Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas 2012

from the Christmas matyrology:

Jesus Christus
ætérnus Deus,
æterníque Patris Fílius,
mundum volens advéntu suo piíssimo consecráre,
de Spíritu Sancto concéptus,
novémque post conceptiónem decúrsis ménsibus,
in Béthlehem Judæ
náscitur ex María Vírgine factus Homo.

Natívitas Dómini nostri Jesu Christi secúndum carnem.

(Jesus Christ, Eternal God, Eternal Son of the Father, seeking to consecrate the world by coming into it; conceived by the Holy Spirit, nine months having passed since his conception, in Bethlehem of Judea was born of the Virgin Mary and became man. The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Good Books for Consecrated Virgins (and Those Discerning)

A few people have written to me lately asking for books recommendations for consecrated virgins and those seriously discerning this vocation.

Of course, for consecrated virgins and those discerning this vocation, the most important vocation-specific reading material is the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself (I would even say you should meditate in the Rite until you almost have it memorized!), followed by the writings of the Church Fathers on consecrated virginity.

Still, I know it’s always nice to have additional reading material.

In some ways, it’s difficult to come up with a good list, since (aside from a few in-house productions from national or regional consecrated virgins’ associations) there aren’t really any books written about consecrated virginity “in the world” specifically.

However, I have found the following books helpful for gaining a fuller understanding of consecrated virginity as a vocation in the Church.

Currently in print*:

- “And You are Christ’s...”: The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life, by Thomas Dubay, S.M. 

If you think you might be called to consecrated virginity, you should definitely read this book! In my opinion, it’s hands-down the clearest, most accessible, and most comprehensive non-scholarly book on the theology of consecrated virginity which is currently in print.

“And You are Christ’s…” is about consecrated virginity in its broadest sense. That is, it deals with the commitment to a life of perpetual virginity in the context of all forms of consecrated life within the Church, and not just “canonical” consecrated virginity—although happily, it does explicitly mention the vocation of consecrated virginity according to canon 604.

Because of this, I think it would be an equally appropriate book for serious aspirants to consecrated virginity as it would be for women who are just beginning to discern a vocation to consecrated life. And naturally, it’s also a good book for those of us who have already been consecrated for several years to revisit from time to time.

- Virginity: A Postive Approach to Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom, by Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.

This slim volume is very similar to the one by Fr. Dubay, although I would say that it’s somewhat more useful as reflective spiritual reading than as a source of hard facts and objective theological information. But it does a great job in conveying the beauty and joy of a life of virginity from an “outward-looking” evangelical perspective.

- Daughter Zion, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

Another short but rich little book, Daughter Zion discusses the place of Marian theology in the post-Vatican II Church, relying heavily on scriptural references from both the Old and New Testaments.

Even though this work isn’t about consecrated life in an immediate way, it did a lot to help me understand the significance of Mary’s virginity—and therefore, about the vocation of consecrated virginity in general, since this this vocation is, after all, a reflection of Our Lady’s—in the broader picture of the Church’s theology and teachings.

- Priests for the Third Millennium, by Timothy Cardinal Dolan

Although I do have reason to be a bit biased here, I promise I’m not just including this one because Cardinal Dolan is my bishop!

Priests for the Third Millennium was originally written by the then-Monsignor Dolan as a series of conferences for the seminarians at the North American College in Rome when he was the rector. It discusses not only the virtues to which all Christians are called, but also focuses on the spirituality of the diocesan priesthood and on what is practically necessary in order to lead a healthy and well-balanced priestly life.

However, with just a minimal amount of mental editing (e.g., by substituting “priest” or seminarian” with “consecrated virgin” in your head in the appropriate places), probably about ninety percent of what is written here about diocesan priests could also be applicable to consecrated virgins. In particular, I think the chapters that touch on human formation and on forming good habits are especially helpful.

 - The Virgin Martyrs: A Hagiographical and Mystagogical Interpretation, by Michael J.K. Fuller

To be honest, this book has kind of an unusual goal and premise—the author was looking for a way to read and interpret traditional hagiography (i.e., lives of the saints) in a way that would be more meaningful and make more sense to modern readers, while still respecting these ancient legends and acknowledging that they have their own historical, literary, and theological integrity. In other words, this book seek to answer the question: What can the often fantastic stories on the lives of the Church’s earliest saints teach us in today’s skeptical world?

Borrowing from the Church Fathers’ categories for Biblical interpretation, the author suggests that we should learn to interpret these legends in an “anagogical sense.” To demonstrate how this kind of reading of the lives of the saints might work, he chooses the ancient virgin-martyr saints categorically as kind of a test case. So technically, this book was actually meant to be more about a new academic methodology, rather than primarily about the virgin-martyr saints themselves.

However, this book still provides one of the best discussions on the early consecrated virgin-saints that I’ve ever seen! It does am excellent job of showing how rich and meaningful the lives of the virgin-martyr saints truly are.

I would recommend this book to any educated reader, especially since you don’t need to understand the author’s “real” thesis in order to benefit from his reflections on the virgin-martyr saints.

 - Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation, by Benedict M. Ashley, O.P.

This book is actually about gender roles in the Church. Written from a “searching” yet fully orthodox perspective, it tackles the question of how men and women can be said to be equal in a Church that professes the doctrine of an all-male priesthood. The author’s thesis is that while men and women are of equal dignity in the Church, they have different and complementary roles. In this work, Fr. Ashley identifies consecrated virginity as a vocation that is as unique to women as it is necessary to the life of the Church.

