Originally appeared on Catholic Stand
Consecrated virgin: To many, the phrase sounds outlandish, not only unfamiliar but unsettlingly strange. To most of the world outside the Church, it means a crazy woman who has promised to renounce marriage for an unfathomable idea. Even to many Catholics, such a woman looks like a puzzling quasi-religious, taking vows but not entering an order. The subject evokes blank looks or dubious, fumbling responses, as I’ve found from my own experience. Some even suspect that such women may simply be too lazy to look for the right religious community, living their lives by a sort of half-measure.
Some of this confusion may be understandable. A consecrated virgin doesn’t look different from a laywoman, as a nun in a habit would. She lives in the world and supports herself; she wears ordinary clothes and is not called any special title like Sister. Her way, however, is based on a special calling. Her whole life is sacred to Christ, and she serves Him in a way that nuns cannot. Hers is a life of love for Him, and she follows Him wherever He asks her to be.
Perhaps the best introduction to this way of life is through the words of two women who are living it, one who made her story publicly available and one with whom I spoke via email.
“I did not give up romantic relationships for an idea. I fell in love with a person, Jesus Christ,” Carmen Briceño explains in Good Housekeeping. Presently working as a youth minister in the Arlington diocese of Virginia, Carmen was attracted to the consecrated virgin’s life when she considered examples from the church’s early days.
“These were the early virgin martyrs like Agatha and Lucy, who were executed for not wanting to marry Roman citizens because they were already vowed to God,” she remembers. “They lived in their families and dedicated themselves to works of mercy in their community. They loved the Lord so much they wanted to give all of themselves to Him.” This last, Carmen emphasizes, was a key point for her: “Living as a consecrated virgin came from love, and it was that which so appealed to me.”
Grace Smith (name changed for privacy), a first and second grade teacher at a Catholic school, corroborates this testimony in her email. “It is the best vocation in the world,” she declares. “A profound grace of the Holy Spirit has fallen upon me.” Through her vow, she adds, she has become a spouse of Christ and a spiritual mother to those she serves: “My spiritual children bring me incredible joy! Overnight I became the mother to so many! . . . Virgin, Bride and Mother . . . I can’t think of anything better!” Of course, not all consecrated virgins work with literal children, but the spiritual maternity described here could be exercised in many kinds of service.
The joy these women have doesn’t mean that their choice involves no sacrifice. It does mean that they have made their sacrifices freely and happily. “It’s not a secret that I have wondered what it would have been like to be married and have children, but it’s important that people know I chose my life,” Carmen says. “It was not imposed upon me, even though it may be hard to understand. . . . It’s sacrificial, and I’m aware of that. I am completely filled with joy and happiness.”
“No vocation is easy to live when you live it to the full,” Grace adds, “but His grace is sufficient! The cross is ultimately a sign of love and triumph, and there is a deep joy and peace that come when you are living in His will!”
This remark brings up a point often missed in discussion of such an unusual life: one can become so absorbed in the exceptional sacrifices that one forgets that every vocation involves sacrifice. We are all called to love, and love necessarily involves giving of ourselves. One of the central paradoxes of Christian life is that in self-giving, we find our joy. Every generation has left us evidence from those who have tried it. Those who doubt it are encouraged to try and see.
But even assuming that one can understand a woman giving up marriage in order to pledge herself to God, one might still wonder: why don’t these women just enter convents?
The short answer is that God has called them to serve Him in a life essentially different from that of nuns. A nun gives her life to God within a religious community. A consecrated virgin also belongs wholly to Him, but in the world, among the people. By her life of celibacy, prayer, and good works lived in the world, she bears witness to His grace and love in a unique way.
Catholics puzzled by, or suspicious of, this way of life may not be aware of its true status in the Church. Despite its obscurity, the vocation of the consecrated virgin is ancient and well-established. Canon 604 sums it up briefly: “Similar to these forms of consecrated life is the order of virgins who, expressing the holy resolution of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are mystically betrothed to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.” This description is clearly distinguished from that of nuns, as is evident from the separate discussion of “the life of brothers or sisters proper to each institute” in Canon 602, just two notes earlier.
Consecrated virginity in the world is not a recent invention. The official Information Packet on the vocation, published by the USACV, traces its history from the Church’s early days to the present. During the first century, both widows and virgins began to embrace lives of special consecration to Christ. As Carmen noted, some of the early virgin martyrs belonged to this category. After several centuries, monasticism began to develop, and the first religious communities started to grow. St. Benedict, known as the “Father of Western Monasticism,” established his monastery at Montecassino around 530 A.D. The parallel community of nuns under his sister, St. Scholastica, presumably began close to that time. It was only about then, according to the packet’s timeline, that the Consecration of a Virgin became customary for nuns in monasteries.
