Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas 2010

1. Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung!
From Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
Amid the cold of winter
When half spent was the night

2. Isaiah ‘twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind
With Mary we behold it,
The Virgin mother kind
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to us a Savior
When half spent was the night

3. The shepherds heard the story
Proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of Glory
Was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped
And in the manger they found him,
As angels heralds said.

4. This Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From Sin and death he saves us,
And lightens every load.

(And now, more singing seminarians…)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Consecrated Virginity versus Private Vows

(Image: St. Catherine of Siena, a great saint who is popularly called a “consecrated virgin living in the world,” but who was actually a third-Order Dominican who professed a private vow of virginity.)

Some of the kinds of questions I’m asked most frequently, whether through email or in real life, have to do with the differences between the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity and the profession of a private vow of virginity.

Often, consecrated virginity and private vows are identified with each other—or sometimes even considered to be the same thing! However, on a theological and canonical level, reception of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity is very different from the profession of a private vow.

Consecrated virginity, like religious life, is a public state of consecration; whereas a private vow of virginity (or celibate chastity) is, by its very nature, private.

But what does this actually mean?

Basically, a state of consecration is “public” when it is recognized as being so by the proper authority in the institutional Church (for a consecrated virgin, this would be the bishop of her diocese; for a nun or religious Sister, this would be the legitimate major superior of her community). If a commitment to celibacy or virginity is NOT officially recognized in this way, then it is considered “private” or personal.

Perhaps in contrast with the more colloquial usage of these two terms, “public” and “private” commitments to perpetual virginity have less to do with how many people witness or are aware of such a commitment, as it does with whether or not that commitment was formally accepted in the name of the Church. For example, a consecrated virgin who had only the bishop present at her consecration (or a religious whose profession of vows was attended by only her superior and the required two witnesses) would still be a publically consecrated person. However, even if a woman were to make a private vow of virginity in front of hundreds of people, with her picture and her story printed in the diocesan newspaper, this would not make her private vow into a public one according to the way in which the Church uses these two terms.

Yet with all this being said, it’s also worth noting that in almost all circumstances the Church usually does intend public vows or consecrations to be “public” in the more common sense of the word. I.e., the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity and the Rite of Religious Profession both explicitly state that the faithful should be invited to attend both these rituals, and publicly consecrated persons are for the most part expected to be open about their special identity within the Church.

Conversely, those who have made private vows are generally advised not to present themselves as though they were publically consecrated persons, which in many cases can mean that they are discreet about their commitment to the evangelical counsels.

In other words, we could say that entrance into a public state of consecrated life not only involves God and the person to be consecrated, but also the Church’s magisterium and the entire visible body of Christ. But on the other hand, a private vow is essentially a matter which is for the most part between God and the individual soul.

Understanding the nature of liturgy and public consecration

From my point of view, one helpful way of understanding the difference between public and private commitments to the evangelical counsels is to reflect on the similar difference between public and private forms of prayer—that is, between the Church’s liturgy and personal devotions.

In the Catholic Church, the Divine Office, the Mass, the Sacraments, and other rites (such as the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, the rite for the consecration of a Church, the blessing of an Abbot or Abbess, ect.) are all considered liturgy. By definition, liturgy is the public, official prayer of the Church. This means that those who are engaged in praying the Church’s liturgy aren’t speaking to God in their own name as much as they are speaking to God on behalf of the Church herself. They pray, not in their own voice, but with the voice of the Church.

For instance, even while it is certainly to be hoped that Catholics who recite the Liturgy of the Hours will interiorize the psalms, canticles, and other prayer to the point where they can be said truly to “make them their own,” the Liturgy of the Hours isn’t intended as a reflection of the interior state of any one individual.

Likewise, the holy sacrifice of the Mass isn’t “about” the particular spiritual life of any one priest or parish, which is why the prayers and rubrics can’t be changed by anyone except the Holy See—even if there was a situation where an individual priest sincerely felt that an alteration to prayers of the Mass would make the liturgy subjectively more “meaningful” to his particular community.

In contrast to this, private or devotional prayers are prayers wherein we do speak to God in our own name, in our on voice, and on our own initiative. Private prayer is any prayer which is not an official prayer of the Church, and this category includes everything from silent meditative or contemplative mental prayer, to highly structured devotions such as the Rosary or the Divine Mercy chaplet.

Unlike liturgy, which is intended as a formal corporate praise of God (and which, in the case of the Sacraments, is something which makes Christ present to us in a primarily objective way), private prayer can and should be reflective of, or tailored to, our personal interior life.

For example, all Catholics are required to attend Mass at least once a week whether or not they find it emotionally fulfilling, and they can benefit spiritually from the reception of the Sacraments regardless of whether or not they feel any sensible consolation in them. But Catholics in general are NOT required to participate in devotional prayers which they don’t subjectively experience as being personally helpful.

Also, in many cases devotional prayers, since they are considered private or non-liturgical prayers, can be freely modified according to the particular spiritual needs of the people in a given situation. (This is one reason why there are so many minor variations of how to say the Rosary.) And of course, if we’re engaging in something like silent meditation or making a Holy Hour, most of the time we should try to share with the Lord those things which truly are in our own hearts, instead of to make our conversation with Christ fit a pre-fabricated pious formula.

But even though private devotions aren’t the Church’s official prayer, this doesn’t mean that they are not worthwhile or valuable with respect to our relationship with God. While the Church doesn’t mandate set devotional prayers, she does encourage them insofar as they assist the faithful in developing a more fervent and affective prayer life, or in fostering a greater understanding of certain Christian mysteries (such as the Pascal mystery or the mystery of the Incarnation).

Because of this, private prayer should not be looked down upon as being somehow “not real prayer” because of its non-liturgical character. Whether we’re praying in the name of His Church or on our own behalf, God hears and appreciates all of our petitions, our efforts to adore or thank Him, and our acts of repentance. To further illustrate this point, it would be absurd to suppose that God would ignore a cry for help from one of His children simply because the request wasn’t included in the general intercessions of the Mass, or that God would fail to be pleased by a spontaneous act of praise.

Yet at the same time, it’s important that we respect the special nature and dignity of liturgical prayer. When we participate in Mass, the Sacraments, the Divine Office, or any other liturgical ritual, it’s important that we be aware of the fact that we are involved in something much larger than ourselves. While certainly we should be as personally, interiorly engaged in liturgy as is possible for us in our own circumstances and stage of spiritual maturity, liturgical prayer is something fundamentally outside of ourselves.

Therefore, in liturgical situations, we should strive to conform ourselves to the Church’s prayers, as opposed to regarding our individual spiritual needs as the standards to which the Church should cater.

For example, the Sacrament of Baptism is a call to a new life in Christ which comes from an authority external to us. It is NOT our way to express the feelings of renewal which we have had from a conversion experience. This is not to say that these feelings need to be altogether ignored (certainly, one should take the time to thank God for His gift of consolation in this instance), but only that the Church’s public prayers are neither the appropriate vehicle nor the appropriate context for such self-expression.

Likewise, public states of consecrated life—which are inherently liturgical—should never be seen as pertaining solely to the interior life of an individual. A vocation to a canonical form of consecrated life originates from God and is first perceived by the individual soul, but it is confirmed and mediated by the authority of the visible, institutional Church.

This is not the case with a private vow of celibacy or virginity. A woman who makes a private vow of virginity may in all likelihood be responding to a genuine inspiration of the Holy Spirit; however, this importation would be considered and entirely private, personal, and interior matter, which the institutional Church will not take upon herself to confirm formally.

Discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity versus private vows

Like devotional prayers, private vows are considered personal responses to individual spiritual needs. Because of this, the Church does not impose any obligations (besides those to which all the baptized are bound) upon the privately vowed, since private vows pertain only to the individual soul’s interior relationship with God. While the Church looks favorably on the practice of professing private vows insofar as it helps certain members of the faithful to grow in holiness, the Church does not consider the privately-vowed to be “consecrated” according to Canon Law.

