Sunday, August 22, 2021

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago and Formation, part I: Basic Principles

Image: The consecrated virgin St. Marcellina with her brother, St. Ambrose. St. Marcellina was encouraged by her brother to help guide younger consecrated virgins in the fourth century. 

One of the most noteworthy aspects of
Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI), the 2018 Instruction on the Ordo virginum, is its outline of the initial formation process for consecrated virgins in paragraphs 74 – 107, along with other references to formation scattered throughout the rest of the text.  

This is an important development, because prior to this none of the Church’s canonical documents on consecrated virginity so much as mentioned the need for formation. So in a very strict technical sense, before ESI it was theoretically possible to argue that the Church didn’t envision any formation at all as being required for would-be consecrated virgins. (Not that I personally would have tried to make this argument, of course!)

Prior to ESI, one would have hoped that reference to parallel situations in canon law (cf. CIC can. 17), ordinary pastoral solicitude, and plain common sense would have indicated the need for some sort of formation for aspiring consecrated virgins. But it is still helpful to have the Church’s vision of formation substantially clarified in ESI—especially since, before this Instruction, educated and well-meaning people could have come to different conclusions on certain points.

I will write a follow-up post on the steps in the process of formation as described in ESI, but I think it’s important to start out by discussing some of the more general questions and principles of formation that ESI articulates. And so what follows are my own thoughts and personal insights, written primarily from my perspective as a canon lawyer, but also from the viewpoint of my vocation as a consecrated virgin.

1. ESI clarifies the nature of this vocation 

In my opinion, the most important contribution ESI makes to our understanding of appropriate formation for consecrated virgins is its clarification of the fundamental nature of the Ordo virginum as, among other things: a visibly public form of consecrated life (cf. ESI 38 and 67) which is inspired by the Evangelical counsels (ESI 27); characteristically rooted in the local diocesan Church (ESI 42); having an essential contemplative dimension (ESI 29) while also being ordered towards apostolate, ministry, and concrete service of the Church (ESI 39); and which is meant as a radical gift of a woman’s whole life (cf. ESI 74).

Although these issues might seem only indirectly related to formation per se, in reality these kinds of clarifications are foundational to any formation program. Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, you can’t form someone for something unless you understand specifically what you are forming them for. Formation for a life of dedicated service as a public representative of the Church in consecrated life will naturally have to be very different, and perhaps much more involved, than the formation required for making something like a simple private commitment to evangelical chastity.

2. ESI envisions formation as a personal work 

ESI further clarifies how the Church envisions formation for the Ordo virginum as an integral and “hands-on” project. That is, a project which certainly involves the aspiring consecrated virgin taking in new information in an intellectual way, but one which can hardly stop there. Any kind of serious formation requires real dialogue, practical discernment, pastoral engagement, and the forming of relationships. Or to put it more straightforwardly, while things like reading lists and information packets can be very helpful as supplemental resources (and are certainly much better than nothing!), the Church via ESI does not see women as being adequately formed for consecrated virginity by simply reading books, articles, or other texts.

This principle is evident throughout ESI’s section on formation. For instance, ESI 92 requires “the Bishop, the Delegate [for consecrated virgins] and the consecrated women who participate in the service of formation” to become acquainted with aspirants and candidates for consecrated virginity in a direct way as individual people, so as to more fully understand their strengths, weaknesses, and overall aptitude for this vocation. As ESI 98 goes on to tell us: “The obligation of the Bishop, the Delegate, and the consecrated women who collaborate in the service of formation will therefore consist in ensuring that the candidate receives a systematic introduction to the charism and to the features of this form of life, in accompanying her while she intensifies and deepens her spiritual life, and in observing how she harmonizes and arranges her lifestyle in docility to the action of the Spirit.” In a similar vein, ESI 94 speaks of an aspiring consecrated virgin having regular meetings and communication with the above-mentioned formation team. And even earlier on in the Instruction, we are told that: “Consecrated women take an active part in formation initiatives, in agreement with the Bishop. They collaborate as far as possible in the formation of aspirants and candidates for consecration.” (ESI 45)

The importance of accompaniment is a theme that runs throughout this Instruction, even in sections that do not discuss formation specifically. In my view, this serves as a salutary reminder to us that, although consecrated virginity is an induvial vocation (in the sense that this vocation is not dependent on membership in an organized institute), as Pope Francis notes, ultimately “nobody is saved alone”* and thus nobody can truly be formed in consecrated life alone. Consecrated virginity is integrally woven into the fabric of the broader Church, which is a interdependent community and a spiritual family.

3. ESI dictates a comprehensive approach 

Another striking feature of ESI’s discussion on formation is how formation is envisioned as a process for fostering the development of the whole person. While ESI undoubtedly conveys the necessity of spiritual formation, it does not present formation in the Ordo virginum as being simply a matter of adopting a new spirituality or more intense prayer life.

For example, ESI 87 refers to the importance of human formation, noting that formators should be attentive to an aspirant’s or candidate’s “realistic self-knowledge,” her “capacity to establish healthy, serene and generous relationships with [both] men and women,” her professional development, and her responsible use of “goods, of social media and of her free time.”

