Consecrated Virginity in the World. What is it?

Joanne Whittering FAITH Magazine May – June 2012

Miss Whittering was recently commissioned as a consecrated virgin in Folkestone Parish. Here she beautifully brings out the relevance of this ancient vocation to parish life today.

Consecrated virginity, the perpetual commitment of a woman who is a virgin to remain in that state, in faithfulness to Jesus Christ and prayerful service of His Church is, to say the least, counter-cultural. It is also very little understood even within the Church despite having existed from Apostolic times. It fell into disuse in the 10th century AD, only being revived after the Second Vatican Council, and is still a rare vocation at the diocesan level.[1]

That a phenomenon of women remaining virgins, dedicated to prayer, and living within the community, existed is clear in the New Testament in the central passage of 1 Cor 7. Later there is some evidence for virgins taking formal vows and living either in their own home or in a group under the guidance of bishops such as St Athanasius and St Ambrose, and this continued for centuries until monastic life became the dominant form of female consecrated life. The Second Vatican Council revived the ancient Order of Virgins in the life of the Church, in which the individual is consecrated to virginity, to a life of prayer and penance, and to the service of the Church under the jurisdiction of the bishop.

A Positive Affirmation of Love

Perhaps one of the most important points to make at the outset is that this vocation is not a negative asceticism but a positive response of the whole person to the love of Jesus Christ. It is often described as sequela Christi, following Christ, and the virgin as Christi sponsa, spouse of Christ, in a relationship classically described as epitomising the marriage of Christ and His Church. As the Rite of Consecration says:

The Church is the Bride of Christ. This title of the Church was given by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church to those like you who speak to us of the world to come, where there is not marrying or giving in marriage. You are a sign of the great mystery of salvation, proclaimed at the beginning of human history and fulfilled in the marriage covenant between Christ and His Church.

This chastity shares the same eschatological perspective as that of all consecrated life, that it is "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:12). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, it is "an eschatological image of this heavenly Bride of Christ [the Church] and of the life to come" (922-4).

The Rite is at pains to place a high value on the more common vocation of marriage, which is not to be considered as denigrated by implication, but it affirms the positive value of the vocation to consecrated virginity in itself. The candidate does not ask the Church to discern this vocation out of disparagement for the married state, much less out of a fear of her own sexuality, but as a joyous and full commitment of these potentialities to a complete love of Christ. The attitude of the candidate is that of Psalm 64: O God, You are my God, for You I long, for You my soul is yearning ... therefore I have gazed upon You in the sanctuary, to behold Your power and glory. It can only be understood in the context of a profoundly personal relationship between the individual and Christ,which is why it is considered primarily as a contemplative vocation. The bridal imagery invoked throughout the Fathers and in the Rite itself may sound awkwardly to modern ears, yet it contains a profound truth about the absolute fidelity to which the virgin is called.

A Vocation in the Church

Although this vocation is at heart profoundly personal and interior, it is at the same time completely rooted in the life of the Church. As Pope Benedict said to the Congress of Consecrated Virgins in 2008:

Your vocation is deeply rooted in the particular church to which you belong. It is your Bishop's task to recognise the charism of virginity in you, to consecrate you, and possibly to encourage you on your way in order to teach you the fear of the Lord as they commit themselves to do during the solemn liturgy of consecration.

The Code of Canon Law defines the Order of Virgins as distinguished by these twin aspects: "Virgins are consecrated to God, mystically espoused to Christ, and dedicated to the service of the Church when the diocesan bishop consecrates them" (Canon 604). Theirs is a vocation in the Church not simply at the representative level already referred to, but, as Pope Benedict emphasised, because the vocation is discerned, and the consecration conferred, by the Bishop with whom the candidate has a relationship. It is given its raison d'etre by living the Prayer of the Church both in the Sacramental life and in the obligation to pray the Divine Office. It is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as being a vocation to "prayer, penance, and the service of her brethren"(CCC 923). In practice this vocation is embraced by women engaged in all manner of work, not all of which will be directly for the Church, and there are also hermits whose life of service is a hidden one. But normally the life of the consecrated virgin is rooted in the particular situation of her parish, in which she will wish to be a supportive and unobtrusive presence, in cooperation with her parish priest, and to serve as he considers appropriate. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, the particularity of her service will vary according to her gifts.