This does NOT mean that a private vow is any less “real” than a public form of consecration; a private vow can in many cases be on, a subjective level, as much (or more!) of a self-gift to God as the self-offering which occurs during the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. A private vow of perpetual virginity is still a serious promise made to God, which should not be taken lightly.

On the other hand, a vocation to consecrated virginity (or religious life, or any public state of life within the Church) can never be simply “between Jesus and me.” A consecrated virgin is consecrated through the ministry of the Church by means of a public prayer of the Church. Her vocation doesn’t “belong” to her as much as it belongs to the entire people of God.

As a result, a consecrated virgin is called to bear an especially radical Christian witness, to represent the Church in a more explicit way, and to be more directly and intimately involved in furthering the Church’s mission. Because of the public nature of her vocation to consecrated life, she needs to go “above and beyond” the common baptismal consecration to Christ.

With this in mind, in my OPINION, generally speaking a woman may have a vocation to consecrated virginity if she:

- feels a definite, specific call to live and be known as a spouse of Christ with an explicitly “bridal” spirituality;
- feels called to a life of public witness, and is willing and able to be open about her vocation at all times and with everyone she meets;
- feels a special attraction to the Liturgy of the Hours, and is willing and able to recite the Divine Office every day;
- feels called to live a demonstrably “consecrated” lifestyle, and is willing and able to live in the spirit of evangelical poverty and obedience;
- feels called to devote her life to work which directly advances the Church’s mission;
- feels special spiritual bond with the local Church, and is willing and able to spend her life at the service of God’s people within the diocese where she is to be consecrated;
- is emotionally well-balanced, in good mental health, and has adequate social skills (i.e., she could have lived community);
- is willing and able to learn and to be open to formation.

On the other hand, my thought is that simply making a life-long, private vow of virginity would be a better course of action for a woman who:

- feels called to live as a spouse of Christ, but in a subtle, more “under the radar”-type way;
- OR feels that her own individual call to be a bride of Christ is meant to be a essentially a personal matter between herself and the Lord, and thus something which should involve only a very minimal degree of formal structure or official recognition;
- OR feels a special call to “evangelize the world from within” as a “hidden leaven” in the midst of secular society;
- OR feels called to offer her heart entirely to Christ, while at the same time using her gifts to strive for excellence within a purely secular career;
- OR feels that her primary vocation (i.e., that around which she is to order her life and base all her major decisions) is to some particular apostolic work, and therefore sees a spousal relationship with Christ as a somewhat “secondary” vocation, but who still desires to offer herself to Christ in a way that excludes human marriage;
- OR feels that her primary vocation, or at least a majorly significant component of her call to be a bride of Christ, is membership the secular third Order of a religious community (quick fact: St. Catherine of Siena actually was NOT a consecrated virgin, but was instead a lay third-Order Dominican who made a private vow of perpetual virginity).

Because private vows are, in essence, a wholly personal and individual response to the love of God, there are as many ways to live out a private vow of virginity as there are souls who are called to profess one.
And as a side note: since the profession of a private vow can legitimately be viewed as being primarily oriented towards the personal consolation of an individual soul, a woman can make a private vow of virginity in whatever way is most helpful to her. For example, a woman could promise her virginity to God when she’s alone in her room and without telling anyone; OR she could make a private vow in a Church, while wearing wedding dress, with all her family and friends as witnesses, and then celebrate with a party afterwards.

So even while consecrated virginity is often misunderstood as being something like a more elaborate or an “official” private vow, nothing could be further from the truth. Consecrated virgins must be consecrated by a bishop according to the specific liturgical rite approved by the Church, and I believe that in their subsequent consecrated lives they are obligated to place the good of the Church even above some of their subjective affective spiritual needs.

And finally, my thought is that the Church has a right to expect certain things from her consecrated virgins (such as intercessory prayer, a life of service, and a specifically “consecrated” witness); whereas the only thing the Church can ask of a privately-vowed woman is that she, along with the rest of the baptized, continue to grow in holiness.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


In honor of Gaudete Sunday, here is a clip from a recent “Lessons and Carols” concert of the seminarians from the St. John Neumann residence in Yonkers, New York:

The Neumann seminarians gave several other performances at different parishes around the Archdiocese as a fundraiser to help defray the costs of traveling to World Youth Day in Spain in 2011. Not only was the music beautiful, but it was tremendously encouraging to see so many fine young men seriously discerning priesthood here in New York.

The St. John Neumann residence is the college seminary of the Archdiocese of New York. The men of Neumann either work towards bachelor’s degrees at local Catholic colleges or take in-house Philosophy classes in preparation for their four years of theologate (major seminary).

You can see other clips of “Lessons and Carols” on the St. John Neumann residence’s YouTube channel. (And If you happen to be interested offering financial support for the New York seminarians’ World Youth Day trip, you can contact the Neumann vocation directors/formation advisors via their Vocations website.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cardinal Burke on St. Cecilia

I’m a little late in posting this, but better late than never!

After the most recent Consistory, the newly-established Raymond Card. Burke’s celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving at the North American College, a residence for American and Canadian seminarians studying in Rome. Coincidentally, the date of this Mass happened to fall on the feast of St. Cecilia. Here is the first part of the (lengthy but quite worthwhile) homily, which I found to be particularly moving for me in my vocation as a consecrated virgin.

There’s also a good article on Cardinal Burke’s Mass of Thanksgiving at the St. Louis Review, and you can read the full text of the homily in several places online, including here and here.

Comments in red and emphases in bold are mine.

Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving on the occasion of the Ordinary Public Consistory, November 20, 2010 - Memorial of Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and for ever. Amen.

Saint Cecilia whose memory we celebrate today was a wise virgin who carefully provided oil for her lamp, so that when her Lord came, He found her waiting and ready to meet Him with her lamp burning brightly. We know little about her life, but, from tradition, we know the essence of her heroic holiness. She was a young Roman maiden, who was raised in the Christian faith.

She, in fact, developed so strongly in her love of our Lord, through prayer and penance, that she resolved to offer her virginity to Our Lord as a perpetual gift, that is, to espouse our Lord alone as her Bridegroom for ever. Contrary to her resolve, her father insisted that she marry a certain pagan by the name of Valerian, but, on the day of her wedding, we are told that “amid the music and rejoicing of the guests, Cecilia sat apart, singing to God in her heart and praying for help in her predicament.”

One imagines that she was praying the words of the Psalms according to the ancient chant of the Church, which developed organically from the chant used in Jewish worship and continues today to be singularly suited to the raising of our minds and hearts to the Lord. (I think here Card. Burke might be referencing modern consecrated virgins’ vocation to recite the Liturgy of the Hours.)

The Lord heard her prayer, made even more pure and beautiful because it was offered to Him in sacred song. Through the help of an angel, her new husband was converted to the faith and received Baptism at the hands of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Urban. Having come to life in Christ through Baptism, Valerian fully respected Cecilia’s virginal consecration. With Saint Cecilia, he rapidly grew in pure and selfless love, and soon gave, with her, the supreme witness of total and faithful love of our Lord by accepting a cruel martyrdom for the faith.

In the life of Saint Cecilia, we see fulfilled, in a most striking manner, the promise of our Lord’s immeasurable and ceaseless love of all men, without exception, the divine love which we celebrate most fully and perfectly in this Eucharistic Sacrifice. Our Lord promises His holy people: “I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:19-20)

Our Lord called Saint Cecilia to espouse Him in love, to offer to Him her virginity, her whole being. Saint Cecilia responded with all her heart, placing her heart completely into the glorious pierced Heart of our Lord. In the Sacred Heart of Jesus, her love was purified and strengthened, so that the witness of her virginal love reached its fullness with the crown of martyrdom. The pure white of her love as a virgin found its consummation in the courageous scarlet of her love as a martyr for the faith.

The life and martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, in the few details which have come to us, like the life of every consecrated virgin, teaches each of us the reality of Christ’s love in our lives, a love which invites us to espouse Him, to be one in heart with Him in loving one another as He loves us, purely and selflessly.

