Thursday, December 25, 2008

In the News

I apologize to my regular readers for my extended absence. My graduate studies have been very demanding. (Often, I would muse that I was imitating St. Ambrose's sister Marcellina, a consecrated virgin of the Patristic era who was so dedicated to fasting, prayer, and study that St. Ambrose once wrote to her: "...your sleep is on your book." (see Concerning Virginity, book III, chapter 4.)

Recently, my upcoming consecration made it into my diocesan newspaper. You can read the article here. I think it was very well-written; I was so glad to see how the author showed such a genuine appreciation for the importance of prayer, especially prayer in the life of a consecrated virgin.

Monday, October 27, 2008

What Is Consecrated Virginity?

(about the image: this is a mosaic of some ancient consecrated virgin-saints found in the Church of St. Apollinaire in Ravenna, Italy)

As I am now beginning to send out invitations for my consecration (and yes, it still seems a little unreal!), I found it necessary to write up a one-page description of consecrated virginity that I can give to those family and friends who have never heard of this vocation. I decided to share it with you here.

I want this to be easy to understand for the average, educated Catholic who goes to Church on Sunday, but who generally doesn't read Canon Law. I would really appreciate comments if you see a way that this could be more clear or more helpful. Also, if any of my readers ever need a convenient description of consecrated virginity lived in the world, feel free to borrow this.
What is consecrated virginity?
Consecrated virginity is the oldest form of consecrated life in the Catholic Church, dating back to the time of the Apostles. Centuries before it was historically possible for a woman to become a nun, she could offer herself entirely to God by becoming a consecrated virgin. Very early in the Church’s history, a special rite was developed to establish a woman in this state in life, setting her apart as a “spouse of Christ.”

Some well-know consecrated virgin saints from the early Church include St. Agnes, St. Cecilia, St. Agatha, and St. Lucy.

Beginning around the fourth century A.D., The formation of religious Orders and the surrounding historical circumstances gradually put an end to the practice of consecrating women living “in the world,” or outside of monasteries. Despite this, the Rite of Consecration was preserved in tradition by a few religious Orders which continued to use the Rite of Consecration in conjunction with a nun’s final profession of vows.

In the 1963 document Sacrosanctum Concilium, the second Vatican Council called for a revision and revival of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for Women Living in the World, thereby restoring this ancient vocation to the life of the contemporary Church.

Modern consecrated virgins are solemnly consecrated by the local diocesan bishop (or by a delegated auxiliary bishop) within the context of the revised rite. The bishop is the one who grants permission for women to receive this consecration, as well as the one who determines the concrete circumstances under which they are to live their consecrated lives. Consecrated virgins remain directly under his authority, unlike religious sisters who are ordinarily accountable to the superiors of their religious community.

Besides life-long celibacy, the only formal obligation of a consecrated virgin is prayer, especially for the people, clergy, and bishop of her diocese. During the Rite of Consecration a consecrated virgin is also given the responsibility to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church.

While consecrated virgins are expected to live simply, they do not take vows of poverty and must support themselves financially. Because of this, they are not required to take on any specific ministry. However, they are still called to be “dedicated to the service of God and the Church.”

Consecrated virgins exist in the Church today for the same reason that consecrated people have always existed—to be a living sign and witness of the love Christ has for His people.

Friday, October 17, 2008

St. Ignatius of Antioch And "Diocesan" Spirituality

(about the photo: these is a mosaic from the Haggia Sophia depicting St. John Chrysostom on the left, with St. Ignatius of Antioch at right.)

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been working on a list of reasons to become a consecrated virgin in the world according to canon 604. (That is, elements which make canon 604 unique among other forms of consecrated life, as opposed to discussing the virtues of the consecrated life in general.) Yet I found that, as these thoughts are all very close to my heart, I had a lot to say about them. So I decided to discuss these things in a series of posts, of which this is the first.

But do keep in mind that my decision to embrace this particular vocation was based first and foremost on a simple, inexplicable sense of being called to consecrated virginity, and not any other form of consecrated life. Although I am listing aspects of canon 604 which attracted me, please don’t misconstrue this as a checklist of “discernment pros and cons.”

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr. According to the breviary:
“St Ignatius was a successor of St. Peter as the bishop of Antioch. Condemned to death by being thrown to wild animals, he was brought to Rome forexecution and was martyred there under the Emperor Trajan in 107. On the journey to Rome he wrote seven letters to different Churches. In these he discussed Christ, the structure of the Church, and the Christian life in a manner at once wise and learned.”
Most of what we know about St. Ignatius comes from these letters.

St. Ignatius is a meaningful saint for consecrated virgins for a variety of reasons. He was a bishop, and consecrated virgins are bound to pray for their bishops; he was also a martyr, and consecrated virginity always retains an intimate connection with martyrdom. And as far as I know, St. Ignatius was also the earliest writer to address consecrated virgins as a distinct group in the early Church.

Additionally, all of St. Ignatius’ precious letters are addressed to individual Churches. I think that this is particularly significant, as one of the most striking elements of consecrated virginity in the world is that it is one of the only consecrated vocations for women which entails an essential, explicit bond with the local Church.*

The local Church, or the diocese, is the fundamental organizational unit of the universal Church. Every individual diocese, comprising a specific geographical territory and headed by its own bishop, is like the Catholic Church in miniature. This structural system is clearly ancient, going back all the way to apostolic times. The local Churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Rome, et cetera, who received epistles from St. Paul; the “seven Churches” of which the book of Revelation speaks; and the Churches to whom St. Ignatius addresses his farewell letters are all effectively equivalent to our modern concept of “diocese.”

All lay people are more or less automatically a part of the diocese in which they live, coming under the pastoral authority of their local bishop. When a man becomes a diocesan priest, he makes a promise of obedience to his bishop, which is also an implicit commitment to spend his life serving the faithful in that bishop’s diocese.

But broadly speaking, individuals lose their association with their diocese when they enter religious life. Where the ecclesial “home” of a lay person is the Church of the area in which he or she lives (or for a diocesan priest, the local Church in which he is incardinated), a religious is at home in his or her Order or congregation, which is not typically thought of as being defined by geography. And while religious, like all Catholics, are bound to obey the bishop of the place where they are actually present, a religious is more directly under the authority of the superiors of his or her institute.

In some ways this dynamic is more pronounced in male, clerical religious institutes, since questions about Ordinations and incardination highlight the different roles of the local bishop and the religious superiors. Yet these issues still apply to women religious, as the only distinction the new Code of Canon Law makes between the two genders in religious life are certain additional laws and provisions regarding religious priests and clerical institutes.

But unlike a religious who necessarily “leaves” her local Church upon joining her community, the vocation of a consecrated virgin is directly connected to her diocese—most notably in that she is admitted to this consecrated by the diocesan bishop.

Although on the surface this may appear to some as canonical hair-splitting, the distinctions between “diocesan” and religious vocations for women are based on very real and meaningful (though perhaps not blatantly obvious) realities.

First, as an entity a diocese is every bit as noble and distinguished as a religious Order. Actually, the world’s many dioceses are even more fundamental to the structure of the Church than are the variety of religious institutes. While the consecrated life as a general category is essential to the Church, the Church could still exist (albeit not without losing untold blessings and benefits) without religious life per se. This is not to undermine the tremendous gifts to the Church which are religious institutes, but rather to point out that a call to priesthood or consecrated life outside of religious life is a valid and valuable vocation.

And while I do believe that a consecrated woman in the world should be have a lifestyle that is distinct as being consecrated (i.e., in many ways different from that of the average devout lay person), a woman consecrated according to canon 604 has the unique advantage of being able to pray for the people of whom she is a real part. I think of the line from the suggested homily in the Rite of Consecration, “They come from God’s holy people, from your own families. They are your daughters, your sisters, your relatives, joined by the ties of family or friendship.”

In a sense, consecrated virginity within a diocese makes the joy and love of an individual woman’s total gift of self especially “accessible” for all the people of her local Church.

Similarly, I would venture to say that belonging to a diocese can make the prayers of a consecrated virgin for the local clergy especially effective. Many of the famous male clerical religious Orders have a female branch of contemplative nuns who support their brothers’ apostolic activity through their lives of prayer and penance. This is the express purpose of the second-order Dominican nuns, but I this that this is also true for the Franciscans and the Poor Clares, for the Redemptorists and Redemptoristines, the Passionist fathers and nuns, and the brothers and contemplative sisters of the Congregation of St. John.

