Sunday, July 26, 2015

Consecrated Virginity versus Secular Institutes

It’s already well-known to readers of this blog that, as the Order of Virgins is a form of consecrated life which has been only fairly recently re-introduced into the life of the modern Church, there are still a lot of open questions regarding the more concrete aspects of how this vocation is to be lived out. For instance, we might ask: what is the life of a consecrated virgin supposed to “look like?” How does she present herself in public? What sort of formation should she have had? How is her relationship with her bishop and her diocese supposed to function? And what exactly does it mean for her to be “dedicated to the service of the Church?”

One way that canonists often try to resolve these kinds of ambiguities is by looking for parallel situations in the Church. When we find ourselves needing to contend with gaps in the Church’s law—whether the lacunae pertain to consecrated virginity specifically, or to any other challengingly vague circumstance in the life of the Church—we can begin to address these gaps by considering other approved ways of life (or circumstances with adequate legislation) which are fundamentally similar in some important respect. Then once we have identified how the Church approaches these better-understood situations, we can adapt and apply the rules governing those situations to the circumstances which are still in question.   

To this end, I’ve noticed many commentators tend to assume that secular institutes provide the closest parallel to the Order of Virgins, based primarily on the fact that both secular institute members and consecrated virgins “live in the world.”* However, I believe that looking at secular institutes as the interpretive key for understanding the revived Order of Virgins is a mistake, for several reasons:

1. The Church is still somewhat unclear on the canonical and theological nature of secular institutes

One reason why I believe secular institutes really do not provide a good model for understanding consecrated virginity is because, at this point in time, there is still a lot about secular institutes which the Church can’t yet fully categorize or articulate.

The Church does give us a basic working definition of secular institutes in canon 710 of the Code of Canon Law. Here, a secular institute is identified as: “…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.”

We know that, like religious, secular institute members make a profession to observe the evangelical counsels (cf. can. 723 §1). But unlike religious, the vows of secular institute members are not considered “public.” Secular institute members are also similar to religious in the sense that they are consecrated specifically as part of a particular community with its own founder and charism. Yet in contrast with religious, they usually do not share a household or live together. Secular institute members are often described by the Church as called to be a “leaven in the world,” (cf. CCC  929) and as such they generally work in secular jobs and refrain from adopting any special dress, titles, or customs which would outwardly distinguish them as consecrated persons.

However, even in light of these basics, there is still a great deal of variety among the different secular institutes. For example, secular institutes can vary widely in how they understand the practice of “discretion.” Some institutes encourage their members to share their special ecclesial identity openly whenever it could be pastorally helpful (at least one secular institute even has special identifying dress which members wear in some circumstances), while other institutes have the tradition of keeping their members’ vocation much more hidden. Some secular institutes have a very strong emphasis on the “secularity” and specifically “lay” character of their vocation, while other institutes were at least originally founded with the intention of their members living what was essentially a modified form of religious life. In many secular institutes, the members may only see each other once or twice each year; but on the other hand, some secular institutes do allow for or encourage a certain level of common life among their members.

But perhaps more significant to my point here, the Church’s writings on secular institutes are often confusing, or even seemingly self-contradictory. For example, the Church describes secular institutes as being institutes of consecrated life, with the subsequent implication that members of secular institutes are thus truly consecrated. The Church also describes consecrated life as being a different state from that of laity (cf. can. 588 §1). However, in canon 711, secular institute membership is described as something which “does not change the member’s proper canonical condition among the people of God, whether lay or clerical.” So it would seem to be currently a bit of conundrum as to how secular institute members can be truly consecrated, and truly lay (i.e., not having changed their canonical condition to “consecrated”) at the same time!

A similar confusing gap in the Church’s understanding of secular institutes is the question of precisely what kind of vows secular institute members make.** Secular institutes are distinct from religious institutes in that their vows are not public. And since their vows are not public, then it would seem to follow logically that their vows would therefore have to be considered private. One characteristic of private vows per se is that they are a personal initiative, and not something officially received in the name of the Church. Yet it would seem that secular institute members’ vows are indeed received in the name of the Church when they are received by the moderator of their institute. Some commentators have tried to resolve this inconsistency by calling secular institute members’ vows “semi-public”—but this is also problematic, since “semi-public vows” are not a concept which is actually mentioned anywhere in our current canon law.