Saint Cecilia, by her virginal consecration, teaches all of us the way in which Our Lord is calling us to give ourselves to Him and to His Mystical Body, the Church, and to all men, in love, whether we are called to lifelong, faithful and fruitful love in the married life, in the dedicated single life, in the consecrated life or in the priesthood. (As probably most of my regular readers know, Cardinal Burke was formerly the episcopal moderator for the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins when he was a bishop in the U.S.A. Although I respectfully disagree with some of his interpretations of canon 604, I’m very grateful for his efforts to foster a greater appreciation of the theological and ecclesiological value of consecrated virginity.)

On her feast day, we ask Saint Cecilia to pray for us, so that each of us will remain steadfast in responding to our vocation in life, so that we will never fail to provide oil for our lamps, so that, each and every day, Our Lord will find us waiting and ready to welcome Him, with our lamps burning brightly. We pray, through the intercession of Saint Cecilia, that Our Lord will find us always ready to give our hearts completely to Him.

Providentially, our celebration of the memory of Saint Cecilia coincides with the day on which we offer to our Lord the Holy Mass in thanksgiving for the Ordinary Public Consistory, held on this past Saturday, during which our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI created new Cardinals to assist him in his shepherd’s care of the universal Church. The distinctive vesture of the Cardinal, the scarlet biretta and cassock, uncover the meaning of the position to which he is elevated.

The purity and selflessness of the Cardinal’s love of the Church, to whom he, as a priest, is espoused in a way analogous to the consecrated virgin, must be further purified and strengthened, in order that, in the words of the Successor of Saint Peter at the imposition of the cardinalitial biretta, the Cardinal may show himself to be “intrepid, even to the shedding of his blood for the building up of the Christian faith, the peace and harmony of the People of God, and the freedom and the extension of the Holy Roman Church.”*

The Cardinal has a particular bond with the virgin martyrs. They are a sterling example to him of how he is to love Christ and the Church, while, at the same time, they intercede powerfully for him, so that he may be a sign to the faithful of our Lord’s ceaseless and immeasurable love, “to the end,” (John 13:1) to the very outpouring of His life for us, on Calvary, His Sacrifice made ever present for us in the Holy Eucharist.

* This is a quote from Pope Benedict XVI at this past Consistory

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Prayer Request

Please remember in your prayers Philip Johnson, a seminarian from the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina. Philip—who is a “diocesan brother” of one of my best friends from college—is fighting inoperable brain cancer. Bishop Michael Burbidge of Raleigh has requested that his entire diocese pray a novena to the Immaculate Conception on Philip’s behalf.

Here is the novena (which is a beautiful way to begin Advent, by the way), in case any blog readers would like to “jump on”:

Father all-powerful and ever-living God,
You chose the Immaculate Virgin Mary,
the mother of your Son, to be the mother and help of all Christians.

As she endured her bitter agony
at the cross of her Son, she was consoled by you
with the hope of His resurrection.

Now, in heaven
she consoles with a mother’s love all who turn to her with faith,
until the day of the Lord dawns in glory.

(The Memorare:)

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
That never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection,
Implored your help or sought your intercession,
Was left unaided.

Inspired with this confidence,
I fly to you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother;
To you do I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful

O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
Despise not my petitions,
But in your mercy hear and answer me.

(We Pray:)

O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
We are filled with confidence that your prayers on our behalf
Will be graciously heard before the throne of God.
Bring our seminarian, Philip Johnson, healing, peace, courage and strength
As he shares in the suffering of your Son.
O Glorious Mother of God,
In memory of your joyous Immaculate Conception,
Hear our prayers and obtain for us our petition.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Feast of St. Cecilia

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, an early consecrated virgin and martyr, whose name is one of the many included in the Roman Canon (a.ka. Eucharistic Prayer I). Her memorial is the first of a series of consecrated virgin saints’ feast days which will continue throughout the winter months.

Although St. Cecilia was a consecrated virgin “living in the world”—which makes her one of my spiritual “sisters”—she is also the patroness of the Nashville Dominicans, as well as (I believe) a patroness for second Order cloistered Dominican nuns.

And so, shamelessly “borrowing” from the Nashville Dominicans’ vocation website, here is a brief but lovely biography of today’s saint:
Cecilia’s story is well guarded by long-standing tradition, which presents to us a young Christian girl with an undying faith in an era when faith was an unpopular and dangerous virtue. Born to pagan parents, and perhaps converted through the instrumentality of a Christian nurse, Cecilia was raised in a noble Roman home during a time of persecution.

We are told that, according to custom, Cecilia’s parents arranged for her to marry a young patrician named Valerian. Cecilia, however, had already vowed her virginity to God, desiring to root herself even more deeply in her Baptismal consecration. On her wedding night, she resolutely explained her vow to Valerian, whose initial anger and confusion were transformed into conversion under the influence of his wife’s strong faith and the instruction of the Christian bishop. Valerian and Cecilia subsequently helped to convert Valerian’s brother Tiburtius, and the three became known for their works of charity and their lives of Christian virtue.

Though arrested and threatened with execution because of their practice of Christianity, Valerian and Tiburtius refused to deny their faith. They were cruelly martyred, but not before they had succeeded in converting their executioner, who had been profoundly affected by the steadfast example of the other young men. Cecilia’s arrest soon followed. Despite the fact that the Roman prefect attempted to persuade her toward more “politically correct” behavior, Cecilia refused to submit. After a failed attempt to suffocate her in a heated bath in her own home, an executioner was sent to behead her.

Three blows mortally wounded Cecilia, yet failed to kill her immediately, and she survived for three days. We are told that, even in her dying condition, she continued to offer the witness of a vibrant faith, hope and charity that would not die. Cecilia bequeathed her possessions to the poor and her home to the Church, to be used as a house of worship.

In 821 A.D. Pope Paschal I had Cecilia’s body removed from its burial place in the Catacomb of St. Callistus—where it was found incorrupt—and reinterred under the altar in the Basilica of St. Cecilia. Almost seven centuries later, in 1599, the titular bishop of the basilica, wishing to enlarge and decorate the structure, excavated beneath the altar and opened Cecilia’s coffin as well as her husband’s. All present were deeply moved when they saw Cecilia’s body, still perfectly incorrupt, lying on her right side as naturally as if she were asleep. The sculptor Stefano Maderno was commissioned to carve the saint in this position of her martyrdom.

To His glory, He who is glorified in His saints would not allow “His beloved to know decay” (Psalm 16)—a sign to all virgins consecrated to Christ, of their Spouse’s enduring love. ... Cecilia’s music is the eternal heavenly call, which sounds in the soul despite the noise and pressures of the world, inspiring the bride to an unshakeable vow of love even unto death.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Archbishop Dolan on the Communion of Saints

(Image: Christ as the vine with many braches, cf. John 15:5.)
In honor of today’s Solemnity of All Saints, here is the most recent post from Archbishop Dolan’s blog, “The Gospel in the Digital Age.” Emphases, in bold, are mine.
The Greatest Family of All

If it were not so sad, it would only evoke the response of a yawn. I’m talking about the most recent Hollywood star who was “raised a Catholic” but now, as an “enlightened, liberated” adult, has shed his or her faith for some toney, exotic “New Age” movement. I watched her tell the talk-show host how she had left the faith of her family because it left her so “isolated” and “out of touch” with the cosmos. Seems her new religion is big on the “inherent harmony of the universe,” which provides a valuable sense of unity for her. She finds it provides her a real feeling of closeness to all of those who have gone before her and are now in eternity, and a union with all her brothers and sisters throughout the world who share her belief.

This is new? Was she home with the measles when the Catholic doctrine of the communion of saints was covered in her religion class? We Catholics have believed in this “inherent harmony of the universe” for two millennia, and at the heart of our faith is a sense of union with God, with the faithful departed, with the saints in heaven, and with all of our brothers and sisters in the Church throughout the world.