The virgin's recitation of the public prayer of the Church, even when prayed privately, unites her to the whole Body of Christ with whom she joins in the prayer of Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In that sense, even in her private prayer she can be said to be set apart from all and yet united to all. At a personal level the prayer of the Divine Office also strengthens the virgin in her own seeking of Christ by uniting her with the whole Church, and that discipline and objective reality of the Office will sustain her in the inevitable times of aridity in her spiritual life.

That two-fold balance of the interior vocation and exterior service permeates the Rite itself: May she give You glory through holiness of action and purity of heart. May she love You and fear You, may she love You and serve You (Prayer of Consecration). The candidate must hold these two aspects in balance in the way she lives out her vocation as they are inseparable.

Virginity, a Necessary Condition and a Spiritual State

Some may wonder whether actual virginity is a necessary condition of this consecrated state, and if so why? Such questions may arise because people confuse the vocation of consecrated virginity with the taking of vows of celibate chastity by religious and the consecration to celibacy of the secular priesthood. It is important to say at the outset that the consecration of virginity is the consecration of an existing state of virginity and not a prospective vow of chastity, even if the two have the same practical effect concerning the future; a further important distinction is that consecrated virginity is a permanent state from which one cannot be dispensed.

The remarks of Archbishop Burke on the necessity of actual virginity in his commentary on the Rite elucidate the point very precisely:

Once the virgin has knowingly and willingly given up her virginity, even by a single act, she no longer has the gift of virginity to offer to Christ and His Church. In the case of rape or involuntary incest, one can rightly say that the woman still has the gift of her virginity to offer, for she has not knowingly and willingly given it up.[2]

Why is the state of virginity in itself a precious one? There are two answers to this. First, it is the preservation of a state of faithfulness to Christ and the moral teaching of His Church, which has value in itself as never having been subject to grave sin. That is a good in itself, and the Fathers are quite clear that although repentance may restore spiritual virginity it is never to be considered equal in value to that of unblemished fidelity (see St Basil's treatise on virginity). Secondly, picking up on the latter point, virginity throughout Scripture is an image of obedient, covenantal faithfulness between Israel and God, and between the Church and Christ; it is this fidelity that the virgin is called to embody in herself.

Consecrated virginity cannot, of course, be simply an exterior discipline: without a chaste mind and heart, the life of the virgin would not be truly chaste. There is a complex interplay, therefore, between "spiritual virginity" and the exterior state, in the sense that each is the necessary complement of the other and neither is sufficient on its own. St John Chrysostom made precisely that point, that consecration is physical integrity mirrored in purity of heart. As Selvaggi writes, "the nature of consecrated virginity [is] holiness of body and soul, the one inseparable from the other, both for the glory of God in humble service and modest living in a stable way of life."[3]

As such it requires a degree of maturity, both spiritual and psychological, in the individual undertaking it; she must have lived long enough as a virgin in adulthood to be "serene in the practice of chastity by which she is able to fulfil her resolve to remain in the virginal state over a lifetime" (Archbishop Burke op cit para 17). It is a vocation that requires the capacity to dedicate her whole self: a capacity for warmth and friendship which understands and respects the nature of her focus without stifling the capacity for a generous relationship with others; a blend of purity and simplicity of intention in seeking Christ, with a well-rounded humanity. That is perhaps why it is normally suggested that the vocation is not suitable for those still young in their adult and spirituallives, though the discernment needs to be made at the individual level.

[1] There is a Consecration of Virginity for religious, often practiced in enclosed monastic communities, but that is outside the remit of this discussion.
[2] Burke, R.L. Archbishop Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: the Rite of Consecration and the Vocation of Consecrated Virginity lived in the world. Paper given at Rome International Congress of Consecrated Virgins (May 16th 2008) para 15. ]
[3] Selvaggi, Anne Marie "An Ancient Rite Restored: Consecrated virgins living in the world." Canadian Catholic Review January 1997.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2012