As this book is more scholarly than the other works I’ve listed here, I would probably only recommend Justice in the Church to someone who had at least a basic background in academic theology.

Out of print books:

- Virginity, by Joseph Marie Perrin, O.P.

This book is a lot like the ones written by Fathers Dubay and Cantalamessa, in that it provides a good overview on the nature and spirituality of a vocation to perpetual virginity for the sake of the Kingdom.

One unique benefit of this particular work is that it focuses on what it necessary—both on a spiritual and on a human level—in order to live this life in a healthy way. Fr. Perrin, who was one of the founders of the Caritas Christi secular institute, also spends time discussing the unique challenges of a commitment to virginity lived without the day-to-day support of a religious community.

- Christ in His Consecrated Virgins, by Ludwig Münster (Translated by Basil Stegmann, OSB and Sr. M. Margretta, OSB. Collegeville, MN: St. John’s Abbey Liturgical Press, 1957.)

Christ in His Consecrated Virgins was written as a series of conferences for solemnly-professed Benedictine nuns who were preparing to receive the pre-Vatican II Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. Even though this book was not written with consecrated virgins “living in the world” specifically in mind, it’s still very worthwhile as a source of spiritual reading—as a far I know, it may be the only published book of reflections ever written on the Rite.

And as an added bonus, this English edition includes a translation of the older Rite of Consecration. (But if you’re like me, after reading it, you’ll wish the Council Fathers would have kept the solemn anathema in the revised version of the Rite!)

- Las Virgines Cristianas de la Iglesia Primativa, by Fransico Vizmanos, S.J. (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1948.)

Although this work has never been translated from the original Spanish, it’s still the “go to” book on consecrated virginity in the writings of the Church Fathers. Fr. Vizmanos includes a bibliography and Spanish translations of the Church Fathers’ writings on consecrated virgins, along with his own extensive commentary.


Readers, if you can think of any other helpful (and preferably English-language) books that I’ve missed, feel free to add your suggestions in the comment box!

*N.b., I’m linking to Amazon because I think this is probably the best way to identify the books I’m talking about. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t actually make any money off of this blog!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Thoughts on the Year of Faith

As most readers of Catholic blogs probably already know by now, our Holy Father has declared October 11, 2012 – November 24, 2013 to be a “Year of Faith.” In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, the Year of Faith is to be “…a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world.”

That is, the Year of Faith is a call for the entire people of God to deepen their knowledge and love of the truths of our Catholic faith as reveled in the Church’s teachings.
Specifically, as Pope Benedict further states in his Apostolic Letter Porta Fedei, it is hoped that this Year of Faith will:
“…arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope. It will also be a good opportunity to intensify the celebration of the faith in the liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, which is “the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; ... and also the source from which all its power flows.” At the same time, we make it our prayer that believers’ witness of life may grow in credibility. To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own, especially in the course of this Year.”

It certainly has been a blessing to be here in Rome for the opening of the Year of Faith, and to be able to pray for its fruitfulness from the heart of the Church. (In particular, it was especially moving to have been present at the opening Mass for the Year of Faith—classes were canceled at all the Pontifical Universities in Rome just so that the students would be able to attend.) And so, my experiences here have prompted me to reflect on the ways in which the Year of Faith could be especially significant to us as consecrated virgins.
First of all, in terms of spirituality, I think the Year of Faith can lead us to a deeper appreciation of the theological affinity between the concepts of faith and virginity. In once sense, virginity is the “evidence of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1) in that consecrated virgins profess their firm hope in the resurrection by their stated resolve to life a life of perpetual, perfect chastity.
The concept of virginity also has a profound resonance with “faith” as this word is used to refer to the objective truth of our beliefs about God. The Rite of Consecration itself, in its suggested homily, compares the virginity of consecrated virgins to the virginity of the Church in that both are called in a special way to “keep the faith whole and entire.” That is, just as consecrated virgins are called to live uncompromised in their moral integrity so as to offer Christ and undivided heart, so too are they called to maintain a doctrinal orthodoxy in their beliefs in order to help preserve the “wholeness” of the Church’s teaching, as it has existed unchanged since the time of the Apostles.
The Year of Faith is also significant for consecrated virgins in that it commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which restored the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity and the ancient Order of Virgins to the life of the modern Church.
Finally, the Year of Faith is pertinent to us in its connection to the New Evangelization (as connected which was highlighted by the very recent Synod of Bishops on the same topic). Consecrated virginity is a vocation which is ordered towards a public witness of Christ’s love for His Church—a witness which has the potential to be especially striking in the modern western world, where the fire of the people’s faith has often grown dim despite a historically Christian culture.
Because of these things, I think it would be fitting for us to make a real, focused effort to take this Year of Faith to heart.
One concrete thing that I think we as consecrated virgins could appropriately do to observe this Year of Faith is to read (or re-read) the actual documents of Vatican II. These can all be found online, and in a number of languages, on the Vatican’s website. Many of these documents make excellent spiritual reading (a few are even included in the Office of Readings in the breviary), and a working knowledge of them is crucial for understanding the Church.
Another thing we could take on in observance of the Year of Faith is to set aside some time to meditate and reflect more deeply on the Creed. Although since we say it every Sunday it’s already very familiar to us, we can always strive to profess it ever more sincerely and enthusiastically, and to let it touch our minds and hearts more fruitfully. (On a personal note, in my house in Rome, we have decided to recite the Creed together every day before Vespers, offering it up for the intentions of the American bishops.)
But most importantly, calling to mind the deep connection between the timeless truths of our faith, the teachings of the second Vatican Council, and the New Evangelization, I think that it would be a beautiful thing if we dedicated this year to a prayerful discernment of how we consecrated virgins might better serve as witnesses to the Gospel. In other words, how might we live our lives in such a way as to help re-insight the fire of the Gospel in the hearts of those for whom it has grown cold?
We can ask Mary, Virgin of Virgins and Mother of the Church, to pray for us in this endeavor.
Post Script – a few resources:
Some great English-language resources for a fuller participation in the Year of Faith are the Vatican’s official Year of Faith website and the section on the Year of Faith at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
All of the Vatican II documents can be found online, in a number of languages, on the Vatican’s general website. In reading the Vatican II documents, I think it might be most helpful to focus on the four “big ones” first (that is, the Dogmatic Constitutions). There are:
Sacrosanctum Concilium (On the Sacred Liturgy)
Lumen Gentium (On the Church)
Dei Verbum (On Divine Revelation)
Gaudium et Spes (On the Church in the Modern World)