Of course, this wonderful doctrine of the communion of saints comes to mind these pleasant days of fall. November 1st is All Saints Day, as we praise God for all those citizens of heaven, all members of the “Church triumphant” who now reign with Christ the King in paradise. On November 2nd we observe All Souls Day, as we remember with reverence and gratitude those who have died, whether they are now with Jesus in heaven, or await their goal of heaven as they undergo a period of purification in purgatory, members of the “Church suffering,” who deserve our prayers. We on earth then comprise the “Church militant,” as we continue to persevere in grace, fighting the ancient enemies of sin, Satan, and selfishness.

Thus, we belong to the greatest family of all, the communion of saints, and are intimately united to all who share residence in the household of the faith. The limits of time and space fade away in this deep unity, and never do we feel alone or isolated. All creation is in harmony under Christ the King, whom we hail the last Sunday of this month of November.

I can only pray that our friend in Hollywood rediscovers this ancient doctrine of the Church, and that we of the “Church militant” use this upcoming month of November to honor the saints, pray for the dead, and savor the sense of communion with Christ the King and all His disciples which comes from belonging to the Church.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Dress Code for Consecrated Virgins?

Here’s a comment from reader on this post, which I received back in July:

“If consecrated virgins are to live a life that is readily identifiable as consecrated, what about their appearance? Should they wear some kind of habit, or at least have a dress code? While some consecrated virgins I know dress very simply and appropriately, others follow the fashions including make-up, jewelry, even immodest styles, or sloppy jeans and T-shirts.” —Curious

While questions of what to wear certainly aren’t the most profound or significant issues with which I have to contend in my life as a consecrated virgin, figuring out how to dress in a way appropriate with respect to my vocation isn’t totally unimportant, either.

For one thing, since I do have to get dressed every day, the question of what to wear is a necessary one, as it’s impossible to avoid. Also, what we wear does say something to the world about who we are and how we see ourselves. Hopefully it goes without saying here that clothes don’t make the man (or the woman). But because it is a kind of self-expression, our choice of clothing does merit at least some consideration.

First, a few words about the “elephant in the room” in any discussion on consecrated virgins’ clothing—consecrated virgins “living in the world” and religious habits:

I actually don’t think that non-monastic consecrated virgins should aspire to wear “habits” per se, because a habit is a mark of membership in the spiritual family of a religious Order or congregation. That is, I don’t think that consecrated virgins should attach a lot of importance to specific articles of clothing in the way that, for example: Dominicans and Carmelites treasure their respective scapulars; Franciscans wear a knotted cord cincture, or the way that some congregations (e.g., the Redeptoristine nuns or the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters) have a tradition of wearing a specific color in honor of the particular Christian mystery around which their charism is centered.

Unlike members of religious communities, the spirituality of consecrated virgins isn’t rooted in any one particular set of historical circumstances (other than the foundation of the Church, that is!) or in the unique spirituality of a particular founder or foundress. So I don’t think it would be correct for consecrated virgins to have a practice of dressing in a way which was reminiscent of a particular time in history in such a way that specially highlights any one specific spiritual devotion or mystery of the faith.

Additionally, while of course consecrated virgins should strive to foster amongst themselves a sense of sisterhood in their common vocation, consecrated virgins aren’t bound to each other in the same strong sense as nuns and religious sisters are. Therefore, I think that the family-type relationship expressed by a common habit is something truly proper only to religious life, or perhaps also other communal forms of consecrated life.

However, all other things being equal and considering the question in the abstract, I would be in favor of consecrated virgins wearing some kind of distinctive clothing, or possibly even distinctive clothing which was uniform within a given diocese. (The difference between a proposed diocesan-wide distinctive “uniform” for consecrated virgins and a habit properly so-called would I think be very similar to the difference between a religious habit and the clerical garb worn by diocesan priests and religious priests who aren’t in habit. I.e., a clerical collar and a cassock or black suit marks the wearer as a priest, but not as Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite, ect.)

Also, I personally think it would be wonderful if it became an established custom for consecrated virgins to wear some sort of veil as part of their every-day attire. On a theological level, I think it would be especially fitting for consecrated virgins to wear veils because of the rich symbolism behind such a practice; because the veil is an ancient and venerable insignia of the Order of Virgins,* and because the reception of the veil is a part of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity.

Contrary to popular belief, and while obviously there are no authoritative documents which suggest that consecrated virgins should wear be required to wear “habits,” the Church has also never stated anywhere that consecrated virgins are forbidden from wearing distinctive clothing which identifies them as consecrated persons.

Right now, the question of identifying garb is left entirely to the discretion of the local Ordinary. In other words, it is completely up to individual bishops to decide if the consecrated virgins in their respective dioceses will wear special clothing, and I believe that the bishop would even have the right to require that the consecrated virgins under his care wear distinctive garb. (In fact, apparently few bishops in the United States, such as Bishop Jenky in the diocese of Peoria, Illinois, actually have asked that the virgins consecrated in his diocese wear veils full-time.)

I think that, in many cases, it would be most fitting for consecrated virgins—who have, after all, freely entered into a PUBLIC state of consecrated life—to wear distinctive, identifying garb, because of the value of such a visible consecrated Christian witness to the modern Church. As mentioned in countless articles and reflections such as this one and this one, people today are often hungry to see obvious reminders that the Holy Spirit still inspires men and women to offer their entire lives to Him.

Yet at the same time, regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that (aside from my ring the mantilla I started wearing to Mass after I was consecrated) I myself do not presently wear any distinctive clothing. My reasoning for this is that, since consecrated virginity is still in some sense a very “new” vocation, there are legitimate pastoral concerns to be taken into account—concerns which I feel outweigh my theoretical ideas on the preferable garb for consecrated virgins “living in the world.”

Namely, due to the widespread popular understanding of consecrated virginity—or more accurately, the lack thereof—right now I’m inclined to err on the side of discretion to avoid confusing the faithful in an unhelpful way.

However, I don’t think that it’s totally unrealistic to imagine that in several years time the pastoral situation might be different in such a way where consecrated virgins wearing distinctive garb would be generally considered a wholly helpful influence in the life of a diocese.

Given this, for me personally the bottom line is that: I’m very open to the idea of wearing a veil or some kind of “habit.” But, I don’t presently have any plans to do this in the foreseeable future. So for at least the time being, I do have to pick out my own clothes in the normal way.

Admittedly, I have found it a bit challenging at times to determine the best way to dress as a non-habited but publicly consecrated woman. The following portion of this post reflects my own ideas about this, and is the fruit of my individual discernment on the matter (which is open to on-going refinement, by the way). It represents my thoughts on the best practical approach to a totally practical question, and NOT anything like a restatement of an official Church doctrinal teaching.

Therefore, while I hope that some consecrated virgin- or aspiring consecrated virgin-readers find this helpful, please feel free to disagree with me in the comment box! I would be very interested to hear how other consecrated virgins (or candidates) have dealt with the issue of how to choose one’s day-to-day clothing.

In a nutshell, I feel that it is important for consecrated virgins to dress in such a way which could be described as modest, simple, tasteful, and practical:

Modest – Of course, all Catholic women are supposed to dress modestly, but I think that I would be justified in saying that consecrated virgins are ordinarily called to take modesty one step further than Catholic laywomen. Not only are consecrated virgins called to dress in such a way so as not to distract the men around us, but the clothing we wear should convey the clear message that we are not romantically available to any mortal man on this planet.

For me specifically as a consecrated virgin (and please note that I am not, not, NOT trying to define the appropriate standards of modesty for Catholic women in general—that’s one minefield I’ll best leave to other bloggers!), this means that I follow all the obvious guidelines: I would never wear anything skin-tight, see-through, midriff-bearing, blatantly provocative, or any permutation of “underwear as outerwear.”

Beyond this, all my skirts are knee-length or longer; and all my shirts, dresses, and tops cover my shoulders. I don’t wear any low- or lower-cut shirts, even those which wouldn’t seem immodest on my mother or sister. My clothes aren’t really baggy, but I don’t think I would ever wear anything truly form-fitting.

Simple – I also think that consecrated virgins should have simplicity as their “look.”
In addition to choosing clothes which celebrate the virtue of chastity, I think it’s just as important for consecrated virgins to dress in a way that reflects a spirit of evangelical poverty.

