Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Quick Question: Are consecrated virgins called to pray for priests?

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Prayer for priests per se isn’t necessarily the central aspect of our vocation, although consecrated virgins would certainly seem to be called to pray for the local clergy of their dioceses in at least a general way.

The praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity lists prayer as one of the “principle duties of those consecrated.”* It is worth noting that in the original Latin typical edition, the word for “duties” is actually “munera,” a word that is often translated in other context as “offices.” In many ways, an office represents a more profound obligation that a mere duty. Whereas a “duty” might refer to a simple task, an “office” is more intrinsically linked to the concept of vocation and thus ultimately to a person’s very being. Identifying consecrated virgins as having an “office” of prayer underscores how essential prayer is to our vocation.

Yet at the same time it can be noted that a call to be especially dedicated to prayer, even to intercessory prayer, is different from a specific call to intercede for a specific intention. Some religious Orders, such as the Discalced Carmelites and the Handmaids of the Precious Blood, do have “prayer for priests” as a characteristic and central element of their founding charism. The Ordo virginum, in contrast, historically lacks this same heavy direct emphasis on intercessory prayer for the clergy.

Likewise, in the suggested homily supplied in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, the bishop exhorts the soon-to-be-consecrated virgin to:

“Make it your concern to pray fervently for the spread of the Christian faith and for the unity of all Christians.  Pray earnestly to God for the welfare of the married. Remember also those who have forgotten their Father’s goodness and have abandoned his love, so that God’s mercy may forgive where his justice must condemn.”

Some consecrated virgins have observed that priests are not included in this “to-do list” of intentions, pointing out that this lack could be taken to indicate that consecrated virgins do not have any sort of special call to pray for the clergy.

However, these above-mentioned points are more about the simple absence of a directive for consecrated virgins to pray specifically for priests. And although points of silence in the law can be interesting and even meaningful, it is often difficult to draw firm conclusions based on silences alone.

Therefore, it is important to consider the more detailed and explicit discussion on consecrated virgins’ obligation of intercessory prayer found in the 2018 Instruction Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI). Among other places, ESI 43—a section which discusses some of the spiritual aspects of a consecrated virgin’s bond with her diocese—directs consecrated virgins to “…bring to prayer the needs of the Diocese and, in particular, the intentions of the Bishop.”

If a consecrated virgin is asked to intercede specifically for the needs of her diocese and the intentions of the bishop, it would be hard to imagine any sense in which this could possibly not encompass prayer for the local diocesan clergy. I.e., what diocesan bishop wouldn’t have the welfare of his priests as a principle personal prayer intention? And how could the spiritual support of priests not be a real need of the diocese?

In light of these considerations, I believe it is reasonable to conclude that consecrated virgins are indeed called to pray for priests—or at the very least, for the priests of their respective dioceses.

But since prayer for priests is referenced only implicitly here, I think it is reasonable to conclude that “prayer for priests” as such is not a distinctive characteristic element of the charism of the Ordo virginum (even while we should still keep in mind that the spiritual support of our local diocesan Church is). At the same time, consecrated virgins’ call to intercede for the local clergy is still implied rather strongly, so I think it would also be incorrect to regard “prayer for priests” as something somehow alien to our vocation.

This relative ambiguity gives individual consecrated virgins some freedom to discern for themselves how prominently intercessory prayer for priests will factor into their own personal spiritual lives. For example, I think it would be praiseworthy for one consecrated virgin to focus especially on offering prayers and sacrifices for the sanctification of the clergy, but equally legitimate for another consecrated virgin to pray for priests in a more perfunctory way as part of her overall prayers for the needs of her local Church. Absent any special prayer request from her bishop, I would say that this is the sort of matter that an individual consecrated virgin to discern with her spiritual director.

(Photo by Fr. Bryan Jerabek, who was my classmate in my canon law program, and whom I reasonably presume doesn't mind me using it here!)

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

A brief explanation of the new canon 604 §3

This past Friday, on February 11, 2022, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio modifying some of the canons in the Code of Canon Law.* One of these alterations was adding a third paragraph to canon 604, the one canon on consecrated virginity. 

The newly-expanded canon 604 (with the latest edition in bold) now reads:

 §1. Similar to these forms of consecrated life is the order of virgins who, expressing the holy resolution of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are mystically betrothed to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.

§2. In order to observe their own resolution more faithfully and to perform by mutual assistance service to the Church in harmony with their proper state, virgins can be associated together.

§3. The recognition and establishment of such associations at the diocesan level belongs to the diocesan bishop, within his own territory, at the national level it belongs to the episcopal conference, within its own territory.

What does this change?

Basically, nothing! All can. 604 §3 does is make explicit what was already implied. 

In the section of the Code which discusses associations of the faithful in general, canon 312 details which authorities are able to formally recognize and approve such associations. Naturally, the Holy See (a.k.a. “the Vatican” or “Rome”) has competence to approve international associations; the relevant bishops’ conference has the competence for approving associations within its own territory; and the diocesan bishop is competent to approve diocesan associations of the faithful within his own diocese.

Even while there can be different kinds of associations specific to members of the Christian faithful in different states in life—such as clerical associations for priests, or associations specifically intended for laypeople—can. 312 was meant to apply to all associations of the faithful inclusively.

If this doesn’t really change anything, then why add it to the Code?

I don’t know for sure. The Pope didn’t call me to chat about this motu proprio beforehand!

But if I had to hazard a guess, my thought is that perhaps there were some questions or mistaken impressions that the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) needed to approve all associations of consecrated virgins, not just the international ones.

