Thursday, December 31, 2009

“Dedicated to the Service of the Church:” Responses to Comments, Part I

In my last post, “What Does It Mean to Be ‘Dedicated to the Service of the Church?’” I described some of the reasons behind my opinion that, whenever possible, consecrated virgins living “in the world” should ordinarily express their call to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” by working directly in a Church-related apostolate. And as I expected, I received some thoughtful comments.

Here are some points brought up by Anonymous commentator #3:

“Sponsa Christi: Would you care to elaborate on this statement of our Holy Father to consecrated virgins?:

‘However, your ideal, truly lofty in itself, demands no special external change. Each consecrated person normally remains in her own life context. It is a way that seems to lack the specific characteristics of religious life, and above all that of obedience.’

Did Our Lady have formal Temple service or did she spend most of her time in daily, ordinary, household labors? Did Jesus Christ disdain to be in the world, working as a carpenter for most of His life? Perhaps His brides should not be unhappy if He found it to be a holy occupation, if they are in a secular profession as well. Certainly one would not classify carpentry services as ‘ministry,’ ‘churchy’ activities, and yet the Son of God managed to do it and retain His service to mankind. Thanks!”

Dear Anonymous #3,

If I’m reading your comment correctly, it seems that you are addressing two sets of concerns, both of which could be taken to indicate that consecrated virgins living “in the world” would be best fulfilling their vocation if they retained a more secular lifestyle than what I have suggested in my previous post. The first concern is that it seems as though the Holy Father envisions consecrated virgins as normally living lives that outwardly resemble that of devout single laywomen; and the second is that the examples of Mary and Jesus show that a secular profession is compatible with a vocation to the consecrated life, and is perhaps preferable within a vocation to consecrated virginity in particular.

While I always appreciate well thought-out comments, I do disagree with both of these premises. I’ll explain why:

Regarding the quote from Pope Benedict XVI, it seems as though it’s being assumed that, because the Holy Father is apparently saying that consecrated virgins do not have the embracing of the evangelical councils a characteristic element of their vocation (i.e., in his statement that consecrated virginity “seems to lack the specific characteristics of religious life, and above all that of obedience”), therefore consecrated virgins are not called to dedicate their lives to full-time, direct service in a Church-related apostolate.

One point on which I think we both agree is that, for consecrated virgins, a life of direct service to the Church could be considered as a way of observing the evangelical counsels of poverty and obedience. Although I don’t think that a life of Church-related service per se and a radical living of the evangelical counsels are totally interchangeable concepts, I do think that it would be appropriate to identify a dedication to explicitly service of the Church as a clear expression of a life completely given over to Christ in poverty, chastity, and obedience. I could also see how, if it could be definitely proven that consecrated virgins are not called to any sort of observance of the evangelical counsels beyond a commitment to celibate chastity, that this could be used as an argument that consecrated virgins do not actually have literal service to the Church as a part of their vocation.

However, when you take the Holy Father’s quote in context, it does NOT seem as though Benedict XVI is tying to imply that consecrated virgins are not called to observe the evangelical counsels. In fact, it appears as though the Pope is saying exactly the opposite:

“However, your ideal, truly lofty in itself, demands no special external change. Each consecrated person normally remains in her own life context. It is a way that seems to lack the specific characteristics of religious life, and above all that of obedience. For you, however, love becomes the sequela: your charism entails a total gift to Christ, an assimilation of the Bridegroom who implicitly asks for the observance of the evangelical counsels in order to keep your fidelity to him unstained.” (Emphasis mine.)

In this passage, Pope Benedict says that consecrated virginity “seems to lack the specific characteristics of religious life, and above all that of obedience.” But, the word “seem” does not mean the same thing as “is” or “does,” and is even more different from the words “ought to” or “should.” Here, I think the Holy Father is using the word “seems” as a way to call special attention to his observation that, for consecrated virgins, Christ “implicitly asks for the observance of the evangelical counsels.” So while at times we may be tempted to describe consecrated virgins as being called only to celibacy, the Holy Father is stressing that this is not at all the case.

Also, although you could perhaps argue that the Pope seems to be advocating a secular lifestyle for consecrated virgins by describing this vocation as one that “demands no special external change,” and in which each consecrated virgin “normally remains in her own life context,” I would respond by pointing out that these phrases are too vague to be taken as conclusive in this sense. That is, I don’t think that these words are specific enough to automatically rule out the possibility that consecrated virgins are called to a life of direct service to the Church.

If I had to give my own interpretation of these passages, I would say that “remaining in one’s own life context” is a reference to the fact that a consecrated virgin lives out her consecrated life from within her home diocese. In my personal experience, I certainly feel as though being a Catholic in the Archdiocese of New York (where I grew up) is my “own life context”—whereas in a certain sense I would be leaving my original life context if I joined a religious Order with its own particular history, spirituality, customs, and traditions.

Similarly, I don’t think that the description of consecrated virginity as demanding “no special external change” should be taken to mean that this vocation is categorically opposed to any type of change or adjustment in its aspirants. The fact of the matter is that entrance into a public state of consecrated life does demand that significant lifestyle changes be made at some point. In terms of consecrated virginity specifically, a woman hoping to become a consecrated virgin will ordinarily have to: make a conscious choice to stop dating and to put aside any thoughts of marriage; start praying the Liturgy of the Hours; get used to discerning major life decisions with her bishop or her bishop’s delegate; and so forth. And these are only a few examples of the ways in which a consecrated virgin would have to “transition” from life as a practicing lay Catholic to life as a consecrated person.

Even if these practices were adopted years before consecration to a life of virginity actually takes place, they still represent a change from a non-consecrated way of life. But naturally, they are not as glaring and dramatic as many of the external changes that may take place in entering religious life. For instance, consecrated virgins living in the world don’t adopt a detailed horarium; don a medieval-style habit, or take a new name. We do not become bound to observe enclosure, and we aren’t concerned with “fitting in” with a new religious community and adjusting to its rhythm of daily life. So I think that the Holy Father was correct in his observation of lack of dramatic external changes involved in consecrated virginity. Yet even with this in mind, I still don’t think that dedicating one’s life to direct service of the Church would fall into the category of a “special external change” proper only to religious life.

But without prejudice to everything I have written above, I think that in this passage the Pope is more focused on describing the present situation than he is on giving directives for the continued development of the restored Order of Virgins. And more importantly, even though these words are coming from the Holy Father, I doubt that they could be considered an authoritative document, and much less as a comprehensive theological treatise. This quote was taken from the address given by Pope Benedict to the assembled consecrated virgins at the 2008 International Pilgrimage (you can find the full English text of the address here, in the June 2008 issue of the USACV newsletter)—so I believe it was intended simply as a pastoral greeting and as a general exhortation to holiness, and not as the definitive word on the disputed elements of this vocation. (I’m hoping for an encyclical on consecrated virginity lived in the world just as much as the next consecrated virgin, but this greeting isn’t it!)

Of course, consecrated virgins should read this address carefully, take the Pope’s words to heart, and allow themselves to be inspired by it. BUT, this pastoral greeting cannot substitute for, or override, Canon Law and the other magisterial documents which the Church actually does consider authoritative.

Now with regard to viewing the lives of Mary and Jesus as an argument that consecrated virgins are not called to any sort of non-secular lifestyle:

Interestingly, the lives of Jesus and Mary have been traditionally held up as examples of a distinctly consecrated way of life. While of course Jesus and Mary exemplify virtues which should be practiced by all Christians, holding them up as a model of a specifically secular or lay vocation seems to be somewhat of a recent trend.

