Consecrated Virgins

David G. Bromley
Olivia Groff

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CONSECRATED VIRGINS TIMELINE

Mid-100s:  Saint Polycarp’s “Letter to the Philippians” discussed the duties of deacons, widows, youths, and virgins.

300s:  Guidelines for the consecration of virgins became more defined. Various writings from the time discussed minimum age for virgins, aspects of the consecration ceremony, and the role and duties of the bishop in the consecration process.

400 to 1400s:  During this time, the consecration of virgins as its own vocation waned in popularity as other forms of consecrated life took hold.

1600s to 1800s:  Consecration of virgins was nearly nonexistent, except for sporadic efforts by some bishops to reintroduce the vocation.

1925:  Anne Leflaive, a French woman known for campaigning to renew the Rite of Consecration, was consecrated a virgin.

1970:  The Rite of Consecration of Virgins was revised and approved by Pope Paul VI.

2010:  Media coverage of rites for initiation of consecrated virgins began to appear frequently in the media.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

Consecrated virgins are women who are betrothed to Christ and dedicate themselves to service to Catholic Church. These women differ from nuns in that they continue in their public state of life and provide for themselves financially. Although the precise origins of the vocation of consecrated virginity are unclear, the Catholic Church describes this vocation as one of the oldest forms of consecrated life, beginning in apostolic times in a “spontaneous way” (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018). Some of the first consecrated virgins died as martyrs in order to remain faithful to their commitment to the Lord. For example, it is reported that Agnes of Rome [Image at right] refused to marry the city’s governor because of her dedication to chastity and, as a result, was killed. Cecilia of Rome, Agatha of Catania, Lucy of Syracuse, Thecla of Iconium, Apollonia of Alexandria, Restituta of Carthage, and Justa and Rufina of Seville are other women believed to have been martyred due to their commitment to chastity in the first three centuries of Christianity (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018).

According to documents released by the Vatican, entry into the Ordo Virginium (or Order of Virgins) was accompanied by a rite overseen by the diocesan bishop. This practice, which began in the fourth century, included placing a marriage veil on the consecrated virgin to symbolize the commitment of the bride to Christ. Consecrated virgins of this early period lived with their families and remained a part of the community in which they lived. This form of celibate living began to decrease around the sixth century as monastic life grew in popularity (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018; United States Association of Consecrated Virginity 2011:161-65). By the 1100s consecrated virgins had largely disappeared as formally organized religious communities for women gained sway (Baynes 2018; Pecknold 2017; Rutter 2017).

It was not until the Second Vatican Council that consecrated virginity experienced a considerable revival. According to “Instruction ‘Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago’ on the ‘Ordo virginium’” recently released by the Vatican, consecrated virginity, “seemed capable of responding not only to the desires of many women to dedicate themselves totally to the Lord and to their neighbours, but also to the concurrent rediscovery by the particular Church of its own identity in communion with the one Body of Christ” (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018). The rite for consecration of virgins was revised by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and put into effect on January 6, 1971. Since this time, consecrated virginity has appeared as a notable form of consecrated life with 4,000-5,000 women in seventy-eight countries taking part. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) and the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins (USACV), France and Italy have the highest numbers of consecrated virgins. The United States, Romania, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Germany, and Argentina are other countries with substantial numbers of consecrated virgins (United States Association of Consecrated Virgins 2018b). In the United States, over half of diocese have at least one consecrated virgin (Kilbane 2018; Zaniewski 2017).