Speaking for myself, I never wear any jewelry besides my consecration ring and a small silver cross necklace. I don’t use cosmetics or wear any makeup at all, unless you count colorless moisturizer and lip balm in the winter. My hair is long, but besides keeping it clean and trimmed, I don’t do anything special to it and I try to arrange it as simply as possible. The things I use to put my hair up or tie it back are strictly utilitarian—I don’t use fancy barrettes or hair ornaments of any sort.

I also tend to favor clothing which is white, dark, or in muted colors, though I do have a few exceptions in my closet.

When I was younger, I used to love to wear skirts with bold floral prints. I still wear these once in a while (though I find myself feeling less and less comfortable in them), since I generally try to wear my clothes until they wear out. But now, whenever I have to buy new clothes, I stick to solid colors or occasionally some very simple prints such as small dots or pinstripes. In other words, I try to avoid giving the impression of having brilliant plumage!

I’m not against buying wardrobe staples (like shoes or a suit jacket) which are slightly more expensive if they’re well-made and will last for many years. However, as a rule, I don’t think that consecrated virgins should spend lot of money on clothes. For us, shopping should NOT be a recreational activity; and if we’re drawn towards flashy or designer clothes then something is wrong.

Also, we should be careful not to buy or accumulate more than we actually need. For example, women in general (at least in the United States) are notorious for collecting a lot of shoes and handbags. I think this is fairly harmless for most women, but it is hardly appropriate for a consecrated virgin. Speaking for myself, I try not to have more than one purse and one or two pairs of shoes at one time. My own personal rule of thumb for looking presentable while owning fewer clothes is to buy ONLY things that are easy to mix-and-match, and which will never go out of style (which usually means that they were never truly in style in the first place!)

Since modest and simple clothes are so hard to find these days, I wouldn’t have a problem “stocking up” if I came across something like a sale of really practical items. But, in my opinion consecrated virgins should not buy clothes just for fun. We need to be able to determine the difference between needs—even if these needs are just in the foreseeable future—and wants, and then buy our clothes accordingly.

Tasteful – Consecrated virgins are public representatives of the Church, and so beyond dressing modestly and simply, I think it’s also important that we dress in a way that would readily be regarded as presentable, appropriately feminine, and elegant (albeit elegant in a very plain way).

For me, “presentable” means that we as consecrated virgins should always try to look clean, neat, and “put together,” whenever we leave the house. This doesn’t mean that I don a business suit just to run out to the grocery store, but I think it does mean that whenever we go out in public we should always dress with the appropriate level of formality and “polish” (in accord with the particular occasion) which befits someone who lives her life as a “sign” or “icon” of the Church.

Also, since the vocation of consecrated virgins is a specifically feminine one (consecrated virginity is actually the only state in life within the Catholic Church which is categorically off-limits to men), and since we’re thus called to relate to Christ and His people in a specifically feminine way, in our choice of clothing we shouldn’t try to hide the fact that we are women! In my mind, dressing in a purely androgynous fashion is hardly helpful to our efforts to serve as a witness of Christ’s love for His Church. And I believe it is possible to look feminine without being immodest or extravagant in one’s dress.

For me in my own life, the desire to appear feminine influences my clothing choices in a number of ways too subtle to write about in great detail. But basically, I try to look for clothes that fit well while still being modest, and which, while being simple, are still aesthetically pleasing and reasonably attractive. There’s no sense in wearing un-flattering clothes just for the sake of wearing something un-flattering; even religious habits are envisioned as being something “at once poor and becoming.” (See Perfectae Caritatis, 17.)

Also, while I often wear blue jeans when I’m doing housework or when I’m relaxing at my parents’ house with just my immediate family present, I generally put on a dress or a skirt whenever I go out in public.**

Finally, although I certainly don’t believe that consecrated virgins should invest time or resources into keeping up with current trends in the secular fashion world, I still think that we should make a point to dress with class and relevancy. I.e., we shouldn’t come across as eccentric. While our modesty and simplicity should be notable, I also think that we should dress in such a way that even a well-meaning non-believer would feel comfortable approaching us.

Our clothing should convey maturity, intelligence, and competence or professionalism. It should also make it clear that we had enough sophistication to have renounced the glamour of the world by means of a free, deliberate choice—as opposed to, say, having adopted a modest and simple lifestyle out of fear or naïveté. On a concrete, practical level, I think this would mean that consecrated virgins should avoid things like: shapeless ankle-length denim or plaid jumpers, nineteenth century-style prairie dresses, long dresses homemade out of floral quilting fabric, muumuus or housedresses worn as street dresses, et cetera.

Practical – And in all of these considerations, common sense should reign supreme. If we as consecrated virgins are going to spend our days hard at work building up the local Church, we need clothing which will be comfortable and study enough to allow us to do our work well. I think it’s also important that most of our clothes be fairly simple to maintain, so that our wardrobe doesn’t demand too much of our attention.

Also, individual consecrated virgins need different clothes depending on their individual circumstances. E.g., a consecrated virgin who works in a diocesan office would probably need more formal business-type clothing than a consecrated virgin who worked in a soup kitchen or taught at an elementary school. If a consecrated virgin’s apostolic activity involved attending a lot of fundraisers or formal dinners, she might need to find something which, while being modest and simple, could pass as an evening dress. Yet for many other consecrated virgins, it would be terribly superfluous to own anything even resembling cocktail attire.

The climate and local cultural expectations in a consecrated virgin’s home diocese is another consideration, since it’s important to dress in way that is practical and appropriate for one’s surroundings. Even just within the United States, what works well in one region of the country might look out of place and be unduly uncomfortable in another.

For example, at home in New York, I love wearing black—it’s simple, dignified, and matches everything. But over the past few years I learned the hard way that black is NOT a friendly color in south Florida! It’s too hot to wear for most of the year; the harsh sun invariably fades it to some shade of brown, gray, or navy blue; and compared to all the loud, bright colors that people in the Miami area tend to wear, wearing black clothing makes it look like you’re in mourning for a close relative (really—I’ve encountered this particular misunderstanding personally before).

Anyway, that’s my two cents! Once again, comments on this post from other non-habited consecrated women are most welcome.


*In fact, I believe the reason that women religious typically have a veil as a part of their traditional habit is because of the historical overlap between the Order of Virgins and the earliest forms of monasticism. So you couldn’t say that I think modern consecrated virgins should wear veils to act more like religious Sisters—rather, it would be more accurate to say that nuns starting wearing veils in the first place because this was the custom of consecrated virgins!

** But this is emphatically NOT intended to echo the “Great Pants Debate of 2010.” I most certainly do not think that pants are intrinsically immodest; and to me it seems ridiculous to propose that it might somehow be inherently sinful for women to wear slacks. All I’m trying to say here is that in my own personal OPINION, skirts are a better “look” for consecrated virgins living in the world.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Feast of St. Teresa of Jesus

In honor of today’s memorial of St. Teresa of Avila, here is “St. Teresa’s bookmark,” one of my favorite quotes from this Doctor of the Church:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you;
All things pass away.
God never changes.
He who has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

And here is the original Spanish:

Nada te turbe,
nada te espante;
todo se pasa,
Dios no se muda.
La pacientia todo lo alcanza.
Quien a Dios tiene nada la falta:
solo Dios basta.

(And as a side note to regular readers: I have a few full-length posts almost ready to publish. Thank you all for your patience, good wishes, and prayers as I take the time in my “real life” to learn the ropes of my new job.

Also, this past week I sent out, via email, the finished copy of my M.A. thesis to—I hope—everyone who requested it. If you asked for a copy, but did not recently receive one, email me a reminder at: [at] gmail [dot] com.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

New Job…

(Image: Jesus blesses the children, as described in Matthew 19:14.)

…or should I say, new apostolate?

The reason for my recent blog silence is that I recently took a position as Director of Religious Education at a small parish in Orange County, New York (one of the “upper counties” of the Archdiocese), in a village which is about a forty-minute drive from my hometown.