For example, the second-century work the “Protoevangelium of James” describes Mary’s life, with a special focus on her girlhood, youth, and the circumstances surrounding the Annunciation and Nativity of Christ. Although this work is NOT a part of the canon of divinely-inspired Scriptures, many scholars believe that, even amidst its more fanciful elements, the “Protoevangelium of James” still reflects venerable oral traditions. Among the Church Fathers, St. Ambrose, borrowing from an earlier pastoral letter of St. Athanasius, indirectly references the “Protoevangelium of James” when he holds up Mary’s life as the inspiration for consecrated virgins in De Virginibus.

The “Protoevangelium of James” goes into great detail about Mary’s dedication to a life of virginity at age three (an event commemorated in our liturgy with the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on November 21), and how subsequently her childhood was spent in residence at the Temple. At Mary’s betrothal, St. Joseph was introduced as a protector and guardian of Mary as a consecrated virgin, and not as a husband in the normal sense. The general theme of the “Protoevangelium of James” is that Mary’s life was demonstrably extraordinary from beginning to end. Here, Mary is not portrayed as model of what we would now call “lay spirituality.”*

From this, I certainly don’t think we should therefore conclude that extraordinary signs and miracles are necessary hallmarks of true Christian holiness. But, I also believe that the tradition captured in the “Protoevangelium of James” is a strong argument against using Mary’s humble life as “proof” that consecrated virgins are not actually called to embrace a lifestyle which is more visibly “set apart” for God.

In terms of non-apocryphal, Scriptural evidence, we do know that “secular” activities did not constitute the entirety of the outward expressions of Mary and Jesus’ vocations. Yes, Jesus was a carpenter for the majority of His adult life; and yes, you could rightly say that through this He sanctified human labor; but Jesus’ mission in the world was not advanced through carpentry alone. Jesus spent the last three years of His life preaching and healing—a true ministry.

Additionally, when Jesus called the first twelve Apostles to follow Him, and later to continue His saving ministry on earth by means of what would become the episcopate and priesthood, He did ask them to leave their previous occupations in order to devote themselves full-time to the work of the Church.** I think it’s also reasonable to speculate that, because after the crucifixion Mary lived with the Apostle John for the remainder of her earthly life, she most likely would have had a very special role in caring for the infant Church directly.

Finally, I actually don’t think that it’s altogether fair to hold up the lives of Jesus and Mary as an exact, practical “blueprint” for any one vocation within the Church. This is because the example of Jesus and the vocation of Mary are both universal as well as extremely special. They are “special” in the sense that no one else in history will ever be called to redeem humanity as the Incarnate Word of God, or to bear the Incarnate Word in one’s womb. But the examples of Jesus and Mary are also universal in the sense that all Christians are called to share in the Divine life, and to be perfectly surrendered to God’s will.

But, these kinds of general “vocations” can be expressed in almost any set of concrete circumstances. All Christians are called to “the imitation of Christ,” whether or not they are called to very specific type of imitation found in the ministerial priesthood. Likewise, everyone is able to follow Mary in her love, fidelity, and obedience to the will of God, whether they are married with children or committed to a life of celibacy.

Because of this, I think it would be wrong to argue that consecrated virgins would best imitate Mary through employment in a secular career—this would be like arguing that a Carmelite nun does not follow Mary as closely as a Catholic suburban mom does. It is already presumed that consecrated virgins are called to imitate Mary. The question is how best to imitate Mary in the specific context of a public state of consecrated life.

*But this is not to say absolutely that Mary should not be considered a model for single or married laywomen. As I’ll explain later, I do believe that Mary’s life should be an inspiration for all women universally. But my point here is to show that in many traditional sources of Marian spirituality, Mary was NOT considered to be someone who exemplified the outward lifestyle of the “rank-and-file” faithful.

**See, for example, the episode recounted in Matthew 4:18-22:

“As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009

I rejoice heartily in the Lord,
In my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me in a robe of salvation,
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.

As the earth brings forth its plants,
and as a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord God make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.

For Zion’s sake I will not be silent,
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quite,
until her vindication shines forth like the dawn
and her victory like a burning torch.

Nations shall behold your vindication,
and all kings your glory;
you shall be called by a new name
pronounced by the mouth of the Lord.
You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord,
a royal diadem held by your God.

No more shall men call you “Forsaken,”
or your land “Desolate,”
But you shall be called “My Delight,”
and your land “Espoused.”
For the Lord delights in you,
and makes your land his spouse.

As a young man married a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you.
—Isaiah 61:10-62:5

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What Does It Mean to Be “Dedicated to the Service of the Church?”

What does it mean for consecrated virgins living “in the world” to be “dedicated to the service of the Church?” This is, I think, one of the most important questions that anyone concerned with the vocation of consecrated virginity could ask—although presently, it may be the one aspect of this particular form of consecrated life which is most surrounded with ambiguity.

To say that consecrated virgins are called to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” is actually not to make a statement which would be in any way debatable, as the phrase “dedicated to the service of the Church” is taken verbatim from the sole canon which explicitly deals with consecrated virgins in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (that is, can. 604). Very similar wording is also used in the other authoritative magisterial documents that mention consecrated virginity.

And perhaps most significantly, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself acknowledges, in several places, the connection between consecrated virginity and service to the Church. For instance, in the general introduction to the two forms of the Rite of Consecration, we read that, “Those who consecrate their chastity under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit do so for the sake of a more fervent love of Christ and of greater freedom in the service of their brothers and sisters. They are to spend their time in works of penance and of mercy, in apostolic activity, and in prayer, according to their state in life and their spiritual gifts.”*

In terms of the actual words of the liturgy, in the Rite’s suggested homily the bishop says of the virgins to be consecrated: “God has called them to be more closely united to himself and to be dedicated to the service of the Church and of mankind.” And then to the virgins themselves, he exhorts them to: “Never forget that you are given over entirely to the service of the Church and of all your brothers and sisters.”

This call to service is further emphasized in the examination immediately following the homily, where the consecrating Bishop, in front of the entire assembly, asks the candidate: “Are you resolved to persevere to the end of you days in the holy state of virginity and in the service of God and his Church?” Then following the actual prayer of consecration, both of the possible formulae for the presentation of the veil contain a reference to the newly consecrated virgins’ dedication to the service of the Church.

Finally, the Rite of Consecration concludes with a solemn blessing, of which one formula echoes this theme of service by including the words:

May the Holy Spirit,
by whom the Virgin Mary conceived her Son,
today consecrate your hearts
and fill you with a burning desire
to serve God and his Church.

Given all this, it would be hard for me to imagine how anyone could reasonably conclude that a consecrated virgin would somehow NOT have service to the Church as a fundamental aspect of her vocation. What’s more, these passages indicate that consecrated virgins are not only called to serve the Church, but to be dedicated to this service. And at least according to my understanding of the word “dedication,” this should be taken to denote a special commitment of one’s entire life.

Consequently, it seems to me that a consecrated virgin is not called to help the Church by merely performing a set amount of good works, nor is she called simply to set aside some time every day or every week to engage in intercessory prayer or charitable activities. Instead, I believe that a consecrated virgin is called to pour out her whole self in fulfillment of this call to service, by letting it shape and demonstrably influence every facet of her life.

While it’s necessary and beneficial to discuss the significance of being “dedicated to the service of the Church” in general and abstract terms, still in another important sense these words are only meaningful insofar as they find a concrete expression. Yet as far as I know, the universal Church has never given us an authoritative interpretation of what this “dedication to service” means for consecrated virgins on a practical level. So without prejudice to an individual bishop’s prerogative to define with authority how this call to service is to be lived out concretely by the consecrated virgins of his own diocese (I explain this concept in more detail in this recent post), the actual meaning of “dedication to service” is one of the components of the vocation of consecrated virginity which is still open for discussion.