Although the vocation of consecrated virginity is not as widely known as other forms of consecrated life, one notable consecrated virgin, Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018), [Image at right] brought attention to the vocation after becoming a TV personality and author. Wendy Beckett, born in 1930, joined a teaching order at the age of sixteen. She continued her work as a teacher until her health declined due to a form of epilepsy. Because of her situation, Sister Wendy Beckett received permission to leave teaching in order to pursue a life of solitude, and she began to reside in a trailer outside of a monastery in England. Throughout her life, Sister Wendy Beckett continued to fulfill her commitment to chastity and service to the Church. She became an unlikely TV personality and household name after studying art and filming a BBC program, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey. This program was well-received and led to numerous other documentary programs and more than twenty books. Although Sister Wendy Beckett was not a typical consecrated virgin, since she began her consecrated life as a nun, her dedication to the Church and her vow of chastity, along with the fact that she provided financially for herself, fits the criteria for a life of consecrated virginity (Katz 2018; McFadden 2018). Beginning around 2010, media coverage of consecrated virgin rites increased, creating greater visibility for and interest in the vocation. Indeed, in 2018 a consecrated virgin was named to the BBC list of “100 Women of 2018” (Kilbane 2018).

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

The guidelines for the vocation of consecrated virginity are outlined in the Code of Canon Law, catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Ordo consecrationis virginum. Consecrated virgins live in accordance with the teachings of the Church and are set aside by the Church as sacred people who belong to Christ. A woman does not merely choose to become a consecrated virgin, but rather is called to this vocation. As a bride of Christ, the woman not only develops an intimate relationship with Christ, but also shares the fruits of this relationship with the Church. Consecrated virgins stand as a symbol for the Church’s love for Christ and “point towards a bigger reality: Christ is the ultimate fulfillment” (Maslak 2017). As one consecrated virgin put the matter, “I did not give up romantic relationships for an idea. I fell in love with a person, Jesus Christ” (Basile 2016).

Judith Stegman, a consecrated virgin herself and president of the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins, emphasized the importance of virginity: “Virginity itself is important because virginity is important in the eyes of God,” Stegman said. “This is representing the church as a virgin, this is representing the Virgin Mary.” In becoming a consecrated virgin, women understand themselves to be giving a gift of love to the church and to God. As one new consecrated virgin commented, Sex and virginity are gifts of yourself you give — not something you lose (Basile 2016). This gift brings them into as close a union with God as is possible at the human level (Kilbane 2018; Cognon 2015; Pecknold 2017). As one consecrated virgin expressed her expectations, “I am seeking to live, as far as possible in this life, the reality that all of us hope to enjoy in heaven: the union of the soul with God alone” (Kilbane 2018).

An archbishop leading a consecration rite gave elevated spiritual status to consecrated virgins (Connelly 2012):

Both virginity and married life are God-given vocations, and those who are faithful to their vocation achieve holiness. Virginity, however, is a state of life that perhaps could be called more advanced in the sense that it more clearly approximates the definitive state toward which we are all journeying: life as it is lived in the kingdom of heaven.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

As a group, consecrated virgins are quite diverse in age, background, careers, and aspirations. They followed different paths that led them to the same destination. One woman was attracted by the long tradition of religious sacrifice (Basile 2016):

I was attracted to becoming a consecrated virgin because of its beautiful, ancient roots — in the early church women made private vows to belong fully to Christ and not marry. 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. 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.

Another woman had been drawn to celibacy through her early adult life had been writing letters to Jesus since she was thirteen (Haidrani 2017).

This [lead] to an intimate personal relationship with God. I sensed him inviting me into a spousal relationship with him, to give myself totally to him as he had given myself totally to me on the cross.

A third woman had a revelatory moment that led her to make her commitment (Basile 2016).

I felt the Lord speak to me in prayer about my relationship with Him — and no, it’s not a dramatic audible voice or anything like that! He simply said to me: You’ve given time to other boyfriends, but have you ever thought about me? How about you give me a chance? I had to listen. I had to give him the chance.

Finally, a woman who had been deeply religious since childhood and had visited religious orders but never found one with the right “fit,” was immediately attracted when she learned about the existence of consecrated virgins (Zaniewski 2017).

Then one day, just before she turned 35, Ervin was talking to a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary who mentioned consecrated virgins. Ervin had never heard about the vocation.  “I had so much joy flooding my heart the more and more she talked,” she said.