There are about two-hundred children in my after-school and evening catechism program, in first through eighth grades.* I also have a team of about twenty catechists, who all seem to be really dedicated Catholics and lovely people!

Even though I am thinking that I will probably go back to school again at some point (possibly for a Canon Law degree), right now I’m overjoyed to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” in such a direct way. It’s a real privilege to be able to spend my days helping people come to know Jesus Christ.

But while obviously I’ve been pretty busy lately, I do plan to keep up the blog. Regular posting will resume shortly. In the meantime, please say a prayer that we have a great upcoming year in my parish’s Religious Education program!

* International readers: first through eighth grades covers children from six to fourteen years old.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Archbishop Dolan on the Assumption

Here is Archbishop Dolan’s column for the feast of the Assumption. It was first printed in the August 12, 2010 issue of our archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York.

Emphases, in bold, and comments, in red, are mine.
Of Harvests, Earthly and Eternal

It’s harvest time! One of my most cherished times of the year...

The tomatoes, corn on the cob, cherries, peaches, watermelons, and cantaloupes are in from the farms on Long Island, the upper counties (i.e., the northern counties of the Archdiocese of New York—where I’m from!) and New Jersey. I can’t get enough of them. And even my physician, who’s hung up on my weight, can’t gripe, because all of these fruits and vegetables of the harvest are good for me!

This is the way the Creator intended His good earth to be used: to be cultivated tenderly by devoted hands, and to produce a bounty to feed His creatures. This is the purpose of His good earth.

Yes, it’s harvest time...

No wonder we now celebrate the touching feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, this Sunday, August 15, right-smack-dab in the middle of the harvest.

For Mary is God’s harvest. She exemplifies what God has in store for all of us when we come to fruition.

Our Father created us for a garden, but we ruined His plan. The first Adam and Eve defiled the garden, and God’s harvest had to be delayed.

The Second Adam—Jesus—and the new Eve—His mother, Mary—ushered in a return to the garden and the first fruits of a lavish harvest.

Mary is the fruit of God’s harvest. She is the “produce,” a hint, a promise, of what the Divine Gardener intends for us all. (To a different extent, consecrated virgins—as well as consecrated celibates in general—are also living as “first fruits.” In choosing to renounce the joys of human marriage in order to love God with “an undivided heart,” consecrated virgins start living NOW the same kind of life which all the faithful will have in heaven.)

Because, when her earthly life was ended, God brought her both body and soul to be with Him forever in heaven. She’s already “ripe and picked.” That’s what we call her Assumption.

We’ll have to wait for a while. Yes, when our earthly journey is over, we hope—through God’s mercy and the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus—our immortal souls will be united with the Lord for all eternity.

But it’s still not the final harvest, because God wants us, soul and body, to live with Him forever in heaven, like Our Lady.

That eternal harvest will come at the end of time.

Lest we get discouraged, lest we get tired of waiting on the vine to be picked by the Lord, lest we get fatigued battling the weeds, birds and rabbits, God reminds us what He has in store for us. As Mary, by her humble obedience and perfect discipleship, is a model of how we are now to live here in the garden, so is she an example of what we’ll be at the end of time: eternal happiness in heaven, body and soul with God.

The joys of that eternal harvest at the end of time will be infinitely more enjoyable than even those wonderful tomatoes, corn, cherries, peaches, watermelons and cantaloupes we savor in August.

A blessed Feast of the Assumption! Enjoy this season of harvest, and keep your eyes on the final one, where Jesus and Mary, the first fruits, await us.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Seven New Novices for the Sisters of Life!

It’s always a joy to see religious communities flourish in your home diocese! Here is a photo of the newest novices for the Sisters of Life, sent to me by Archdiocesan Vocation Director Fr. Luke Sweeney.

(The new novices, left to right, are: Sr. Virginia Joy; Sr. Annunciata Maria; Sr. Cecilia Rose; Sr. Avila Marie; Sr. Mariana Benedicta; Sr. Mary Sophia; and Sr. Faustina Maria Pia.)

The Sisters of Life are an apostolic congregation of women religious founded in the Archdiocese of New York in 1991 by the late archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor. Through prayer and various apostolic works, the Sisters of Life support women in crisis pregnancies and strive to foster a culture where human life is respected and reverenced.

Please remember these new novices in your prayers!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Defining Consecrated Life

Some of the questions I receive most frequently, both in real life and in emails, have to do with the difference between consecrated virginity and a private vow of virginity, celibate commitments within lay movements, or membership in a Third Order.*

The short answer to all these questions is that consecrated virginity, like religious life, is a public, canonically recognized state of consecrated life. In contrast, members of lay movements and those who have made private vows—while they might be living a dedicated lifestyle with many similarities to canonically consecrated persons—are not formally considered to have entered into what the Church officially recognizes as “consecrated life.”

This of course does NOT mean that those who have made commitments outside of canonically recognized forms of consecrated are not in fact responding to a genuine call from God, or that they aren’t called to become saints in their own way of life. But it does mean that the fundamental nature of their vocation is different from that of persons who are officially considered to be “consecrated.”

The essential elements of consecrated life

This brings us to the question of how “consecrated life” properly so-called can be identified and defined.

Naturally, questions regarding the technical canonical status of members of lay movements presuppose that the Church already has a well-articulated theology on the precise nature of consecrated life. But in fact, the nature of “consecration” as a state in life is one of the more ambiguous areas of ecclesiology. (This may perhaps be largely because, as the Church understands the consecrated life and its continued growth and development as a more or less direct gift of the Holy Spirit, the institutional Church was laudably reluctant to burden its expressions with an overabundance of regulations.)

However, it would seem that the Church still does maintain that several elements are absolutely constitutive to the consecrated life:

1. Observance of the evangelical counsels

The most obvious essential element of consecrated life is the embracing of the evangelical councils. In Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the consecrated life is frequently defined as “the state in life which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels.” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 914)

The evangelical counsels are traditionally held to be, and are described in Canon Law as, poverty, chastity, and obedience. (cf. canons 599-601.) While there is a wide variety among the various forms of consecrated life of acceptable ways in which the counsels of poverty and obedience may be observed on a practical level, a common thread which runs through all forms of consecrated life is the “obligation of perfect continence in celibacy” (can. 599)

And in a sense, celibacy as the common foundation is significant and has particular spiritual value, in that celibacy freely chosen “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” not only has the most explicit scriptural roots, but also serves as the original historical foundation for the development of all the subsequent particular forms of consecrated life.

2. A permanent commitment to the evangelical counsels

The Catechism also specifies that it is not only the observance of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but “that it is the profession of these counsels, within a permanent state of life recognized by the Church, which characterizes the life consecrated to God.” (Emphasis in the hard-copy printed original—see also online CCC 915.) It is only by a free and deliberate commitment to the evangelical counsels, made with the intention of permanently undertaking the subsequent obligations, that an individual can be identified as being in a canonically “consecrated” state of life.

But it does not seem that this should be taken to mean that a formula for profession vows explicitly mentioning poverty, chastity, and obedience is strictly necessary in order for an individual to enter into a truly consecrated state. If this were the case, Benedictine monks and nuns, and Dominican nuns and friars, for example, would not be rightly considered “consecrated” since the vow formulae of their respective Orders mention neither poverty nor chastity directly.

Rather, it seems that in requiring the profession of the evangelical councils, Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are simply stipulating that all consecrated persons must make a public and permanent commitment to a way of life which is in accord with a radical living of the three named evangelical counsels in a real, even if implicit, sense.

Conversely, any proposed form of consecrated life which would seek to “exempt” itself categorically from observing either poverty, chastity, or obedience in at least some concrete manner, would drastically undermine its status as a true form of canonical consecration.

3. Official recognition by the visible, institutional Church

Finally, one other qualification for a way of life to be properly considered “consecrated” is that it be formally acknowledged by the Church as such. This is indicated by the same paragraph in the Catechism, which states that a consecrated person must profess the evangelical counsels within the context of “a permanent state in life recognized by the Church.” (My emphasis.)

Individuals can not be considered “consecrated” according to Canon Law unless they are officially regarded as being so by the institutional Church, regardless of their subjective level of holiness or the loftiness of ideal to which they aspire.