Naturally, since secular institutes are a newer form of consecrated life, it is understandable that there are still questions which have yet to be resolved, and so these observations of mine are certainly not meant to undermine the life and vocation of current secular institute members.  However, it does still stand to reason that all these unanswered questions would make secular institutes a less-than-helpful interpretive key for other forms of consecrated life.

2. Secular institutes have many fundamental differences from consecrated virginity

Even apart from the above-mentioned ambiguities, when we consider what we actually do know about secular institutes, it becomes clear that secular institutes are structurally, fundamentally different from the Order of Virgins.

For one thing, as was just noted, secular institute members’ profession of the evangelical counsels is private (or at least less-than-fully public), whereas consecrated virginity is very much a public state of consecrated life. In fact, we could go so far as to say that a woman enters into the Order of Virgins in the most public way possible, via a liturgical ritual to which all the faithful are to be invited. This element alone carries implications which make secular institutes inappropriate a parallel for understanding the Order of Virgins.

Another very significant canonical difference is that consecrated virginity is a non-institutional form of consecrated life, in the sense that virgins are consecrated as individuals rather specifically as members of a special group or community. A consecrated virgin remains under the direct authority of her bishop, and her only “institutional” affiliation within the Church is her connection to her diocese. Likewise, consecrated virgins do not have a special call to follow the charismatic spirituality of any particular founder or foundress.

In contrast, secular institutes are by definition institutional. One becomes consecrated as a secular institute member specifically by joining a community which is a secular institute. A secular institute member has his or her profession of the evangelical counsels received by the moderator (the word used in lieu of “superior” for secular institutes) of their institute, and the concrete ways in which they observe the counsels is determined by the constitution, customs, and spirituality, of their particular institute. And like religious—but unlike consecrated virgins—secular institute members are called to live out the unique charism handed down to them from the founder or foundress of their institute.

Additionally, there are many essential elements of the vocation to consecrated virginity which the Church does not ascribe to secular institutes, and vice-versa. For example, only consecrated virgins are explicitly identified as “brides of Christ.” While bridal spirituality is absolutely central to the vocation of a consecrated virgin, it would seem to be, at most, optional for a woman secular institute member.

On the other hand, while secular institute members are given a specific mission “to order temporal things according to God and to inform the world by the power of the gospel,” (can. 713 §2) and are explicitly directed to “lead their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world,” (can. 714) this sort of language and “leaven” imagery is never used in magisterial documents to describe the Order of Virgins. In fact, consecrated virgins are arguably given the very opposite vocation of serving as an “eschatological sign of the world to come” (cf. the praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration).

3. The issue of anachronism

There is an issue of anachronism. Today’s Order of Virgins was intended as a revival of an ancient Patristic form of consecrated life, (cf. Vita Consecrata, 7) whereas secular institutes are almost overwhelmingly a twentieth-century development.

Secular institutes are the newest form of consecrated life in the Church. While it could be argued that various earlier associations in the Church history served as precursors to today’s secular institutes (the earliest Ursuline Sisters and French Daughters of the Heart of Mary are often cited as examples of this), secular institutes as such were not formally recognized and endorsed by the Church until 1947, when Pope Pius XII promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia. What’s more, the central defining charism of secular institutes—i.e., an apostolic mission to order the sphere of temporal affairs in accord with Christian values—is very recent development in the life of the Church. It was virtually unheard of before the twentieth century to have a distinctive spirituality ordered specifically around the call to be “leaven in the world.” (That is, prior to the twentieth century, it’s difficult to find any examples of the Church promoting “ordinary Christian life in the world” as a vocation to be embraced through a special, recognized form of dedicated evangelical life. “Leaven” imagery, being scriptural in origin, was of course still used before the modern era. However, this tended to be a description of Christian life in general, rather than as a distinctive charism in its own right.)

Of course, the “newness” of secular institutes should not be automatically written off as a bad thing. It is very reasonable to believe that the Holy Spirit would inspire a new form of consecrated life to meet the specific needs of the modern world, just as different forms of religious and consecrated life were inspired at different points in the Church’s history to meet the needs of the Church and human society as a whole.***

However, this newness does make secular institutes an unhelpful parallel for understanding consecrated virginity, which was meant as a restoration of the ancient, Patristic-era Order of Virgins. To say that consecrated virgins should look to secular institutes for guidance in understanding consecrated virginity would be to anachronistically superimpose a distinctively modern charism onto what is really an ancient vocation.