ESI also indicates that intellectual formation is a requirement for aspiring consecrated virgins. This is particularly clear in ESI 102, which states: “When her practical circumstances and her personal abilities allow, the candidate will be encouraged to attend courses of study at theological colleges, institutes of religious science or similar institutions. In no case should an adequate theological preparation in the areas of biblical studies, liturgy, spirituality, ecclesiology, and moral theology be omitted.”

This shows us that a call to consecrated virginity is not meant merely as a private interior change, but is intended as a vocation which encompasses a woman’s entire life and all the dimensions of her personality.

4. ESI provides a formation timetable 

Prior to ESI, there was no universal consensus regarding exactly how long discernment and initial formation for consecrated virginity should last, or how this time period should proceed. I personally have heard of cases where, on the one hand, a woman first expressing her interest in the Ordo virginum was consecrated a mere few months later; and on the other, where a woman remained in a vague and unstructured “discernment” period that lasted for the better part of ten years. I am of the opinion that neither of these situations were just or fair to the women involved. Yet as much as I hate to admit it, prior to 2018 both of these scenarios were technically permissible since before the Instruction was published the length and manner of formation fell into what was a near total lacuna, or an almost complete gap in the law.

But now, thankfully, the Church has given us a canonical framework for how formation for consecrated virginity should proceed. In a nutshell, it is now a requirement that potential consecrated virgins have a “preparatory period,” which I think in English we could also call an “aspirancy,” which should last from one to two years. (ESI 92). This is to be followed by what ESI calls the “formation program,” but which as an English speaker I would call a “candidacy,” lasting two or three years. (ESI 97)**

Even though ESI speaks of the need to personalize formation to the individual, (ESI 77) it is still important to observe the timeline of formation which the Church presents to us in ESI. This is a matter of both prudence and justice.

It’s a matter of prudence, because among other concerns, a too-short formation period could lead to women being consecrated before they’re truly ready. Or conversely, a formation period that is too long could undermine the need for a candidate to make a confident decision with respect to her vocation.

Adherence to a defined formation timeframe is also a matter of justice, because a lack of clarity on when a candidate’s consecration may occur is, essentially, a lack of clarity whether her consecration is even likely to happen at all. This denies the candidate her right to discern seriously and make firm decisions about the overall the course of her life. For instance, loosely-organized “formation” that drags on for many years without a clear goal or direction, and which might eventually end with the bishop deciding against consecration, deprives the woman of the time she might have used more fruitfully in discerning other forms of consecrate life, or even marriage and family life.

5. ESI addresses the question of age 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, ESI’s clarification on the appropriate age for discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity is significant, because it affects our understanding of the essential nature of this vocation. That is, is this a call that a young woman can embrace and then build her life around, or is a vocation meant for only for older women who have a proven history and established lifestyle?

Prior to ESI, the only time a Church document mentioned the age with respect to the Ordo virginum was in the praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which includes the stated requirement that candidates: “by their age, prudence, and universally approved character…give assurance of perseverance in a life of chastity dedicated to the service of the Church and of their neighbor.” But this is general enough to admit several different interpretations. For instance, it could be read as something along the lines of: “Don’t consecrate a teenager!” Yet others had interpreted this to mean that consecrated virginity was meant as a sort of “second half of life” vocation, for women who were at least thirty-five years old, or even much older.***

But ESI 82 helpfully clarifies that consecrated virginity is indeed a vocation that young women are invited to discern. It states that the “hard” lower age limit for entering formation is eighteen; with a “soft” or merely customary lower age limit for actually receiving consecration being twenty-five years of age. Or as ESI itself puts it: “In no case can the preparatory period begin before the age of eighteen years,” and “Ordinarily consecration is not celebrated before the candidate has reached her twenty-fifth birthday.”

This same paragraph also states that “for admission to consecration the usual age for marriage in the region must be taken into account.” Interestingly, this line includes a footnote drawing a parallel with canon 1072 in the Code of Canon Law, in which pastors are directed to dissuade youths from marrying before the age which is accepted as normal in their own cultural context.

In my reading of ESI 82, I understand these passages as indicating that while nobody under the age of majority can embark on a formal path of formation for the Ordo virginum, it may still be possible in some cases for a woman under the age of twenty-five to receive the consecration of virgins. For example, if an exceptionally mature eighteen-year-old woman begins a five-year formation program and completes it fruitfully, her bishop may legitimately decide to consecrated her at the age of twenty-three, as opposed to asking her to wait an additional two years in a formational limbo not described or envisioned by ESI.

ESI also does not specify an upper age limit. From a technical canonical perspective this is not surprising, since religious life and other forms of consecrated life also don’t have a universally prescribed upper age limit for new vocations. But, just as individual religious communities can set their own upper age limits, I personally think it may be helpful for individual dioceses to consider adopting an upper age limit for discerning consecrated virginity in their own policies or proper diocesan law (even if it’s well understood that exceptions to a stated age limit could be possible on a case-by-case basis). Among other things, a stated upper age limit for consecration in the Ordo virginum helps communicate the idea that consecrated virginity truly is meant as a radical offering of one’s whole life, that it should be a woman’s “first choice” vocation, and that it presupposes an openness to formation and a willingness to take on significant new commitments.

