Can a person persevere in a certain lifestyle? Learn the charism of the institute or vocation? Demonstrate ability to live the life in a generous manner freely without it being overwhelmingly difficult? Learn the basics of the lifestyle? Show promise of being able to flourish spiritually, mentally, physically, psychologically, [and for most vocations, socially]? The Church requires formation for lifelong vocations, especially for candidates to the Marian and Petrine dimensions of the Church because it is not intuitive and to make sure that candidates are able to have balanced lives.
Those who do not undergo basic formation in institutes of consecrated life or the seminary are often ignorant of the theology and praxis of consecrated life or clerical life. Moreover, they do not always understand the terminology or “jargon” that have specific meanings within the context of consecrated and/or clerical life and theology. This is also occurs when, for example, a diocesan priest who isn’t conversant with the full theology of consecrated life attempts to found religious communities or societies of apostolic life without knowing the profound theological differences. Misinformation can be passed down from one generation to the next.
Let’s look at some common errors people make who haven’t had a solid formation.
1) The idea that chastity, celibacy, continence, and virginity mean the same thing.
2) The idea that a person can have a profession of vows and not be a diocesan hermit or member of a institute of consecrated life.
3) The idea that diocesan priests must be destitute to live up to their “vow of poverty”.
4) The idea that secular institutes are an inferior vocation for men and women because by their nature they should not have members wear habits.
5) The idea that religious brothers are clergy-lite and are a waste because they didn’t become clergy.
Can you spot what’s wrong in each of the 5 ideas? Discuss.
The news is replete with stories about Rev. Miss Jessica Hayes, one of the most recent virgins to be elevated to the Order of Virgins through the solemn Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. Of course, I took a great interest because she was consecrated August 15, on the 6th anniversary of my own consecration as a sacred virgin. There was at least one other virgin consecrated on August 15th this year in the USA, but she hasn’t had nearly as much news coverage. The media being what it is, and people not knowing what the vocation is, it is inevitable that people would not know what the vocation of a consecrated virgin is. This is to help correct that situation.
What is the consecration of virgins? First of all, this is a ceremony, where, after the virgin has expressed her willingness to accept becoming espoused to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the bishop prays a solemn consecratory prayer over her. Through the ministry of the bishop and through that prayer, the Holy Spirit overshadows the virgin, and she becomes a sacred person, a Bride of Jesus Christ. As the bishop notes, the sacred virgin “renounces marriage for the sake of which it [marriage] is the sign”. Yes, sacred virgins renounce human marriage to become legally married to Jesus Christ in the Church. This is not a blessing on an already existing bond of marriage with Jesus, it is an overshadowing of the virgin by the Holy Spirit, and He bestows a “spiritual anointing” upon the virgin so that she becomes body and soul a virgin-bride of Christ. Indeed, the Church teaches that the very first consecration of a virgin took place at the Annunciation, where the same Holy Spirit overshadowed a humble virgin in Nazareth. Since then, countless virgins throughout the centuries have received this special anointing of the Holy Spirit and became the Bride of Christ.
Is this the same as being a nun? No, it isn’t. Jessica Hayes has not made a vow of anything in the solemn Rite of Consecration. She proposed to observe perfect chastity, preserving her virginity for the remainder of her life (this Rite presupposes that one is a virgin because only virgins can mirror the Church fully as Virgin-Bride). But the real action came from the Holy Spirit, who made her a Bride of Christ through the consecratory prayer of the Bishop. Nuns make vows. These vows help the nuns to get to Heaven. They are a means to an end, and their usefulness will end at death. Some nuns are able to receive this great grace of consecration of virgins at their solemn profession of final vows or a number of years after (like the Carthusian nuns). This consecration to a life of Virginity is different than religious profession because it establishes an indissoluble legal nuptial bond between the virgin and Christ.
That means, unlike the nun with just solemn vows, the virgin’s nuptial bond cannot be dissolved or dispensed. Historically, this is why St. Margaret of Hungary became a sacred virgin. Her father, the king, wanted to marry her off and had even gotten a dispensation for her vows as a cloistered Dominican nun dispensed by the Pope. She did not agree to the dispensation and to ward off any more marriage match attempts by her father, she asked for the consecration of virgins because it is an indissoluble marriage with Christ that even the Pope can’t dispense and she received it. She and her relatives are the only Dominican nuns who have received this special anointing of the Holy Spirit as Brides of Christ because it is not the Dominican tradition for the nuns to receive the consecration of virgins.
Is the consecration as good as being a nun? Our Lady received this consecration. She did not make religious vows. So did many other women throughout the centuries who were not nuns and are canonized saints. Do you recognize the names of Saints Agnes, Lucy, Cecilia, Agatha from the Mass? They were all consecrated virgins living in the world. They received the same blessing from the Holy Spirit as Miss Hayes. If it was enough for nuns to be known as brides of Christ, then Doctor of the Church St. Hildegaard wouldn’t have received the Consecration of Virgins over and above her Religious profession of vows in the Benedictine Order. Ditto for countless women who were religious and received the Consecration of Virgins over the centuries including St. Gertrude the Great, St. Mechtilde, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Rosaline, etc. Those nuns who don’t receive this consecration are missing out on a great blessing of the Church.