And so after studying and praying about the question for some time, I have arrived at my own OPINION on this matter: I think that consecrated virgins living “in the world” should ordinarily express their call to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” by working full-time in a Church-related apostolate (or else perhaps by contributing a truly comparable amount of volunteer time to the Church directly, around which they are willing to order their lives).**

My reasoning for this is that, first of all, direct and full-time work in a Church-related apostolate*** seems to be the most literal and readily obvious reading of canon 604 when it describes consecrated virgins as being “dedicated to the service of the Church.” As I see it, the very fact that Canon Law—which is notably brief in its treatment of consecrated virgins—would take care to mention “dedication to the service of the Church” as an essential element of consecrated virginity can be taken to indicate that a consecrated virgin’s commitment to serving the Church should be more explicit and on a more radical level than that of a devout laywoman.

Also, it seems to me that asking consecrated virgins to serve full-time in a Church-related apostolate would be most in keeping with the Church’s theology of consecrated life in general. I think it would be accurate to say to describe the Church’s understanding of consecrated life in a nutshell as “a complete gift of self,” in which one is “set apart” for God’s purposes alone. And in many ways I believe that for a consecrated virgin, devoting one’s life to Church-sponsored work is the clearest manifestation of this, primarily because it would allow her to put the needs of the Church above her own interests and concerns.

It also seems to me that full-time work for the Church would be the occupation most consistent with a consecrated virgin’s status as “sacred person.” As an individual in a public state of consecrated life, a consecrated virgin’s vocation does not “belong” primarily to her, but to the Church. A call to consecrated virginity is not only a grace for the woman consecrated, but also a gift for the entire people of God. So I think that by working to further the Church’s mission in a full-time and direct manner (or at least by demonstrating a sincere and eager willingness to do so), a consecrated virgin would be most clearly, visibly, and unambiguously expressing her call to be totally given over to Christ, and His body the Church.

Additionally, from what I have been able to gather from my (albeit not yet totally exhaustive) reading of the Church Fathers on consecrated virginity, it appears that full-time, direct service to the Church on the part of modern consecrated virgins would be most in accord with the Patristic understanding of this vocation.

Of course, the Church Fathers do not specifically address the issue of whether or not consecrated virgins should typically be engaged in secular careers. Such a question probably would have seemed somewhat nonsensical to them, as it would have been highly unusual for even a laywoman of that historical period to have had an outside career of any sort.

However, one theme that reoccurs in virtually all of the Fathers’ writings on consecrated virginity is that a consecrated virgin should be living what we would call a non-secular lifestyle. The ancient consecrated virgins were admonished to live in a spirit of detachment from worldly things, to forsake even non-sinful pleasures, and to be very selective in choosing which situations merited them leaving their homes. They were also encouraged to spend apparently all of their time in prayer, study, works of charity, and in the kinds of manual labor that would allow them to maintain a spirit of recollection. Although I would argue that it is neither possible nor desirable for modern consecrated virgins to attempt to follow a Patristic-era consecrated virgin’s daily schedule in exact detail, it seems to me that full-time work for the Church would be the closest approximation the early consecrated virgins’ ecclesial role.

And finally, I think that for today’s consecrated virgins, working full-time in a Church-related apostolate would be a good idea for several pragmatic reasons. For one thing, it would eliminate a lot of the difficulties in assuming one’s identity and relating to others as a consecrated person, since a consecrated virgin working directly for the Church would probably find it a lot less awkward to open about her vocation at all times and to everyone she meets. Having a Church-related, service-oriented job could also make it easier for a consecrated virgin to stay focused directly on God throughout her day. And working in a Church-sponsored institution would probably best allow a consecrated virgin to give priority to her obligation of prayer—e.g., a Church-related apostolate seems more likely than a secular career to allow a consecrated virgin to attend daily Mass, make an annual retreat, and so forth.

But before I conclude this post, I want to give a few disclaimers:

1. I absolutely do not intend the opinion that I’m expressing here to be a commentary on the lives of any specific consecrated virgins—the personal holiness of individual consecrated virgins is NOT the issue I’m calling into question! I’m sure that the vast majority of consecrated virgins, however they understand their vocation to service, are living out their consecrated lives in good faith and to the best of their ability. (And, I’m fully aware of the possibility that a consecrated virgin who disagrees with me could be much closer to God than I am.)

2. In proposing that consecrated virgins should understand their call to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” as ordinarily indicating full-time and direct service, I am only trying to comment on circumstances that could be considered truly “ordinary.” Exceptional circumstances are, by definition, exceptional—which means that they should not be the standard by which we seek to define the rule. Thus, I have deliberately put beyond the scope of this post what I would call extraordinary cases, such as: consecrated virgins who remain in or undertake a secular occupation in response to their diocese’ real pastoral needs, and at the specific request of their bishop; consecrated virgins who are burdened by physical or mental handicaps; or consecrated virgins who cannot work for the Church due to reasons of true financial necessity.

3. This post is also not intended to cause scruples or to trouble anyone’s conscience. There may be cases where a consecrated virgin is, for reasons beyond her control, genuinely unable to serve the Church in the way that she has concluded is most appropriate for her vocation. Obviously, a consecrated virgin who finds herself in this sort of extraordinary circumstance should not feel guilty and is not culpable for her perceived lack of service. While I’m tempted to emphasize that none of us (no matter what our vocation) should ever let ourselves “off the hook” too easily, at the same time I want to point out that God can only ask that we do the best we can with what we have.

4. In sharing my opinion, I am not trying to be polemical—I just think that the question of what “dedication to the service of the Church” means for consecrated virgins on a practical level is very important, and that it deserves much more thoughtful study and discussion than it has been given up to this point.


* See The Rites of the Catholic Church, vol. II, page 157.

** N.b., I strongly believe that prayer can be a full-time apostolate in service of the Church, if one actually prays full-time. So I am not trying to suggest that cloistered contemplatives aren’t serving the Church because they don’t have an active apostolate! But at the same, while I believe that prayer is the primary and foundational means by which a consecrated virgin serves the Church, I don’t think that formal prayer on its own could ordinarily suffice as fulfilling the vocation to service on the part of a consecrated virgin living in the world, unless she discerns with her bishop that she is called to do something like follow a quasi-monastic horarium.

*** I’m using the word “apostolate” to mean what is colloquially meant by the word “ministry”—i.e., work that directly advances the Church’s charitable, evangelical, catechetical, or missionary efforts. However, I’m trying to avoid using the word “ministry” in this context, because technically “ministry” refers only to the teaching, sacramental, and administrative actions proper to those who have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

In honor of the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, our national patroness in the United States, here is the latest video from

“Forty-one seminarians of the St. John Neumann Seminary College at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, sing Biebel’s Ave Maria at the Annual Lessons and Carols on Monday, November 30th. The Archbishop liked it so much that they will be singing at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday, December 13th at the 10:15 AM High Mass!”

(The Neumann Residence is the college seminary program in the Archdiocese of New York. The Neumann men live at the seminary, but are also commuter students who attend regular college classes at some of the local Catholic colleges and universities. Also, new seminarians who already have a college degree spend a year at the Neumann Residence taking in-house philosophy classes. One Neumann graduate, now in first theology at the major seminary, writes a blog called “Instaurare Omnia in Christo.”)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Final Prayers of Ordinary Time

These last few days of Ordinary time—that is, the week between the feast of Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent—have special meaning for me as a consecrated virgin. The focus on the “last things” and the end to which all Christians are headed reminds me of my vocation to anticipate the heavenly realities of eternity in my life today. Obviously, this is not something which is easy to do (nor something which I have been particularly successful at doing), though I’m humbled and honored to have been called to such a goal. During this period in the liturgical year, the Church reminds us to be watchful and vigilant for Christ’s second coming at the end of time, like the wise virgins in Matthew’s Gospel.