I believe that consecrated virgins could fulfill a similar role for the clergy of their diocese.

* The other forms of “diocesan” consecrated life being can. 603 eremitic life, and possibly life in a religious congregation of diocesan rite—although diocesan congregations often seek and obtain pontifical status.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Five Reasons NOT to Become a Consecrated Virgin

First of all, I apologize for the slow posting. (Graduate school is challenging and I always have a lot of homework!)

I was working on a list of some of the aspects of consecrated life unique to my vocation, which was to be titled “reasons to become a consecrated virgin.” But while I was writing, this other list suggested itself to me. These five “non-reasons” all reflect common misconceptions which I would like to clarify. And although you don’t see many instances of “apophatic” vocational discernment, sometimes reflecting on what a particular vocation is not can help us when we consider it in a positive manner.

1. You don’t want to make all the sacrifices which are demanded in religious life – Love and sacrifice are inseparable. To put it in ultimate terms, you cannot make a complete gift of self without first “losing” yourself in a very real sense. Yet over and above the first magnanimous choice of a state in life, the interconnectedness between love and sacrifice is also manifest in countless and ever-present more ordinary ways.

Without a willingness to make sacrifices, it is impossible to live any vocation well. This is certainly the case with marriage. But it is especially true in reference to the consecrated life, the heart of which is a closer following of the Christ who told us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross...”*

I think I would be justified in saying that a love for the cross is even more necessary for consecrated virgins than it is for women in religious life. Finding joy in renunciation is as central to the consecrated state as it is incomprehensible to our natural ways of thinking. Religious have the support and structures of their community to help them in this area, but (to borrow from St. John of the Cross) in her day-to-day life a consecrated virgin has no other light to guide her other than the one that burns in her heart.

2. You want to be consecrated, but you don’t want anyone telling you what to do with your life – It is true that a consecrated virgin does not make a formal vow of obedience, and this does mean that she has a great deal of freedom in determining concrete circumstances under which she will live her consecrated life. But beyond the obedience which all baptized Catholics are bound to show their bishops, consecrated virgins are also explicitly called to be “dedicated to the service of God and the Church.”**

As I see it, if you take this seriously there is no way that it could NOT determine the course of your whole life. Every significant choice you make would have to be in reference to this element of your vocation. Ordering your life around this sort of commitment is—or at least should be—a far cry from “doing whatever you want.”

3. You would have wanted to be a religious, but have not been able to join a religious community – First, some qualifications: I do believe that a woman could have a genuine vocation to consecrated virginity even if there are some impediments (such as certain health problems) which would have ordinarily kept her from entering a convent. I also think it is theoretically possible that God’s providential ordering of circumstances could lead a woman who was not successful in religious life to find, as a consequence of this disappointment, her true vocation to consecrated virginity in the world.

However, a call to consecrated virginity has to be much more than an ecclesial process of elimination. I am firmly of the opinion that there needs to be a positive attraction to this form of consecrated life as it stands by itself. If a woman is to live this vocation joyfully and well, she has to have a real appreciation of the charism specific to consecrated virgins.

Additionally, many situations which would preclude a woman from entering religious life could also make living as a consecrated virgin either difficult or impossible. For example, an inability to relate well with people would be disruptive for life in a religious community, but it could also undermine the evangelical witness of a consecrated virgin in the world. Overwhelming illness or family obligations may present an obstacle for the intense prayer life proper to a consecrated virgin. And because all forms of consecrated life presuppose a major shift in perspective and identity, an older woman who has been living a conventional, worldly (but not necessarily sinful) life may struggle in interiorizing the asceticism and detachment implicit in this vocation.

Basically, we should remember that consecrated virginity is just as much of a real, total vocation as is a call to religious life—so it should not be seen as a last resort for when all else fails!

4. You just don’t want to be married – Marriage is the primordial human vocation; it even says this in the Rite of Consecration itself. Therefore, people discerning vocations need a definite, surpassing reason for embracing a life of voluntary celibacy if they are to live this sort of calling in its fullness. There is a lot of truth to the old maxim that grace builds on nature, and this instance is no exception.

Practically speaking, an aversion to marriage could indicate a serious emotional or developmental problem—obviously not solid grounds on which to build a major life commitment. But on a deeper level, the Rite of Consecration mentions several times that consecrated virgins “renounce marriage.” This would seem to highlight renunciation as a central aspect of this vocation.

“Renouncing marriage” does not necessarily mean that a woman has to turn away scores of adoring suitors, or that she runs away the night before her wedding. Probably for a lot of woman (myself included) who have spent a length of time considering a vocation to the consecrated life, there simply will not happen to be any prospective mortal spouse in the picture.

However, even if marriage is not an imminent option, it must be a viable one. Consecrated virginity is about taking your capacity to give yourself in love completely to another person (i.e., your capacity for marriage) and offering it wholly to God. A person clearly cannot do this if that capacity is not there in the first place.

5. You love the idea of wearing a wedding dress and being a “bride of Christ” sounds so romantic – Granted, I do think that wearing a wedding dress to your consecration is a nice custom, and if I did not whole-heartedly believe in the spousal dimension of this vocation I would not have titled this blog “Sponsa Christi.”

But while it is essential that an aspiring consecrated virgin be fundamentally attracted to, and capable of, human marriage, it is important to realize that the two vocations are still very, very different. And for a lot of reasons, I think it is extremely dangerous to confuse them.

In a good marriage there is a great deal of self-sacrifice. But as the original human vocation, on an immediate level marriage is oriented to tangible satisfaction for our built-in longings for love and companionship. Conversely, consecrated virginity provides NO fulfillment of emotional or sexual desires. Rather, it is a call to move beyond them by the grace of God.

This is not to say that say that consecrated virginity is an altogether unfulfilling, joyless vocation. On the contrary, it is very joyful, but it must be understood that this joy comes from God alone.

The trick is not to confuse sublime earthly joys (like pleasures of romantic human love) with spiritual fulfillment. Oftentimes, God’s greatest gifts can look like punishments to our natural ways of viewing things. We can see this in the beatitudes, where Christ refers to the blessed as “poor in spirit,” “meek,” “those who mourn,” “hungry,” and “persecuted.”

A woman who looks to consecration to provide consolations similar to that of human marriage will be severally disappointed. It is only by embracing this tremendous “lack” that a consecrated virgin can accept her vocation to be a living anticipation of the love of Heaven.

* cf. Matthew 16:24-28
** See n. 923 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; and canon 604 in the Code of Canon Law.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Great Picture From an Old Roman Pontifical

A couple of weeks ago, I was having fun looking through the stacks at the library of my new university, and I found an old copy of the Roman Pontifical, published in 1895. The entire book was written in Latin, including the publishing information. It contained Rites such as Ordination to the Presbyterate, Episcopal consecration, the dedication of a Church, and the blessing of an Abbot or Abbess.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that it also included the older version of the Rite of Consecration to A Life of Virginity (or as it was written here, “De Benedictione et Consecratione Virginum,” which more literally translates into “On the Blessing and Consecration of Virgins”).

Although the Rite had fallen into all but total disuse for several centuries, there was a movement in the late nineteenth-century to restore the usage of the Rite for cloistered, solemnly professed Benedictine nuns. My guess is that this particular edition of the Roman Pontifical reflects this trend.

Women who were not members of religious Orders would not be permitted to receive the Rite of Consecration until the Second Vatican Council, after the Council document Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a revision of the Rite. When this was done, the Rite was revised into two versions, one for nuns and one for women “living in the world.”

I find it quite meaningful to note that the both modes of living consecrated virginity have the same liturgical “ancestor”—noting also that consecrated virginity in the world is the ancestor to religious life itself. Even now, the dissimilarities between the two contemporary forms of the Rite are fairly minor; I think the biggest difference is that the Rite for nuns anticipates the solemn profession of religious vows to occur within the same ceremony, where conversely the Rite for women in the world containes more elements in which the candidate publicly states her intention to be consecrated.

