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!