The 1988 document Pastor Bonus, which describes which Vatican dicastery (or “department”) handles what, states in art. 110 that CICLSAL has competence for “the order of virgins and their associations.” So even while I would have always presumed that CIC can. 312 applied to associations of consecrated virgins just as it did to any other association of the faithful, I could theoretically imagine a scenario where someone might have wondered whether this specification in Pastor Bonus art. 110 meant that associations of consecrated virgins were somehow a special case reserved to Rome.

So now, it is definitively clarified that associations of consecrated virgins do indeed follow the same norms applying to associations of the faithful in general.

Interestingly, there seems to have been similar questions and concerns about can. 604 §2 back when the Code was initially being drafted. It was argued that since all Christians fundamentally have the right to associate, it could be unnecessary or superfluous for the language of the Code to go out of its way to specify that consecrated virgins enjoy a right common to all the faithful.** But at the end of the day, the drafters obviously decided to err on the side of clarity. And so can. 604 §2 exits to note that consecrated virgins can indeed form associations among themselves for pious reasons.



*For a good explanation of all the changes introduced in this motu proprio, see this article in The Pillar.

** Sr. Sharon Holland recounts this in her article “Consecrated Virgins for Today’s Church.”

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Some Basic Advice for Discerners


One of the most common questions I’m asked as a relatively seasoned consecrated virgin is whether I have any advice for women discerning this vocation. This is also one of the trickiest questions to answer, because in real life my answer would depend a lot on the individual woman I’m talking to. For instance, my advice to a college student would be very different than my advice for a forty-something professional woman, which would also be different than my advice to someone who had recently left a religious community, etc.

Still, there are some very basic ideas that I find apply almost across the board. Some of these may go with out saying…but just in case they are helpful, I’m going ahead and saying them anyway!

1. Make sure you’re clear on what this vocation is actually all about

 If you feel called to discern a vocation to consecrated virginity, an important first step is understanding the fundamental nature of this form of consecrated life. Specifically, you should be clear on the concept that consecrated virginity is a public form of consecrated life for chaste and never-married women, centered around the charism of a spousal relationship with Christ, and which is lived out under the authority of the diocesan bishop primarily within the context of the local diocesan Church. And, as a public form of consecrated life, consecrated virginity involves some baseline obligations of evangelical witness, formal liturgical prayer, and service of the Church.

This point might seem overly obvious to many readers. But I find that sometimes people still have an impression of consecrated virginity as sort of a generic catch-all category, in which the main defining feature is simply being “not religious life in community”!  More commonly, well-meaning people can tend to confuse consecrated virginity with other vocations that are neither vowed religious life in community nor normal human marriage.

So just to clarify: consecrated virginity is not a private vow. A private vow is a wholly personal response to a sense of God’s call without any exteriorly-imposed parameters. Consecrated virginity, on the other hand, despite its flexibility in admitting a wide variety of practical lived expressions, is still a public commitment to a way of life that is exteriorly defined, governed, and formally approved by the Church.

Consecrated virginity is also very different from a secular Third Order. Third Orders (and oblate and community associate programs, etc.) are, essentially, modes for laypeople to share in the spirituality of a religious Order. But consecrated virginity has its own spirituality and charism that is district from any of the Church’s many religious families, and consecrated virgins are not “laypeople” in the usual sense of the term.

Consecrated virginity is also not the same as the so-called “lay consecrated life” of the newer lay ecclesial movements, since—among other points of contrast—the Ordo virginum is an ancient vocation dating back to Apostolic times and doesn’t involve an association with any group (unless of course you want to call the local diocese a “group”). Similarly, secular institute members and Opus Dei numeraries are not “consecrated virgins” in the technical sense of belonging to the Ordo virginum.

And finally, consecrated virginity is really not “the single life,” since consecrated virgins make a life commitment that is, theologically, truly nuptial.

All of these non-consecrated virginity vocations are still good vocations! But if you’re discerning consecrated virginity, you should have a good understanding of what it is you are discerning.

2. Do your homework

Or in other words, read and familiarize yourself with the relevant Church documents on consecrated virginity. In my opinion, the most important one to read is the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself. I would even recommend multiple readings of the Rite of Consecration, perhaps beginning with a more straightforward academic reading if the Rite, and then subsequently re-reading it in a slower, more contemplative and prayerful way. The Rite of Consecration sums up the core spirituality of a consecrated virgin, so your inner spiritual attraction (or lack thereof!) will be an important clue about whether or not you’re called to this life.

Following that, another important document to read is the 2008 Instruction on the Ordo virginum, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI). With a title that translates literally as “the Image of the Church as Bride,” this Vatican document address questions related to the nature and purpose of consecrated virginity in greater depth. The official intended audience of ESI is actually bishops and the canon lawyers assisting them, so a lot of ESI is written in somewhat technical language. Nevertheless, it contains some beautiful and very accessible passages, especially paragraphs 1 – 40; and even the more “dry” parts of ESI still communicate significant details about what the Church expects from her consecrated virgins.

That past three Popes have all given addresses and homilies to the Ordo virginum specifically, which are each worth a read:

May Christ be your total and exclusive love – Pope St. John Paul II (1995)

“To the Order of Virgins: Personal journeys in holiness at service of all” – Pope Benedict XVI (2008)

“Be ‘women of mercy’” – Pope Francis (2020)

You might also consider reading some of the Church’s writings on consecrated life in general, such as St. John Paul II’s work Vita Consecrata.