From my point of view as a soon-to-be consecrated virgin in the world, this commonality re-enforces the understanding of consecrated virginity as an especially radical commitment to Christ, as well as highlighting the contemplative dimension of this vocation.

The image I share with you here depicts the “calling of the candidates.” This is an important part of the Rite because it is here that a consecrated virgin actually receives her vocation in the canonical, ecclesial sense—in fact, this IS the “vocation” itself (the word of course stemming from the Latin “vocare,” to call), in which Christ and the Church, through the person of the Bishop, call the candidate to consecration. There are parallel “callings” in other vocationally-oriented Rites, such as the Ordination rituals.

The chant written at the top of the page, “Prudentes virgines, aptate vestres lampades, ecce sponsa venit, exite obviam ei,” translates to: “Wise virgins, prepare your lamps, behold, the Bridegroom comes, go out to meet him.” Clearly an allusion to the Gospel story of the wise and foolish virgins, this antiphon, along with the carrying of candles illustrated here, was almost directly adopted in the revised Rite as one of the options for the “calling of the candidates.” You can see this for yourself in the Rite of Consecration, number 13.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Prayer of Pope Benedict XVI At Ground Zero

God of love, compassion, and healing, look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions, who gather today at this site, the scene of incredible violence and pain.

We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here—the heroic first-responders: our fire fighters, police officers, emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel, along with all the innocent men and women who were victims of this tragedy simply because their work or service brought them here on September 11, 2001.

We ask you, in your compassion to bring healing to those who, because of their presence here that day, suffer from injuries and illness. Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy. Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.

We are mindful as well of those who suffered death, injury, and loss on the same day at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Our hearts are one with theirs as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.

God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world: peace in the hearts of all men and women and peace among the nations of the earth. Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred.

God of understanding, overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy, we seek your light and guidance as we confront such terrible events. Grant that those whose lives were spared may live so that the lives lost here may not have been lost in vain.

Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope, and give us the wisdom and courage to work tirelessly for a world where true peace and love reign among nations and in the hearts of all.

--Pope Benedict XVI, New York City, April 2008

(Image taken from ""; text taken from "Whispers in the Loggia.")

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

I was pleasantly surprised at Mass this afternoon to see that two of the three readings—1 Corinthians 7:25-31; and Psalm 45:11-12, 14-15, 16-17—are among those listed as options for a Mass of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. (The Beatitudes are also listed for a Consecration Mass, but those are taken from Matthew and not from today’s Gospel, Luke 6:20-26.) It would take more space and time than I have here to reflect on both readings, but I can at least begin the discussion by reprinting the selection of the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

Brothers and sisters: In regard to virgins, I have no commandment from the
Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. So
this is what I think best because of the present distress: that it is a good
thing for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek a
separation. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife. If you marry,
however, you do not sin, nor does an unmarried woman sin if she marries; but
such people will experience affliction in their earthly life, and I would like
to spare you that.

I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those
having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those
rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as
not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away.

This is one of the most frequently cited texts in the New Testament in defense of Christian virginity as a permanent state in life. In it, St. Paul gives us an unambiguous endorsement of celibacy, even while clearly explaining that this recommendation does not now render marriage sinful. (You can see this passage echoed in part of the Consecratory prayer in the Rite of Consecration which states: Among your many gifts you give to some the grace of virginity. Yet the honor of marriage is in no way lessened. As it was in the beginning, your first blessing still remains upon this holy union. Yet your loving wisdom chooses those who make sacrifice of marriage for the sake of the love of which it is the sign.)

I have to admit that I although I have always had respect for this section of Corinthians as the inspired word of God, I never used to find it particularly interesting. From my very subjective perspective as one raised Catholic, it seemed to be stating the obvious. Of course, I was glad that the practice of consecrated celibacy was in Scripture, but it seemed as perfunctory to me as “You shall not kill”—i.e., in the Bible, yet at the same time sort of a theological no-brainer.

But hearing this reading at Mass today, I was struck by the profundity of this epistle. Virginity as a permanent commitment represented a major paradigm shift for the faithful in the ancient world. As Pope Benedict mentioned in his address to consecrated virgins last spring, Christian celibacy was completely novel. In the Judaism of the time, barrenness was seen as a tremendous curse.

Likewise, there were no precedents for a life of virginity in the pagan world. Although the Vestal virgins and the Stoic philosophers are often held to be early precursors to Christian celibacy, these are not truly good comparisons. For the Vestal virgins, virginity was a temporary state, and the Stoic philosophers were celibate in order to maximize their receptivity to natural pleasures—hardly a motivation approximating that of Christianity. My understanding is that even in contemporary Protestantism, life-long celibate chastity is seen as something one endures if Providence does not provide a spouse, as opposed to a way of life which one would freely embrace.

Then and now, consecrated virginity is shocking to natural sensibilities because it strikes at the heart of the deepest and most enduring source of human joy and fulfillment, namely, human love and the family. By presenting virginity as a recommended option, St. Paul was teaching his listeners that they could live for something altogether greater than anything in the created world. Even today this remains an awesome concept, but imagine being among those who were hearing it for the first time in history!

St. Paul elaborates on the eschatological dimension of consecrated life in the famous passage which ends by telling us that “the world in its present form is passing away.” Like the original recipients of this letter, we live in an age which is not prone to rumination on the “last things.”

Yet this is at the core of any consecrated vocation, though perhaps I could say that it finds a particularly striking manifestation in consecrated virginity lived in the world. To use a translation different from what we have here in the Lectionary, saying that “the world as we know it is passing away” serves as a very good explanation of why the consecrated life exits.

The world, as created by God, is not evil—far from it!—but it is temporary and fleeting. We can come to know and love God through the created order, but everything good in the world is there for the purpose of bringing us to the ultimate Good. We come to love created things in order to look beyond them, and we become attached to people only in order that we might one day love them disinterestedly in God.

To put it in broad terms, consecrated people “skip” a lot of the passing beauty and goodness of human life (that is, they are “…using the world as not using it fully…”) because they are already starting to love the Eternal. This is obviously a marvelous thing for consecrated people themselves, but it is not only for them. The presence of consecrated celibate people in our midst should be a chance for all of the faithful to come to a better (albeit never perfect in this life) understanding of what it means to love in heaven.

Friday, August 29, 2008

What the Church Has Written on Consecrated Virginity Lived In the World

One theme that constantly repeats itself whenever the vocation of consecrated virginity in the world is discussed is the paucity of pertinent information. Unlike religious life or the priesthood, which have been the subjects of vast amounts of commentary by the magisterium, presently the Church has not provided very much in the way of authoritative guidelines as to how this state in life should be lived out concretely. (I would even venture to say that this general lack of universal norms could contribute to some ambiguities in the theological understanding of this vocation.)

But this situation is really understandable, as the revival of this ancient form of consecrated life is a fairly new phenomenon. Also, a lack of legislation could indicate a lack of abuses—which would be a very good thing!

Yet the Church has written authoritatively on consecrated virginity in several places, which I share with you here. Even if the amount of information does not seem to allow for extensive knowledge of this vocation, it at least gives us an opportunity for a comprehensive view.

Everything which I reprinted here was copied verbatim (with internet links as I was able to find them). If anyone can think of another official Church document where consecrated virginity is mentioned, please let me know so I can include it in this list.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

922. From apostolic times Christian virgins, called by the Lord to cling only to him with greater freedom of heart, body, and spirit, have decided with the Church’s approval to live in a state of virginity “for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.”

923. “Virgins who, committed to the holy plan of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to approved liturgical rite, are betrothed mystically to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.” By this solemn rite (Consecratio Virginum), the virgin is “constituted…a sacred person, a transcendent sign of the Church’s love for Christ, and an eschatological image of this heavenly Bride of Christ and of the life to come.”

924. “As with other forms of consecrated life,” the order of virgins established the woman living in the world (or the nun) in prayer, penance, service of her brethren, and apostolic activity, according to the state in life and spiritual gifts given to her.” Consecrated virgins can form themselves into associations to observe their commitment more faithfully.

From the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

Can. 604 §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.