Ironically, by the Middle Ages, the older form of virginal consecration had fallen into disuse. During the centuries that followed, a woman would occasionally remain single and make some special, private vows; examples include Catherine of Siena, Rose of Lima, and Kateri Tekakwitha. There was, however, no normal procedure for doing so; a woman who chose such a path was essentially blazing her own trail.
Then, finally, came the Second Vatican Council. Designed to promote spiritual renewal, and too often woefully misunderstood, Vatican II nevertheless bore some good fruits in the Church, including the revival of consecrated virginity outside convents. On May 31, 1970, came the official restoration of the Consecration of a Virgin for women in the world.
Many Christians in recent years have opined that we are living in a second pre-Dark Ages period. Perhaps we should hardly be surprised that, in such a time, the Church is restoring her oldest venues of grace—as it were, dusting off, sharpening, and polishing the weapons of her first battles. The culture in which we live is often described as “pagan” or sometimes “barbarian.” What better time for a bride of Christ to go forth, filled with His grace and power, and bring the light of His love and goodness to souls in the dark?
Since this consecrated virginity is so old and so honored in the Church, we Catholics should be able to understand it and explain it to others. It tends to be surrounded with questions and mystery, but it needn’t be so.
Perhaps more practical details would help. For one thing, what do these women do every day? They do many of the same things as other people. At one point in her article, Carmen notes that she does normal things like go to Starbucks. Consecrated virgins support themselves by all kinds of jobs, as noted on one page of the USACV website: “In the United States, consecrated virgins today include teachers, social workers, business women, librarians, accountants, nurses, physicians, a fire fighter, women employed in a variety of Church positions, a dance teacher, psychologists, retired women, disabled women, women dedicated to prayer or devoted to the care of a family member, those dedicated to volunteer work, as well as other professions.”
So what makes such a woman different? Her vocation is much more than remaining unmarried. A single Catholic woman may be a virgin, but not a consecrated virgin. Before taking that step, she could marry an earthly husband; but once she makes her consecration, she is set apart for the Lord. She has been called to marry Christ, and is thereafter supplied with all the grace necessary to live out that special vocation.
Grace, in her email, puts it very succinctly: “Life as a consecrated virgin is very different from a single laywoman because I am eternally espoused to Christ as His bride.” Carmen adds, “People have asked if I can be as dedicated to my faith without having to marry Christ. The answer is yes, I absolutely could—but I can’t be married to another man while also fully giving myself to God in the way that God wants for me. Because in that case, my main vocation would be a wife. In consecrated virginity, though, I give God the freedom to use me whenever and however He wants. All of me is His.”
This may be confusing for many Catholics, accustomed to hearing that everyone should give God everything or some such. While we are all called to do that on a real, meaningful level, one might say that the consecrated virgin does it more directly. Of course, a married or single laywoman can reach an equal sanctity, but does so differently: the wife serves God through her husband and children, and the single woman may have the truest devotion in her heart, but is not formally set apart in the same way. This, we must add, does not make consecrated virgins an “aristocracy”; the grace they have received is not cause for pride, but for humble gratitude and a sense of responsibility.
Now to get especially practical and specific: how exactly does a woman become a consecrated virgin? Not all women are eligible. Unlike in other forms of consecrated life, a candidate must be a virgin, i.e. never have married or lived in violation of chastity.
As Canon 604 noted, the diocesan bishops administer the consecration; so she first sends her request to the bishop of her diocese, who decides whether or not to accept it and, if he does, sees to her formation beforehand. She doesn’t simply decide on this way of life; before she takes such a weighty, sacred step, the Church is careful to make sure that her call is genuine and she is ready.
If her calling proves true, after the formation comes her “wedding day”—or rather, her consecration day. She is forever wed to the Lord, a living sign of His love.
If a woman feels attracted to this vocation, what should she do?
“Read and pray with the Rite of Consecrated Virginity for a Woman Living in the World,” recommends Grace. “Sit before Him in the tabernacle and silently wait. He will make it clear!”
Perhaps even someone reading this article has felt drawn to a life like this—or is among the women who wonder where their place can be when they find they are meant neither for marriage nor the convent. To everyone, but especially to these women, I leave this encouragement: don’t be afraid of what seems like an unusual vocation, something off the beaten path as you know it. God works through unusual lives all the time. Saints often seem unusual. If one penetrates the novelty with patient thought and prayer, one can find there a true, deep, and heavenly beauty.
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