In terms of more devotional reading, Christ in His Consecrated Virgins by Ludwig Munster was originally written for pre-Vatican II Benedictine nuns preparing to receive the consecration of virgins after their solemn religious profession, but it’s still relevant for today’s consecrated virgins “living in the world.” It’s currently out of print, but you can read the whole thing online here.

Finally, Fr. Thomas Dubay’s book “And You Are Christ’s…” is kind of the go-to English language classic for introducing the basic theology and spirituality behind a commitment to dedicated Christian virginity of any sort. (Although, as a more mature consecrated virgin, I don’t find it as personally helpful as I did when I was younger, but I would still heartily recommend it to anyone discerning this vocation.) A similar book is Virginity by Fr. Rainero Cantalamessa, which has been translated from the original Italian into multiple languages. 

3. Find a good spiritual director

Yes, I know it’s hard to find a good spiritual director, etc. etc.

But seriously, really try your best here. Spiritual direction is something any woman seriously discerning consecrated virginity needs to make a priority. You absolutely need a good spiritual direction to help you in your discernment of this vocation—and if consecrated virginity does wind up being your call, then you’ll need a spiritual director post-consecration to help you with all the on-going discernment that this life requires.

If you don’t have a spiritual director or are struggling to find one, a great first step is to ask God in prayer to send you one. It’s amazing how often God will answer prayers like this through surprise providential encounters.

On your part, the active legwork involved in finding a spiritual director doesn’t have to be too mysterious or complicated. If you already know a priest that you find to be holy and sensible (and for whatever it’s worth, St. Teresa of Avila thought it was more important that spiritual directors be “learned” than that they be particularly holy!), you can start by just asking him if he would be open to doing spiritual direction with you. Even if he can’t take this on, he might be able to refer you to someone else who can. If you don’t know any priests whom you would feel comfortable going to for direction, you can try just asking your parish priest or maybe your diocesan vocations office for a referral.

Incidentally, a spiritual director doesn’t have to be a priest—although in my own personal anecdotal experience, it seems that holy diocesan priests in general tend to be the best at intuitively “getting” the vocation of consecrated virginity. And I do think there is some real benefit in an aspiring consecrated virgin having a spiritual director who is also committed to a life of celibate chastity in some way. But there are good spiritual directors among non-ordained religious, men and women in other forms of consecrated life, and lay people.

4. Try to meet consecrated virgins

If you are discerning this vocation, it can be very helpful to meet actual consecrated virgins in real life. If you don’t have any already-consecrated virgins nearby—and even if you do—you might consider attending the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins’ annual discerners’ conference.

Additionally, if there is a consecration being celebrated close to you, see if you can attend. The vast majority of consecration ceremonies are open to the public. Not only will you be able to experience one of the most beautiful ceremonies of the Roman liturgy, but you may even have the chance to meet consecrated virgins or other discerners who are also in attendance.

One caveat, however: consecrated virgins are a very “individual” bunch. Or to put a spin on the old saying: if you’ve met one consecrated virgin…you’ve met one consecrated virgin! Consecrated virgins share important things in common, but our consecrated lives are lived out in a variety of concrete ways. If you don’t “click” with the first consecrated virgin you meet, or even the first several, this isn’t necessarily a sign that you’re not called to this life.

5. Work to resolve any “crisis” or on-going issues in your life

For example, if you have a serious physical or mental health problem, do whatever you can to speed your recovery, if possible. Or for more chronic conditions, do what you can to manage them to the point where they’re not radically impinging upon the rest of your life. If you are burdened by major debts, make a real effort to pay them down. If you have a family crisis that is demanding most of your time and attention, either wait until your family circumstances get to a more stable place or find some way where your degree of personal responsibility within the situation can be adjusted to a more manageable level.

Sometimes discerners have the impression that, because consecrated virginity doesn’t entail the same kind of hard restrictions that religious communities generally have for new members, it’s no problem to discern consecrated virginity when you have an uncontrolled chronic illness, are deeply in debt, or have overwhelming family obligations. And there is a kernel of truth to this—consecrated virgins can own property and control their own finances, so it’s entirely possible for a consecrated virgin to responsibly pay off a student loan or mortgage on a house; and this life allows for a decent amount of flexibility and freedom, so it is possible for one consecrated virgin to live at a more “gentle” pace than others, or for consecrated virgins to assist aging parents in various ways.

But with that being said, before you start discerning consecrated virginity in earnest, it’s important to have your life in serene, stable, and healthy place. (Or at least as serene and stable as you can reasonably get it. Obviously, none of us are perfect and nobody is going to have a completely stress-free life!)

This is for a few reasons. First, a basic principle of any type of Christian discernment is that it’s easiest to listen for God’s voice amidst calm and peace.

Following that, it’s crucial to have a real sense of freedom when you’re discerning this vocation. If you are discerning consecrated life in general, it might be tempting to see consecrated virginity as an easier or less demanding vocational option than religious life since, as noted above, strictly speaking an aspiring consecrated virgin doesn’t need to be completely debt-free or in perfect physical health to be accepted as a candidate. But if you’re discerning consecrated virginity with a thought of: “Well, at least this is an option for me…”, that’s not a good sign. In order to discern consecrated virginity fruitfully and appropriately, it must be approached as a “first choice” vocation.

Additionally, the very same things that could make joining a religious community difficult can also present special challenges for living out a fervent consecrated life as a member of the Ordo virginum. Despite the high levels of personal freedom inherent in this vocation, we consecrated virgins still have real obligations and commitments by virtue of our state in life. While there can be exceptions in exceptional cases, if you’re thinking of becoming a consecrated virgin, you need to be able to take on a commitment to regular liturgical and private prayer, as well being realistically capable of undertaking some kind of apostolate or service of the Church. If you don’t see yourself as being able to do this, then it’s most likely not the right time in your life to be discerning this call.