In order to become a consecrated virgin, a woman must go through a preparatory period that serves to discern whether she is truly dedicated to the vocation and to foster a desire for commitment and union with Christ. This preparatory period is not to begin before the woman is eighteen years old, with consecration occurring usually after the age of twenty-five. At the end of this preparatory period, if the bishop believes the woman has proven she is prepared to continue with the process and the woman requests this move to the next step, she will be admitted by the bishop to the formation program prior to consecration (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018).

According to the guidelines set forth by the Vatican, this process should be given two to three years in order to ensure that a woman’s decision to become a consecrated virgin can “mature with sufficient awareness and freedom” (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018). The formation program allows the woman to evaluate herself and gain understanding about her abilities and limitations. During this formation program, the woman is expected to study the history of consecrated life and its meaning to the Church, as well as the human sciences, in order to understand “human sexuality and affectivity, relationality and freedom, self-giving, sacrifice and suffering” (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018). Women are encouraged to take part in college courses and share experiences with other candidates for consecration.

At the end of the formation program, as decided by the woman and the Bishop, a woman submits her request for consecration. The bishop then consults with others who have taken part in the formation program of the woman in order to determine if the woman should receive consecration. “Admission to consecration requires moral certainty about the authenticity of the candidate’s vocation, the real existence of a virginal charism and the presence of the conditions and prerequisites for the candidate to accept and respond to the grace of consecration, and be able to bear eloquent witness of her own vocation, preserving in it and growing in generous self-giving to the Lord and to her neighbour” (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018). If the woman is accepted for consecration, [Image at right] the bishop and the woman will determine the details of the celebration, which will include the participation of the church community.

While the particulars of the consecration ceremony differ among dioceses based on regional differences, the rite always includes the consecrated woman expressing her resolve to live a chaste life and serve the Church. This resolution by the consecrated woman “is accepted and confirmed by the Church through the solemn prayer of the Bishop, who invokes and obtains for them the spiritual anointing that establishes the spousal bond with Christ and consecrates them to God under a new title” (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018). Women wear typical bridal attire such as a white gown and veil during the consecration ceremony, and they wear a wedding ring as a symbol of their commitment to Christ. [Image at right]

After the ceremony, the consecrated virgin does not stand out in appearance, as consecrated virgins do not don habits or veils like nuns. However, consecrated virgins do continue to wear their wedding rings to signify their spousal relationship with Christ. Consecrated virgins live on their own in their community and continue to participate in their normal daily activities. These women are responsible for their own financial support and continue to pursue their careers. Free time is often spent aiding their parish or diocese.

Along with remaining chaste, the vocation of consecrated virginity requires a special commitment to the virgin’s diocese. Consecrated virgins are responsible for faithful prayer through the Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, and personal prayer, with specific focus on the needs and intentions of their Bishop and diocese. Consecrated virgins also serve the Church in whatever ways call to them, bringing their consecration to every aspect of their life (United States Association of Consecrated Virgins n.d.).

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

Consecrated virgins, unlike nuns, do not belong to a convent. These women live out their dedication to the Church in the secular world. Consecrated virgins remain in their own diocese under the direction of the local bishop. The local bishop is responsible for fostering “conditions so that the insertion of consecrated women in the Church entrusted to him will contribute to the path of holiness and the mission of the people of God” (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018). The diocesan Bishop is responsible for developing the program for candidates for consecration, overseeing the preparatory program for candidates, and determining a candidate’s suitability for consecration. After a virgin is consecrated, the Bishop continues to provide her guidance and assistance, as well as promotes contact with other consecrated women from different dioceses (United States Association of Consecrated Virgins 2011). Typically, consecrated virgins attend mass daily, spend additional time in private prayer, pursue employment to support themselves and volunteer time in their local parish (Connelly 2012).

