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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Back to School

(About the photo: Self-portrait with a palm tree. It’s not the best picture, because I took it with a cell phone. My mom says I look like some sort of missionary here—which inspires me to remember all the generous sacrifices made by the (real!) missionaries in the Church’s history whenever I’m tempted to complain about the Floridian heat and humidity.)

Sorry for the slow posting. I’ve been busy traveling and studying since the beginning of the Fall semester two weeks ago. For readers who don’t know me in real life, I’m presently in my second year of the two-year Master of Arts in Theology program at Ave Maria University near Naples, Florida.

It looks like it should be a good year, with interesting studies and classmates who are great people. But I admit that I do get homesick (although a few people back home have joked that Florida does have its fair share of seasonal residents who are native New Yorkers—so I wonder if this makes me the country’s youngest “snowbird?”). And I’m not altogether fond of this sub-tropical climate, thought I’m sure I’ll appreciate it in November.

In case you’re curious about the practical details of studying out of state while being a consecrated virgin: I’m still a consecrated virgin of the Archdiocese of New York, despite the fact that as I write this I don’t plan to be physically present within the archdiocese again until Christmas break. While every year I write to the local bishop or his Delegate for Consecrated Life to inform him about my presence here in the Diocese of Venice, I still officially “answer to” the Archbishop of New York, and I continue to keep in touch regularly with the New York Vicar for Religious’ Office.*

And of course, in accord with my vocation I continue to pray for the needs of the Archdiocese of New York daily. This includes praying for our Archbishop, our auxiliary bishops, the clergy, seminarians (the NY Vocation Office makes very sure that I remember them—they even send me a list of their names so that I can pray for them specifically), people discerning vocations, and all the “people in the pews.”**

Also, I try to keep in mind that my studying now will someday help people in my Archdiocese whom I may not have met yet—something important to remember when you’re a full-time student, since the fruits of your efforts at this particular period in your life aren’t always readily apparent. As happy as I am to be studying Theology, this can make it seem somewhat frustrating at times. Seminarian readers will know what I’m talking about! ;-)

About the photo: I had a chance—providentially—to meet Bishop Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, FL (the Ordinary for Ave Maria) after he celebrated the Mass for the opening of the academic year. This photo actually made it into the Naples Daily News!

*Although if a consecrated virgin moved to another diocese permanently—something which I personally don’t intend to do—then it would be a different situation.
** But keep in mind that even though I take special care to pray for New Yorkers, they certainly aren’t the only ones for whom I pray!

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11

“Seven-and-a-half years ago, on September 11, 2001, New Yorkers gave a lesson of extraordinarily generous courage to the world. Selfless police officers, fire fighters, and emergency medical personnel, saved lives, and many gave theirs. Their sacrifice was an ecumenical, inter-religious civic testimony to the worth of every human person. You did us all proud, and now how proud I am now to partner with all of you in that same spirit…”

— from Archbishop Dolan’s homily at his Mass of Installation
April 15, 2009
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City