Because it deals with consecrated life—albeit religious life and not consecrated virginity specifically—I think Perfectae Caritatis could also be of interest to consecrated virgins.
The Nicene Creed can be found in the new English translation here on the USCCB website (so now you don’t need to steal the pew card from your local parish!).
And for those who are interested in learning to chant the Creed in Latin, here’s a very helpful video:

Thursday, November 1, 2012

All Saints’ Day, 2012

(from the first reading of the Mass for today):

I, John, saw another angel come up from the East,holding the seal of the living God.

He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea,

“Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”

I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the children of Israel.
After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.

They cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne,
and from the Lamb.”

All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures.
They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed:

“Amen. Blessing and glory,
wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might
be to our God forever and ever.

Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me,
“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”
I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.”

He said to me,

“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”

--Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Few Updates...

After spending July and August at home with my family and working at an internship in New York, I returned to Rome in the beginning of September. I spent my first month back in Europe studying Italian, and now we’re into our third week of Canon Law classes at my university.

Besides the studying, I’ve also been blessed to participate in a number of beautiful events, such as: the North American College’s diaconate Ordination at St. Peter’s basilica, the Mass for the opening of the Year of Faith, and the canonization of Sts. Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope (both of them New Yorkers!)

It’s a blessing and a privilege to be studying in Rome—but at the same time, it can be a rather demanding blessing! It’s still very challenging for me to study in a foreign language, so I truly don’t always have the time or the mental energy to update this blog as often as I would like.

But based on comments I’ve been receiving lately in real life, it seems like a lot of people still find “Sponsa Christi” to be a helpful resource, so I have every intention of keeping this blog up and running. I just ask that regular readers please be very patient with me, and that they say a prayer once in a while for the success of my studies.

Finally, even though I haven’t been able to publish a regular post in far too long a time, I did manage to create two new pages over the summer (accessible via the links running across the top of the page).

Way of Life” outlines my own thoughts on how a vocation to consecrated virginity can be most fully expressed on a concrete level; and “Church Fathers” gives a basic working bibliography of the Church Fathers’ writings on virginity, complete with links to all the English translations of their work that I was able to find online.

I’m also slowly but surely working on typing out the Latin typical edition of the Rite of Consecrated to a Life of Virginity, so that I can post it on its own page. (Unfortunately, I don’t think the original Latin version—as important as it is!—is currently available anywhere on the internet.) Eventually, I’d also like to create a page dedicated to listing other vocational resources I’ve found helpful. So stay tuned!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ad Multos Annos!

Heartfelt congratulations to Emily Byers, who was solemnly consecrated to a life of virginity last month in the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana on June 16, the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Emily is now the youngest consecrated virgin in the United States. Please remember her especially in your prayers as she begins her consecrated life. (You might also head over to her blog, “By Love Alone,” to wish her well—and to ask her to post more pictures!)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Consecrated Virgins and Bitterness

...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.


Recently, I read a comment online where one poster remarked that most of the consecrated virgins she had met in the context of her vocational discernment tended to come across as discouraging and bitter (to see the actual thread, go here.)*

As a consecrated virgin myself, I have to say that not only was I not offended in the least by this comment, but I also found the honesty of the observation to be refreshing. To be very frank, it was a little like the relief we all feel at the end of the story when the child finally points out that the emperor has no clothes! Although I’ve never seen this discussed publically anywhere before, based on my own personal experience and observations, to me it seems like bitterness is a one spiritual and human formation issue to which modern-day consecrated virgins might be particularly prone.

It should go without saying that, like all generalities, this statement of course does not apply to each and every consecrated virgin categorically. Yes, I have been blessed to encounter consecrated virgins whom I could only describe as serene and joyful. But at the same time, unfortunately I do also have to say that some of the most disturbingly bitter women I have ever met have been consecrated virgins as well. And I’m sure I would be justified in supposing that most of us consecrated virgins have had personal struggles with temptations to bitterness at least at one time or another.