From Vita Consecrata, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II:

7. It is a source of joy and hope to witness in our time a new flowering of the ancient Order of Virgins, known in Christian communities ever since apostolic times. Consecrated by the diocesan Bishop, these women acquire a particular link with the Church, which they are committed to serve while remaining in the world. Either alone or in association with others, they constitute a special eschatological image of the Heavenly Bride and of the life to come, when the Church will at last fully live her love for Christ the Bridegroom.

From the Vatican II document, Sacrosanctum Concilium:

80. The rite for the consecration of virgins at present found in the Roman Pontifical is to be revised.

Update 9/27/2009: From Apostolorum Successores, the 2004 Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops:

104. Consecrated Women - An inestimable service is given to the Church in countless ways by consecrated women in religious institutes, in societies of apostolic life, in secular institutes, and in the order of virgins, and it is hoped that in the future this service will expand even further. For this reason, the Bishop takes special care to provide suitable and, if possible, abundant resources for their spiritual growth, their Christian instruction, and their cultural enrichment.

The Bishop should show particular concern for the order of virgins, who are dedicated to the service of the Church, entrusted to the Bishop’s pastoral care and consecrated to God at his hands. Bearing in mind the formation needs of consecrated women today, not dissimilar to those of consecrated men, the Bishop should assign chaplains and confessors to them from among the best at his disposal, distinguished by a good understanding of consecrated life and by their piety, sound doctrine, ecumenical and missionary spirit.

The Bishop should also be vigilant that consecrated women are given sufficient opportunities for participation in different diocesan structures, such as diocesan and parish pastoral councils, where these exist, in the various diocesan commissions and delegations, and in the direction of apostolic and educational initiatives in the diocese. They should also be involved in decision making processes, especially in matters directly affecting them. In this way they can bring to the service of God’s people their particular sensitivities and their missionary fervour, their unique gifts and the fruits of their experience.

But the primary resource for understanding the Church’s teaching on this state in life is the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for Women Living in the World, which is too long to be reprinted here. I encourage everyone who reads this blog to familiarize themselves with the rite as well. One unique (and in my opinion, wonderful) aspect of this vocation is that virtually everything you need to understand it is contained in its rite.

Similarly, there are several liturgical books which include prayers pertaining to consecrated virginity. The rite itself is contained in the Roman Pontifical and is mentioned in the Ceremonial of Bishops. The Sacramentary also contains a preface to be used with the Eucharistic Prayer during a consecration Mass.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Writing God a Blank Check: My Thoughts on Discernment

I haven’t really written much about discernment here because by the time I started this blog I was already “discerned”—i.e., I was subjectively convinced that God had called me to be a consecrated virgin in the world. And once the question of my state in life was settled, all the energy I had spent discerning was quickly re-directed to concern about living my vocation well.

Theoretically, it would seem that the process of discerning a priestly or consecrated vocation should be pleasant, since you’re really just striving to set your life more in conformity with the good and merciful God who already loves you. I do hope that discernment is accordingly bright and joyful for all my readers who are listening for their own vocations. But speaking for myself, on an experiential level discernment was agony! At times I would even find myself feeling somewhat annoyed with God for not communicating His will more plainly.

Yet all of the confusion and anxiety I experienced while discerning my vocation evaporated almost to the point of being erased from my memory once I made my decision and thus crossed over to the “other side” of the question. At one point I even found myself tempted to say to a young man considering the seminary: “So what’s your problem? Just become a priest.” (Fortunately, having at least some sense of tact, I was able to catch myself!)

But recently having had the chance to meet some people my age who in the midst of discernment reminded me of everything I experienced when I was in a similar place. So with the hope of expressing some empathy, I thought I would share something which I found helpful.

When I was on my long retreat, I came across an older book titled, We Live With Our Eyes Open, by Dom Hubert van Zeller, OSB. I had never heard of Fr. Van Zeller before, but apparently he was a Benedictine monk who was also a spiritual director to a wide variety of individuals, including a number of laypeople. He wrote a whole serious of books in which he wittily presents the basic elements of substantial Catholic spirituality.

I found this book both helpful and enjoyable on many levels, but I saw one passage in particular which struck me as a excellent cipher for the central puzzle of vocational discernment:

“Perhaps one reason for the confusion which exists in the minds of some, and
which prevents them from following their true vocation, is that if God showed
them exactly what He wanted of them they would refuse Him. God seems to prefer
that His creatures should muddle through in more or less good faith than that
they should live for any length of time in thoroughly bad faith.”

In other words, if God’s will is genuinely unclear to us (and I don’t intend to address here those cases where a person has an inkling of what God wants for them, but either do their best to ignore it or else hesitate in carrying it out), it may be because we are not predisposed in the first place to doing what He would like to ask of us in. So in a way, the sense of frustration which plagues some serious discerners could be a direct consequence of God’s paternal mercy.

So it would seem that the best way to discern is to say “yes” to God before you know what you are saying “yes” to. I call this “writing God a blank check.”

If you write out a literal blank check to someone, then you are giving that person full permission to take however much money they want out of your back account, to be used however they see fit. When you write God the metaphorical blank check of your life, you put every fiber of your being at His disposal, before you know how much it will cost you. (And obviously, you wouldn’t want to have this sort of relationship with anyone else except God!)

I suppose an example of this would be person sincerely prays along the lines of: “God, if you want to be a Carthusian, I will do it. If you want me to be like John the Baptist and wear only camel hair and subsist on insects, I will do it. And if you want me to become a wife and mother in suburban New Jersey, then I would do that too, as long as it pleases You.”

In a lot of the glossy, user-friendly literature being printed today on discernment, the focus is on choosing a path in which your gifts and talents would be best used, and which corresponds to your deepest desires. There is truth in this, as God can speak to us through attraction and He always seeks our best interest. He would not call us to something for which we were truly and manifestly unsuited (although as Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah found out, our idea of being suitable may be very different from God’s).

However, I would think that approaching discernment from this perspective would predispose a person to winding up in a spiritual quagmire. Trying to discern the Divine will by such human considerations is almost a contradiction. Without undermining the virtue of prudence, we have to remember that God has said, “My ways are not your ways.”

This idea is hardly new in the Catholic ascetical/mystical tradition. St. Ignatius Loyola’s ideal of indifference, St. John of the Cross’s teaching of radical detachment (the “nada”), and even Our Lady’s “Behold the handmaid of the Lord…” are all different expressions of the same concept of total trust of and submission to God.

The uncanny thing about this is that once you are willing to take this leap in the dark—and I admit that it took me a long time, and I am certainly not there completely—it’s only then that you KNOW.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Poem

Special thanks to the Passionist nuns of St. Joseph Monastery, who let me reprint this poem from their blog, “In Shadow of His Wings":

A nun is a woman
Who believes in the Absolute
And arises in search of it,
Laughing at all who
Speak of the impossibility of it,
For a woman, who is a nun,
Knows that the impossible
Becomes the possible in a matter of seconds,
At the bidding of her Beloved
A nun is a woman who has become mad,
Totally, irrevocably mad!
For she has accepted
The standard of God’s wisdom
Which is in truth folly to man.
A nun is a woman
Hanging on the other
Side of His cross
Knowing that it becomes
His marriage bed with her
The moment she asks
“To be lifted up” with Him.
A nun is a woman
Of the water and the towel
Constantly kneeling before
Mankind to wash its
Tired feet.
A nun is a woman
In love with God - hence with all humanity
A nun is a prayer -
Everlastingly lifting her arms to God
For those who don’t.
A nun is a woman
Who fasts
Knowing well how fast fast reaches
The heart of God!
A nun is a woman
Wrapped in the Poverty of God,
The mantle of
His surrender, His emptying!
A nun is a woman
Who exists
To show that God exists too.
(by Catherine de Hueck Doherty)
I like this poem because it seems to me that if you replaced “nun” with “consecrated virgin,” it would describe my own vocation perfectly. I suppose that when people ask me what role consecrated virgins have in the Church, I could use as a response: “A consecrated virgin is a woman who exists to show that God exists, too!”

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Back To the World

Today was my first day back home after my long retreat, which was followed by the two and a half day USACV information conference in Chicago.

I am very grateful to everyone who prayed for me while I was on retreat, as all the time spent “alone with the Alone” made me very aware of both the need for and the reality of grace.