6. Cultivate a spirit of openness

Hopefully it goes without saying that consecrated virgins are called to be mature adult women who can take pro-active responsibility for their own lives, think critically about nuanced questions, and who can make sensible decisions with confidence. Yet at the same time, it’s good to remember that a consecrated virgin is also called to a spirit of docility and openness, in the sense of truly wanting to know God’s will and do it, even if God’s will is something surprising, unexpected, or something which goes against her personal preferences or is outside of her comfort zone.

This call to a spirit of openness applies doubly (if not triply, or four times as much) to women still just discerning this vocation. It’s important to be open to the idea that the Ordo virginum may be where God is calling you…but conversely, in your initial discernment it’s also important to be open to the idea that God just as well might not be calling you to consecrated virginity after all.

And if you and your bishop do discern that you’re called to consecrated virginity, then you’ll also need to have a spirit of openness towards formation. Even if you’ve been doing your best to “live the life of a consecrated virgin,” at the end of the day you really can’t life the live of a consecrated virgin fully unless and until you actually are consecrated. Knowing your need for formation is a strong sign of a genuine vocation, whereas feeling convinced you have it all completely figured out is a red flag in my mind.

And don’t forget, even after consecration on-going formation is a life-long project! The consecrated virgins in my own life whom I most respect and admire also happen to be the ones most interested in continuing to study and delve deeper into the Church’s teachings on what it means to be a consecrated bride of Christ.

7. Pray, pray, pray…and then pray some more

Praying to know God’s will for your life is such standard advice I almost forgot to list it here! But it’s standard advice for a reason. You can’t learn to listen for God’s voice if you don’t have a real listening relationship with Him, which is what prayer essentially is. And since the heart of a consecrated virgin’s vocation is a spousal relationship with Christ, the “relational” aspect of prayer is absolutely essential. You can’t have a relationship with a theory or idea, but only with a person, and a vibrant prayer life is the only way to establish this kind of person-to-person relationship with Christ.

Beyond this, I think it would be helpful for a discerner to try adopting some of the specific elements of the prayer life of a consecrated virgin, especially daily Mass whenever possible, dedicated time for silent prayer, and the Liturgy of the Hours.

But once again, keep in mind that at the end of the day, you can only truly have “the prayer life of a consecrated virgin” once you are a consecrated virgin. Actually being consecrated really does entail a significant shift in your interior spiritual life. And also, if this is your call, ideally you should have years to ease yourself into the amount of daily prayer time expected of a consecrated virgin. So, be sure to set realistic goals for your prayer life as a discerner and don’t let yourself get discouraged if it seems like a lot at first. Just take the first step.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Quick Question: Can an Eastern Catholic woman become a consecrated virgin?

Simi Sahu, the first Syro-Malabar consecrated virgin 
in the United States

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Yes, but it’s a little complicated.

Eastern Catholics* have a slightly different system of canon law than Latin (a.k.a. “Roman”) Catholics.** A rough counterpart to our Latin 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) is their 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. (CCEO)

However, the CCEO is different from the CIC in one very significant way: while the Latin Code of Canon Law governs Latin Catholics in a single flat “layer,” the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches is written in such a way so as to account for the fact that each individual Eastern Church—or what we would technically call Churches “sui iuris”—also has its own proper law specific to that particular Church. The CCEO sets some basic universal norms for all Eastern Churches, but in numerous places it defers to a sui iuris Church’s proper law.

And as some readers may already know, canon 570 in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches explicitly mentions consecrated virgins, along with hermits and consecrated widows. As this canon states:

“Particular law can establish other kinds of ascetics who imitate eremitical life, belonging or not to an institute of consecrated life. Consecrated virgins and widows who live on their own in the world, having publicly professed chastity, can also come under norms of particular law.”

But as we can see here, this is one instance where the actual details are matter of an individual Church’s proper (i.e. “particular”) law. So in contrast with CIC can. 604, which formally recognizes the Ordo virginum as an established form of consecrated life in the Latin Church throughout the world, CCEO can. 570 merely allows for the possibility of individual sui iuris Churches deciding to have the vocation of consecrated virginity within their own ecclesial community.

So the permission to have consecrated virgins in CCEO can. 570 also comes with the implied caveat that an Eastern sui iuris Church could legitimately decide not to have consecrated virgins, or that an Eastern Church could decline to establish the Ordo virginum within their tradition.

And if a sui iuris Eastern Church did decide to have consecrated virgins, there is another issue to be addressed: i.e., how exactly are these women to be consecrated? For Latin Catholics, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, in both its modern and historic forms, is part of our own specific and venerable liturgical tradition. That is, the Rite of Consecration that we know and love today is not simply a generic ritual, but has a distinctively “Latin” and “Roman” character. As the 1970 decree promulgating the Rite of Consecration states: “The rite for the consecration of virgins belongs to the treasures of Roman liturgy.”

Because of this, in my opinion it would not be appropriate for an Eastern Church to simply “borrow” the Latin Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity when consecrating virgins in their own Eastern ecclesial context. (To do so would be akin to, for example, a Latin priest deciding to celebrate the Byzantine Holy Week liturgies in his Latin parish in lieu of the Latin Triduum services and the Easter Vigil.) In order for an Eastern Church to consecrate a virgin within their own community, the competent authorities would need to either: identify a historic Rite of Consecration that developed as part of their own proper liturgical tradition; or develop a new but characteristically Eastern liturgy for the consecration of virgins “from scratch”; or else somehow combine these two approaches—such as, perhaps, adapting something like an ancient liturgy for the institution of early deaconesses and/or ancient forms of female monastic profession.

