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.


Pachyderm said...

This was a really interesting post! Thank you for being so candid about this. It was interesting to hear that the consecrated virgin is probably the only vocation in the church that isn't currently defined by 7000 rules and requirements!

May God's grace blow on all your ways.

Anonymous said...

Great post, as always. The lack of structual definition is challenging, yet it provides great opportunity. As a lay person, my goal is to try to have my life emulate Christ's life and I guess that would be more so for a consecrated virgin. Of course, I often fall short, but I always strive towards the goal or being more Christ like - helping others, especially the needy, the "least of my brethern".

Being in the world, the consecrated virgin has the opportunity to witness to others in simple, yet extrodinary ways. I work with RCIA and I have had many converts tell me they decided to become Catholic because of what they observed of the behaviors of particular Catholics - how kind, how patient, or how selfless they were. That shows that how we treat people on the job or in life can have a profound effect on achieving the Kingdom on earth. The president of the United States organization of Consecrated Virgins is an accountant and she has related stories of how her treatment of others on her job has had a positive impact on those people.

So, I guess that a part of a consecrated virgin's life, in addition to prayer, would be some sort of ministry.

Sponsa Christi said...


Well, since there are only 1,752 canons in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, I suppose you could say that not even the Roman Catholic Church has 7,000 rules! ;-)

And of course, Canon Law has the famous closing line: “…the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.”


Thanks for your thoughts. It is tremendously important for all Christians to be good witnesses to the Gospel, and I think this is especially true in regard to consecrated virgins. But as I’m sure you already know, it’s more easily said than done!

In my opinion, I do think that it would be good if we had at least a few more official “rules” for consecrated virgins—even if for no other reason than to provide some objective standards by which we can discern how well we’re really living our vocation to consecrated life. For me personally, this ambiguity is one of the greatest challenges of my vocation.

But, as I tried to explain in my post, things like this do take time. The Holy Spirit doesn’t rush, and He isn’t bound to our human idea of a good time-table!