Although many of the recent readings from Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours might seem kind of ominous (and I think they should scare us a little bit, since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”), ultimately I believe they are a call to all the faithful to continue waiting “in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The readings also help prepare us for the season of Advent, where we remember the marvel of Christ’s first coming in the Incarnation.

Here is the second reading from the Office of Readings for the last day of Ordinary Time (Saturday of the thirty-fourth week). It’s a beautiful sermon from St. Augustine on how we are to “conduct ourselves reverently during our sojourn in a strange land.” Emphases, in bold, are mine.

From a sermon by Saint Augustine, bishop (Sermo 256, 1. 2. 3: PL 38, 1191-1193)

Let us sing alleluia to the good God who delivers us from evil

Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security. Why do we now live in anxiety? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when I read: Is not man’s life on earth a time of trial? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when the words still ring in my ears: watch and pray that you will not be put to the test? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when there are so many temptations here below that prayer itself reminds us of them, when we say: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us? Every day we make our petitions, every day we sin. Do you want me to feel secure when I am daily asking pardon for my sins, and requesting help in time of trial? Because of my past sins I pray: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and then because of the perils still before me, I immediately go on to add: Lead us not into temptation. How can all be well with people who are crying out with me: Deliver us from evil? And yet, brothers, while we are still in the midst of this evil, let us sing alleluia to the good God who delivers us from evil.

Even here amidst trials and temptations let us, let all men, sing alleluia. God is faithful, says holy Scripture, and he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength. So let us sing alleluia, even here on earth. Man is still a debtor, but God is faithful. Scripture does not say that he will not allow you to be tried, but that he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength. Whatever the trial, he will see you through it safely, and so enable you to endure. You have entered upon a time of trial but you will come to no harm—God’s help will bring you through it safely. You are like a piece of pottery, shaped by instruction, fired by tribulation. When you are put into the oven therefore, keep your thoughts on the time when you will be taken out again; for God is faithful, and he will guard both your going in and your coming out.

But in the next life, when this body of ours has become immortal and incorruptible, then all trials will be over. Your body is indeed dead, and why? Because of sin. Nevertheless, your spirit lives, because you have been justified. Are we to leave our dead bodies behind then? By no means. Listen to the words of holy Scripture: If the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead dwells within you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your own mortal bodies. At present your body receives its life from the soul, but then it will receive it from the Spirit.

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live for ever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress, however, must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, youwill be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith and right living. Sing then, but keep going.

RESPONSORY (See Tobit 13:17, 18, 11)

Your streets of gold, Jerusalem, will sing with happy song,
– throughout your length and breadth one great cry from the lips of all:

You will shine in splendor like the sun; all men on earth will pay you homage.
–Throughout your length and breadth one great cry from the lips of all:


Lord, increase our eagerness to do your will
and help us to know the saving power of your love.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

– Amen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria

Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, a consecrated virgin and philosopher who was martyred in early fourth-century Egypt. She is a patroness of philosophers and the Dominican Order, and I’m sure she could be considered a patroness for modern consecrated virgins as well—especially for those consecrated virgins who have to wade through a lot of philosophy in graduate school. ;-)

In honor of her feast (and because I have too much homework to write a full post!) here is a great video about St. Catherine from “Moniales OP”:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

St. Ambrose, Recalling His Sister’s Consecration

(About the image: this is the statue of St. Ambrose’s sister, St. Marcellina, which situated above her tomb in Milan.)

Continuing my amateur Patristics commentary on St. Ambrose’s De Virginibus, here is the first chapter of book III. De Virginibus, or in English “On Virgins,” is one of St. Ambrose’s several works addressing the value and practice of consecrated virginity. It was written while St. Ambrose was bishop of Milan, in the year 377 AD.

St. Ambrose wrote De Virginibus in the form of a letter to his sister, St. Marcellina, who herself was a consecrated virgin. (For an interesting article on St. Marcellina, see this post from the archives of the blog, “What Does the Prayer Really Say?”)

In this particular chapter, St. Ambrose reflects on his sister’s solemn consecration to a life of virginity, which she received in Rome at the hands of Pope Liberius (who reigned in the years 352-366).

One thing which makes this chapter especially interesting to me is that it gives us clear evidence that a liturgical ritual for the consecration of virgins existed at least as early as the fourth century. This is significant, because our oldest written copies of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity are found in the Leonine and Gelasian Sacramentaries. And even while these are two of our oldest written liturgical sources, they only date back to the sixth and seventh centuries, respectively.

Also, you’ll notice that this section of De Virginibus is focused more on Pope Liberius’ homily for St. Marcellina’s consecration than it is on St. Ambrose’s commentary. This could be considered an example of what is called a “fragment”—i.e., when discussing ancient authors, often those authors’ complete, original works have been lost to us. But, sometimes we can still have an idea of what those lost works contained, based on surviving quotations (the “fragments”) in works by other authors. So here, although we don’t have a treatise written by Pope Liberius on consecrated virginity, we still have a record of some of his thoughts on the matter.

You can read De Virginibus in its entirety here, on For more of this blog’s discussion on De Virginibus, see my previous posts on the writings of St. Ambrose. Emphases, in bold, and commentary, in red, are mine.

St. Ambrose now goes back to the address of Liberius when he gave the veil to Marcellina. Touching on the crowds pressing to the bridal feast of that Spouse Who feeds them all, he passes on to the fitness of her profession on the day on which Christ was born of a Virgin, and concludes with a fervent exhortation to love Him.

1. Inasmuch as I have digressed in what I have said in the two former books, it is now time, holy sister, to reconsider those precepts of Liberius of blessed memory which you used to talk over with me, as the holier the man the more pleasing is his discourse. For he, when on the Nativity of the Savior in the Church of St. Peter you signified your profession of virginity by your change of attire (and what day could be better than that on which the Virgin received her child?) (This, and some other passages in the Church Fathers’ writings, seem to indicate that in at least some places and time periods during the Patristic era, consecrated virgins did wear distinctive clothing. It’s also interesting to me that St. Marcellina was consecrated on Christmas—the modern Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity indicates that it’s appropriate to celebrate a consecration on a feast celebrating the Incarnation, so apparently this reflects a very ancient tradition.) while many virgins were standing round and vying with each other for your companionship. (I’m wondering if this isn’t a reference to the ancient Rite of Consecration’s equivalent of the two women who accompany a virgin to the sanctuary at her consecration.) You, said he, my daughter, have desired a good espousal. You see how great a crowd has come together for the birthday of your Spouse, and none has gone away without food. This is He, Who, when invited to the marriage feast, changed water into wine. (John 2:9) He, too, will confer the pure sacrament of virginity on you who before were subject to the vile elements of material nature. (The consecration of virgins is not a “sacrament” in the same way as the Seven sacraments—which, incidentally, were not numbered in St. Ambrose’s time. The Latin word “sacramentum” here probably refers more generally to the Rite of Consecration as a being a “sign” or sacred “mystery.”) This is He Who fed four thousand in the wilderness with five loaves and two fishes. (Luke 9:13) He could have fed more; if more had been there to be fed, they would have been. And now He has called many to your espousal, but it is not now barley bread, but the Body from heaven which is supplied.

