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.”)