The details of the gifts received during a retreat are by nature extremely private, so I really can’t share too much of the experience. But I do have a few observations which may be helpful, even while being just the very tip of the iceberg:

First, I am so glad that I decided to take the time and the trouble to make a retreat like this. It was incredibly helpful. When I first started talking about making a long silent retreat to prepare for my consecration, several people questioned whether something as dramatic as this (although I don’t consider a long retreat to be really dramatic when compared with a novitiate) was truly necessary in my situation. Now after having done it, I feel that it was indeed necessary and important for me to have the opportunity for an extended conversation with God before this January, when I make a permanent commitment and assume a new identity in the Church.

I also think it’s good to note that long retreats like this are very Biblical. Many of the prophets (and also some people like St. Paul) spent time in the wilderness either in conjunction with receiving their vocation, or in preparation for their public mission. Jesus Himself took forty days to fast and pray before manifesting Himself as the Christ.

It would seem that God tends to like deserts, or at least He likes using them for His purposes in forming His people. When you are in the middle of nowhere, there is a very real sense of having nothing but God—but this makes it easier then for God to be everything. I think that there is a beautiful allusion to this concept in the famous passage from the book of Hosea: “So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.”*

Of course, I was near Peoria, which is hardly a literal wilderness. But having not been in Illinois since I was an infant, this is the first time I really had an opportunity to see the Midwestern scenery. But unlike many people who find the miles of cornfields boring, I was delighted by the vastness and simplicity of the landscape. In some ways, its starkness was reminiscent of a real desert, even though much of our nation’s food was growing in those fields. As oxymoronic as this must sound, it was like sort of a fruitful desert—so the cornfields were actually a very good visual metaphor for my entire retreat!

I was further humbled and inspired by the example of the Congregation of St. John, with whom I stayed. Though our concrete daily circumstances are quite different, the sincerity and love with which the Brothers and Sisters of St. John live their religious life taught me a lot about how I can live my own consecrated life as a “convincing sign of the kingdom of heaven.”** I was very moved by their generosity and kindness towards me, as well as by their love of silence, their spirit of poverty, and their deep fraternal charity.

Yet I haven’t found my coming back to the world to be particularly difficult or distracting. On a human level, it is kind of a relief to be able to talk to people (and to blog!) again, and it’s great to see my family. But more importantly, the whole point of making a retreat like this is to learn how to love God faithfully within the context of your own vocation. And you have to come back home—perhaps you could even say to “the daily grind”—before you can start to do this.
*Hosea 2:16
** from the Rite of Consecration. See the examination immediately following the homily.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


I will be leaving for a month-long silent (or at least silent-ish) retreat tomorrow at 6:00 am, in order to prepare for my consecration which is coming in January. The contemplative Sisters of St. John have graciously allowed me to make my retreat at one of their houses.

Naturally, I will be taking a break from the Internet in general and blogging in particular. Posting will resume around August 8. During the interim, I would very much appreciate the prayers of any readers I may have! (And I will certainly remember all of you who have requested my prayers.)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Good Books For Understanding The Priesthood

Usually when I write about books I’ve read, I focus on books directly relating to consecrated virginity in the world (especially since good reading lists for those discerning this vocation are virtually non-existent). But as the “Ordination season” draws to a close, I thought I would share some books which I found helpful in understanding the Priesthood.

While it may not seem so initially, I think that it is important for consecrated virgins to have a good grasp on the nature of the Priesthood. Off of the top of my head I can think of three major reasons:

1. Consecrated virgins are supposed to pray for priests, and it’s good to understand the people for whom you pray.

2. Understanding the Priesthood can help us understand our own vocation more fully; specifically, understanding a priest’s identity as an icon of Christ can help us understand, in an analogous fashion, our own call to be an icon of the Church.

3. These days the Priesthood is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Catholicism, and as people living “in the world” it’s important to be able to explain and defend this and all the teachings of the Church.

A fourth reason could be that having a decent understanding of the priesthood could inspire one to foster priestly vocations if and when the occasion arises, but of course this goes without saying! This list is by no means exhaustive, but I think that these books are all enlightening and enjoyable places to start:

The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church, by Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT – This is the best book I have ever come across which explains the Church’s practice of reserving priestly Ordination to men. The Catholic Priesthood and Women is based on the thesis that the Church’s teaching regarding women and the Priesthood is based on the “fundamental reason” that Christ called only men to be His original apostles—and not, as has commonly been held, on the “theological explanations” (e.g., male/female differences make men more intrinsically capable of imaging Christ, etc.) which have been proposed to explain why Christ acted as He did in this. Butler also points out that the exclusion of women from Holy Orders is not truly a question of injustice, as the Priesthood in and of itself does not affect a Christian’s personal salvation the way other sacraments (such as Baptism and the Eucharist) do.

Interestingly, when she began her study of this topic, Sr. Sara was originally in favor of women’s Ordination. However, she came to change her mind after further examining the arguments on both sides. (Would that all academics were this honest and open-minded!) This book is some of the fruit of her research.

This book is “real” Theology, yet it’s concise (only 132 pages) and very readable. I would recommend this book to everybody.

A Priest Forever: The Life of Father Eugene Hamilton, by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR – This is the first biography written about Fr. Eugene Hamilton, who was ordained by special dispensation three hours before he died in 1997 at age twenty-five. Growing up Eugene Hamilton had dreamed of becoming a priest, but serious health issues prevented him first from entering the college seminary, and then from completing his studies at the major seminary. Yet due to the remarkable depth of his spirituality, he was given permission by Pope John Paul II to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders early so that he could have the privilege of dying as a priest.

On one level, I found this book incredibly inspiring because it reads like the life of a saint—but one where the subject lived in cultural circumstances very similar to mine. Reading about Fr. Hamilton’s longing for the Priesthood in the face of numerous setbacks was also a great encouragement to me as I faced difficulties in following my own vocation. In some odd way, it made me feel less alone.

Yet it may be that the major significance of this story is theological. The fact that Fr. Hamilton could be “a priest forever” despite never having had the chance to preach, celebrate Mass, or administer any other sacrament brilliantly illistrates the Church’s teaching that that the essence of the Priesthood is far more profound than a set of functions. A priest is first and foremost called to be an image of Christ, and all priestly activity flows out of this fundamental priestly identity. (Which is why I think it’s an almost uncanny “coincidence” that Fr. Hamilton was a priest in this world for about three hours—the same amount of time that Jesus took on the cross to offer the sacrifice which is re-presented at every Mass.)

Diary of A Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos - This novel, a modern French classic, tells the story of a very young parish priest as he struggles to minister to the disaffected people in a small French town during the early twentieth century. Written first-person in the form a journal, the nameless priest documents what he perceives as his failed attempts to reach the souls under his care, all while he struggles heavily with his own spiritual desolation before dying suddenly of cancer.

On the surface, this would seem like a REALLY BAD choice of reading material for anyone even remotely hoping to foster priestly vocations, let alone for a young man discerning one! However, it dramatizes beautifully the Catholic belief in the redemptive value of suffering. The “twist” in the story (which, by the way, completely eluded me when I read this book for the first time at age nineteen) is that in his pain and weakness, the young priest has unknowingly configured his life to Christ’s.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

“Diocesan” Spirituality, As Illustrated By a Joke

The delineation of a specifically “diocesan” spirituality is sort of a hot topic right now—even if only among the secular clergy and seminarians. But this issue is also very near to my own heart, as I am deliberately choosing to become a “diocesan” consecrated person. I have been meaning to write a more serious explanation of this concept as I see it, but then I remembered this joke and figured that it probably wouldn’t be the worst way to start the discussion.

In case anyone takes issue with my sense of humor, I maintain that I at least thought this was funny. But I did learn it from a seminarian, and I have to admit that seminarian-humor can be something of an acquired taste! So here’s the joke:

Six different priests were on retreat together. They were celebrating the Office of Compline (Night Prayer), when suddenly the lights went out. So what did they do?

The Benedictine priest continued on with the liturgy as though nothing had happened, since he had the breviary memorized;

The Franciscan priest assumed the power was cut off because the retreat house was unable to pay its electrical bill, and he rejoiced that they shared his love of evangelical poverty;

The Carmelite priest had a profound mystical insight as he connected the lack of exterior light with his own interior experience of darkness;

The Dominican and the Jesuit priests got into a heated debate about the theological implications of the lights going out…

…And the diocesan priest went downstairs and changed the fuse!

