Consecrated virginity is the oldest recognized form of consecrated life in the Catholic Church, predating religious life by centuries. The choice of life-long virginity is praised several places in the New Testament, and one of our earliest references to consecrated virgins as a distinct group within the Church can be found in St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Smyrnaeans, written c. 110 A.D.
Later Church Fathers, such as St. Cyprian and St. Ambrose, wrote extensive treatises on this form of consecrated life, and primitive versions of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity appear in our oldest written liturgical records. Well-known consecrated virgins from the early Church include the martyrs St. Agnes, St. Agatha, St. Cecilia, and St. Lucy.
Before it was historically possible for a woman to enter a religious Order and become a nun, she could offer her life to God as a consecrated virgin. But with the rise of monastic religious life beginning in the sixth century A.D., the practice of consecrating women living “in the world,” or outside of monasteries, gradually fell into disuse until it was discontinued in the Middle Ages. However, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity was preserved by certain religious Orders, who continued to use the ritual in conjunction with their contemplative nuns’ solemn profession. Then in the later half of the twentieth century, in accord with the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Rite of Consecration was revised and the vocation of consecrated virginity in the world was restored to the life of the modern Church.
Today, consecrated virginity is one of the only forms of women’s consecrated life which involves a deep spiritual bond with the local Church. Unlike a religious sister, who in some sense must “leave” her diocese in order to join her community, a consecrated virgin continues to be fully a part of the local Church, and she lives out her consecrated life directly under the authority of her bishop. Thus, consecrated virginsare called to dedicate their lives to prayer for, and service to, their home diocese.
Although consecrated virgins and women religious are similar in the sense that the Church regards them both as publicly consecrated persons, receiving the Rite of Consecration is different from professing religious vows. Where religious vows are essentially promises that an individual actively makes to God, consecration to a life of virginity is a solemn blessing which a woman passively receives from God through the ministry of the bishop. (This is somewhat similar to the way in which a bishop consecrates a Church building, setting it aside for a sacred purpose.) Because of this, the consecration itself is permanent and can never be dispensed.
As one of a consecrated virgin’s most primary obligations is prayer, consecrated virgins devote a substantial amount of time to worship and to the contemplation of Divine realities. This is fulfilled through attendance at daily Mass, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, and spending time in personal prayer and spiritual reading. Consecrated virgins have a special focus on Divine Office, since during the Rite of Consecration they are presented with a breviary and commissioned to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. In their prayers, consecrated virgins intercede for the whole Church, remembering especially the bishops, priests, and all the people of their diocese.
Consecrated virgins do not follow the spirituality of any one particular saint or founder. However, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity contains a profound spirituality of its own. These ancient and beautiful prayers celebrate the spousal relationship between a consecrated virgin and Christ—a relationship which is described as an image of Christ’s love for His Church. The Church considers a consecrated virgin to be a “bride of Christ” because she freely offers herself, and all the love she would have given to a husband and children, to Christ alone for the glory of God and the salvation of His people.
In living as a spouse of Christ, a consecrated virgin anticipates what will be the reality for all the faithful in Heaven, where they “neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels.” (Matthew 22:30). Consecrated virgins serve as a witness and reminder to the fact that Christ is the ultimate fulfillment, not only of the longings of the human heart, but also of all time and history. Like the Bride in the book of Revelation, consecrated virgins are called to love Christ with such totality that their whole lives constantly echo the cry: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (cf. Revelation 22:17, 20)
(Originally written for the website of the Vocation Office in the Diocese of Raleigh, NC; August 2009.)