One other point…

To address one final point, I’ve occasionally seen it argued that, because secular institute members are at least officially permitted to receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity,**** we can deduce that secular institute members and consecrated virgins “living in the world” are meant to be living similar ways of life. Or in other words, because a vocation to consecrated virginity and a vocation to a secular institute can theoretically co-exist in the same person (just as a nun in certain religious Orders could have a twofold vocation to religious life and to consecrated virginity), we should therefore assume that the Church intended non-monastic consecrated virgins to a live fully secular lifestyle in the strongest sense of the term. According to this train of thought, since a secular institute member can supposedly live out her distinctly secular vocation even after receiving the consecration of virgins, it must thereby follow that consecrated virginity isn’t something which could conflict or overshadow this call to a strongly secular way of life.

The first observation I have here is that, even after researching this topic fairly extensively, I am not aware of any actual documented cases of a particular secular institute encouraging its members to seek the consecration of virgins. So to being with, it would seem that the issue of a woman needing to harmonize her twin vocations to consecrated virginity and secular institute membership is a primarily hypothetical one at this point in time.

But more substantially, to me this line of reasoning also seems to be based on some not-yet-justified assumptions. Namely, how do we know that secular institute membership should be the “dominant” spirituality in a woman who is called to both vocations? Why should we think of consecrated virginity as merely a possible facet of a vocation to secular institute membership, rather than the other way around? Instead, might it possibly make more sense to think of secular institute membership as being more like a secondary support to a “primary” vocation to consecrated virginity?

To look at one potential parallel on this, we do have examples of diocesan or secular priests (i.e., priests “living in the world”) who are also secular institute members. In a few cases, these priest-secular institute members are actually incardinated into their institute. However, most of the time, priests who are members of secular institutes are diocesan priests who are incardinated into their diocese in the normal way. While they share in the spirituality and limited community life of their institute, these priests still owe their primary obedience to their bishop, and remain dedicated to priestly ministry in their dioceses.

Even if they belong to a secular institute which includes lay members, such priests still fulfill their specifically priestly obligations, and continue to dress and present themselves publicly as priests. That is, such priests do not strive to live as laypeople, even though most secular institutes put a heavy emphasis on “lay spirituality.” Secular institute membership among the clergy is seen as an affirmation and support of their priesthood, rather than a negation of the “specialness” of their priestly vocation.

Similarly, I think the theoretical possibility of female secular institute members becoming consecrated virgins might say more about the nature of secular institutes than it does about the nature of consecrated virginity. And so I would go so far as to argue that—insofar as consecrated virginity and secular institute membership aren’t de jure incompatible—consecrated virgins who are members of secular institutes should see consecrated virginity as their principal vocation, and should give this primary vocation pride of place in terms of the way they order their exterior lives.


* For example, Sr. Sharon Holland, IHM makes this very point in her famous article “Consecrated Virgins for Today’s Church.”

** And to make this even more confusing, some secular institutes profess the evangelical counsels not through vows, but rather through some other “sacred bond”—i.e., a commitment which is technically something other than a vow per se.

*** Earlier examples of different forms of consecrated life developing in order to respond prophetically to the needs of the Church and contemporary society could include: organized monasticism arising just in time to preserve western culture and learning after the fall of the Roman empire, or the foundation of the mendicant Orders in the Middle Ages serving to bring renewal to the comfortably-established medieval Church.

**** Sr. Sharon Holland also discusses this in “Consecrated Virgins for Today’s Church.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Feast of St. Mary Magdalen

 A blessed feast of St. Mary Magdalen to all my sisters in Christ around the world!

Although there is a long-standing tradition in the Latin Church of regarding her as a penitent sinner, I still find St. Mary Magdalen to be an especially meaningful saint for me in my life as a consecrated virgin.

The Gospel accounts portray St. Mary Magdalen as one of Christ’s closest follows. She was one of the small handful of Jesus’ friends who remained with Him during His passion and death on the cross, and she was privileged to be the first disciple to announce the good news of the Resurrection.

