbors, limiting ourselves in order to getting away from selfishness ...

I hope I could express the slight difference in doing which I regard as main point of the charism and vocation of a consecrated virgin in comparison with other vocations.

Prayer in contemplation, doing and working in social and welfare professions are two sides of the coin many vocations share just being different in their emphasis on more comtemplative or more active aspects.

The third aspect I would like to point out is unique about being bride of Christ, consecrated virgin living in the world. It is my understanding, so for all reading this do not take it as "official" statement. But as bride of Christ living your life here on earth is living already tied to life when finally coming home to the bridegroom and fully sharing His love and nature. Like in a marriage where two people come closest together than nowhere else, the bride already take His virtues, kind of thinking as told from the gospels as pattern of her own nature and being. Thus His light shining through her way of living in the world is the duty and sometimes the cross too of the bride.

Today the gospel says : "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. "

I would add, then going out into the world again keep your openess that the light of Christ can go on shining through your personality and the way of daily living with your neighbors.

Adding activities, deeds and social professions means giving your personal vocation and personality the individual aspects and emphasis which makes it unique for your and your spouse.