2. Today, indeed, He was born after the manner of men, of a Virgin, but was begotten of the Father before all things, resembling His mother in body, His Father in power. Only-begotten on earth, and Only-begotten in heaven. God of God, born of a Virgin, Righteousness from the Father, Power from the Mighty One, Light of Light, not unequal to His Father; nor separated in power, not confused by extension of the Word or enlargement as though mingled with the Father, but distinguished from the Father by virtue of His generation. He is your Brother, (Song of Songs 5:1) without Whom neither things in heaven, nor things in the sea, nor things on earth consist. The good Word of the Father, Which was, it is said, in the beginning, (John 1:1) here you have His eternity. And, it is said, the Word was with God. (John 1:1) Here you have His power, undivided and inseparable from the Father. And the Word was God. (John 1:1) Here you have His unbegotten Godhead, for your faith is to be drawn from the mutual relationship. (The above discourse seems like a reference to, or a reiteration of, one of the Creeds. It’s not surprising to me that this discussion of Christ’s nature should be included here, since the forth century was “prime time” for Christological heresies, which virtually all of the Church Fathers labored to refute. N.b., Pope Liberius ascended to the papacy at the height of the Arian controversy (which called into question the divinity of Christ), and was one of the few bishops who refused to sign a letter in condemnation of St. Athanasius.)

3. Love him, my daughter, for He is good. For, none is good save God only. (Luke 18:19) For if there is no doubt that the Son is God, and that God is good, there is certainly no doubt that God the Son is good. Love Him I say. He it is Whom the Father begat before the morning star, as being eternal, He brought Him forth from the womb as the Son; He uttered him from His heart, as the Word. He it is in Whom the Father is well pleased; (Matthew 17:5) He is the Arm of the Father, for He is Creator of all, and the Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30) of the Father, for He proceeded from the mouth of God; (Wisdom 24:3) the Power of the Father, because the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Him bodily. (Colossians 2:9) And the Father so loved Him, as to bear Him in His bosom, and place Him at His right hand, that you may learn His wisdom, and know His power.

4. If, then, Christ is the Power of God, was God ever without power? Was the Father ever without the Son? If the Father of a certainty always was, of a certainty the Son always was. So He is the perfect Son of a perfect Father. For he who derogates from the power, derogates from Him Whose is the power. The Perfection of the Godhead does not admit of inequality. Love, then, Him Whom the Father loves, honor Him Whom the Father honors, for he that honors not the Son, honors not the Father, (John 5:23) and who so denies the Son, has not the Father. (1 John 2:23) So much as to the faith.

—St. Ambrose, De Virginibus; Book III, chapter 1

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Blog Award

Normally, I don’t really participate in blog awards, but I’ll make an exception for this one since it was awarded to me by my long-time friend (and blogging inspiration) Sr. Mary Blogger, VHM—editor of the Georgetown Visitation Monastery’s community blog “Live + Jesus!

Part of accepting the award includes listing six little-known facts about yourself, and naming six other “Gorgeous blogs.” So here it goes:

1. Before I went to earn my bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, I spent three years training to be a professional artist in a fine arts program. (I was a painting major.) Even now, I think if I went back to finish that last year, I could have a B.F.A. It took me two years to earn a Philosophy degree at my new university, only because I was lucky enough to have a lot of my credits transfer—and because I was willing to take four Philosophy courses a semester (on top of a language, which for me was classical Greek).

2. My favorite psalm is psalm 116. Aside from its obvious beauty, I’m not really sure why it has such a particular draw for me, or why it feels like “my” psalm. But I’m always especially moved when it comes up in the Breviary.

3. My patron saint is St. Genevieve of Paris—my real first name is “Jenna,” and my mother chose this as a diminutive form of my grandmother’s name, Genevieve. St. Genevieve was a consecrated virgin who lived during the fifth century, and she is credited with saving Paris from an attack of Attila the Hun through her prayers and fasting. I was consecrated on St. Genevieve’s feast day, January 3.

4. In studying theology, I’m much more of an “Augustinian” than a “Thomist.” I certainly appreciate St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings, but the Summa Theologica just doesn’t make my heart sing the way the writings of the Church Fathers do!

5. I taught myself to say the Liturgy of the Hours by reading the rubrics…for the most part, anyway; I would also button-hole the local parish priests as necessary! I started off when I was eighteen by saying just Lauds, Vespers, and Compline with a copy of “Shorter Christian Prayer.” Then I was able to add one of the daytime hours when Sr. Mary Blogger gave me her old copy of the regular version of “Christian Prayer.” Finally, when I was twenty, I was able to “graduate” to saying the full, four-volume Liturgy of the Hours when our New York Vocation Director gave me the second-hand breviaries of a local religious Sister who had recently entered into eternal life—and these are actually the same books I use today.

6. My petition to receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity was approved just ten days before the Pope came to visit New York. And then I was fortunate enough to attend the Mass for Clergy and Religious in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I often think of this timing as akin to a small miracle!

And now for six other “Gorgeous blogs” worth visiting:

1. Emily, a young aspiring consecrated virgin from Louisiana, writes the blog “Witnessing Hope.”

2. The other “Sponsa Christi”—the Passionist nuns of St. Joseph’s monastery in Kentucky write the blog “In the Shadow of His Wings.”

3. Dawn Eden stopped writing her blog “The Dawn Patrol” just this past summer (much to my disappointment!) but you can still read her archives for insightful commentary on issues relating to Catholicism vis-à-vis contemporary culture.

4. The Redemptoristine nuns of Esopus, New York write the blog “Contemplative Horizon.” Their monastery is located in my archdiocese, and for a long time we had the same Vicar for Religious (who is the one who gave me permission to write this blog—under the condition that I didn’t talk about him! I hope this doesn’t count.) This autumn the posted beautiful photos of the foliage by the Hudson River, which I really appreciated since I’m stuck in Florida for the entire season!

5. Sr. Marla Marie, MSCL is founding the first apostolic Maronite-rite Catholic women’s religious community in the United States. (And, coincidentally, though the smallness of the “Catholic world,” someone asked her to pray for me in the days leading up to my consecration!) Her blog is called “Radiate His Light.”

6. I’m sure that the “Gorgeous blog” award button is MUCH too feminine for the administrator of “Roman Catholic Vocations” ever to consider posting. But I think that this is one of the most helpful blogs for people discerning vocations, so I link to it every chance I have.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Consecrated Virgin Saints of the Early Church

In celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints, I thought I would take this opportunity to share this list of consecrated virgin-saints from the first centuries of the Church. Although consecrated virginity might be viewed as a "new" vocation, I admit that I do enjoy pointing out that we have a list of saints that could rival those of some of the Church's greatest religious Orders! But more importantly, I'm always moved to relflect on the courageous lives of so many of my holy "sisters."

This list is based on the one complied by Fr. Francisco Vizmanos, S.J., in his book Las Virgenes Cristianas de la Iglesia Primitiva (published in 1949 in Madrid, Spain). You can also find a version of this list here on the USACV website.

In his introduction to the list, Fr. Vizmanos notes that these names include only those saints who, based on archeological evidence and reliable traditions, can be assumed to have existed as historical people. (I.e., legandary or apocryphal saints are not included here.) So when a question mark [(?)] occurs after a name, this is only to indicate that there is some doubt regarding the exact city or location in which the consecrated virgin saint is thought to have lived.

The dates given indicate the years in which the saints entered into eternal life. Martyrs' names are in red, and I have put into bold type the names of those saints who are most likely to be familiar to my readers.