The Church expresses the depth of St. Mary Magdalen’s love for Christ in the almost bridal overtones in the liturgy for her feast day. For example, one of the antiphons for Lauds (Morning Prayer) reads:

“My heart burns within me; I long to see my Lord; I look for him, but I cannot find where they have put him, alleluia.”

But perhaps most strikingly, one of the options for the first reading at today’s Mass is taken from the Song of Songs (and this is one of the very few instances where the Song of Songs is included in the lectionary):
On my bed at night I sought himwhom my soul loves—I sought him but I did not find him.“Let me rise then and go about the city,through the streets and squares;Let me seek him whom my soul loves.”I sought him but I did not find him.The watchmen found me,as they made their rounds in the city:“Him whom my soul loves—have you seen him?”Hardly had I left themwhen I found him whom my soul loves. (Songof Songs 3:1-4a)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Who Can Be Called a Bride of Christ?

Whenever I’m asked what is the most central element of a vocation to consecrated virginity, without hesitation I always answer: the call to be a bride of Christ. All other aspects of this vocation revolve around this core identity and specific form of self-gift. The centrality of this vocation’s spousal element is clearly stated in both the Code of Canon Law as well as in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself. It’s also very evident in the personal vocations stories of most consecrated virgins.

However, I’ve found that sometimes people are still confused by the spousal dimension of consecrated virginity, perhaps owing to the fact that this sort of bridal imagery has so often been associated with nuns and religious Sisters. For example, at times some Catholics will assume that only women religious can be “real brides of Christ.” In other cases, I’ve heard it argued that the Church intended to discourage the use of bridal spirituality altogether among consecrated women in general after Vatican II. Much more rarely, I’ve even encountered some consecrated virgins who have maintained (quite mistakenly, in my opinion) that it would be wrong for women religious who have not received the Rite of Consecration to identify themselves brides of Christ, based on the notion that only consecrated virgins have the right to regard themselves this way.

Given the potential for misunderstandings, I thought it would be good to have a discussion about what it means to be a bride of Christ, who is called to this role within the Church, and the ways in which such a special vocation might be received.

Some preliminary clarifications

But before anything else, let’s be clear on exactly what we’re talking about. The Church uses the term “bride of Christ” to describe a number of different (albeit often overlapping or inter-related) concepts.

First and foremost, the title “bride of Christ” belongs to the Church herself in the fullest and truest sense. We know this is true from a wide number of scriptural references, and also from the Church’s constant theological tradition. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “The Church is the Bride of Christ: he loved her and handed himself over for her. He has purified her by his blood and made her the fruitful mother of all God's children.” (CCC 808)

Because the Church is also the people of God, formed from the countless number of baptized members, I believe we can say that all of the faithful—both on collective and individual levels—share in the Church’s “brideship.” Therefore, I don’t think it would be wrong to say that there is a certain sense in which each and every baptized Christian is called to be a “bride,” insofar as they are incorporated into the body of Christ’s bride, the Church.

We can also speak of Christ as the true Bridegroom of each individual soul, since He is ultimately the source of all fulfillment for every human heart. This is why spousal or bridal imagery is regularly employed in a metaphorical or analogical way by theologians who write about the spiritual life. Some good examples of this can be found in the writings of St. John of the Cross or St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In the Carmelite tradition especially, the expression “mystical marriage” is used almost as a technical term to describe the most advanced stages of contemplative prayer.

“Bridehood” as special call

All of the above-mentioned ways of being a bride of Christ apply in a general way to all of the faithful. For instance, our participation in the brideship of the Church can be thought of as a universal, “automatic” consequence of baptism. And on a more personally specific level, even while the spiritual phenomenon of mystical marriage might be a rare occurrence in actual reality, this kind of call to complete union with God is God’s intended destiny for all His children. That is, it’s not a state He wants to reserve only for a chosen few, but is rather the culmination of each and every Christian vocation.

But in addition to these more general ways of using bridal imagery, I think we can also speak of a call to be a bride of Christ in a more restricted, special “vocational” sense—i.e., the sense in which some women are called to live as a bride of Christ in a much more radical way, as their state in life.