Because of this, it would be creating a false dichotomy to hold the charismatic nature of the consecrated life (i.e., the aspect of defined by the inspiration towards total self-giving which is imparted directly by the Holy Spirit to consecrated persons) as somehow being opposed to the governing hierarchical nature of the magisterium. These two “poles” of the Church—which are even not without overlap—are profoundly inter-related; the consecrated life is given its visible association with the mission of Christ only through its relationship to the successors of the Apostles.

But, are there “de facto” or “lay” forms of consecrated life?

Yet despite these non-negotiable requirements, it is at times proposed that other radical ways of following Christ should be regarded as being true forms of consecrated life.

Examples of these could include:

- single or married members of the new lay ecclesial movements, such as the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Focolare, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, or Regnum Christi;

- dedicated celibate members of these movements (including Opus Dei numeraries and the “consecrated” women of Regnum Christi);

- married or privately-vowed celibate members of secular Third Orders (such as Lay Dominicans, Secular Franciscans, or Secular Discalced Carmelites);

- families associated with the charismatic movement who deliberately live within close proximity to each other so as to enjoy some kind of community life (such as the People of Hope in New Jersey);

- “lay monasteries” comprised of married persons, single persons, and families with children, all living in common;

- “consecrated widows” in the Latin Rite;

- men and women who choose to live an eremitic lifestyle privately, on their own initiative, and without any formal episcopal approval;

- people who commit to a particular way of life associated with an organized apostolic work, such as members of the Catholic Worker, Lamp Ministries, or L’Arche movements;

- individuals who simply profess a private vow of celibacy or virginity, either on their own or under the guidance of a spiritual director.

None of these ways of life are properly considered “consecrated” according to the Church’s technical understanding of the term, because they either lack an appropriately full observance of the evangelical counsels (such as in the case of married members of lay ecclesial movements), or an explicit profession of the counsels (as in the case of L’Arche members or lay hermits), or public recognition from the Church in their chosen was of life (such as those who are privately vowed to a life of celibacy).

Individuals who fit into one of these categories are often referred to, or refer to themselves, as “lay consecrated.” However, used in this context, “lay consecrated” is not a canonical term,** and my own personal opinion is that the use of this phrase should be discouraged for pastoral reasons of not confusing the faithful.

While those who would call themselves “lay consecrated” in the sense indicated above may in fact be living Christian lives that are subjectively as fervent as—or perhaps even more fervent than—that of those who are consecrated according to Canon Law, they nevertheless do not have the same specific place in the Church as those who are in a publicly-recognized state of consecrated life.

What is special about the vocation of consecrated persons?

Publicly consecrated persons have the specific vocation of bearing witness to the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ and to the reality of eternal life.

By freely renouncing marriage and many of the good things associated with earthly life, consecrated persons show the world that Christ alone can satisfy all the longings of the human heart. They also dramatically profess their belief in the Resurrection, and even more basically, in the existence of God—in other words, they “bet their life” that there is more to our existence than the here-and-now material world.

In doing this, consecrated persons are called to serve as a kind of “window” to the supernatural world. Because they live on earth as if they were already in heaven, where the saints “neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels,” (Matthew 22:30) consecrated persons could be said to have the vocation of making heaven tangibly present to us on earth.

Consecrated persons, in their total devotion and self-gift to Christ, are also called to serve as an especially vivid reflection of Christ’s bride the Church. In this way, the prayer of consecrated persons is in a special sense the voice of the Church herself; and the apostolic activity of consecrated persons is in a particular way an expression of the Church’s maternal care for her children.

Could it be possible that a person who is not technically considered “consecrated” might also be able to do these things? The answer is yes…and no.

“Yes,” because of course all Christians are called to be eschatological witnesses to at least some extent. Even the absolute minimum required of a faithful Catholic is enough to orient one’s life dramatically towards the reality of heaven. It could also theoretically happen that an individual was not technically “consecrated,” in the sincerity of his or her devotion, may in actual fact be a more convincing witness than many canonically consecrated persons.

Additionally, our categories consecrated life shouldn’t be used to constrain the Holy Spirit. If a well-balanced, non-consecrated layperson truly felt called—and had no incompatible obligations—to honor God through an ascetic lifestyle more directly focused on the next world than on this present one, absolutely nothing in the Church’s teaching or tradition would support us discouraging him or her from this!

However, in another very important sense, people who are not technically “consecrated” really cannot take on the role of canonically consecrated persons.

Canonically consecrated persons are given their vocation by the Church herself. That is, a persons in public states of consecrated life have not only had their interior “call” verified and confirmed by the institutional Church; but has also, in a real way, been given a “mandate” or commission by the Church to bear a very specific kind of Christian witness to the world.

Consequently, consecrated persons are able to serve as representatives of the Church in a manner not possible for persons who are not canonically consecrated. In this, they are also able to act as “icons” of the Church as the bride of Christ, and to make eschatological realties present in a uniquely concrete way. In entering into a canonical form of consecrated life, and individual is able to set him or herself aside for God alone in a dramatically more concrete and demonstrable fashion that can an individual who remains technically a lay person.

Finally, some points to keep in mind…

While keeping in mind that the relatively new phenomena of lay ecclesial movements and other “new forms of consecrated life” require a great deal of prudence and discernment on the part of all those involved, in addition to that of the magisterium, it is still good to remember that the Church does have a tradition of attaining sanctity through a private observance of the evangelical councils. Many saints, such as Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, Gemma Galgani, Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha, and Bl. Frederic Ozanam (founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society), never formally entered religious life but rather chose to remain celibate “for the sake of the Kingdom” simply through a private vow or promise.

In celebrating their lives and commemorating their feast days, the Church seems to regard these saints as having been wholly given over to God in a notably distinct manner, even if they did not lead a life that was formally considered “consecrated.” Because of this, it would be reasonable to conclude that individuals today who are not, strictly speaking, in a state of consecrated life may still be able to live out something like a “spirituality of consecration” by truly—if only interiorly or subjectively—setting themselves aside for God alone.

Yet at the same time, a genuine call to “de facto” consecrated life would seem to be relatively rare, and difficult to discern accurately. For this reason, it remains important to maintain the distinction between a praiseworthy life of a private dedication to the evangelical counsels, and the states of consecrated life officially recognized by the Church.


* People also often ask me about consecrated virginity versus secular institutes. But for the sake of not making this post any more confusing than it has to be, in this discussion I’m sort of “bracketing off” the entire question of secular institutes.

Secular institutes are a notoriously “gray” area in determining what constitutes canonical consecration. On the one hand, the Church recognizes and legislates the existence of secular institutes, which would seem to make them a canonical form of consecrated life. But on the other hand, secular institute members profess private vows, which would seem to imply that the Church does not formally recognize their commitment to the evangelical counsels in a way proper to canonical forms of consecrated life. Additionally, can. 711 indicates that secular institute membership doesn’t chance an individual’s canonical status.

** Although in another context, “lay consecrated” might be considered a canonical term when used to indicate canonically consecrated persons who have not received the sacrament of Holy Orders. In this sense, all persons in consecrated life who are not bishops, priests, or deacons would be considered “lay consecrated,” including religious brothers, consecrated virgins, cloistered nuns, and Sisters in apostolic religious congregations.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What Does It Mean to Be “In the World?”

As regular readers of this blog have probably picked up by now, I strongly believe that, in terms of the general pattern of our day-to-day concrete experience, consecrated virgins should strive to live lives that are readily identifiable as being “consecrated.” My opinion is that consecrated virgins should live out their spousal relationship with Christ through a more visible dedication to prayer, service, and simplicity of life.

In other words, I think that consecrated virgins are called to an intensity of Christian witness which goes beyond that proper to a devout, single Catholic lay woman. This is in contrast with the popular conception that consecrated virgins are instead called to a more “hidden” witness within the context of a secular lifestyle.