In all honesty, I am unfortunately not personally familiar enough with the wide world of Eastern Catholicism to know all the details of which sui iuris Churches are making what provisions to establish their own Order of virgins. But certainly, the establishment of the Ordo virginum in individual Eastern Catholic Churches is a fascinating topic!

Still, in the meantime, what should an Eastern woman do if she feels called to consecrated virginity? The obvious first step would be to reach out to her own Eastern bishop to ask about the possibility of consecration within her own Church.

But if her own Eastern Church does not have provisions for consecrated virginity, one other option—especially in places like the United States, which is predominantly Latin but still has a sizable Eastern representation—would be for the woman to contact her local Latin diocese. If both the woman’s Eastern bishop and the relevant Latin bishop agree, she could be consecrated to a life of virginity by the local Latin bishop, for the local Latin diocese, according to the Latin Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. This would be parallel (cf. CIC can. 17) to scenarios where an Eastern Catholic man is ordained a priest by a Latin bishop and incardinated into a Latin diocese.

Of course, this option is not a “quick fix.” A Eastern woman consecrated in a Latin diocese would need to come to a place in her interior life where she felt she could truly belong to that diocese in a deep spiritual sense. And it could be spiritually, emotionally, and pastorally complicated for some women to essentially have two spiritual homes at the same time—that is, a home within her proper Eastern Church by virtue of her baptism; and a home within a Latin diocese by virtue of her consecration as a virgin. In a case like this, an especially sensitive and careful discernment would be needed on the part of everyone involved.


* For those unfamiliar with the term, Eastern Catholics are Catholics who, while being fully in union with the Pope, worship according to a different liturgical tradition than the “Roman” or Latin Catholics who comprise the majority of the Catholic Church. Often, Eastern Catholicism is connected to a particular geographical area and culture—as just a few examples, Byzantine Catholics are generally of Slavic descent, the Syro-Malabar Church originates in India, an Maronite Church is predominantly Lebanese. Eastern Catholics have their own bishops and are organized into their own dioceses.

** Many people refer to “mainstream” Catholics as “Roman Catholics,” as this largest of sui iuris Churches was founded by St. Peter in Rome, with our liturgical and canon law traditions being broadly influenced by ancient Roman culture. However, often today the preferred term is “Latin Catholic,” as “Roman Catholic” might be seen as downplaying the unity of the Eastern Churches with the Pope, who is Bishop of Rome.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago and Formation, part I: Basic Principles

Image: The consecrated virgin St. Marcellina with her brother, St. Ambrose. St. Marcellina was encouraged by her brother to help guide younger consecrated virgins in the fourth century. 

One of the most noteworthy aspects of
Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI), the 2018 Instruction on the Ordo virginum, is its outline of the initial formation process for consecrated virgins in paragraphs 74 – 107, along with other references to formation scattered throughout the rest of the text.  

This is an important development, because prior to this none of the Church’s canonical documents on consecrated virginity so much as mentioned the need for formation. So in a very strict technical sense, before ESI it was theoretically possible to argue that the Church didn’t envision any formation at all as being required for would-be consecrated virgins. (Not that I personally would have tried to make this argument, of course!)

Prior to ESI, one would have hoped that reference to parallel situations in canon law (cf. CIC can. 17), ordinary pastoral solicitude, and plain common sense would have indicated the need for some sort of formation for aspiring consecrated virgins. But it is still helpful to have the Church’s vision of formation substantially clarified in ESI—especially since, before this Instruction, educated and well-meaning people could have come to different conclusions on certain points.

I will write a follow-up post on the steps in the process of formation as described in ESI, but I think it’s important to start out by discussing some of the more general questions and principles of formation that ESI articulates. And so what follows are my own thoughts and personal insights, written primarily from my perspective as a canon lawyer, but also from the viewpoint of my vocation as a consecrated virgin.

1. ESI clarifies the nature of this vocation 

In my opinion, the most important contribution ESI makes to our understanding of appropriate formation for consecrated virgins is its clarification of the fundamental nature of the Ordo virginum as, among other things: a visibly public form of consecrated life (cf. ESI 38 and 67) which is inspired by the Evangelical counsels (ESI 27); characteristically rooted in the local diocesan Church (ESI 42); having an essential contemplative dimension (ESI 29) while also being ordered towards apostolate, ministry, and concrete service of the Church (ESI 39); and which is meant as a radical gift of a woman’s whole life (cf. ESI 74).

Although these issues might seem only indirectly related to formation per se, in reality these kinds of clarifications are foundational to any formation program. Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, you can’t form someone for something unless you understand specifically what you are forming them for. Formation for a life of dedicated service as a public representative of the Church in consecrated life will naturally have to be very different, and perhaps much more involved, than the formation required for making something like a simple private commitment to evangelical chastity.

2. ESI envisions formation as a personal work 

ESI further clarifies how the Church envisions formation for the Ordo virginum as an integral and “hands-on” project. That is, a project which certainly involves the aspiring consecrated virgin taking in new information in an intellectual way, but one which can hardly stop there. Any kind of serious formation requires real dialogue, practical discernment, pastoral engagement, and the forming of relationships. Or to put it more straightforwardly, while things like reading lists and information packets can be very helpful as supplemental resources (and are certainly much better than nothing!), the Church via ESI does not see women as being adequately formed for consecrated virginity by simply reading books, articles, or other texts.