Is this consecration the same as making private vows? No. According to the Popes, this is a new grace that only happens through the ministry of the bishop. It has always happened “in the face of the Church” or in other words, publicly. Why? Because the sacred virgin is the perfect image of the Church in her own virginal bridehood, virginal motherhood. Private vows do not make an indissoluble nuptial bond with Christ- in fact not even religious profession does that with public vows. Private vows do not make someone a sacred person. Private vows do not call down a special spiritual anointing from God on the soul, an ontological change. Private vows do not place someone in the Order of Virgins. Private vows do not cause the graces the Church gives to the virgin in order to equip her to be a spiritual mother of all souls.
This was THE form of consecrated life for women from the very start of the Church beginning with Our Lady. Religious life didn’t even begin until a few centuries after the Order of Virgins began with the Annunciation. Like the diocesan priesthood, it is a vocation complete in itself. Like the priest, a sacred virgin is free to join a religious community and make vows, but making vows is not an integral part of sacred virginity, any more than making religious vows is an integral part of being a priest (diocesan priests do not make vows; they promise obedience to their bishop and celibacy but they do not vow poverty like religious).
Jessica Hayes has chosen to receive this august sacramental. May she persevere in virginity and be numbered amongst the virgin saints in Heaven!
Over the years, I have received questions regarding spiritual direction. Some of them I have answered in previous posts on this site. I am going to underline a few things about spiritual direction that is important to know and resources for learning more in this post.
1. Who should be a spiritual director?
Someone who is “learned” who knows their moral, dogmatic, ascetic, and mystical theology. The saints have consistently said that knowing what the Church teaches about the spiritual life is far more important than a director’s personally experiencing them. Spiritual direction is somewhat of a science (knowledge) and an art (prudence in how to apply the knowledge to a specific person’s situation). It doesn’t matter whether the director is male or female, ordained or lay, the MOST important characteristic is knowledge and fidelity to the Church’s teachings. I consider this book the BEST book for figuring out what to look for in a spiritual director:
2. What do I need to know about the spiritual life?
It is good to gradually learn the main points of spirituality so you know where you are in your own spiritual life and know the potential pitfalls and possible graces. This book is one of THE BEST for understanding what you need to know about the spiritual life. Hint: I ask my directees to read parts of this book so they understand what is happening in their spiritual life. This is a treasure!
3. What rights do I have for protecting my spiritual direction sessions in the Catholic Church? Continue reading →
…were treated like some sacred virgins are treated during the Mass of their consecration. Picture this. The altar server goes up in procession before the Mass. He then makes a sign of reverence and goes to his front pew (or seat right in front of the congregation’s first pew). When it is time for the washing of hands and handing the water and wine he exits his pew, ascends to the sanctuary, hands the priest the water, the towel, and the water/wine. Once he finishes handing these items, he exits the sanctuary and returns to his first pew or seat just in front of the first pew. Ditto for holding the books. He can handle ringing bells from the pews. He then renters the sanctuary to help with Communion distribution. Once that is over he returns to the first pew. What is wrong with this picture?
We are so USED to altar servers actually sitting in, ahem, the sanctuary, we don’t give it a second thought. We know that this is where they are to be seated, so we don’t insist that they stay in the pews except for the few bouts of “serving” they do near the altar. In fact, they are considered to be among the “ministers” that belong in the sanctuary, along with deacons and priests. Altar servers (even duly instituted acolytes) are fairly minor functionaries, and yet they sit in the sanctuary.
Altar servers, like other ministers follow liturgical rules.The normal rules for Masses are specified in the Roman Ritual. This is a liturgical book that has rules for how priests do Mass. The rules for Masses primarily celebrated by the Bishop (and some can only be done by the bishop) are contained in a book called the Roman Pontifical. It is the Roman Pontifical that contains the Mass for the Consecration of Virgins that only a bishop can celebrate. Often, for a special Mass, there are special rules that apply only to that particular Mass, especially when it is a solemn “pontifical” Mass celebrated by the bishop. The rules are very clear in English (and somewhat clearer in Latin) as to where the virgin candidates and then the newly consecrated virgins are placed in the Mass. In a highly symbolic movement, the Bishop calls the virgins from the nave/pews to the sanctuary. This is specified in paragraphs 14 and 52 of the Rite.