Since Apostolic times, there have always been some Christian women who  felt called to renounce the possibility of an earthly marriage in order to dedicate themselves Christ in as complete and total a way as they could. Or in other words, they were offering Christ all the love and devotion that they would have otherwise given to an earthly husband and children. In relation to the rest of the baptized faithful, such women can rightfully be considered espoused to Christ in a more radical, concrete, and literal sense. They could be appropriately regarded as being “brides of Christ” in a special way, as their spirituality and way of life is, for fairly obvious reasons, not something to which the baptized in general are all called.

For example, men categorically are not called to be “brides of Christ” in this particular sense, since this kind of more-or-less literal “bridehood” is an essentially feminine reality. That is, a man in his masculine nature is not able to relate to Christ as his Bridegroom in the same strong sense as a woman can in her femininity. Similarly, a married woman cannot take Christ as her spouse in this same direct way, since she has already committed herself to a mortal husband.

“Brides of Christ” from a historical perspective

Historically, the Church first formally acknowledged this special call to live as a bride of Christ through the consecration of virgins. From all appearances, in the Church’s first few centuries, the call to be a consecrated virgin was considered one and the same with call to be Christ’s bride. However, in subsequent centuries, as the Roman persecution of Christians subsided, other forms of consecrated life in the Church began to develop. This included the earliest versions of what we today would know as “religious life,” or a vowed consecrated life lived in community according to a specific Rule and a particular foundational spirituality.

Although religious life properly so-called was (and is) distinct from consecrated virginity per se, some of the first precursors to women’s religious life were communities of already-consecrated virgins who chose to live together in order to receive mutual support in living out their vocation. But with the rise of organized monastic life in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, laywomen would enter monasteries and then subsequently receive the consecration of virgins at a later point, often in conjunction with their solemn profession of religious vows.

Because of this, the consecration of virgins came to be closely associated with religious life for women. Many ritual or liturgical elements which originally pertained specifically to the consecration of virgins—such as the reception of the veil, or committing one’s life to Christ in the presence of the local bishop—later became more strongly identified with women’s religious life, especially as the custom of consecrating non-monastic virgins was gradually falling out of practice.

Even while the newer medieval women’s religious Orders (e.g., the Poor Clares and Dominican nuns) did not continue the custom of bestowing the consecration of virgins upon their solemnly professed nuns, they continued to identify with the title “spouse of Christ.” Likewise, once the more modern congregations of active Sisters began to develop, the traditional use of “bridal” imagery continued to be a common theme in the spirituality and theology of women’s religious life. 

Towards the mid-twentieth century, it was to the point that, rightly or wrongly, the call to be a bride of Christ was considered more or less synonymous with the call for a woman to become a religious—especially since non-religious consecrated virgins had become little more than a distant memory in life of the Church at the time.

After Vatican II

Although the Second Vatican Council certainly did not introduce any true doctrinal changes, it did clarify several theological points related to the Church’s own inner structure and nature.  Because of this, after the Council the Church began to approach many elements of her theology on consecrated life from a somewhat different (or perhaps we could say a renewed) point of view. That is, the Church sought to promote a fuller understanding of the history, fundamental nature, and the original inspirations behind the various expressions of consecrated life.

This renewed perspective would later be reflected in the Church’s legislation, especially in the new Code of Canon Law which was to be promulgated several years later in 1983. It would also be evident in many magisterial documents, such as John Paul II’s 1991 post-synodal exhortation Vita Consecrata, as well as in many of the revised liturgical rites.

Concretely, some of the results of this renewal were:

- the 1970 revision of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which also effected the re-establishment of the ancient Order of Virgins as a recognized form of consecrated life in its own right;

- religious life being recognized as a vocation which is essentially the same for both men and women (unlike the earlier 1917 Code of Canon Law, the canons on religious life in the post-Vatican II Code make virtually no distinctions between men’s and women’s institutes);

- the expression “consecrated life” no longer being considered a strict synonym for “religious life”—it was clarified that “consecrated life” is an umbrella term encompassing a wide variety of forms, with religious life properly so-called being just one particular expression among others.

The question at hand

So, if consecrated virginity is the vocation which is explicitly identified with the call to be a bride of Christ, and if religious life per se is understood as something different from consecrated virginity, is it still appropriate for religious Sisters and nuns who aren’t consecrated virgins to call themselves brides of Christ?

I think the answer here would have to be a qualified “yes and no.” That is, a general “yes” for most practical purposes, and a more limited “no” when we’re dealing with precise technical theological and canonical issues.