Although consecrated virgins live independently from one another, they may choose to voluntarily join in an association. [Image at right] The United States Association of Consecrated Virgins (USACV) states it “is formed in accord with Canon 604.2. ‘Virgins can be associated together to fulfill their pledge more faithfully and to assist each other to serve the Church in a way that befits their state’” (United States Association of Consecrated Virgins 2019).

Beyond formal association membership, consecrated virgins connect informally through social media and relationships with nearby consecrated virgins. As one woman put it, Consecrated life does by no means make me a recluse” (Haidrani 2017).

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Although the translation of Latin texts into modern languages has aided the dissemination of information about the consecration of virgins, many diocesan bishops may still not be aware of this option for women. However, as more dioceses administer the rite of consecration of virgins and the vocation gains attention in the media, it is likely that the number of dioceses taking part in this form of consecrated life will increase. It is also worth noting that the spread of the rite itself has been slowed by the requirement that each diocese create its own preparatory and formation program for women interested in consecrated virginity (Weinberger 2018). Even with the relatively slow spread of consecrated virginity, it is estimated that the number of women in this vocation could reach 5,000 by the year 2020 (McFadden 2018).

One of the more recent challenges faced by consecrated virgins regards a set of guidelines issued in July of 2018 by the Vatican. The standing expectation has been that women who wished to become brides of Christ were virgins. This differentiated consecrated virgins from nuns, who take a vow of celibacy upon entering a religious order. The controversial section of the Vatican document states “to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practiced the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way, while of great importance to regard to the discernment, are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible” (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018). The document also goes on to state that during the preparatory period for consecration, “it is necessary to confirm that the aspirant has received the sacraments of Christian initiation and has never married, and to ascertain that she has never lived in public or open violation of chastity, that is, in a stable situation of cohabitation or in similar situations that would have been publicly known” (Braz de Aviz and Carballo 2018).

In reaction, the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins issued a statement calling the Vatican’s document “deeply disappointing,” and emphasizing the importance of virginity as a criteria that “is meant to uphold the integrity of the vocation” of consecrated virginity (United States Association of Consecrated Virgins 2018a). Additionally, the statement issued by the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins states that the prerequisites that a woman must meet for consecration will not change because of the Vatican’s statement, citing the criteria established in the Introduction to the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity as support for their stance (United States Association of Consecrated Virgins 2018a). Consecrated virgins have reacted to the Vatican’s statement in a variety of ways. Some women hold that giving the gift of physical virginity is integral to the vocation of consecrated virgins and separates the vocation from other forms of consecrated life. Other women’s beliefs align more with the Vatican’s perceived loosening of criteria for the vocation, citing situations in which a woman would no longer be a virgin, but would not have willingly made this decision. Thus, the less strict criteria is perceived as offering understanding in different situations and responding to growing interest in the vocation (Jones 2018; Perasso 2018).

IMAGES
Image #1: Agnes of Rome.
Image #2: Sister Wendy Beckett.
Image #3: A consecrated virgin ritual.
Image #4: A prayer book, veil, and ring used in a consecrated virgin ritual.

REFERENCES

Baynes, Chris. 2018. “More women looking to become ‘consecrated virgins’, Vatican says.” The Independent, July 6. Accessed from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/consecrated-virgins-women-vatican-catholic-church-celibacy-god-jesus-a8435186.html on 1 July 2019.

Basile, Lisa. 2016. “I Am Happily Married to God — As a Consecrated Virgin.” Good Housekeeping, September. Accessed from https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/inspirational-stories/a40032/consecrated-virgin/ on 1 July 2019.

Braz de Aviz, Joao and Jose Rodriguez Carballo. 2018. “Instruction ‘Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago’ on the ‘Ordo virginium.” April 7. Accessed from https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/07/04/180704d.html  on 10 June 2019.

Connelly, Eileen. 2012. “Dayton woman becomes first consecrated virgin in archdiocese.” The Catholic Telegraph, June 25. Accessed from https://www.thecatholictelegraph.com/dayton-woman-becomes-first-consecrated-virgin-in-archdiocese/8908 on 1 July 2019.

