Overview: Ever Ancient Ever New, an Introduction to consecrated Life and the Ordo Virginum by Caroline J. Nolan

by Therese Ivers, JCL

The vocation to sacred virginity is rapidly growing around the globe. It is in fact the fastest growing vocation in consecrated life for women. Rev. Caroline Nolan, Ph.D., LSS, is a consecrated virgin originally hailing from Ireland who examines the vocation of sacred virginity lived in the world in her book, Ever Ancient Ever New, An Introduction to Consecrated Life and the Ordo Virginum. It is in many senses a groundbreaking work, as it is one of the few works in print in the English language written specifically about virgins consecrated with the Rite of 1970.

Dr. Nolan divides her 134 page work into six chapters. In the first chapter, she examines the concepts of consecration, and the consecrated life. She also gives a brief history and theology of consecrated life and of consecrated virginity. There are many gems in this first chapter. For example, she underscores the change in being that occurs with consecration: “She is now different from her prior state of being because she is now in a new relationship with Christ in the same way as a woman and man, who after their marriage, are in a new relationship as husband and wife…. It is a state of being that is for life and one which encompasses a faith dimension.” On the other hand, there are a few factual errors, including the assertion that the Rite for the Ordo Virginum disappeared from the 7th-19th centuries.

The first chapter also contains a simplified sketch on Christian virginity: in apostolic times CVs “were single women, who at the time were referred to as virgins, that is women who had never married and who dedicated themselves to lives of celibate chastity, prayer, penance and works of charity. However, it was through celibate chastity that they primarily worshiped the Lord.” Elsewhere she defines virginity “The essence of the term implies purity… While physical virginity is assumed in the case of consecrated virgins, the focus of the vocation does not revolve totally around the physical state of virginity. It is, rather, about the spiritual state of a pure heart that is committed to living a perpetual celibate chaste life. A Consecrated virgin is a woman who is called to live alone while at the same time living in the world.”

Unfortunately, what is not made clear is that consecrated virginity’s definition differs from that of the other vocations in the consecrated state precisely because of primary virginity, and the underlying significance of virginity as such. Instead, Nolan barely concedes that “physical virginity is assumed in the case of consecrated virgins”, but emphasizes celibate chastity as the hallmark of the vocation. All forms of consecrated life in the Church involve “celibate chastity” and a pure heart.

Likewise, the idea of women better representing the Church as bride of Christ is a generic one, and it can said of all baptized women. Dr. Nolan briefly explains the title of bride of Christ given to CVs upon their consecration in Apostolic times thus: “A common term used to refer to these women was ‘spouse’ of Christ. This term was suitable in the sense that these women were very much part of the Church and the Church is the spouse of Christ. These women through their commitment to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom bore witness to the Church’s intimate spousal connection to Christ.” Deaconesses and consecrated widows were “very much part of the Church” and Nolan’s definition would make it appear that it would have been suitable to give them this title as well. Historically, though, the title was not given to them by the Fathers because it was reserved for women whose primary virginity had been preserved and consecrated by the Church.  Ideally, this would have been made a little clearer in the book.

The second chapter is a wonderful collection of scriptural models for consecrated men and women. Nolan takes several Old and New Testament personalities and show how they model various integral aspects of consecrated life. It is a useful chapter to bring to meditation. For consecrated virgins, it can be a good source of inspiration for living the life. For aspirants and candidates, it can be very illuminating. The one quibble I would have with this chapter is that while it is true that consecrated persons are told to live “prophetically” by the Church, Nolan appears to downgrade true biblical prophecies of the future that were revealed by God to the prophets to natural foresight: “Contrary to popular belief, prophets do not foretell the future but they do indeed put forward some possibilities as to what is likely to happen should a certain path of life be embarked upon.”

In the third chapter, Nolan explores different ecclesial vocations for men and women. She goes through the priesthood, diaconate, religious, hermits, secular institutes and lay movements, and consecrated virginity as vocational options. While there are many useful observations she makes on the different vocations, there are also some significant errors contained in this section of the book. One such error arises from thinking that sacred virginity is similar to all the other forms of consecrated life in which a person dedicates their life by means of vows or promises and in turn is consecrated by God. She makes this assertion about consecrated virgins: “They take a public vow to live chaste single lives.” This is simply not true. Nowhere in the Rite does a consecrated virgin make a vow of chastity or even virginity. She repeats the idea that sacred virgins take a public vow in the forth chapter. Yet, she contradicts the notion of making a public vow later on in the book when she asserts that the virgin makes an “implicit vow” of obedience:

“Women consecrated to the Ordo Virginum do not make explicit vows of obedience, but they do so implicitly since they are at the service of their bishop and diocese where they reside permanently. The placing of their hands in the bishop’s is also a sign of their solemn propositum to embrace a celibate chaste life. The propositum is specific to the canonical state of the Ordo Virginum. It is not a vow, canonically spekaing, neither is it a promise, but a unique resolve that changes the canonical status of each of the women from being a layperson to becoming a publicly consecrated layperson. From this moment onwards, together with the prayer of consecration that follows, the candidates become formally consecrated women in the eyes of the Church.”

It is surprising that in discussing the different ecclesial vocations, Dr. Nolan did not specifically mention Diocesan hermits. Instead she brings up religious hermits, and private hermits who might make private vows. There is no mention of the diocesan hermit professing the evangelical counsels in the hands of his/her bishop. It doesn’t make sense to discuss religious (who are by definition religious even if they live in hermitages) or lay non-consecrated hermits because neither are ecclesial vocations in their own right as hermits per se. The ecclesial institution of canonical diocesan hermits makes its nature clear. The hermit follows the evangelical counsels individually rather than communally and has the bishop as the legitimate superior. For this reason, the hermit does not take as the explicit object of their vows solitude, prayer, and penance, but poverty, chastity, and obedience. In formation, the diocese generally assigns a formator. The hermit also generally is given a habit, as a sign of their true separation from the world, as with religious.

Secular Institutes are also not given a very useful definition. Lumping secular institutes with ecclesial movements, Dr. Nolan states that “they promise to live a life of chastity with an implicit understanding that they are obedient to the overseer of their institute or movement. They also embrace a simple lifestyle without actually taking an explicit promise of poverty.” This is an incorrect definition of secular institutes. Members of secular institutes are formally consecrated and have either vows or promises (or a sacred bond) of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Those who are not full members of secular institutes or who merely belong to ecclesial lay movements are not consecrated but are dedicated persons. It is not immediately apparent why ecclesial movements would even be brought up if they do not receive a true consecration through the mediation of the Church. Professed members of secular institutes are truly publicly consecrated laypersons.

Chapter four has some really good suggestions and insights into the discernment process. For example, the author suggests that a virgin be in her thirties before receiving the consecration because it is around the age of 30 that a woman often experiences a very strong pull to physical motherhood. On the other hand, permission for women who had been the victims of sexual violence to receive the consecration is not the primary reason why the requirements were written the way they were, but respect for the internal forum which prohibits the bishop from asking if a woman has committed a sin with another.

Dr. Nolan walks the reader through the different stages of the Rite of Consecration in Chapter Five. She offers a multitude of ways certainl elements of the Rite may be done, such as the wearing of a white alb for attire. There is certainly room for legitimately diverse ways of celebrating the Rite and she offers her perspectives on the matter.

In the final chapter, the author points out some of the difficulties of the vocation to sacred virginity. There can be times of loneliness. People can profoundly misunderstand and mock the vocation. After briefly highlighting these, she provides a good bibliography.

Part II to follow.

(c) 2013 by Therese Ivers, JCL

All rights reserved.


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