Please also note that this list isn't yet complete. I plan to continue updating it throughout the day, or over the next few days. There's no really good reason for this--I'm just a busy graduate student who ran out of time!

Consecrated Virgin Saints of the Early Church
Apostolic Era

Palestine and East Africa:

St. Martha of Bethany + the daughters of Philip the deacon, of Caesarea + St. Marcela of Palestine or Dalmatia (?) + St. Iphigenia of Ethiopia (?)

Near East:

The daughters of Nicholas the deacon, of Antioch + St. Pelagia of Antioch + St. Thecla of Iconium + Sts. Cenaida & Philonila of Tesalia + St. Irene of Byzantium

Italy and Spain:

Sts. Euphemia & Dorothea of Aquileia (?) + Sts. Thecla & Erasma of Aquileia (?) + St. Justina of Padua + St. Flavia Domitilla of Rome + St. Petronilla of Rome + St. Felicula of Rome + Sts. Euphrosina & Theodora of Terracina (?) + St. Polixena of Spain (?)

Second Century

Greece and Italy:

St. Parasceve of Tracia (c. 150) + St. Olivia of Brescia (c. 117-138) + St. Serapia of Syria-Vindena/Umbria (c. 119) + St. Theodora of Rome (c. 132) + St. Balbina of Rome (c. 132) + St. Pudenciana of Rome (c. 160) + St. Gilceria of Rome (c. 177) + St. Praxedes of Rome

France and Spain:

St. Veneranda of Gaul (?) (138-161) + St. Blandina of Lyon (178) + St. Marina of Orense (?) (117-138?) + St. Liberata of Galicia (?) (c. 139) + St. Quiteria of Northern Spain (?)

Third Century

Near East:

St. Reparata of Caesarea (251) + St. Amonaria of Alexandria (250) + St. Apollonia of Alexandria (249) + St. Barbara of Heliopolis, Syria (?) (c. 235?) + St. Aquilina of Biblos, Phonecia (293) + St. Margaret of Antioch (c. 273) + St. Paula of Nicomedia (273) + St. Maura of Byzantium (273)


St. Justina of Trieste (289) + St. Eusebia of Bergamo + St. Mesalina of Foligno (c. 236) + St. Anatolia of Tora (250) + St. Mustiola of Chiusi (c. 275) + St. Domnina of Terni, Umbria (272) + St. Agape of Terni, Umbria (273) + St. Sophia of Fermo (249-251) + St. Taciana of Rome (225) + St. Martina of Rome (226) + St. Cecilia of Rome (229) + Sts. Digna & Emerita of Rome (254) + St. Victoria of Rome (256) + St. Anastasia of Rome (257) + St. Basila of Rome (257) + Sts. Rufina & Segunda of Rome (257) + St. Eugenia of Rome-Alexandria (c. 257) + St. Agripina of Rome (c. 262) + St. Benita of Rome (262) + St. Prisca of Rome (c. 270) + St. Restituta of Rome (270) + St. Susanna of Rome (c. 295) + St. Aurea of Ostia (250) + St. Secundina of Anagni (250) + St. Albina of Formio, Campania (249-251) + St. Agatha of Catania (251) + St. Eutalia of Sicily (257)


St. Restiuta of Ponizara (255) + St. Gundenia of Carthage (203) + St. Irene of Carthage (250)


St. Alvera of Luxeuil + St. Protasia of Senlis (c. 282) + St. Regina of Autun (c. 250) + St. Pascasia of Dijon + St. Julia of Troyes (275) + St. Sabina of Troyes (c. 280) + St. Poma of Chalons + St. Macra of Reims (287) + St. Albina of Paris + St. Honorina of Normandy (c. 300) + St. Valeria of Limoges + St. Eustela of Saintes + St. Solina of Aquitaine + St. Faith of Agen (287)


St. Beata (c. 270) + St. Marta of Astorga (c. 250) + Sts. Justa & Rufina of Seville (c. 287) + St. Columba (273)

Fourth Century

Palestine and Egypt:

Meuris and Teca of Gaza (c. 307) + St. Susanna of Eleutheropolis (c. 362) + St. Isidora of Tabennisi (c. 365) + St. Iraida of Memphis + St. Theodora of Alexandria (c. 304) + St. Potamiana of Alexandria (c. 304) + St. Catharine of Alexandria (310) + St. Sincletica of Alexandria (350) + Sts. Theodora, Theodoxia, & Theopista of Canopo (312) + St. Sara of the Egyptian desert (c. 400)
Asia and Greece:
St. Theodosia of Tyre (308) + St. Justina of Antioch (c. 304) + St. Drosis of Antioch (c. 304) + St. Pelagia of Antioch (c. 306) + St. Febronia of Nisibe, Assyria (310?) + St. Christina of Persia (c. 343) + St. Gudelia of Persia (c. 343) + St. Christina of Georgia + St. Macrina of Pontus (c. 380) + St. Dorothy of Cesarea, Cappadocia (c. 304) + St. Eutochium of Tarsus (362) + St. Parasceve of Iconium (c. 304) + St. Basilisa of Nicomedia (c. 303) + St. Dominica of Nicomedia (c. 304) + St. Euphemia of Chalcedon (307?) + Sts. Menodora, Metrodora, & Ninphodora of Bitinia (306) + St. Anysia of Thessalonica (304) + St. Matrona of Thessalonica (304)
Holy Virgins, Pray For Us!

Monday, October 26, 2009

What Kind of Rings Do Consecrated Virgins Wear?

Here is an enjoyable question I received from a reader recently:

“I have a question about consecrated virgins, if you do not mind. I know that nuns have to wear a ‘wedding’ ring to signify their spiritual marriage, and normally it is a ring that signifies the Order they belong to. What about consecrated virgins? I know they wear rings but are they plain bands? What do you wear? I hope this is not a silly question, I’m just genuinely curious!” —Vesper

Thanks for your question, Vesper!

Actually, not all nuns (and I’m assuming that you mean women in all forms religious life, and not just those Sisters who are considered “nuns” in a strict technical sense—i.e., cloistered Sisters who make solemn vows.) are required to wear “wedding” rings. Like many of the more minor elements of religious life, there is a great deal of diversity among the various Orders and congregations in their traditions surrounding this. And sometimes even in different monasteries of the same Order, the nuns do not always have identical practices regarding rings.

And, the specific details about which communities do and don’t wear rings might surprise you. Some of the more “traditional” women’s communities do not wear wedding rings, even if they otherwise have a strong emphasis on “Bride of Christ” imagery. E.g., I don’t think that the Nashville or Ann Arbor Dominicans wear rings—readers who may know more than I do about these two communities are welcome to correct me on this if I’m wrong. But at the same time, many non-habited religious communities still attach a lot of significance to the rings they wear and to their customs in presenting or receiving rings. (There’s an interesting discussing about this here on the blog “A Nun’s Life.”)

I believe there are a few communities which used to wear rings but stopped after Vatican II, even while retaining a fairly conservative habit. On the other hand, I know of one congregation of Sisters (who are and have always been habited) who only just began to wear rings as a result of their community’s response to the second Vatican council.

However, all consecrated virgins wear rings as a sign of their spousal relationship with Christ. Just as in an earthly marriage, the ring is a sign that she has made a permanent commitment to another Person. In the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, immediately following the consecratory prayer itself, the presiding bishop places a ring on the newly-consecrated virgin’s hand with the words:

Receive the ring that marks you as a bride of Christ.
Keep unstained your fidelity to your Bridegroom,
that you may one day be admitted to the wedding feast of everlasting joy.