Why the call? The bishop is calling the women to assume the dignity and position of the bride of the Son of God. The women go from amongst the congregation and ascend to the sanctuary. This is not merely a matter of providing a “stage setting” for the “audience” or congregation if you will, so that the people can see what is going on. No, the movement is far more symbolic. The bishop is leading the virgins to a closer union with Jesus Christ. Once called, they leave the sanctuary only once; to retrieve the offertory gifts and physically deposit them on the altar (again without the typical interaction of bringing the gifts to an intermediary deacon or priest specified for most Masses).
The seating in the sanctuary for the newly consecrated virgins is there for a purpose. The virgins do very little once they are consecrated- they bring the offertory gifts to the altar, they exchange the sign of peace with the bishop, and they receive Communion at the altar itself directly after the bishop. Technically, for so little “action” the rubrics could have specified that they return to the pews immediately after their consecration (which takes place between the Gospel and the Offertory). But the Church esteems the women who share with her the title of Spouse of Christ, Virgin, Bride, and Mother. The Church is the Bride of Christ and at the wedding of Christ to his new Spouse, the spouse, the woman who is now a sacred person by virtue of the spiritual anointing given to her at the consecration by the bishop is to be recognized as a spouse of God and image of the Church Herself in a manner commensurate with her new dignity. Hence keeping the newly sacred woman in the sanctuary.
What is really puzzling is that despite the fact that the Rite of Consecration is contained in the Bishop’s special book, people manage to dishonor the new spouses of Christ by sending them back to the nave (pews) even though they are supposed to be in the sanctuary. Or worse, “segregate” them by putting them on the steps to the sanctuary away from the sanctuary proper. Why is it that people keep misreading “sanctuary” as “pews” or “nave” for virgins during their solemn Rite of Consecration? I just don’t get it. The word is clear. It is “sanctuary” in English, “presbiterium” in Latin. The Rite specifies that after being formally called by the bishop, the virgins [leave the nave/pews area and] ascend to their places in the sanctuary, where special places are prepared for them. Is it a reading comprehension error? Could it be discrimination and an arrogant assumption that this is not the solemn celebration it is? I honestly don’t know what is motivating people to place the virgins back in the pew but it is certainly a mystery as to why there is no problem in keeping minor functionaries like altar servers in the sanctuary but there is a problem in keeping the sacred spouse of Jesus Christ the Son of God in the same sanctuary on her wedding day.
It should be noted that the Church deeply honors and respects those who share with Her the title of Bride of Christ and Virgin, Bride, and Mother. The mystery of the union of Christ and the Church is reflected most perfectly in the sacred virgin’s union with Christ. In fact, one could posit that even if women were made cardinals, consecrated virgins would by their nature outrank them because sacred virgins share the Church’s own relationship Christ and cardinals are simply papal voters and counselors. The Blessed Virgin Mary was the first consecrated virgin (consecrated at the Annunciation). Sacred virgins are the image of the Church and Mary.
Respect for the Church entails respect for the sacred virgin who embodies and shares in the Church’s own mysterious spousal bond with Christ. Properly understood, sacred virginity is not a challenge to become priests- the virgin’s highest dignity lies in that she is the legal and spiritual spouse of the High Priest. Spouses share dignity. The dignity is complementary. Bishops with their fullness of the priesthood representing Christ and sacred virgins with their fullness of being Bride of Christ, embodying a representation of the Church as Virgin, Bride, and Mother. This is why sacred virgins have no need to seek ordination- spouses share dignity. Jesus Christ offered His life for His Spouse. The priesthood exists for the service for the salvation of the Church that Christ loves so much. In her capacity as spouse, the virgin like the Blessed Virgin, is a true mother to the faithful. It takes two to tango. Paternity and maternity are complementary roles. Both are needed to bring life to the children of God in the Church. As St. John Paul II so eloquently put it,
This means that the consecrated life, present in the Church from the beginning, can never fail to be one of her essential and characteristic elements, for it expresses her very nature… The idea of a Church made up only of sacred ministers and lay people does not therefore conform to the intentions of her divine Founder, as revealed to us by the Gospels and the other writings of the New Testament. – VC #29 (emphasis mine)
Yes, consecrated life, but in particular sacred virginity expresses the very nature of the Church. That’s pretty powerful. And St. John Paul goes even further by saying it is essential to the Church’s nature and that it is not a man-made device but established by God Himself. It’s a discussion for another time, but although different forms of consecrated life can come and go, sacred virginity is the only vocation that fully expresses the nature of the Church herself as Virgin-Bride. I would go so far as to say that it is probably THE only form of consecrated life that would always be essential to the Church because of its nature. Further, historically, consecrated virginity has always existed in the Church, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary and each century has seen women elevated to the Order of Virgins. [While I’m at it, I’ll throw in another tidbit. The Order of Virgins counts among its members a Doctor of the Church. That’s pretty neat :)]
I’m still working on the follow up post I promised on more myths about consecrated life so keep your eyes peeled.
(c) 2015 by Therese Ivers, JCL. All Rights Reserved.