This principle is evident throughout ESI’s section on formation. For instance, ESI 92 requires “the Bishop, the Delegate [for consecrated virgins] and the consecrated women who participate in the service of formation” to become acquainted with aspirants and candidates for consecrated virginity in a direct way as individual people, so as to more fully understand their strengths, weaknesses, and overall aptitude for this vocation. As ESI 98 goes on to tell us: “The obligation of the Bishop, the Delegate, and the consecrated women who collaborate in the service of formation will therefore consist in ensuring that the candidate receives a systematic introduction to the charism and to the features of this form of life, in accompanying her while she intensifies and deepens her spiritual life, and in observing how she harmonizes and arranges her lifestyle in docility to the action of the Spirit.” In a similar vein, ESI 94 speaks of an aspiring consecrated virgin having regular meetings and communication with the above-mentioned formation team. And even earlier on in the Instruction, we are told that: “Consecrated women take an active part in formation initiatives, in agreement with the Bishop. They collaborate as far as possible in the formation of aspirants and candidates for consecration.” (ESI 45)

The importance of accompaniment is a theme that runs throughout this Instruction, even in sections that do not discuss formation specifically. In my view, this serves as a salutary reminder to us that, although consecrated virginity is an induvial vocation (in the sense that this vocation is not dependent on membership in an organized institute), as Pope Francis notes, ultimately “nobody is saved alone”* and thus nobody can truly be formed in consecrated life alone. Consecrated virginity is integrally woven into the fabric of the broader Church, which is a interdependent community and a spiritual family.

3. ESI dictates a comprehensive approach 

Another striking feature of ESI’s discussion on formation is how formation is envisioned as a process for fostering the development of the whole person. While ESI undoubtedly conveys the necessity of spiritual formation, it does not present formation in the Ordo virginum as being simply a matter of adopting a new spirituality or more intense prayer life.

For example, ESI 87 refers to the importance of human formation, noting that formators should be attentive to an aspirant’s or candidate’s “realistic self-knowledge,” her “capacity to establish healthy, serene and generous relationships with [both] men and women,” her professional development, and her responsible use of “goods, of social media and of her free time.”

ESI also indicates that intellectual formation is a requirement for aspiring consecrated virgins. This is particularly clear in ESI 102, which states: “When her practical circumstances and her personal abilities allow, the candidate will be encouraged to attend courses of study at theological colleges, institutes of religious science or similar institutions. In no case should an adequate theological preparation in the areas of biblical studies, liturgy, spirituality, ecclesiology, and moral theology be omitted.”

This shows us that a call to consecrated virginity is not meant merely as a private interior change, but is intended as a vocation which encompasses a woman’s entire life and all the dimensions of her personality.

4. ESI provides a formation timetable 

Prior to ESI, there was no universal consensus regarding exactly how long discernment and initial formation for consecrated virginity should last, or how this time period should proceed. I personally have heard of cases where, on the one hand, a woman first expressing her interest in the Ordo virginum was consecrated a mere few months later; and on the other, where a woman remained in a vague and unstructured “discernment” period that lasted for the better part of ten years. I am of the opinion that neither of these situations were just or fair to the women involved. Yet as much as I hate to admit it, prior to 2018 both of these scenarios were technically permissible since before the Instruction was published the length and manner of formation fell into what was a near total lacuna, or an almost complete gap in the law.

But now, thankfully, the Church has given us a canonical framework for how formation for consecrated virginity should proceed. In a nutshell, it is now a requirement that potential consecrated virgins have a “preparatory period,” which I think in English we could also call an “aspirancy,” which should last from one to two years. (ESI 92). This is to be followed by what ESI calls the “formation program,” but which as an English speaker I would call a “candidacy,” lasting two or three years. (ESI 97)**

Even though ESI speaks of the need to personalize formation to the individual, (ESI 77) it is still important to observe the timeline of formation which the Church presents to us in ESI. This is a matter of both prudence and justice.

It’s a matter of prudence, because among other concerns, a too-short formation period could lead to women being consecrated before they’re truly ready. Or conversely, a formation period that is too long could undermine the need for a candidate to make a confident decision with respect to her vocation.

Adherence to a defined formation timeframe is also a matter of justice, because a lack of clarity on when a candidate’s consecration may occur is, essentially, a lack of clarity whether her consecration is even likely to happen at all. This denies the candidate her right to discern seriously and make firm decisions about the overall the course of her life. For instance, loosely-organized “formation” that drags on for many years without a clear goal or direction, and which might eventually end with the bishop deciding against consecration, deprives the woman of the time she might have used more fruitfully in discerning other forms of consecrate life, or even marriage and family life.

5. ESI addresses the question of age 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, ESI’s clarification on the appropriate age for discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity is significant, because it affects our understanding of the essential nature of this vocation. That is, is this a call that a young woman can embrace and then build her life around, or is a vocation meant for only for older women who have a proven history and established lifestyle?

Prior to ESI, the only time a Church document mentioned the age with respect to the Ordo virginum was in the praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which includes the stated requirement that candidates: “by their age, prudence, and universally approved character…give assurance of perseverance in a life of chastity dedicated to the service of the Church and of their neighbor.” But this is general enough to admit several different interpretations. For instance, it could be read as something along the lines of: “Don’t consecrate a teenager!” Yet others had interpreted this to mean that consecrated virginity was meant as a sort of “second half of life” vocation, for women who were at least thirty-five years old, or even much older.***

But ESI 82 helpfully clarifies that consecrated virginity is indeed a vocation that young women are invited to discern. It states that the “hard” lower age limit for entering formation is eighteen; with a “soft” or merely customary lower age limit for actually receiving consecration being twenty-five years of age. Or as ESI itself puts it: “In no case can the preparatory period begin before the age of eighteen years,” and “Ordinarily consecration is not celebrated before the candidate has reached her twenty-fifth birthday.”