The ceremony for the giving of the ring is a non-negotiable part of the Rite of Consecration. A similar ritual can be, but is not necessarily, included in the rite for religious profession, since the Church gives individual religious communities a great deal of freedom to follow their own customs and traditions regarding things like vow formulae, special blessings, and the presentation (or non-presentation) of insignia such as rings.

From a historical perspective, I believe the custom of women religious receiving a profession ring actually originated from the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. Since the earliest nuns were also consecrated virgins, they probably would have received their rings at their consecration. And it seems that the custom of receiving a ring endured in many monasteries, even as the Rite of Consecration fell widely out of use. Religious Orders and congregations which developed in later periods—such as the mendicant Orders of nuns like the Poor Clares, Reformation-era Orders like the Discalced Carmelites, and the modern congregations of active Sisters like the Daughters of Charity—may have kept the custom of a profession ring as an imitation of the Rite of Consecration, or perhaps as a intuitive reflection of the rite. (I think the same process might have been at play regarding the tradition of consecrated women wearing veils, since consecrated virgins were invested with veils long before religious life existed. But that’s a topic for another post!)

If a nun or religious sister does wear a ring, she often receives it during her final or solemn profession, as this represents the point at which she has definitively chosen to follow our Lord in the consecrated life. I think that within most communities, all of the Sisters’ rings are probably of the same style and design. But I’m not sure that this is intended as a way to identify the community to which she belongs—although this sort of “easy identification” is part of the purpose of a religious habit. Instead, I think a shared ring design is probably meant to represent the Sisters’ unity in their common life and vocation, ect.

As far as consecrated virgins are concerned, for the most part we choose and obtain our own rings, which are later presented to us during the Rite of Consecration. (Although I personally think that it might be a nice gesture if, eventually, the diocese actually supplied consecrated virgins’ rings, or if they “recycled” the rings of consecrated virgins who had already entered into eternal life. But I haven’t heard of these things happening anywhere as of yet.)

So basically, each consecrated virgin can decide what kind of ring she will have. But although presently there aren’t any official guidelines about this, I do think that consecrated virgins’ rings should be kept simple, for a few reasons:

First, although consecrated virgins do not make an explicit vow of poverty, it seems to me that entering into any public state of consecrated life obliges one to live very simply. And this “spirit of evangelical poverty” should truly affect every aspect of your life—right down to what kind of ring you wear.

Likewise, we should keep in mind that consecrated virgins are marrying the same Jesus who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7); who was “a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity” (Isaiah 53:3); and who had “nowhere to rest His head” (Luke 9:58) during his earthly ministry. And my thought is that something like a humongous diamond, rare gemstones, or anything similarly “over the top” would probably not be the best reflection or reminder of this!

Also, while naturally I believe it is totally and completely appropriate to refer to a consecrated virgin as a “Bride of Christ;” I think it’s also good to keep in mind that consecration to a life of virginity is ultimately more similar to a betrothal than it is to a honeymoon. In a very important sense, the REAL wedding feast is the moment when a consecrated virgin finally meets her Spouse face-to-face. So in order to resist confusing the “already” with the “not yet,” I feel that it’s best for consecrated virgins to avoid extravagance in all things pertaining to their consecration, including their rings.

As for me, my ring is a plain silver band. But around the outside, it has an inscription from the Song of Songs: “Ego dilecto meo et dilectus meus.” (Song of Song 2:16) Usually, this translated into English as: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

One funny story about my ring: At the reception right after my consecration, everyone of course wanted to see my ring and to know what the inscription said. One priest—who can read in Latin probably as well as I can read in English—for some reason just couldn’t figure it out! He kept reading and re-reading the inscription and muttering things like, “Umm…is that in the ablative case?” But, it seemed like every single consecrated woman there, whether they were a consecrated virgin or a religious Sister, knew exactly what it meant as soon as they saw it!

This is a photo of me holding a (hatched!) lizard egg in the palm of my hand. But it’s also the best close-up picture I have of my consecration ring.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Vocations Website for the Diocese of Raleigh, NC

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina just launched an excellent new diocesan Vocations website last month: And, they included a page on consecrated virgins!

As far as I know, this is the first diocesan vocations website in the country to give consecrated virginity such a prominent place.

Special thanks to Brad Watkins (administrator of the “Roman Catholic Vocations” blog) and the Diocese of Raleigh Vocation Office for inviting me to write an article on consecrated virginity for their website. As always, I’m specially grateful to those who help make this vocation better understood and appreciated.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Feast of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus

Here is today’s second reading from the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours, taken from St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography, The Story of A Soul. Although this section is already quite well-known, I thought I would still reprint it here for the benefit of my readers who may not have seen it before.

Even though St. Thérèse was only twenty-four when she died (the same age as I am now—hard to believe!), she was fairly recently named a “Doctor of the Church.” This title is bestowed on canonized saints who have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the faith. Usually, Doctors of the Church are renowned scholars, like St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine. Yet St. Thérèse, who never studied any academic theology, was given this honor because she contributed so greatly to Catholic spirituality. (Emphases, in bold, are mine.)

In the heart of the Church I will be love

Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of St. Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the 12th and 13th chapters of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.

I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.

When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognized myself in none of the members which St. Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.

Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.

Concluding Prayer:

God Our Father,
you have promised your kingdom
to those who are willing to become like little children.
Help us to follow the way of St. Theresa with confidence
so that by her prayers
we may come to know your eternal glory.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Some Questions from a Reader

Even if I can’t always answer and post them in as timely a fashion as I would like, I’m always happy to take questions from readers. Here’s one I received about a month ago:

“Thank you for your honest advice on the consecrated life. I am 23 years old and know that for health reasons marriage is—unfortunately—not a realistic aspiration. I am committed to living the spiritual life of a consecrated virgin even if I never receive the title. I am curious about the particulars of possessing the title. I am wondering what it means—practically speaking—when in the rite of consecration the young woman promises to ‘serve God and the Church.’ Does the bishop have certain expectations of her besides faithful and joyful service in whatever job she possesses? Does he check up on her regularly? Also, how was it possible for you to be consecrated at so young an age? I was under the impression that you had to be at least 25 for the bishop to consider your case. Thank you again!” —Niki

Dear Niki,

Thanks for your questions and I’m glad you like my blog! While I’ll do my best to be helpful here, it’s actually somewhat difficult to give simple and universally applicable answers to your practical questions, because as of right now the Church has issued very few official directives regarding the concrete details of the daily lives of consecrated virgins.

Our primary source of authoritative information about the vocation of consecrated virginity lived “in the world” is the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself, along with similar liturgical sources such as the Ceremonial of Bishops. In terms of non-liturgical magisterial writings, we have one canon (can. 604) in the most recent Code of Canon Law. There are also a few paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and some brief mentions in the documents Vita Consecrata and Apostolorum Successores.

But as you have probably noticed, these sources tend to deal with consecrated virginity in a more abstract way—i.e., they describe the theological foundations of this vocation, but they don’t always give us guidelines as to the ways in which these theological foundations are to be concretely expressed. Obviously, the theoretical theology behind consecrated virginity is crucial to understanding it as a state in life, and I would even venture to say that it’s sufficient for discerning a vocation. But by itself it might not be enough to answer all the practical questions that could be asked about the most appropriate way to live one’s vocation to consecrated virginity.

For example, from the Rite of Consecration and the other documents I mentioned, we know that consecrated virgins are properly called “Brides of Christ” and that they are called to pray the Liturgy of the Hours for the needs of the Church. These things are very clearly defined, and are therefore not up for dispute by anyone. Yet this alone doesn’t tell us what other (if any) ways a consecrated virgin should pray, or what else she could be doing in order to manifest her vocation most fully.