Cugnon, Marc. 2015. “Woman marries Jesus Christ, becomes consecrated virgin.” USA Today, August 19.  Accessed from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/08/19/indiana-woman-marries-jesus-consecrated-virgin/31982911/ on 1 July 2019.

Haidrani, Salma. 2017. “The Consecrated Virgins Marrying Jesus and Swearing Off Sex Forever.” Vice. Accessed from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mbqe4x/consecrated-virgins-marry-jesus-swear-off-sex-forever on 1 July 2019.

Jones, Kevin. 2018. “Read Vatican guide to consecrated virginity with discernment, canonist says.” Catholic News Agency, July 16. Accessed from https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/read-vatican-guide-to-consecrated-virginity-with-discernment-canonist-says-34049 on 8 June 2019.

Kilbane, Kevin 2018. “Consecrated virgin named to BBC 100 Women of 2018 list.” Today’s Catholic, December 12. Accessed from https://todayscatholic.org/consecrated-virgin-named-to-bbc-100-women-of-2018-list/ on 1 July 2019.

Katz, Brigit. 2018. “Remembering Sister Wendy Beckett, Beloved Nun Who Made Art Accessible.” Smithsonian.com, December 28. Accessed from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/remembering-sister-wendy-beckett-beloved-nun who-made-art-accessible 180971125 on 10 June 2019.

Maslak, Maggie. 2017. “The little-known vocation of consecrated virginity.” Catholic News Agency, November 10. Accessed from https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/the-little-known-vocation-of-consecrated-virginity-32849  on 8 June 2019.

McFadden, Robert D. 2018. “Sister Wendy Beckett, Nun Who Became a BBC Star, Dies at 88.” The New York Times, December 26. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/26/obituaries/sister-wendy-beckett-dead.html on 10 June 2019.

Pecknold, Chad. 2017. “Three women consecrated as virgins in rare ceremony in Detroit.” Catholic Herald, June 28. Accessed from https://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2017/06/28/pictures-three-women-consecrated-as-virgins-in-rare-ceremony-in-detroit/ on 1 July 2018.

Perasso, Valeria. 2018. “Consecrated virgins: ‘I got married to Christ.’” BBC, December 7. Accessed from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45968315 on 8 June 2019.

Rutter, Katie. 2017. “As consecrated virgins, three women promise lifelong fidelity to Christ.” America Magazine, June 28. Accessed from https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/06/28/consecrated-virgins-three-women-promise-lifelong-fidelity-christ on 1 July 2019.

United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. 2019. “What is the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins?” Accessed from https://consecratedvirgins.org/about on 8 June 2019.

United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. 2018a. “RE: Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago.” Accessed from https://consecratedvirgins.org/sites/default/files/STATEMENT%20FROM%20USACV%20OFFICERS.pdf on 10 June 2019.

United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. 2018b. “Who are consecrated virgins?” Accessed from https://consecratedvirgins.org/whoarewe  on 8 June 2019.

United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. 2011. Information Packet-regarding the vocation of Consecrated Virginity Lived in the World. Accessed from https://consecratedvirgins.org/usacv/sites/default/files/documents/VocRes1-1InfoPkt_new.pdf  on 8 June 2019.

United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. n.d. “What is the Consecration of Virgins?” Accessed from https://consecratedvirgins.org/whatis on 8 June 2019.

Weinberger, Jessica. 2018. “Three local women become consecrated virgins this year. What does that mean?” The Catholic Spirit, November 5. Accessed from http://thecatholicspirit.com/news/local-news/three-local-women-become-consecrated-virgins-this-year-what-does-that-mean/ on 8 June 2019.

Zaniewski, Ann. 2017. “Married to Jesus: Metro Detroit women make lifelong virginity pledge.” Detroit Free Press, June 28. Accessed from https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/06/29/brides-christ-jesus-virginity-consecration/432771001/ on 1 July 2019.

Publication Date:
2 July 2019

 

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