To start with the “no” part of the answer, it can be noted that consecrated virgins are the only ones whom the Church’s law describes as being “mystically espoused to Christ” (“Christo Dei Filio mystice desponsantur,” cf. can. 604). And as is clear from even a cursory reading of the Rite of Consecration, consecrated virginity as a vocation is directly ordered around the call to be a bride of Christ. That is, the call to be a bride of Christ is absolutely essential to the call to become a consecrated virgin; the vocation cannot be understood apart from this central call. A spousal call is not just a non-negotiable element of consecrated virginity, but it is also its single most defining element.

On the other hand, canon law never once identifies the call to be a bride of Christ with religious vows as such. Religious life, for both men and women, is not understood as being fundamentally a literal spousal relationship with Jesus. Rather, it is an approved way of life centered around following Christ more closely through vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In contrast with consecrated virginity, the basic concept of religious life can be grasped without referencing a call to be a bride of Christ.

This difference can be seen not only in the Church’s law, but also in the two vocations’ respective liturgies. In the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, nearly every single prayer explicitly references the spousal dimension of this vocation. In comparison, the “generic” liturgy that the Church provides for profession in women’s religious community contains relatively few bridal references. And when the Rite of Religious Profession for Women does allude to bridal spirituality, these bridal references tend to be much more abstract and general in their tone (so abstract, in fact, that virtually all of these references could reasonably be applied to all Christians in our common baptismal consecration).

Different religious communities typically have their own proper customs, liturgies, and vow formulae for profession. Some communities do choose to employ abundant bridal imagery in their vow ceremonies, while other communities opt not to include any sort of nuptial language at all in their profession liturgies. That is, individual religious communities are free to emphasize or de-emphasize spousal imagery according to their own unique spirituality and charism. The fact that communities have this sort of freedom would seem to suggest that while a call to identify as a spouse of Christ can harmonize with a religious vocation, it would not seem to be absolutely essential to religious life as an overall category.

Additionally, in a handful of cloistered communities, nuns not only make religious profession, but also receive the consecration of virgins. Since the Church has these two different rituals which are both permitted to be received by the same person, it would follow that these two liturgies are meant attain different ends. Since we know that the consecration of virgins is explicitly intended as a betrothal to Christ, we can therefore gather that religious profession in and of itself must have something other than espousal with Christ as its direct object.

So to sum it up a bit roughly, bridal imagery is more or less optional for religious, but is absolutely necessary for consecrated virgins. Therefore, it might be right to say that consecrated virgins are brides of Christ in a special strong sense, insofar as they are the only ones who are officially recognized as brides of Christ as a direct consequence of their particular vocation.


But now we move on the “yes” part of the answer. Even while consecrated virgins may be the only “canonical” spouses of Christ, it would be wrong to ignore the Church’s venerable and extensive custom of using bridal imagery in reference to professed religious women. We also have the witness of countless faithful women religious—whether they be great mystics of the Church like St. Teresa of Avila or the more ordinary Sister serving at the local school or parish—who have experienced their calling and vocation in a distinctly spousal way. Additionally, we should remember that many canonized lay women, such as St. Kateri Teckawitha and St. Catherine of Siena, saw themselves as responding to a very real call to be a bride of Christ through the making of a private vow.

Yet if we’ve already established that it is specifically the consecration of virgins, as opposed to religious vows or any other kind of commitment, which formally marks a woman as a bride of Christ, how could we then consider non-members of the Order of Virgins as being brides of Christ as well? Wouldn’t this seem a bit inconsistent? Or could we even reasonably ask whether or not calling all consecrated women “brides of Christ” runs the risk of emptying the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity of its meaning and significance?

Perhaps the key here is to frame the questions properly by making some more nuanced distinctions. In particular, it would seem that we can distinguish between: 1. the objective theological reality of being interiorly called to relate to Christ as one’s spouse; and 2. the Church’s public, canonical recognition of this. While of course there is certainly significant overlap between these two concepts, it might be helpful if we could recognize that they are nevertheless slightly different things. Working from this premise, it would be reasonable to conclude that actually living as a bride of Christ may perhaps be something which can happen even apart from officially receiving the title “Sponsa Christi.”