This same paragraph also states that “for admission to consecration the usual age for marriage in the region must be taken into account.” Interestingly, this line includes a footnote drawing a parallel with canon 1072 in the Code of Canon Law, in which pastors are directed to dissuade youths from marrying before the age which is accepted as normal in their own cultural context.

In my reading of ESI 82, I understand these passages as indicating that while nobody under the age of majority can embark on a formal path of formation for the Ordo virginum, it may still be possible in some cases for a woman under the age of twenty-five to receive the consecration of virgins. For example, if an exceptionally mature eighteen-year-old woman begins a five-year formation program and completes it fruitfully, her bishop may legitimately decide to consecrated her at the age of twenty-three, as opposed to asking her to wait an additional two years in a formational limbo not described or envisioned by ESI.

ESI also does not specify an upper age limit. From a technical canonical perspective this is not surprising, since religious life and other forms of consecrated life also don’t have a universally prescribed upper age limit for new vocations. But, just as individual religious communities can set their own upper age limits, I personally think it may be helpful for individual dioceses to consider adopting an upper age limit for discerning consecrated virginity in their own policies or proper diocesan law (even if it’s well understood that exceptions to a stated age limit could be possible on a case-by-case basis). Among other things, a stated upper age limit for consecration in the Ordo virginum helps communicate the idea that consecrated virginity truly is meant as a radical offering of one’s whole life, that it should be a woman’s “first choice” vocation, and that it presupposes an openness to formation and a willingness to take on significant new commitments.

6. ESI emphasizes respect for the internal forum 

Finally, ESI makes explicit what could have always been inferred about formation for consecrated virginity: namely, that the distinction between the internal and external forum must always be respected.

To give some background, when the Church speaks of the internal versus external forum, this indicates the distinction between a person’s private interior life and their outward observable actions and behavior. As a illustration, a person’s attendance at a particular Mass is a matter of the external forum, as this can be easily noted by anyone else who happened to be present; but on the other hand, his or her interior attentiveness and spiritual experience while at that Mass are matters of the internal forum.

The Church’s law has always sought to maintain a strict boundary between the external and internal forum in order to protect the privacy and freedom of conscience of all the faithful, and to properly reverence the sacred relationship between God and an individual soul. This general principle finds its most obvious expression in the absolute inviolability of the seal of Confession. But it is also evident in ecclesial laws strongly discouraging, for example, clerical religious superiors from hearing the sacramental confessions of their subjects, (cf. CIC can. 630) or in the prohibition on rectors of seminaries serving as spiritual director to the students under their care. (cf. CIC can. 240 §2) The general idea in these latter examples is that an authority figure in the Church, who is empowered to make serious decisions about one’s future (such as whether or not someone will be ordained or determining where someone will be assigned), should not be influenced in their decision by the purely personal spiritual matters of their subjects, which are legitimately private.

As in some of my above-mentioned points, I think a working knowledge of the Church’s practices regarding the protection of the internal forum in parallel situations could easily have led one to conclude that aspiring consecrated virgins should likewise enjoy reasonable boundaries between the internal and external forum. So in that sense, this aspect of ESI is one of its least novel concepts.

Nevertheless, ESI references the need to respect the internal forum in several places. For example, ESI 53 states: “Regarding pastoral collaboration in the external forum, those entrusted with these responsibilities [i.e., responsibilities related to the formation of aspiring consecrated virgins] will not establish a spiritual accompaniment relationship with aspirants, candidates, or consecrated women. They know that their personal dialogue with each one is to be used specifically for listening, challenge, and review of progress.”

Similarly, under the heading of “The practice of spiritual accompaniment,”**** ESI 79 tells us: “To ensure the [aspiring consecrated virgin’s] freedom in the area of manifestation of conscience, the Delegate for the pastoral care of the Ordo virginum and the consecrated women who participate in the service of formation offer this service in the external forum. They do not establish relationships of spiritual accompaniment with the aspirants, candidates or consecrated women. They abstain from asking for information or advice about the aspirants, candidates or consecrated women from their directors, spiritual accompaniers, and confessors.”

One important concrete consequence of this newly-articulated principle is that there now must be some sort of formation director—either in-house from among the diocesan staff, or another qualified person brought in from the “outside” whom the diocese commissions for this task—for aspiring consecrated virgins and candidates. That is, while spiritual directors have an important role, the entirety of formation cannot be delegated to a woman’s spiritual director. If this were to happen, this would lead to one of two unacceptable options: either 1. The spiritual director would have to violate confidentiality, leading to a conflict of fora; or 2. The diocesan bishop would be completely in the dark about the candidate’s progress in formation or suitability for consecration.

A practical pastoral note…

Looking at all this, it might be tempting for discerners and aspiring consecrated virgins to compare, with a critical eye, how their diocese’s formation program measures up to everything described in Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago. And conversely, bishops and diocesan staff responsible for the Ordo virginum might feel dauted by the scope of the task at hand!