Obviously, part of what makes this a joke is its play on stereotypes. I think all the descriptions of the religious priests are fairly self-explanatory. But even though most people who “get” this joke laugh right away when they hear about the diocesan priest in the punch line, it takes some thought to articulate exactly why it makes sense.

I think we can assume that all of the religious priests at our fictional retreat house would have thought to change the blown fuse eventually, once they had completed their respective prayers/reflections/theological discussions. So the fact that the diocesan priest only changes the fuse, and does so right away, alludes to his focus on the essentials.

In general, the vocation of a religious priest is thought of primarily as the commitment to a community and a specific style of spirituality and way of life. For religious priests, the priesthood itself is a secondary (though very important) facet of their vocation—a sort of “call within a call.” Even in specifically clerical orders like the Jesuits, men are only ordained after they have made their solemn or final profession.

In contrast, the vocation of diocesan priests consists solely in their participation in the ministerial priesthood of Christ through the sacrament of Holy Orders, grounded within the context of service to a particular diocese. But the simplicity of their spirituality does not denote a lack, as is commonly thought. Rather, it indicates a certain universality, as the priesthood is not defined by any one culture or historical period; as well as a more intense, “streamlined” focus on the awesome mystery of their Ordination. (For more information on the diocesan priesthood, the Vocation Office of the New York Archdiocese has an excellent website, “”)

Consecrated virginity in the world is of course very different form the diocesan priesthood, since consecration is not the sacrament of Holy Orders and consecrated virgins aren’t part of the hierarchy. Yet in many ways, the spirituality of a diocesan priest and the spirituality of a consecrated virgin in the world are analogous.

Similar to a diocesan priest, in not taking on the spiritual traditions and way of life of a specific religious community, a consecrated virgin is free to devote more attention to the “core” of her vocation as a consecrated woman: the call to be a spouse of Christ. (Interestingly, where the priesthood is the only vocation in the Church open only to men, solemn consecration to a life of virginity is the one vocation reserved exclusively to women.)

In my own discernment, I have often been asked by diocesan priests, “Why can’t you just become a nun?” I found that the best response was to ask (respectfully) in turn, “Father, why didn’t you become a religious?” More often then not, Father would give an answer along the lines of, “Well, I don’t know. I guess didn’t feel called to that. I just wanted to be a priest.” Usually, this was all it took for my point to be understood!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Consecrated Virgins versus Diocesan Hermits

(About the image: this is St. Anthony of Egypt, the "Father of Monks" and one of the Church's earliest hermit-saints.)

No, despite my title, this is not a contest! It’s a response to one of my readers, who upon reading a recent post asks:

What you have written here doesn't sound all that different than a diocesan hermit. How does it differ? Thanks.

The short answer to this question is that consecrated virgins aren’t hermits!

But before I move on to the longer and arguably more helpful answer, I would like to acknowledge that the vocations of consecrated virginity in the world and diocesan eremitical life do have many things in common. Most notably, they are both ancient forms of consecrated life which were subsumed by the development of religious orders, but re-established in their own right as a consequence of the second Vatican Council.

Both vocations were formally recognized as belonging to the consecrated state when the Code of Canon Law was revised in 1983. Diocesan eremitic life is described in canon 603* and consecrated virginity in canon 604, so I suppose you could say that they’re even “neighbors.”

The relationship of diocesan hermits to their bishop is similar to that of consecrated virgins (i.e., the bishop is their “superior”). Thus, both vocations entail a spiritual bond with the local Church (as opposed to a religious order), and the primary obligation of both consecrated virgins and diocesan hermits is to pray for the needs of their diocese.

Still, consecrated virginity in the world and the diocesan eremitical life are two separate forms of consecration. Probably the most obvious difference is that a constitutive element of a hermit’s vocation is a special dedication to solitude and seclusion, something which does not ordinarily apply to consecrated virgins.

While it is theoretically possible for a person to be both a diocesan hermit and a consecrated virgin, there are aspects of the vocation to consecrated virginity in the world which do not necessarily pertain to hermits. Although it could be said that people in all forms of consecrated life are spouses of Christ to at least some extent, consecrated virgins embody this concept in a particularly explicit manner. Bridal imagery is stressed MUCH more heavily in the vocation of consecrated virginity than it is in the diocesan eremitic life.

On a practical level, canon 604 is an option open only to women who are virgins (virginity being defined as the state of “never having been married or lived in open or flagrant violation of chastity”—see the introduction to the Rite of Consecration), where a single person of either gender could become a diocesan hermit, regardless of whether they had been widowed, or were always unmarried, or even are sincerely repentant after a sinful youth.

Historically, the eremitical life developed a few centuries after the Church’s foundation (and hence, after the existence of consecrated virginity), perhaps somewhat paradoxically as a reaction to the lack of opportunities for physical martyrdom. In times and places where being a Christian no longer incurred the possibility of a death sentence, some local Churches grew more relaxed in their attitudes towards the moral and spiritual life of the faithful. Leaving all one owned to live alone in the desert represented an attempt to walk a “narrower” path, and it also served as a new way to offer a radical declaration of one’s love for Christ.

Additionally, the solitude and silence of the desert helped foster the hermit’s own spiritual life by protecting him or her from worldly temptations and distractions, as well as by providing the needed “space” for constant conversation with God.

In my opinion, this “flight from the world” represents a turning point in the history of the spirituality of consecrated life. The eremitic life is the immediate precursor to religious life, which also has an emphasis on separating oneself from worldly society.* I think that this historical circumstance is the primary differentiation between the spirituality of modern consecrated virgins and diocesan hermits.

As I see it, part of the vocation to consecrated virginity in the world is a call to be a visible reminder of Christ’s love for His Church for the faithful in one’s home diocese. Although there is an element of detachment from the world in the life of a consecrated virgin, she prays for the local people from within their midst. A consecrated virgin is further able to serve as a manifestation of the love of God by means of exterior works of charity.

In contrast, a diocesan hermit bears witness to the primacy of Christ by literally leaving behind everything that is not God. Prayer is a hermit’s only apostolate generally speaking, although apparently some of the early hermits engaged in a ministry of spiritual direction. While in one sense a hermit may be invisible to the rest of the world, they retain a deep (if hidden) spiritual bond with the people for whom they pray.

If you would like to learn more about the life of a diocesan hermit, you might want to find out if there are any hermits living in your diocese. There is a fairly well-known community of hermits in the diocese of Paterson, NJ (you can read an article about them here).

Also, a diocesan hermit in California writes the blog “Notes from Stillsong Hermitage.” This would seem to be a good resource for anyone considering this vocation, although I don’t totally agree with all aspects of the author’s interpretation of canon 603. (E.g., I don’t think a diocesan hermit should generally adopt the spirituality of any particular religious order—in my opinion, this somewhat defeats the purpose of being “diocesan.”)

Finally, anyone interested in the eremitic life should read some of the writings of the Church Fathers. St. Athanasius’ Life of Anthony is a great place to start, and the writings of John Cassian are also helpful.

* Canon 603 reads: “In addition to institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognizes the eremitic or anchoritic life by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a stricter withdrawal from the world, the silence of solitude, and assiduous prayer and penance. ~2. A hermit is recognized by law as one dedicated to God in consecrated life if he or she publicly professes in the hands of the diocesan bishop the three evangelical councils, confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, and observes a proper program of living under his direction.”

** St. Benedict was a hermit before he wrote his Rule on the organization of the cloistered contemplative life lived in common.

Monday, June 16, 2008

For Your Information...

The United States Association of Consecrated Virgins is having an information conference this summer for women discerning the vocation. It will be held at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Chicago, IL, from August 6 - 8, 2008. If you are another aspiring consecrated virgin living in the United States, you may want to consider attending. (For the record, I have never been to one of the USACV's information conferences before, but I am going this year at the recommendation of both my Vicar for Religious and my Vocation Director.)

This is an annual event, and usually the USACV includes the details on their website. However, this year their website has not been updated in a while--my guess is that the Rome pilgrimage has thrown everyone's schedules into chaos--but you can find the contact information of the conference's coordinator on page 3 of their February 2008 newsletter.