Often, this idea—i.e., that women consecrated to a life of virginity according to canon 604 are normatively called to “blend in” with the lay faithful, without any conspicuous outward expressions of their consecration, and without undertaking any life-altering obligations other than celibacy—finds as its justification the fact that consecrated virgins are described in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity as living “in the world.”

But after considering this argument more for some time, I’ve come to my own conclusion that this line of reasoning may not be accurate, and is perhaps based on some unsupported theological or canonical assumptions. Namely, to understand consecrated virginity as ordinarily entailing a more or less “lay” mode of life would seem to be giving the words “in the world” a weight and connotation which the Church does not actually appear to ascribe to them.

Here, it is important to note that within the Church’s authoritative writings the phrase “in the world,” like the word “secular,” is not a univocal term. That is, these words can be used to mean different things in different contexts. (Unlike, for example, terms such as “Coajuter bishop” or “papal enclosure,” which refer to one specific thing regardless of the context in which they are used.)

In some instances he words “secular” and “in the world” are intended to be taken in the strong sense of implying total immersion in, or a close association with, the sphere of temporal affairs. This is certainly the more colloquial usage of the two phrases. For example, in every-day conversation we generally speak of things being “secular” in contrast with those which are wholly dedicated to God as “sacred;” and sometimes religious Sisters refer to their pre-consecrated lives with the expression: “when I was in the world…”

There are also some official, formal contexts in which the Church uses the terms “secular” and “in the world” in this strong sense. In the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, the Church gives this description of the role and identity of the lay faithful (here specified as those who have neither received Holy Orders nor who have entered into a public state of consecration):

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. …the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven.” (Lumen Gentium, 31.)

Here, the context makes it obvious that, when in reference to the laity, “in the world” and “secular” should be taken in the strong sense, or “at face value,” so to speak.

Likewise, Canon Law indicates that, when used to describe the special vocation of secular institute members, “in the world” and secular” should also be understood in this strong sense.

For example, canon 710 states that:

A secular institute is an institute of consecrated life in which the Christian faithful, living in the world, strive for the perfection of charity and seek to contribute to the sanctification of the world, especially from within.”

Canon 713 tells us that:

Ҥ1. Members of these institutes express and exercise their own consecration in apostolic activity, and like leaven they strive to imbue all things with the spirit of the gospel for the strengthening and growth of the Body of Christ.

§2. In the world and from the world, lay members participate in the evangelizing function of the Church whether through the witness of a Christian life and of fidelity toward their own consecration, or through the assistance they offer to order temporal things according to God and to inform the world by the power of the gospel. They also cooperate in the service of the ecclesial community according to their own secular way of life.”

And in canon 714 we read:

Members are to lead their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world according to the norm of the constitutions, whether alone, or in their own families, or in a group living as brothers or sisters.”

However, there is also a more limited meaning to the words “secular” and “in the world.”

Sometimes, in some instances, these terms can be used simply to designate that certain individuals are not technically a part of a religious community, even while these same individuals may have a role in the Church which is more similar to that of religious than it is to that of the laity.

For example, diocesan priests are often said to be “in the world,” and Canon Law describes them as “secular clerics.” Yet at the same time, nobody with an adequate understanding of the Catholic priesthood would argue that the clergy should live a lifestyle that could be called “secular” in the strong sense of the term. (In fact, “secular priest” can sometimes be a confusing term for people, since it sounds so much like an oxymoron!)

Even if we were to set aside for the movement the various theological descriptions of the priesthood as men specially called and chosen to be set apart for the God’s service, it’s possible to demonstrate, even working just from Canon Law, that the Church clearly envisions diocesan priests as living a distinctively “consecrated” lifestyle.

Diocesan priests are solemnly obligated to a life of celibacy (can. 277), obedience to their bishop (can. 273), and to the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours (can. 276). While all Christians, including laypeople are called to the type of chastity and obedience proper to their state, secular priests are asked to live these with a radicalism that would be inappropriate for most Christians “in the world.”

Canon Law often states that secular priests are supposed to be completely devoted to the work of the Church (can. 281), to the extent that nothing else in their life should interfere with the exercise of their ministry (cf. can. 278 §3). Additionally, secular priests are also asked to refrain from involvement in political, military, or civil affairs (can. 285-289). This is very different from the vocation of those in secular institutes, or from that of the laity in general, who are specifically and authentically called to exercise a Christian influence in realm of temporal affairs. Further, when canon 284 asks that priests wear clerical garb, this obviously presumes that the Church intends her priests to be recognizable, public representatives of the Church.

So even while diocesan priests are properly considered “secular” clerics who live “in the world,” in this case it is very clear that these designations do NOT mean that they are called to live lives similar to that of devout single laymen.

Now, given that we can acknowledge more than one possible interpretation of what it means to be “secular” and to “live in the world,” the question is how to understand these terms when applied to consecrated virgins.

In my opinion, consecrated virgins living in the world are only “in the world” in the more limited technical sense. That is, consecrated virgins, like diocesan priests, are “in the world” insofar as they are not members of a religious community. This means that, while consecrated virgins obviously from religious Sisters in some fundamental ways (e.g., they do not have cloister regulations or community obligations), at the same time consecrated virgins are still called to live lives that are demonstrably “set apart” for God alone.

I think that this conclusion is evident by the way in which the phrase “in the world” is actually used in the Church’s authoritative writings on consecrated virgins. Typically, when the liturgy and other Church documents refer to consecrated virgins as being “in the world,” this is simply used to distinguish virgins consecrated according to canon 604 from solemnly professed cloistered nuns who received the Rite of Consecration according to the traditional practice of their Order.

And unlike the official literature and Canon Law on secular institutes, there are absolutely NO authoritative documents which suggest that consecrated virgins should be living out their vocation to perpetual virginity in the context of an otherwise lay lifestyle.

The fact that the call to evangelize “in the ordinary conditions of the world” is emphasized so clearly in the Church’s writings on secular institutes proves that the Church is indeed capable of articulating the charism of living the evangelical counsels while intimately involved in the sphere of temporal concerns.

Because of this, the lack of such language in reference to consecrated virgins should really be quite striking. Had the Council Fathers of Vatican II intended the restored Order of Virgins to be distinctively “in the world” in the strong sense of the term, then surely they would have thought to articulate this point unambiguously.

It could perhaps be argued that, because we also lack any authoritative statement forbidding a secular institute-type lifestyle for consecrated virgins, it is still reasonable to understand consecrated virgins as being “in the world” in the strong sense of the term.

However, I think this is also a mistake. Because it cannot be disputed that consecrated virginity is a public state of consecrated life, in the absence of any modifying directive (i.e., a statement that explicitly allows or requires consecrated virgins to adopt a “lay” and strongly secular mode of life) we should presume that consecrated virgins are called to a manner of living which is most similar to that of other public states of consecrated life (such as religious life).

It could be said that the Church’s “default setting” for consecrated life—as well as the Church’s standard for all public states of consecrated life—involves a life lived exclusively for God and the Church in a radical, total, open, visible, and readily obvious manner. Because of this, I think the burden of proof would fall on those who believe that consecrated virginity, as a public state of consecration, would be best lived in a subtle or “part-time” way, or that it would pertain primarily to an individual’s private interior life.

Similarly, to assume that consecrated virgins are called to live a secular institute-type lifestyle would seem to show a misunderstanding of the Rite of Consecration’s place in history. Consecrated virginity is a truly ancient vocation, one which pre-dates religious life by several centuries. Yet in contrast, secular institutes are a distinctly twentieth-century development.

Even while it could rightly be said that secular institutes were in some sense anticipated by the various lay fraternities of the Middle Ages, or by the early Ursulines in the sixteenth century, the existence of secular institutes as such was not formally acknowledged by the Church until 1947. Likewise, the idea of living the evangelical counsels in a discreet way, as a “hidden leaven” in the world of temporal affairs, with the object of imbuing those temporal affairs with Christian values, was not given serious theological consideration until fairly recently in the history of the Church.

And so my own thought is that, if were we to assume that consecrated virgins are normally called to life and mission similar to that of secular institute members, them we would be inappropriately superimposing a very modern ideal onto a Patristic-era form of consecrated life.