And so it might make sense to close by reminding all of my readers that, especially with such a “new” vocation, at the end of the day we all have to do the best we can with what we have. Certainly, some elements of ESI (e.g., respecting the privacy of the internal forum) can and should be implemented immediately. But other aspects (such as the development of a theological curriculum or robust program of human formation) are necessarily going to take some time. And this time of “growing pains” is going to be a reality no matter how many people devote their best efforts to this worthy project, and regardless of the resources devoted to it. In fact, I have often mused that it will probably take an entire “generation” of consecrated virgins to develop, from our collective studies and lived experience, all the details of truly effective practical formation programs.

In the meantime, we all keep doing what we can to serve the women who, in God’s providential plan, come to us. Every step we take can be a step forward, and we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in the beautiful work of nurturing new vocations.


 * cf. Fratelli tutti, 32

** I think we can use the terms “aspirancy” and “candidacy” to refer to periods of formation, because ESI refers to women in the “preparatory period” as “aspirants,” and to those in the “formation program” as candidates.

*** On a more whimsical personal note, when I was discerning my own vocation in the 2000s, for whatever reason thirty-five was often cited (or rather, mis-cited) as the lower age limit for consecrated virginity. Obviously, in my case it was clarified that thirty-five was simply a suggested lower age recommended by some bishops. But on my actual thirty-fifth birthday—by which point I had already been consecrated for eleven years!—I remember thinking: Huh, I’m finally “old enough” to be a consecrated virgin now!

**** ESI frequently speaks of “spiritual accompaniment.” I understand this as being more or less the same thing as what I would normally call “spiritual direction.”

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Quick Question – Are consecrated virgins “laywomen”?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: It depends on what exactly you mean by “lay.”

In various Church documents, the words “lay” and “laity” are used to mean slightly different things in different contexts.

In one sense of the term, “laity” can refer to anyone who isn’t clergy, i.e. those who have not received the sacrament of Holy Orders as a bishop, priest, or deacon.* In this sense, even a strictly cloistered nun with solemn vows would be considered “lay,” because she hasn’t been ordained. (And also in this sense, the phrase “laywoman” would be redundant, since women cannot receive Holy Orders and thus are always categorically “lay.”)

This use of the word “laity” is often seen in questions related to the governance of the Church and the administration of the sacraments. For instance, a “lay judge” in a marriage tribunal is simply a non-ordained canon lawyer appointed to the office of Judge, whether that person be a religious Sister, a married father of three, a single unmarried woman, etc.

The other sense of the term “lay” refers to those members of the faithful** who are not ordained and also are not in any public state of consecrated life recognized by the Church.*** In a lot of ways, this is the more robust and more popularly used sense of the word. We see the Church referring to the laity in this strong sense in documents specifically describing the role of the lay faithful, such as Christifideles laici. We also see this sense of the term “lay” in the way that the government of the universal Church is organized. I.e., the Vatican Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life serves and oversees issues related to the laity who are not in consecrated life; whereas issues pertaining to non-ordained religious are handled by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Because consecrated virginity is a public state of consecrated life, consecrated virgins are not laypeople in this latter, stronger sense of the term. Members of the Ordo virginum are in the very same general category as nuns and religious Sisters, meaning that consecrated virgins are only “lay” insofar as they are not ordained.

However, consecrated virgins (at least those “living in the world”) are considered “secular,” another word which can have shifting nuances in meaning depending on the context. My own interpretation of the word “secular” when applied to the vocation of consecrated virginity is as essentially a synonym for “living in the world.” That is, it simply distinguishes us from those cloistered nuns who may also receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, and indicates that we are not “religious” in the strict sense of being professed members of a religious institute. In this way, consecrated virgins are “secular” in the same way that diocesan priests are called “secular clergy.”

Of course, being secular in even this somewhat restricted sense of the term still has some practical and spiritual consequences. Consecrated virgins, like secular priests, can own and mange their own property, for example. Also, all religious communities require some level of “cloister,” or obligation of presence within one’s own religious house. By not having this obligation, consecrated virgins and secular clergy can in some ways be more immediately present to the faithful at large.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that this specific usage of the word “secular” means that the Church envisions consecrated virgins (or secular priests) as having lifestyles that are indistinguishable from the majority of the secular lay faithful. Even while members of the Ordo virginum are not “religious” technically speaking, and even if our Evangelical life won’t look exactly the same as those who live in convents and monasteries, consecrated virgins are still called to live the Evangelical Counsels in a radical way. (cf. the 2018 Instruction Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, 27)


* See the Code of Canon Law, canon 207, §1: “By divine institution, there are among the Christian faithful in the Church sacred ministers who in law are also called clerics; the other members of the Christian faithful are called lay persons.”

** Incidentally, the word “faithful” refers to all Catholics—and in some contexts, to all baptized Christians, whether Catholic or non-Catholic—regardless of their state in life.

*** For instance, see the Vatican II document Lumen gentium in its section of the laity, especially LG 31: “The term laity is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church. […]” Note that before the new Code of Canon Law was published in 1983, the word “religious” was often used in Church documents in an inclusive way referring to all recognized forms of consecrated life, not just membership in a religious institute.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Pope Francis on Spiritual Motherhood

Icon of Mary, Mother of the Church, overlooking St. Peter's square
“The consecrated woman is a mother, she must be a mother, not a ‘spinster!’ Excuse me for speaking like this, but motherhood in the consecrated life is important, this fruitfulness! May this joy of spiritual fecundity motivate your life; be mothers, as a figure of Mary, Mother, and of Mother Church. It is impossible to understand Mary without her motherhood; it is impossible to understand the Church apart from her motherhood and you are icons of Mary and the Church.”

 – Pope Francis’ address to religious superiors, May 8, 2013.  (Full text here.)