The Church Fathers often wrote about pride as a special temptation for the consecrated virgins of their time, identifying it as the vice most crucial for them to avoid and overcome. For today’s consecrated virgins, I think bitterness might perhaps take this place.

While consecrated virgins around the world may have very different opinions about what it means to be a consecrated virgin on a concrete level (e.g.: should our consecrated witness be totally open or more discreet? should we strive to work for the Church full-time, or have a purely secular career? etc.), I think we can all agree that our Lord, this vocation, and the wider Church would not be well served by the bitterness of consecrated virgins.

In some significant ways, bitterness can undermine the very purpose of our vocation, since it’s hardly an attitude conducive to a free and joyful giving of ourselves to our divine Spouse. Bitterness is also a very effective counter-witness to the rest of the faithful. In this sense, I think we could even consider bitterness to be a “scandal” in the true sense of the word—i.e., that which could cause others to falter in their faith.

I know that bitterness among consecrated virgins isn’t the most comfortable topic of discussion, but I do think it would be good for it to be discussed. My thought it that, like any spiritual problem on either an individual or communal level, simply ignoring this one isn’t going to make it go away, and may even enable it to grow.

I am quite aware that, with all things considered, I myself may not be the best-qualified person to begin this discussion. So for everyone who feels drawn to write in the comment box about how I lack the life experience, insight, personal maturity, and holiness to talk about avoiding sins related to bitterness—you are absolutely correct! Therefore I respectfully ask for your prayers, and that you patiently put up with my efforts here, which are first and foremost an attempt to preach to myself.

What is bitterness?

Just to make myself clear on what I’m talking about, when I refer to “bitterness” here, I mean the striking and demonstrable lack of Christian joy and hope. That is, the sort of noticeable lack which would seem to reflect an inner pettiness, sense of resentment, or an unbecoming anger at one’s life circumstances.

Outward manifestations of bitterness can include things such as: excessive complaining, an inappropriately sarcastic sense of humor, a consistently negative attitude towards life in general, and an overall tone of harshness in one’s speech and mannerisms.

In our inner lives, symptoms that could indicate that we are becoming bitter may include: a tendency towards self-pity, taking a certain delight in recounting all the ways we have been treated unfairly in the past (whether to ourselves or in conversation with others), being jealous of those who seem to be better loved and appreciated than we are, and regularly feeling disappointed or annoyed with most of the people in our lives for not treating us with as much respect and deference as we feel we deserve.

The act of being a habitually bitter person, whether or not we consider it to be a sin in a formal sense, certainly sets the stage for all kinds of sinful behavior. I think that some of the more minor and venial but still fairly common sins that result from bitterness are things like: gossip and back-biting; making unreasonable, and therefore selfish, demands on those closest to us; and a lack of charity in our actions that could be colloquially described as “just plain being mean.” Bitterness also fosters an absence of gratitude for the good things that God has already us—and perhaps could also preclude the initial openness to receiving these blessings in the first place.

What I am NOT talking about when I speak of bitterness are normal human reactions to difficult things in our lives, such as sadness or grief over a real loss, feelings of honest frustration when dealing with a trying situation, or the simple experience of having hurt feelings.

I’m also not talking about other kinds of personal character weaknesses or “human formation issues,” like a tendency to lose one’s temper or to having an inappropriately heightened level of emotional sensitivity (the kind of sensitivity wherein one could be described as being “touchy”). Finally, when I speak of bitterness, I am most definitely not commenting on diagnosable mental health problems like clinical depression or personality disorders.

But now, with consecrated virgins specifically in mind, here are what I see as some likely possible causes for bitterness, along with my reflections (however inadequate they may be) on how perhaps to begin to overcome them:

1. A real lack of support

It’s almost a bit of a truism to point out that, because consecrated virginity is such a “new” form of consecrated life, it isn’t very well understood even by many within the Church. Because of this, consecrated virgins often lack the support given to Catholics in almost any other vocation.

For example, right now in many dioceses, formation programs for aspiring consecrated are either very limited or literally non-existent. Also, while consecrated virgins are canonically under the direct authority and supervision of their bishop, for a variety of reasons (including many very understandable reasons) it can happen that in some places a consecrated virgin will not have a workable system of communication with either the bishop or a direct representative of his. All this is on top of the fact that, due to geographical distance and perhaps also to other social and cultural factors, individual consecrated virgins can tend to be quite isolated from each other.

These things can all lead to some consecrated virgins having what I think we could call a well-founded sense of being unfairly left alone, or to their legitimately feeling as though they been expected to “fend for themself” spiritually.

Similarly, consecrated virgins may also frequently encounter a lot of painful misunderstandings from fellow devout Catholics. When we explain our vocations to others, it’s not uncommon to hear things like: “you’ll never be as good as a nun”; “the Church doesn’t need consecrated virgins”; “the REAL brides of Christ are Sisters in habits”; “you would have done more good for the Church if you had been married and raised a good Catholic family”; or even “you wasted your religious vocation!” And sometimes consecrated virgins find that, within their parish or diocese, their vocation is regarded more as a burden and a liability for the community rather than as an objectively good thing for the Church.

The sense of rejection that can result from feeling that one has tried to offer one’s whole life and entire self to God, but that this self-gift is not wanted by His Church, can be a shattering experience. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too hard to see how this kind of pain can unfortunately lead to a consecrated virgin becoming bitter.