To this end, perhaps it is possible to resolve the apparent conflict over who can be called a bride of Christ by acknowledging the grace to relate to Christ as a spouse as a charism, with the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity being the Church’s way of strengthening and confirming that charism.

What is a charism?

A charism is a spiritual gift, granted directly by God to an individual for the benefit of the wider Church. Scripture often speaks of charisms (for example, see 1 Corinthians 12:4, 7), as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church (cf. CCC 798 – 801). Since Vatican II, the Church has also used the word “charism” to describe the foundational spirituality of a religious family—a terminology which expresses that idea that the inspiration which prompted the start of a religious family is a grace initially granted as a gift to the community’s founder, and then carried on as an inheritance by the community’s vowed members down through time.

A defining characteristic of a charism is that it is truly a supernatural gift. I.e., it is not something which can come about through human effort or achievement. It therefore results in something which is quite above our natural human capabilities. The call to be a bride of Christ certainly fits this description. Not all women have this calling, and the spiritual capacity to see Christ as one’s spouse is not something that a woman can attain simply by desiring it. Rather, it is something that comes directly from God.

Like all gifts, I think this bridal charism is something which needs to be definitely accepted by the women to whom it is granted. Naturally, I would think that an acceptance of this bridal charism would have to take the form of some sort of definite resolution to renounce earthly marriage. Of course, for some women, their acceptance of this the charism of takes the form receiving the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. But since it would seem that God grants this charism to individual women in a wide variety of circumstances, it is reasonable to suppose that many women’s acceptance of this spousal charism may come through an exclusive commitment to Christ made by means of religious profession. Other women may accept this charism in a more hidden way through the making of a private vow.

I think we can consider the consecration of virgins to be an especially privileged way of accepting and living out the charism to be a bride of Christ, since it is through only the consecration of virgins that the Church confirms this specific charism explicitly. This is a notable difference from religious profession, in which the Church confirmations a call to live a more generally evangelical way of life in the context of a particular religious community. It is even more different from a private vow, which is simply a personal response to the Lord which doesn’t involve the Church’s formal confirmation in any official sense.

But while the Church tells us authoritatively through the consecration of virgins who is a bride of Christ, we should keep in mind that she does not thereby tell us definitely who is not one. We can say with certainty that consecrated virgins are indeed called to be brides of Christ. But on the other hand, even though a woman religious (or a woman with a private vow of virginity) may not have this same kind of direct confirmation of a bridal call, this does not mean that she has not been granted this charism in actual fact. We need to have a certain humility in remembering that God calls whomever He wills according to His good pleasure, and that from an outsider’s point of view we don’t always have the clearest insight into the graces God has wrought in a particular soul.

The upshot

So what are the practical consequences to all of this?

First of all, I think we as a Church should treasure the distinctive spousal vocation of the Order of Virgins, as it’s ultimately meant as a gift for the entire Church.

We should also respect the spirituality of women religious who understand their own vocation in bridal terms. Even if bridal spirituality isn’t absolutely essential to religious life, it can still be beautiful and very fitting in this context. Many religious communities do consider bridal imagery as part of their foundational spirituality, so we might think of bridal spirituality a sort of “charism within a charism” in these instances.

But on the other hand, we also shouldn’t negatively judge women religious who for whatever reason do not identify with bridal imagery. We should keep in mind that a woman can live out the essential elements of religious life—i.e., an evangelical life of prayer, service, community, and public witness—in a full and fervent way, even if she best relates to Christ in a way other than as His bride.

If a woman discerning a vocation to consecrated life feels most strongly drawn to a spousal relationship with Christ (rather than feeling primarily attracted to community life or the mission of a particular religious family) then it might be good for her at least to investigate consecrated virginity. But if a discerner realizes that Order of Virgins is not where she is called, she shouldn’t feel that she therefore cannot be a spouse of Christ in any sense.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Homily for the Feast of St. Agatha

For today’s feast of St. Agatha, consecrated virgin and martyr, here is a lovely homily preached by Fr. Hugh Clifford to the students of the Pontifical Irish College in Rome (where Irish seminarians receive their priestly formation while studying at Rome’s Pontifical Universities).


You could say that, in a way, St Agatha is a former patroness of ours! The Irish College was at the Church of Sant’Agata dei Goti from 1836 to 1926 before it moved here, so our predecessors as the Irish College community no doubt turned often to the intercession of Saint Agatha. So maybe it would be a good thing for us to rekindle that devotion today on her feast.

