by Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD (cand), DHS, OCV
It seems that a lot of people have the erroneous impression that sacred virgins are called to secularity, or worse, that they are lay persons. Others likewise erroneously believe it is a religious vocation. It is time to put both errors to rest. Let’s first start with what a lot of people cite when they claim that consecrated virgins are “secular”: Canon 604. Canon 604 is the canon in the Latin Code of Canon Law which describes the vocation in juridic terms. What a lot of people miss, is the fact that it is talking about ALL people who liturgically receive the consecration of virgins, not members of a specific group. Here is what canon 604 states:
§1. 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.
§2. In order to observe their own resolution more faithfully and to perform by mutual assistance service to the Church in harmony with their proper state, virgins can be associated together.
Notice that nowhere in the text does it talk about the vocation of the sacred virgins as being one of that to “secularity” or it being a “lay vocation” or “separated from the world”. For its very definition does not include this terminology. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s adapt canon 604 for priests:
§1. Similar to these [other] forms of ordained life is the order of priests who, expressing the holy resolution of following Christ more closely in ministry, are consecrated to God by the diocesan Bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are conformed to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.
§2. In order to observe their own resolution more faithfully and to perform by mutual assistance service to the Church in harmony with their proper state, priests can be associated together.
Would this text automatically translate as “the order of priests is secular”? Or, “Priests are called to secularity”? Of course not. Whether the man in question is a hermit, a member of a religious institute, a member of a secular institute, or does not belong to any institute, the priesthood is the priesthood is the priesthood. The priesthood is neither secular by nature nor is it religious by nature. In no part of its definition is “part of the world” or “separated from the world”. It is compatible with either mode of living. If an essential part of the very definition of the vocation to holy orders is “secularity” then the result would be no priest/deacon/bishop would be allowed to be a religious or hermit of any kind because part of the definition of the nature of the vocation of a religious or hermit is “separation from the world”. Likewise, if an essential part of the very definition of the vocation to holy orders is “separation from the world”, then a priest could not be a “diocesan priest” or belong to a “secular institute”. Read this carefully. The very definition of being a priest would preclude the priest from membership in a secular institute or under the direction of a diocesan bishop if part of the definition of the vocation of the priesthood requires “separation from the world”. This is logic 101.
What is striking about the liturgical ritual of consecration of virgins is that both members of cloistered communities can receive it (c.f. the Roman Pontifical) and members of secular institutes can receive it. Religious by law and by definition profess the evangelical counsels and are “separated from the world”. Non clerical secular institute members by law and by definition profess the evangelical counsels and are “leaven within the world”. Note that the evangelical counsels of themselves do not define whether a person is “not separated from the world” or “separated from the world”. The counsels can be practiced in either condition.
When commenting upon the consecration of virgins, people tend to only read part of the liturgical ritual of the consecration of virgins in the Roman Pontifical. This is a grave error. Likewise, they ignore how the ordo virginum is entered according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (hint: through liturgically bestowed consecration). Religious nuns who receive the consecration of virgins receive the same exact consecration as members of secular institutes who receive the same consecration of virgins as those who do not belong to another form of consecrated life. In other words, the homily, minister, consecratory prayer and essential elements of the ritual of consecration of virgins is the same. There isn’t a separate consecration prayer for nuns or hermits vs. members of secular institutes. The Order of Virgins is open to all who validly receive the consecration of virgins, regardless of whether they belong to an institute of consecrated life or eremitic life or not. Why? Because the very nature of the virginal vocation is compatible with all forms of consecrated life (except consecrated widowhood which requires having had intercourse with one’s deceased husband as a prerequisite). Logically, the virginal vocation cannot be identical to that of other forms of consecrated life (so your homework is to figure out what makes this vocation distinct).
The reason a woman who does not belong to a religious order does not don a habit when she receives the consecration of virgins is because the vocation of consecrated virginity does not have as an essential element of its definition “separation from the world”. Likewise, a woman who is a virgin and a nun does not take off a habit if she receives the solemn liturgical consecration of virgins because the vocation of consecrated virginity does not have as an essential element of its definition “leaven within the world” or “secularity”. Again, if one simply takes the time to actually read canon 604 and the Roman Pontifical’s consecration of virgins ritual, it will be abundantly clear that secularity or separation from the world is not and cannot be part of the definition of the vocation itself.
Any serious interpretation of the vocation to sacred virginity must include a rigorous scrutiny of the entire ritual of the consecration of virgins, and not just cherry picking from a portion of it to suit an ideological narrative. Further, this interpretation should take into consideration the normative text which is in Latin. Why? Because many vernacular translations omit (or badly translate) portions of text found in the Latin that give greater insight into the nature of the vocation.
If the vocation to sacred virginity is neither secular nor separated from the world by nature, then what exactly is its nature? A careful reading of the entire ritual (Introduction-Ch. 3), particularly in its Latin form, will furnish the answer. An answer many women, whatever their condition of life, will not like. The answer goes against the narrative many religious women tell themselves and others as far as their self-identity is concerned. It goes against the narrative a lot of clergy have. It is what it is. It is unique. It is an immense privilege; it is an immense responsibility to live up to. For those who need it spelled out, this will be done in my upcoming dissertation on the nature of the vocation to consecrated virginity.
Now, let’s talk briefly about the lay vocation. Sacred virgins are not lay. Let me repeat this, because it is an important point. Sacred virgins are not lay!!! They belong to the consecrated state in the Church, which is distinct from the lay state and the clerical state. Other people who belong to the consecrated state in the Church are diocesan hermits and members of religious institutes (and in the Eastern Churches, consecrated widows). In the words of St. John Paul II: ” 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.” Vita Consacrata, n. 29. Sacred virgins have been constituted “sacred persons”. They have existed from the very beginning of the Church, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are not lay nor called to the lay state.
There is a difference between being in the lay state and being “called to a vocation” in the lay state. A woman can be married and be a religious sister (separated from her husband). She is not “called to a vocation’ in the lay state. She is called to the consecrated state. Marriage is usually between lay persons, but this is not always the case. Some clerics are married. Some consecrated persons are married. Neither are lay or called to lay life. A vocation “to” the lay or secular state is rare: it basically means that a person is called to a secular institute. Simply being lay is not a vocation in and of itself. The vocation to human marriage is not a vocation to the lay state, the couple simply remain in the lay state as opposed to being called to it.
Let us pray that the faithful of the Church learn more about the vocation of those called to be the living images of the Church as Virgin, Bride, and Mother.