So what can one do to avoid becoming bitter in these kinds of situations? First, I would say that the best ways is to keep the truth clear in your mind at all times. Even if your parish priest (or the Sisters from the local mother house, or your daily Mass-going family, or your Confirmation sponsor, or the the Vicar for Religious from your diocese, etc.) says something insensitive or acts discouragingly towards your vocation on a regular basis, this does NOT at all change the fact that Christ really and truly did call you to be His bride. It also doesn’t affect the good that you can do for the God’s people, your identity within the Church, or your reward in Heaven. It’s a lot easier to let even frequent negative remarks roll off your back if you know and have confidence that they are wrong.

And on a related note, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is avoiding bitterness, it’s also good for us to learn to look at our discouraging experiences in light of their actual context. For instance, if someone in your parish says something hurtful to you about your vocation, it’s almost certainly the case that he or she was speaking purely out of ignorance and not out of any real desire to offend you.

On a deeper level, I think it could be helpful to take unhelpful or objectively unfair circumstances as a call to grow in what I would call a disciplined spiritual maturity. Being often overlooked, unappreciated, or even outright criticized because of one’s vocation to consecrated virginity is a powerful opportunity for us to purify our motives—i.e., to grow strong in our desire to live our consecrated lives purely out of love for Christ and His Church, without regard for the esteem of others. It also gives us a chance to live the spirit of the beatitudes more deeply, by resolving to be unfailingly gracious in our thoughts, words, and deeds, no matter how we may be treated.

However, at the same time I think it’s also important that we be honest about our situations, both to ourselves as well as to the appropriate people in the appropriate contexts. In my opinion, pretending to ourselves that everything is alright when this is objectively not the case (such as, for a hypothetical example, telling ourselves that we had an excellent formation program—when in reality, “formation” consisted solely in something like being asked to read through the materials on USACV website and nothing else) is only setting the stage for greater bitterness at some later point, when we run out of the emotional energy needed to keep up this kind of false optimism.

Additionally, an attitude of respectful honesty and realism can help us to be better aware of our strengths and weaknesses—along with whatever exterior limitations may be placed on us—as we strive to grow in our consecrated lives. We need this kind of self-awareness in order to become well-balanced and non-bitter consecrated virgins.

Finally, a respectful honesty about the “unfair” aspects of our experience of following a vocation to consecrated virginity is absolutely necessary if we ever hope to improve things for the women who may be called to consecrated virginity in the future.

2. Unrealistic expectations

Another probable cause of bitterness among consecrated virgins might be unrealistic expectations. Because there is so little information available on the practicalities and lived experience of consecrated virginity, and because the actual women who live out this vocation are so few and far between, I think it’s not unreasonable to suppose that a number of aspiring consecrated virgins enter into this vocation with what could be called an overly romanticized conception of the realities of this life.

For example, I often hear of aspiring consecrated virgins who say that they feel attracted to this vocation because they see it as a way to “fit in,” to find a niche, and to feel appreciated within the Church. Besides being a less-than-optimal motive for seeking consecration in the first place, this expectation emphatically does not correspond to the actual experience of life as a consecrated virgin in most places today.

Likewise, my impression is that many candidates for consecrated virginity might tend to over-estimate the sensible consolations they will receive as a result of their consecration, not fully realizing that any prayer life, like any marriage, will go through dry and taxing times as well as rich and joyful ones. To me it also seems that some aspiring consecrated virgins imagine that they will receive abundant personal, direct support and encouragement from their bishop and other priests in their diocese or from a local network of fellow consecrated virgins, and are therefore are unpleasantly surprised and disappointed when they discover that they need to be much more emotionally self-sufficient then they had hoped or expected.

For those of us who are concerned about becoming bitter as a result of this kind of disappointment, the easy (but perhaps not always immediately helpful) answer is to keep our expectations realistic. If you are presently discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity, find ways to ask the honest, hard questions. Do whatever you can to be sure you have a decent grasp, not only of the theological nature of this vocation, but also of the experiences you are likely to have when living it out in your day-to-day life.

Yet as is obvious to anyone who has become personally acquainted with this particular difficulty, “keeping your expectations realistic” is not always as simple a solution as it sounds. That is, if you are dealing with crushed dreams in the present, it’s not really possible to go back in time or to adjust your expectations retroactively.

But, similar to what I’ve written above, consecrated virgins who are feeling disappointed can reflect upon the fact that they are actually not disappointed in the deeper theological sense—that is, they have still received what they had been promised when Christ first called them.

Even if you aren’t now regularly receiving awesome mystical graces, or if you don’t have the personal mentorship of your bishop, or you’re not experiencing an ultra-close sense of sisterhood among consecrated virgins, or the people in your parish only think you’re weird when you talk about being a bride of Christ…ultimately, all of these issues are more or less superfluous. At the end of the day, you still have your spousal relationship with Christ and your special personal identification with the Church, which are the truly important gifts one receives in this vocation.

It’s also good to remember that we can always start to develop a sense of realism now, which can help equip us to live out our consecrated lives in a happy, healthy, holy way in the future. By ceasing to build up and entertain unreasonable hopes, even at this “late hour,” we can open ourselves to receive with gratitude the gifts that God is giving us in actual reality.