Or alternately, you could contact me (my e-mail is on the sidebar) and I could send you a copy of the conference's form via e-mail.

UPDATE (6/20/08): The USACV has now included information about the conference on their website. You can read all about it here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Practical Explanation of Consecrated Virginity

(About the image: this is a representation of St. Agnes in Heaven with other consecrated-virgin saints of the early Church.)

Here is a question I recently received in my comment box:

I stumbled upon your blog by means of another (isn't that always the way!) and I read many of your postings, but I am still stumped—what exactly is a consecrated virgin and what role do they play in the church? I have to admit here that I am a former Catholic but having spent the first twenty-four years of my life attending church and attending Catholic schools, I have never run across this term. Thanks! –Elizabethanne

Elizabethanne, your timing is perfect! (Or is it providential?) After receiving definite approval for my vocation this spring, I recently set a date for my consecration. So I am just now beginning to be open with the people in my life about what I am doing. And more often then not, this announcement requires quite a bit of explanation. I have been working on writing a brief description of consecrated virginity in the world which I could possibly make into a hand-out to give to people who had questions. This post represents some of my first attempts!

You are not alone in being “stumped”—I’ve found that my vocation is something unfamiliar even most practicing Catholics (including the daily Mass crowd). My mother has been telling friends and family that I am becoming a “freelance nun.” Canonically, this is inaccurate in more ways than I can count. But this explanation does work surprisingly well at conveying, in an on-the-spot kind of way, the basic idea of the sort of life which I will be embracing.

I find that one of the best ways to begin explaining consecrated virginity in the world is by describing the history of this vocation. The consecrated life is as old as the Church herself, but religious life as we know it did not exist until about the fourth century A.D. Thus, a woman could dedicate her life to Christ as a consecrated virgin before it was historically possible for her to become a nun. Very early in the Church’s history, a liturgical rite was developed for the conferral of solemn consecration upon women who had resolved to remain virgins “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In the writings of the Patristic era, the Church Fathers frequently mention the consecrated virgins of their local communities. While there seems to have been some diversity in the structure of their daily lives, the consecrated virgins of the early Church probably played a role analogous to that of today’s religious sisters, though with a more pronounced contemplative dimension. Most of the virgin-martyr saints with whom you may be familiar—such as St. Agnes, St. Lucy, St. Barbara, and St. Cecilia—were consecrated virgins.

Although there was a window of a few centuries during which a woman could either enter a monastery and become a nun OR become a consecrated virgin while remaining “in the world,” the rise of monasticism and the surrounding historical circumstances gradually put an end to the practice of consecrating uncloistered women. However, some religious orders continued to use the rite in conjunction with a nun’s solemn profession of vows, so the rite was not lost (as it easily could have been).

About a thousand years later, the second Vatican council called for a revision of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which re-established consecrated virginity in the world as recognized form of consecrated life.* When the Code of Canon Law was revised in 1983, it included a canon describing this vocation.

Modern consecrated virgins are solemnly consecrated by the local diocesan bishop (or by a delegated auxiliary bishop in some situations) within the context of the revised rite. The bishop is the one who grants permission for aspirants to receive this consecration, as well as the one who determines the circumstances under which they are to live their vocation.** Consecrated virgins remain directly under his authority, unlike religious sisters who are ordinarily accountable to the superiors of their religious congregation.

Besides life-long celibacy, the only formal obligation of a consecrated virgin is to pray for the needs of her diocese, and in particular for the good of her bishop and the diocesan clergy. Right now, there is very little official Church legislation pertaining to the concrete details of a consecrated virgin’s daily life. Still, I may be typical in that I pray the full Divine Office (Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, one of the daytime hours, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer), attend daily Mass, make time for silent prayer, frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and make a point to fast and do penance.

While consecrated virgins are expected to live simply, they do not take vows of poverty and must support themselves financially. Because of this, they are not obligated to take on any specific ministry. However, in my case I did chose to pursue an academic career specifically because I thought it would afford me a chance to help build up the Church in a more direct manner—my personal feeling was that I would need a spiritually-oriented exterior occupation to nourish my primary mode of service, which is prayer.

The role of consecrated virgins in the Church today is the same as the role of consecrated persons in general; that is, to be witnesses of Christ’s love for His Church.

Once again, I hope this is helpful. If any of my readers would like me to elaborate on anything or to clarify some point, just ask!

*see the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), art. 80.
** This is described in the introductory remarks in the Rite of Consecration.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Liturgy of the Hours 101

An important part of my vocation as a soon-to-be consecrated virgin in the world is praying the Liturgy of the Hours (a.k.a. the Divine Office) for the needs of the Church, particularly for the needs of my archdiocese. But because I don’t know very much about the demographic of my audience—although judging from my comment box, it looks like my readership spans from high school students to cloistered nuns—I’m not sure that everyone knows what I’m talking about when I make my frequent mention of the Liturgy of the Hours.

So here is my version of “Liturgy of the Hours 101,” or a very basic introduction to the public prayer of the Church. (So for those of you who are already chanting the Office seven times a day in choir—please bear with me!)

Like the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours is liturgy, which means that it is the Church’s official prayer. (And in case anyone is interested, “liturgy” is derived from the Greek word leitourgia, which roughly translates into “the work of the people” or “public work.”) All non-liturgical prayer is technically considered “private” or “personal” prayer, regardless of whether or not it is prayed within a group context. Examples of private prayer would include the Divine Mercy chaplet, various novenas, silent/mental prayer, and even the Rosary.

Private prayer is still quite valid and valuable; however, the principal difference between liturgical and private prayer is that liturgical prayer is prayed in the name of the Church, where private prayer is essentially prayed in the name of the individual.

The purpose of the Liturgy of the Hours is the sanctification of time, as well as to provide a means by which the faithful can pray “without ceasing.” It is comprised of seven “hours” or “offices,” each corresponding to a different time of day: Lauds (Morning Prayer), Terce, Sext, and None (the Daytime Hours—Midmorning, Midday, and Midafternoon Prayer respectively), Vespers (Evening Prayer), Compline (Night Prayer), and the Office of Readings (also called Matins or Vigils, this was traditionally prayed in the middle of the night or shortly before dawn, although it can now be prayed at any time of day). All of the hours involve Psalms, Scriptural readings, and prayers; Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer also include intercessions, the “Our Father,” and a Gospel canticle.

The Liturgy of the Hours originated as a Christian adaptation of the Jewish custom of praying at fixed points during the day. In the early Church, it was celebrated regularly in the cathedrals, and was a focal point of Christian life. Later, the Divine Office would become a pillar and hallmark of monastic life, with subsequent elaborations and extensions. The second Vatican council simplified the structure of the Office and allowed for translations into the vernacular in order to make the Liturgy of the Hours more accessible to all who pray it—clergy, laity, and the consecrated.

Today, all of the faithful are invited to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours as far as they are able. However, certain people within the Church have specific obligations to pray the Office.

Diocesan priests and transitional deacons are bound to say the “full” Divine Office, which generally denotes five of the hours: the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, one of the Daytime hours, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. Offering this “sacrifice of praise” is considered one of their more important priestly duties.

All religious are required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours (cf. can. 633 in the Code of Canon Law), but according to the proper law of their institutes. In active communities, this usually means the celebration of at least Morning and Evening prayer, which are often called the two “hinges” of the Divine Office. However, religious priests, because they are priests, have the same obligations as the diocesan clergy, and cloistered nuns are usually bound to say the full Office in choir. Permanent deacons pray the Office as is required by their individual dioceses, typically Morning and Evening Prayer.

There is no proscription in Canon Law as to how often consecrated virgins in the world should say the Office. But as the Rite of Consecration itself includes a “mandate” to say the Liturgy of the Hours, it could be surmised that this is a very important part of this form of consecrated life! In the preface to the rite, consecrated virgins are “strongly encouraged” to pray at least Morning and Evening Prayer. In my archdiocese, this is the requirement. However, my own OPINION is that as consecrated virginity in the world is essentially a contemplative vocation, consecrated virgins should be asked to recite the full Office just as diocesan priests do.

But to think of the Divine Office solely in terms of rules and regulations is to miss the point. Really, it is a privilege and a gift—and a great joy—to be able to pray in union with the whole Church.