6. ESI emphasizes respect for the internal forum 

Finally, ESI makes explicit what could have always been inferred about formation for consecrated virginity: namely, that the distinction between the internal and external forum must always be respected.

To give some background, when the Church speaks of the internal versus external forum, this indicates the distinction between a person’s private interior life and their outward observable actions and behavior. As a illustration, a person’s attendance at a particular Mass is a matter of the external forum, as this can be easily noted by anyone else who happened to be present; but on the other hand, his or her interior attentiveness and spiritual experience while at that Mass are matters of the internal forum.

The Church’s law has always sought to maintain a strict boundary between the external and internal forum in order to protect the privacy and freedom of conscience of all the faithful, and to properly reverence the sacred relationship between God and an individual soul. This general principle finds its most obvious expression in the absolute inviolability of the seal of Confession. But it is also evident in ecclesial laws strongly discouraging, for example, clerical religious superiors from hearing the sacramental confessions of their subjects, (cf. CIC can. 630) or in the prohibition on rectors of seminaries serving as spiritual director to the students under their care. (cf. CIC can. 240 §2) The general idea in these latter examples is that an authority figure in the Church, who is empowered to make serious decisions about one’s future (such as whether or not someone will be ordained or determining where someone will be assigned), should not be influenced in their decision by the purely personal spiritual matters of their subjects, which are legitimately private.

As in some of my above-mentioned points, I think a working knowledge of the Church’s practices regarding the protection of the internal forum in parallel situations could easily have led one to conclude that aspiring consecrated virgins should likewise enjoy reasonable boundaries between the internal and external forum. So in that sense, this aspect of ESI is one of its least novel concepts.

Nevertheless, ESI references the need to respect the internal forum in several places. For example, ESI 53 states: “Regarding pastoral collaboration in the external forum, those entrusted with these responsibilities [i.e., responsibilities related to the formation of aspiring consecrated virgins] will not establish a spiritual accompaniment relationship with aspirants, candidates, or consecrated women. They know that their personal dialogue with each one is to be used specifically for listening, challenge, and review of progress.”

Similarly, under the heading of “The practice of spiritual accompaniment,”**** ESI 79 tells us: “To ensure the [aspiring consecrated virgin’s] freedom in the area of manifestation of conscience, the Delegate for the pastoral care of the Ordo virginum and the consecrated women who participate in the service of formation offer this service in the external forum. They do not establish relationships of spiritual accompaniment with the aspirants, candidates or consecrated women. They abstain from asking for information or advice about the aspirants, candidates or consecrated women from their directors, spiritual accompaniers, and confessors.”

One important concrete consequence of this newly-articulated principle is that there now must be some sort of formation director—either in-house from among the diocesan staff, or another qualified person brought in from the “outside” whom the diocese commissions for this task—for aspiring consecrated virgins and candidates. That is, while spiritual directors have an important role, the entirety of formation cannot be delegated to a woman’s spiritual director. If this were to happen, this would lead to one of two unacceptable options: either 1. The spiritual director would have to violate confidentiality, leading to a conflict of fora; or 2. The diocesan bishop would be completely in the dark about the candidate’s progress in formation or suitability for consecration.

A practical pastoral note…

Looking at all this, it might be tempting for discerners and aspiring consecrated virgins to compare, with a critical eye, how their diocese’s formation program measures up to everything described in Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago. And conversely, bishops and diocesan staff responsible for the Ordo virginum might feel dauted by the scope of the task at hand!

And so it might make sense to close by reminding all of my readers that, especially with such a “new” vocation, at the end of the day we all have to do the best we can with what we have. Certainly, some elements of ESI (e.g., respecting the privacy of the internal forum) can and should be implemented immediately. But other aspects (such as the development of a theological curriculum or robust program of human formation) are necessarily going to take some time. And this time of “growing pains” is going to be a reality no matter how many people devote their best efforts to this worthy project, and regardless of the resources devoted to it. In fact, I have often mused that it will probably take an entire “generation” of consecrated virgins to develop, from our collective studies and lived experience, all the details of truly effective practical formation programs.

In the meantime, we all keep doing what we can to serve the women who, in God’s providential plan, come to us. Every step we take can be a step forward, and we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in the beautiful work of nurturing new vocations.


 * cf. Fratelli tutti, 32

** I think we can use the terms “aspirancy” and “candidacy” to refer to periods of formation, because ESI refers to women in the “preparatory period” as “aspirants,” and to those in the “formation program” as candidates.

*** On a more whimsical personal note, when I was discerning my own vocation in the 2000s, for whatever reason thirty-five was often cited (or rather, mis-cited) as the lower age limit for consecrated virginity. Obviously, in my case it was clarified that thirty-five was simply a suggested lower age recommended by some bishops. But on my actual thirty-fifth birthday—by which point I had already been consecrated for eleven years!—I remember thinking: Huh, I’m finally “old enough” to be a consecrated virgin now!

**** ESI frequently speaks of “spiritual accompaniment.” I understand this as being more or less the same thing as what I would normally call “spiritual direction.”