I suppose that it could happen that a consecrated virgin becomes so disillusioned by the difference between her consecrated life as she first envisioned it and the concrete reality of her life as a consecrated virgin that she begins to doubt she even discerned her vocation properly in the first place.

While anyone in this situation should be talking to a good spiritual director instead of reading this blog, I do have one observation that might be pertinent. That is, perhaps a consecrated virgin suffering though such a situation might pray for the grace of a renewed sense of vocation…or even for an interior experience of being called, as if for the first time, to what consecrated virginity actually entails—i.e., a total, sacrificial gift of oneself to Christ, and in Him, to His Church.

3. A fundamental selfishness

Admittedly, this last heading sounds a lot harsher than I would like it to, but I really can’t think of any other words to describe the idea I’m trying to convey. Of course, I highly doubt that many consecrated virgins (if any at all) discerned their vocation with motives that were blatantly and manifestly selfish. And it also goes without saying that, given the realities of our fallen human nature, very few human beings ever do any good deed with an entirely disinterested heart.

But even taking these two points as a given, I think it’s good to reflect on how easy it could be for us as consecrated virgins to develop a spiritual worldview that turns out to be subtly—and I want to say even almost “innocently”—selfish on a very foundational level.

At this present time, to me at least it seems like most of the existing informational material on consecrated virginity tends to focus mostly on the individual virgin’s personal experience of receiving the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. For example, much of the available vocational literature consists of personal reflections from consecrated virgins on the graces they received at their consecration, on the beauty of their consecration Mass, on the touching level of support they were given by their parish community, or on the joys of being a bride of Christ.

Naturally, all of this is good in and of itself. Consecration to a life of virginity is indeed a very precious and beautiful thing, and this vocation is truly great gift to the individual consecrated virgin.

But while a consideration of the personal benefits of consecrated virginity certainly isn’t wrong or theologically problematic, I do think we could say that, when taken only by itself, it is a somewhat unbalanced understanding of this vocation. That is, an exclusive or near-exclusive focus on the elements of consecrated virginity which are of primary befit to the individual (i.e., what a woman “gets out of” this vocation) undermines the pride of place that should be given to the more central aspect of this vocation—namely, the call to sacrificial self-giving for the honor of God and the good of His Church.

While this might seem like only a slight matter of emphasis, it really is significant. A candidate for consecrated virginity who looks forwards to a lovely consecration Mass and to the graces of that day—or a consecrated virgin of many years who enjoys meditating on her identity as the beloved bride of Christ—is obviously not selfish in the sense of maliciously seeking her own best interest at the expense of others. But at the same time, it’s important that we realize that if these things are the sum total, or even just the principal theme, of a consecrated virgin’s or candidate’s interior life, then her spiritual focus actually is primarily on herself and her own consolations.

This kind of subtle selfishness is, of course, not nearly as morally problematic as the more egregious varieties of selfishness which manifest themselves in the grave matter of mortal sin. In most contexts we really can’t compare the selfishness behind patently corrupt acts (like adultery or defrauding the poor of their life savings) with the much more “benign” kind of selfishness involved in things like an over-emphasis on experiencing spiritual
consolations for the sake of our own pleasure.

Yet in many ways, this more minor and understandable type of selfishness is actually more of a danger for consecrated virgins, since we are much more likely to give into temptations to selfishness on this level. And while our particular species of selfishness might never metastasize beyond the category of minor venial sin, we should remember that any and all selfishness keeps us from being as close to Christ as we could be. To borrow an illustration from St. John of the Cross, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether a bird is tied down by a heavy rope or by a fine thread—both of these ties can be equally effective in keeping it from flying upwards towards the heavens.

The reason why these observations on selfishness are pertinent to this post is that selfishness, no matter how subtle or unwitting, is by its nature connected to bitterness.

As human beings, we can only reach our fullness of life and happiness when we are striving to give of ourselves in love. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes acknowledges this reality when it states that man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (GS 24) Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, we can never fully flourish unless we, in some way, come to reflect the total self-giving of the inner life of the Trinity in our own lives.

Our call to reflect the inner life and love of the Trinity, first in our vocation as baptized Christians and then in our lives as consecrated virgins, involves our learning to love, eventually, without concern for our own consolation. While of course we all have human needs that are right and proper for us to take into account (and while God also does want us to seek Him as our true good for our own benefit), at the same time we need to remember that real self-giving love doesn’t ask “what’s in it for me?”

If our main intentions in following our vocation are ultimately rooted in selfishness, even if it’s a “pious” selfishness like desiring beautiful experiences in prayer for the sake of our own enjoyment, we will never grow to our full stature as daughters of God and brides of Christ. Consequently, we will not progress as the rate we should—presuming that we manage to progress at all, or that we don’t in effect move backwards—in our growth in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. And a deficiency in any of these virtues will more than probably manifest itself on the level of our human personality in the form of bitterness.

Avoiding this kind of bitterness will never be exactly easy, because overcoming all forms selfishness is one of the central struggles of the Christian life. And in the consecrated life, this struggle is magnified—although I think we can say that it is only magnified so that the victory we win with the help of God’s grace can be even more complete and perfect. So while the journey here (which I think all of us consecrated virgins, not just those of us presently struggling with obvious bitterness, have to take) is difficult, it is also very beautiful.