I hope this helps some people—if anyone has questions, please do ask them!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Blessed Mother in My Life

Quite appropriately for the month of May, here is a question I recently received:

What role has the Blessed Mother (the model for all motherhood, and especially spiritual motherhood) played in your faith journey?

Great question! Our Lady, besides being the model for all motherhood, is also the first and most excellent consecrated virgin in the Church. Besides all the good that I have gained from her example and intercession, I’m sure that Mary’s maternal love and concern has helped my vocation even in ways of which I’m not aware.

Growing up in a Catholic household, I was taught very early on to think of Mary as my mother, and this really stuck! (I even have memories of expressing my love to my earthly mom by telling her that she was second-best mother in the world, because of course it was Mary who was the “first-best!”) So when I was a child, I always had the sense that I had a special friend and protectress in Heaven. I’m sure that this helped foster my vocation, even though I can’t quite describe the exact cause-and-effect dynamic.

While for the most part I have retained this warm personal affection for Our Lady, as I grow older I tend to see her in a somewhat more objective manner. That is, I relate to her more and more as the exemplar of what I am supposed to become spiritually.

At the Annunciation, I see her “fiat” as an example of the courage and trust in God—as well as the humility and greatness of heart—which I am also called to have as a spouse of Christ. In the Wedding at Cana, I am reminded of the loving confidence with which I can approach Our Lord. (And in this I also recall how important it is to “do whatever He tells you!”) At the crucifixion, I come to a greater awareness of how painful, but also how very important, it is to stay with Jesus in His darkest hours. And at Pentecost, I gain clarity about my place in the Church as a consecrated woman; because even though Mary was not called to be an apostle, her being at present at Pentecost indicates that she nevertheless played a vital part in the life and founding of the fledgling Church.

At this particular point in my life, I find that I am particularly drawn to Mary’s role as the “Theotokos” (Θεοτοκος), or “God-bearer” (i.e., the Mother of God). This is one of Our Lady’s oldest titles, and I think also one of the most meaningful. While Mary physically carried and give birth to the incarnate Son of God, I find that this image of Mary is the one that most easily relates to the concept of spiritual motherhood.

Biological miracles notwithstanding, Mary was able to become the Mother of God because her soul was open to receiving the Word, and she allowed it to become fruitful in her person. Similarly, although my efforts to welcome the Holy Spirit will never lead to my giving birth to an infant, God’s action in my soul can still become fruitful. Thus, I can still “bear God” to the people around me. And while this is a mysterious concept, I do believe that through grace, my prayer can still bring life to souls.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Feast of Corpus Christi and Eucharistic Spirituality

"How holy this feast in which Christ is our food; His passion is recalled; grace fills our hearts; and we receive a pledge of the glory to come, alleluia."

This was today's Magnificat antiphon, for Evening Prayer II on the solemnity of Corpus Christi. Because Holy Thursday is more focused on the Pascal mystery and the establishment of the priesthood, Corpus Christi was added to the calendar as the feast day in commemoration of the gift of the Eucharist.

While there is no official body of literature describing the spirituality of consecrated virgins, I think I would be justified in saying that our prayer life is profoundly Eucharistic.

If you frequent the right Catholic circles (I'm thinking specifically, but not exclusively, of circles of younger devout Catholics--particularly those who are discerning religious or priestly vocations), you hear the expression "Eucharistic spirituality" a lot. Naturally this phrase sounds beautiful, but I think sometimes it can be hard to understand what it means concretely.

In light of my vocations as an aspiring consecrated virgin, I think for me "Eucharistic spirituality" essentially means that the Mass is absolutely the center of my life.

On a practical level, this entails making every effort to attend daily Mass. When I was choosing colleges, and later graduate programs, I automatically ruled out any place where I couldn't find a Mass every day. I also make sure to arrange my days in such a way where my other plans and obligations don't interfere with Mass (even if this means missing out on time with friends, having to skip interesting extra-curricular academic events and lectures at school, or having to study later into the night). And if the only Mass I can attend is before dawn, then I gladly get up and out the door before the sun rises!

However, these small "sacrifices" are only the surface of deeper reality, which is my conviction that my participation in the holy sacrifice of the Mass is the most important thing I do all day. Every day at Mass, I do my best to join my offering of my life to Christ's offering of Himself for the redemption of the world. This continues throughout the day as I pray the Liturgy of the Hours--which, being the official prayer of the Church, I see as an extension of the Mass.

Being present at Mass also gives me the opportunity to be close to my soon-to-be Spouse. Of course, this means receiving the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. But it also gives me the chance, in a sense, to be with Jesus in His passion and to stand at the foot of the cross. We believe that the sacrifice of the Mass is truly a re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice at Calvary, but in an "unbloody manner." As my spiritual director is fond of saying, in response to the old Lenten song "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?", we can respond that yes, we were there!

Mass is also the place where I find nourishment for my soul. Just as ordinary food is necessary for the body to survive, I need Jesus as "the Bread of Life" for the survival of my spirit.

I do want to point out that while consecrated virgins are called to a particularly focused and intense participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, ALL Catholics are called to have a Eucharistic spirituality. Because part of my vocation is to be "extreme" in this way, I think it can help illustrate the beauty and value of the Eucharist to all of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

John Paul II's 1995 Address to Consecrated Virgins

With Pope Benedict XVI's recent address to an international gathering of consecrated virgins in Rome, I thought now would be a good time to point out that consecrated virgins from around the world also convened in Rome in 1995 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the revised Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for Women Living in the World.

John Paul II also spoke to the consecrated virgins in very cordial terms. You can find the full text of his address on the USACV website, or read it by clicking here. Below, I have reprinted some of the highlights. The emphases, in bold, are mine:

"On my part, I would like to speak to you with the same affectionate warmth with which bishops of old used to speak to the virgins of their churches: for example, the warmth of Methodius of Olympia, the first cantor of Christian virginity; that of Athanasius of Alexandria and of Cyprian of Carthage, who considered consecrated virgins an elect portion of Christ’s flock; that of John Chrysostom, whose writings are rich in ideas to nourish the spiritual life of virgins. Ambrose of Milan, whose works bear witness to an extraordinary pastoral care for consecrated virgins; Augustine of Hippo, that keen, profound theologian of virginity embraced for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt 19:12); the great, holy Pontiff Leo I, with all probability the author of the admirable prayer of consecration Deus castorum corporum; and Leander of Seville who wrote a beautiful letter to his sister Fiorentina on the occasion of her virginal consecration. This is an episcopal tradition to which I willingly join myself."

"The mystery of the Incarnation was seen by the Holy Fathers in a spousal light, following
the interpretation given by the Apostle Paul on the Lord’s death: “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her”...The entire life of Christ was therefore placed under the sign of the mystery of His nuptials with the Church (cf. Eph 5:32). You, too, dear Sisters, belong to that mystery through the gift of the Holy Spirit and in virtue of a 'new spiritual anointing' (cf. Pontificale Romanum, Ordo consecrationis virginum, n. 16)."

"Love Him as He desires to be love in your concrete life: “If you love Me, you will keep
My commandments” (Jn 14:15; cf. 14:21). Love Him as is fitting to your spousal condition: assuming His same sentiments (cf. Phil 2:5); sharing His way of life consisting in humility and meekness, love and mercy, service and joyful availability, untiring zeal for the glory of the Father and the salvation of the human race."

"The following of the Lamb in Heaven (cf. Rev 14:6) begins on earth, walking down the
narrow path (cf. Mt7:14)."

"According to the teaching of the Fathers, in receiving from the Lord the “Consecration of
virginity,” virgins become a visible sign of the virginity of the Church, the instrument of its fruitfulness and witness of its fidelity to Christ. Virgins are also a reminder of the orientation of the Church towards the future goods and a warning to keep this eschatological tension alive."

"Your total and exclusive love for Christ does not exempt you from love towards all men
and women, your brothers and sisters, for the horizons of your charity—precisely because
you belong to the Lord—are the same as the horizons of Christ."

"As St. Leander of Seville observes, Mary is also 'the culminating point and prototype of virginity.' In body and soul she was fully what you desire to be with all your strength:
virgins in body and soul, spouses through total and exclusive adherence to the love of Christ, mothers through the gift of the Spirit. "