For instance, you could certainly present some extremely strong arguments that consecrated virgins should set aside time for private prayer, have some sort of theological formation, live in a spirit of evangelical poverty, et cetera; but strictly speaking, in an objective sense you could also legitimately disagree that consecrated virgins are required to do these things insofar as the universal Church has not explicitly defined them as obligations for consecrated virgins.

My thought that this lack of specific, concrete directives for consecrated virgins is due to the fact that this is still a relatively “new” vocation. Although the Order of Virgins flourished in the early Church, for about a thousand years the Rite of Consecration was only made available to woman living in cloistered monasteries. This didn’t change until the revised Rite was promulgated in 1970. And even today, consecrated virgins living in the world are still somewhat rare.

Therefore, in my opinion I don’t think that consecrated virginity as a vocation has been widespread enough for the Church’s legislators to have the practical knowledge necessary not only for answering certain specific questions, but even to understand fully what questions should be asked in the first place! Yet do keep in mind that this situation could be completely different in ten or twenty years, as consecrated virginity as a vocation becomes more widespread. (And to put things in perspective, consider the fact that although the priesthood was instituted while Christ still walked the earth, it took the Church over 1500 years to develop anything like our modern seminary system for priestly formation.)

However, even if the universal Church has not provided much specific direction regarding the day-to-day concerns of consecrated virgins, an individual diocesan bishop does have the power to determine authoritatively the concrete ways in which the consecrated virgins of his diocese will live their consecrated lives. This is indicated in the introduction to the Rite of Consecration itself,* and is strongly implied in the other above mentioned documents.

So even if the Church has not (or at least not yet) explicitly named particular set of practices or mode of living as a universal norm for all consecrated virgins everywhere, a consecrated virgin may still be bound to do or observe these things if her bishop specifically asks her to. E.g., the consecrated virgins of a particular diocese may be required to make a silent retreat every year—despite the fact that as of right now Canon Law says nothing one way or the other about annual retreats for consecrated virgins—because their bishop decided that this was an appropriate condition under which they should live consecrated lives.

Similarly, each bishop is free to adopt within his own diocese whatever policies seem most suitable to him regarding the formation of consecrated virgins, the standards for accepting candidates for consecration (this would include things like age limits), the frequency of their official contact with the diocese, the nature of their service to the local Church, and so forth. While knowledgeable individuals, or organizations such as the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins (USACV), are free to have opinions or to make recommendations about such things, ultimately these recommendations become mandatory or authoritative for a consecrated virgin if and only if her own bishop deliberately chooses to accept them as normative in his diocese. A bishop’s freedom to determine these issues within his diocese would only change if the Vatican decided introduce a new universal requirement or practice, or to present an official clarification of a vague or disputed point.

For example, in their literature on formation the USACV states several times that a candidate for consecrated virginity should have a spiritual director—an objectively good idea which seems like common sense to me, and hopefully to everyone who reads this blog. But since Canon Law is actually silent on this point, technically an aspiring consecrated virgin is not strictly required to have a spiritual director UNLESS: 1.) her bishop himself makes having a spiritual director a precondition to receiving the Rite of Consecration, or 2.) her bishop decides specifically to set the USACV formation literature as the standard for the candidates under his own jurisdiction.

So basically, Niki, the answer to all your questions is “it depends on the bishop!”

But since I know that’s not really a satisfying answer, I’ll try to address your points based on my own experiences:

“I am curious about the particulars of possessing the title...”

In a nutshell, the main difference (at least on an exterior level) between actually receiving the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity and simply living the lifestyle of a consecrated virgin is that the former involves a public commitment and a change of your canonical state in life.

It’s difficult to explain briefly all the implications of what this means, especially in trying to describe some of the spiritual aspects of such a distinction. But basically, in making a private vow of virginity, your vocation remains essentially between you and God. When you become a consecrated virgin through reception of a public rite, your vocation “belongs” in some sense to all of God’s faithful people who make up the Church.

While living in a public state of consecrated life presents one with a greater opportunity for serving the Church and witnessing to the Gospel, it also comes with more challenges, obligations, and responsibility.

“How was it possible for you to be consecrated at so young an age?”

I was permitted to receive consecration at age twenty-three because the people who were directly involved with my formation determined that I was mature enough to be capable of making a lifetime commitment and that I had a sufficient understanding of what a life of virginity entailed. And on my part, this was an age when I felt “ready.”

I think that right now in my archdiocese, the age for consecration is determined on a case-by-case basis. But when I first began discerning this vocation in 2004, there was a local policy that all candidates had to be at least thirty-five years old! Although now I would assume that the Archdiocese of New York is generally open to younger vocations for consecrated virginity.

In the early Church, the age for consecration varied from place to place and in different time periods. But since the promulgation of the revised Rite of Consecration in 1970, the universal Church has set neither an upper nor a lower canonical age limit.

“Does the bishop check up on a consecrated virgin regularly?”

When I’m away at school, I usually write to the Vicar for Religious (who acts as the bishop’s delegate in situations like mine) in my archdiocese once every month or two, or whenever I have a question or concern that I feel needs to be addressed. We also try to meet in person whenever I’m home on a break, and also right before I leave to start a new semester.

In terms of meeting with the Ordinary himself, in New York we really don’t have a “system” in place yet, since our new Archbishop was appointed fairly recently.

“Does the bishop have certain expectations of a consecrated virgin besides faithful and joyful service in whatever job she possesses?”

All consecrated virgins are ordinarily required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. In New York, consecrated virgins are also asked to attend daily Mass. Consecrated virgins are generally expected to spend time in private prayer as well, but exactly how much or what kind is left to the discretion of the individual consecrated virgin, in conversation with her confessor or spiritual director. I always try to take a personal spiritual retreat every year (making my own individual arrangements and plans about where I’ll go), and as far as I know the other consecrated virgins in New York do this as well. But I’m actually not sure that this is strictly required of us, since it’s something I would have done anyway.

In the Archdiocese of New York, the Vocation Office also asks the local consecrated virgins to pray especially for our seminarians. But I don’t think that this will ever be made into a formally binding request, because the New York consecrated virgins are already more than happy to do this.

“What does it mean—practically speaking—when in the Rite of Consecration the young woman promises to ‘serve God and the Church?’”

Right now in New York, this is another thing that’s decided on a case-by-case basis, in the context of an on-going dialogue with the Vicar for Religious. Since there are presently only four consecrated virgins, including myself, who are actively associated with the Archdiocese of New York, this allows for a lot of one-on-one discernment as to how an individual consecrated virgin can best manifest her vocation to be “dedicated to the service of the Church.” (Sometimes I’m tempted to joke that consecrated virginity is the vocation you continue to discern after you discern!)

But speaking for myself and about my own consecrated life, I do hope to work for the Church in some direct and full-time capacity after I finish my theological studies. Although at this moment I don’t know exactly what form this will take—right now, my future is in the hands of Providence.

*The exact phrase I’m thinking of is: “It is for the bishop to decide on the conditions under which women living in the world are to undertake a life of perpetual virginity.” It can be found in the general introduction (i.e., the introduction before the two specific rites for nuns and for women living in the world) to the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, on page 158 of my copy of vol. II of the “Rites” book. But it’s not in the link I provide to the Rite of Consecration, because this link only gives you the Rite of Consecration specific to women living in the world, which unfortunatly doesn’t include the “general” introduction. However, I do think that many phrases in the Rite of Consecration for Women Living in the World express the same idea, though perhaps not in quite as explicit and unambiguous a manner.