As consecrated virgins, our growth towards the disinterested, self-sacrificial love to which we are called will give us a greater affinity with our sisters, the early virgin-martyr saints who were so important to the flourishing of the Church in her first centuries. And even more importantly, it will bring us towards a closer likeness with our crucified Spouse, who came not to be served, “but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)


* Just as a side note to anyone who actually goes and reads this thread, for a lot of reasons, I do NOT think that it's appropriate to call consecrated virginity "the single life," "consecrated single life," "lay consecration," or anything similar. But that's a topic for another post!

Friday, April 13, 2012

“Rejoice, O Pure Virgin!”

For this joyful Easter week, a brief musical interlude:

The Angel cried to the Lady full of grace:
Rejoice! Rejoice, O pure Virgin!
Again, I say rejoice! Your Son is risen
from His three days in the tomb.
With Himself He has raised all the dead.
Rejoice, rejoice all ye people!
Shine! Shine! Shine, O new Jerusalem!
The Glory of the Lord has shown on you.
Exult now, exult and be glad, O Zion!
Be radiant, O pure Theotokos, in the Resurrection,
the Resurrection of your Son!


This is one of my favorite Easter hymns. It’s based on an Eastern Orthodox chant which reflects an oral tradition that Mary was the first to hear of Christ’s Resurrection, by a message from an angel. The idea is that it was sort of a second Annunciation; just as Mary was the first to hear the good news of the Incarnation, it seemed fitting that she would also be the first to know of the Resurrection.
I particularly like this hymn, because it’s one of the few that celebrates the Marian dimension of the Paschal mystery—which in turn, can help show us as consecrated virgins the particular way in which we are called to interiorize this sacred mystery in our own life of faith.

H/t to Emily for finding a video and the words to this song.

(P.S.: How does everyone like the new template?)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Feast of the Annunciation 2012

From the Holy Father’s Sunday Angelus reflection of December 18, 2011 (but most appropriate for today’s solemnity!). Emphases, in bold, are mine.


I would like to dwell briefly on the importance of the virginity of Mary, that is, the fact that she conceived Jesus while remaining a virgin.

In the background of the events at Nazareth is the prophecy of Isaiah. “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and call him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). This age-old promise has found superabundant fulfillment in the Incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, not only did the Virgin Mary conceive, but she did so through the Holy Spirit, which is God himself. The human being that begins to live in her womb takes the flesh from Mary, but his existence is derived entirely from God. …

The fact that Mary conceived while remaining a virgin is, therefore, essential for the understanding of Jesus and our faith, because it witnesses that it was God’s initiative and above all it reveals Who is conceived. As the Gospel says: “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35). In this sense, the virginity of Mary and the divinity of Jesus reciprocally guarantee one another.

This is why that one question that Mary, “very upset,” addresses to the Angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34) is so important. In her simplicity, Mary is wise: She does not doubt the power of God, but wants to better understand his will, to fully comply with this will. Mary is infinitely surpassed by the mystery, yet perfectly occupies the place that, at the very heart of it, she was assigned.

Her heart and mind are fully humble, and, because of her singular humility, God expects the “yes” of this young girl to achieve His purpose. He respects her dignity and freedom. Mary’s “yes” means both motherhood and virginity, and her wish that her everything be for the glory of God, and that the Son who will be born to her may be a gift of grace for all.

Dear friends, the virginity of Mary is unique and unrepeatable, but its spiritual significance concerns every Christian. It, in essence, is tied to faith: in fact, those who trust deeply in God, welcome Jesus and his divine life within through the action of the Holy Spirit.

—Pope Benedict XVI, December 18, 2011

(Image: painting by John Collier)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Updates from My Life in Rome

(Photo: a view from my bedroom window during a February snowstorm here in Rome. )

I have not had much of a chance to blog lately, though I do miss it and hope to be able to write a real post soon. Here is some of what I have been up to in the past month or so:

First, I took my final exams for the first semester, and I actually did reasonably well, considering that all the lectures and most of the readings were in a language that I never studied before. (And for those of you who were wondering…the written exams were in Italian, but for the first year only, we’re allowed to write our answers in any major European language that our professor understands.)

It’s a huge relief to have a whole semester under my belt, and to know that I am capable of passing exams here. So I’m happy to be able to joke with the dean of my school that he doesn’t have to buy a plane ticket to send me back to New York!

Many thanks to everyone who has been praying for my academic success—though I ask that you please keep it up!

From February 15-20, I was able to join in with the pilgrimage group from the Archdiocese of New York that was organized for the consistory where Archbishop Dolan was named a Cardinal. I had the chance to attended most of the events with the pilgrims attending most of the events. What a beautiful experience! Even though I basically live here in Rome, I felt like I was also on pilgrimage.

Aside from the consistory itself and the Papal Mass the next day, the highlights of the pilgrimage were Masses celebrated by the Cardinal-archbishop at the high altars of the four major basilicas in Rome: the first day was at St. John Lateran, the next day was St. Mary Major, the Friday before the consistory was at the altar of the chair at St. Peter’s, and the Monday after was at St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Each of these basilicas has major historical and theological significance, and each has some important relic buried beneath their high altars. For example, St. Mary Major is generally considered to be the oldest Church dedicated to Our Lady, and its high altar is built over a relic of the manger where the infant Christ was placed. St. John Lateran is the Pope’s actual cathedral Church, and St. Peter’s and St. Paul Outside the Walls are built over the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, respectively. St. Paul Outside the Walls also has the relics of St. Timothy, a fact that our new Cardinal certainly didn’t hesitate to point out!