She was held in great veneration in the Church of Rome, so much so that her name is among the Saints mentioned in Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon.

Agatha, like St. Agnes whom we celebrated in January, died rather than allow her virginity to be violated, because she had consecrated it to God. In choosing to accept death, and in choosing virginity in the first place, she was placing her trust in God that this world is not the full of reality. She was putting her faith in the heavenly Jerusalem. Today’s first reading from Hebrews puts this vision before our eyes, to be our motivation too, “what you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first born son’ and a citizen of heaven.” St. Stephen was someone else, also mentioned in Eucharist Prayer I, who accepted martyrdom and gazed into heaven seeing a vision of the glory of God before he died.

Agatha lived up to Jesus’ teaching on evangelization in today’s Gospel. Her influence didn’t arise from purses and haversacks and coppers. She sent strong waves through Christian history by her steadfast faith. The mighty Roman Empire had a deeply ingrained attitude to sexuality which certainly didn’t resemble the purity of heart demanded by Jesus. Yet, the witness of people like Agatha to higher values amazingly turned that around. The Christians succeeded in changing the sexual outlook of the Romans. It’s something we should keep in mind when we try to figure out the best pastoral approach to matters of marriage and the family today.

St. Agatha can help us in our own commitment to celibacy too, so that we can make it a pointer to the heavenly Jerusalem—forsaking marriage, something very good, in view of that festival with the millions of angels gathered. People’s view of that motivation for celibacy can be obscured by legalistic wrangling about whether celibacy should be compulsory or not. If we embrace celibacy in a spirit of love for God and his Church, so that this pure love flows out from us to the sheep of God’s flock, then our celibacy will be fruitful and it will make more sense to people.  

The above-mentioned Church of Sant’Agata dei Goti in Rome

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Feast of St. Agnes

A blessed feast of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr, to all my sisters in Christ around the world!

As many of you already know, in Rome there is a special custom for the feast of St. Agnes. Two lambs are blessed during Mass at the basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls (which was built on the site of St. Anges’ parents’ home). Later, these lambs will be shorn, and their wool will be used to make the pallia that new metropolitan archbishops receive from the Holy Father on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

This tradition is especially meaningful for me in my own spirituality,  since it’s beautifully symbolic of consecrated virgins’ call to provide spiritual support for the ministry of bishops through our life of prayer and total dedication to Christ.

One of my favorite memories from my three years in Rome was last year on this date, when I was able to attend the lamb blessing ceremony. Unfortunately, at the time I was too busy with my academic work to take the time to write about it here! But in the spirit of “better late than never,” I thought I would at least share last year’s photos today:

Here I am in the courtyard of the basilica before Mass.

The lambs arrive!

Me with the lambs. Before Mass, the lambs are set out in one of the hallways, and you can go up and pet them!
There are two lambs: one decorated in red silk roses and one decorated with white ones. 
This is meant to represent both the virginity and the martyrdom of St. Agnes.

Other people petting the lambs, including my friend Fr. Hugh and some local Italian school children on a field trip.

Praying at the tomb of St. Agnes. From early records, we know that her body was buried under what is now the high altar of the basilica. 
(Her head is believed to be in a different Church in central Rome.)

And finally...

In front of the poem from Pope St. Damasus.
In the basilica, there is a sort of marble plaque with a Latin poem composed in honor of St. Agnes by Pope St. Damasus (who lived from 304 – 384). This is actually one of our earliest written sources on the life of St. Agnes. The plaque was actually lost for several centuries, but was found again in 1728. It had been used as a paving stone (inscription side down, luckily!), which is why it had been preserved.

The Latin inscription reads:


(Fr.Z’s blog gives an English translation:“It is told that one day the holy parents recounted that Agnes, when the trumpet had sounded its sad tunes, suddenly left the lap of her nurse while still a little girl and willingly trod upon the rage and the threats of the cruel tyrant. Though he desired to burn the noble body in the flames, with her little forces she overcame immense fear and, gave her loosened hair to cover her naked limbs, lest mortal eye might see the temple of the Lord. O one worthy of my veneration, holy glory of modesty, I pray you, O illustrious martyr, deign to give ear to the prayers of Damasus.”)