It was an AMAZING gift to be able to be able to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in small (or at least small-ish) groups gathered around such privileged altars, with my own Archbishop, dozens of New York priests, my “diocesan brother” seminarians also studying here in Rome, and large numbers of fellow Catholic New Yorkers.

Part of the gift was having a chance to taste—however briefly—a fuller sense of being spiritually “at home” than I’ve ever had anywhere else. I was “home” with my particular local Church in the company of a good portion of the Archdiocese of New York, while at the same time my physical presence in Rome reminded me in an especially vivid and concrete way of my “home” in the universal Church.

Among other things, this helped remind me of the reason why I’m doing everything I do here, and why I strive and struggle to live as much of a truly consecrated life as I can. As wonderful as Rome is, living and studying here can still seem frustrating and overwhelming at times—with the culture shock, language barriers, and challenging coursework, visible “results” come slowly, sometimes it’s tempting to feel like you’re not getting anywhere despite your best efforts. (Similarly, three years after my solemn consecration as a virgin, I have to say that often the best way to describe my consecrated life in general is as a mystery of trust and unseen grace. )

And so it was a real consolation to be with people from the archdiocese where I will one day be serving—or rather, serve even here and now, if you count my prayers and sacrifices. It helps me to keep in mind that my life is offered for real people, in the visible institution of the Church which Christ Himself founded.

Speaking for myself personally, I’m always so grateful for times like this, when God reminds me that my vocation isn’t just some sort of abstract theory, poetic phrasing, or nebulous “spirituality” independent of my every-day life, but is rather a concrete reality with real—even if not always readily apparent—consequences for myself and for the wider Church.

(A photo of me greeting our new Cardinal at the closing dinner of the consistory pilgrimage.)


On a much lighter note, I (along with all the Sisters in the house where I live here) did enjoy the remarkable snowfalls that we had in Rome in the beginning of February. We were told that it was the first significant snowfall that Rome had had in twenty-six years.

We had so much snow (about eight inches on the ground at one point), that I was joking that it almost seemed like I was in Rome, New York. Although as a New Yorker, I was alternately amused and disconcerted at the Romans’ apparent inability to deal with snow…e.g., I was wondering why the sidewalk on Corso Vittorio Emanuele was so slick, until one of the NAC seminarians told me that some people were trying to clear away the snow on walkways by pouring water on it. Not exactly the best idea in below-freezing temperatures!

Anyway, it was beautiful while it lasted! Here is another view of the snowfall taken from my bedroom window:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Feast of St. Agnes 2012

Here are some beautiful thoughts from our Holy Father on perhaps the most notable consecrated-virgin saint, St. Agnes of Rome. Interestingly, they were made in the context of an address to diocesan seminarians—read the whole address here.

Emphases and comments are mine.


St. Agnes is one of the famous Roman maidens, who illustrated the genuine beauty of faith in Christ and friendship with Him. Her dual status as Virgin and Martyr reflect the fullness of holiness’s dimensions. This is a fullness of holiness that is requested also of you by your Christian faith and the special priestly vocation with which the Lord has called you and binds you to Him. Martyrdom, for St. Agnes, meant the generous and free acceptance of giving her own young life, in its entirety and without reservation, that the Gospel might be preached as the truth and beauty that illuminate life. (I absolutely love this connection between St. Agnes and the preaching of the Gospel! Even though the point of reference here is to her martyrdom, I also think that it has a connection to her virginity as well. I think it would be fruitful for us consecrated virgins to mediate on the intimate relationship between consecrated virginity—i.e., the offering of oneself whole and entire—and the Church constant commitment to preserving the truth of the teachings of the faith.)

In the martyrdom of Agnes, received courageously in the stadium of Domitian, there shines forever the beauty of belonging to Christ without hesitation, relying on Him. Even today, for anyone who steps into Piazza Navona, (I am very blessed to be able to walk through the Piazza Navona every day on my way to school! I always think of St. Agnes while I am there. It’s a great support to my vocation to be able to be so often in the place where she was martyred.) the effigy of the saint from atop the gable of the church of St. Agnes in Agony, reminds him that our city is based also on the friendship with Christ and witness to his Gospel, of many of its sons and daughters. Their generous surrender to Him and to the good of their brothers is a primary component of the spiritual physiognomy of Rome.

In martyrdom, Agnes also seals the other crucial element of her life, virginity for Christ and for the Church. The total gift of martyrdom is prepared, in fact, by the conscious, free and mature choice of virginity, a witness to the will to belong totally to Christ. If martyrdom is a final heroic act, virginity is the result of a long friendship with Jesus that has matured in the constant hearing of His Word, in the dialogue of prayer, in the Eucharistic encounter. Agnes, still young, learned that being a disciple of the Lord means loving Him by putting all her life at His disposal. (According to St. Ambrose, St. Agnes was twelve years old when she was martyred. And so in my opinion, the life and witness of St. Agnes is itself the most eloquent argument for seeing consecrated virginity as a vocation especially suitable for younger women.) This dual qualification—Virgin and Martyr—calls to mind in our reflection that a credible witness of the faith must be a person who lives for Christ, with Christ and in Christ, transforming their lives according to the higher needs of Grace.