Preparation Process for the Consecration of Virgins Living in the World
Prepared by the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins
15 September 2000, Our Lady of Sorrows
Frequently Asked Questions
Certain questions and areas of concern often come to mind as one reflects on this ancient and venerable vocation of consecrated virginity lived in the world. Hence we have grouped together several questions often posed during retreats and meetings with our Episcopal Moderator. We hope the following paragraphs will help enlighten inquirers as they discern the nature of this vocation and whether this is the form of consecrated life they are called to follow.
1. Can you explain some of the theological/spiritual facets of the nature of consecrated virginity lived in the world?
We must remember that the theological virtue of love--the laying down of one's life for one's brothers--is the most important virtue, and it applies to all vocations in the Church. The Church has come to an understanding at this time of three states of life: the clergy, the laity, and consecrated persons. The consecrated virgin is a member of that third category; that is, she is a consecrated person.
As a consecrated person she lives in the world; she does not flee the world. Her life is a public witness in the Church and in society. By her very life of virginity she is witnessing her total love for her Spouse, Jesus Christ. However, it must be remembered that her life of total virginity is a gift of grace; God Himself was the author of that gift, which she has kept intact and offered back to Him in total love on the day of her Consecration when she renewed her resolve to remain a virgin forever. During the Rite, exactly at the Prayer of Consecration which the bishop pronounces over her, the Holy Spirit poured out His grace on her to make that virginity spiritually fruitful.
2. Perhaps you can be more specific to help us understand how consecrated virginity is like and unlike other forms of consecrated life.
Yes, sometimes it helps to compare/contrast consecrated virginity lived in the world with other forms of consecrated life so that we can see and understand each form more clearly. Often consecrated virginity is regarded as a private vow lived in the world, or as a form of Religious life. Sometimes the term "Order" is misleading. Let us clarify these misunderstandings now.
In Vita Consecrata, the papal exhortation which is the result of the meeting of the World Synod of Bishops, we find that various categories of consecrated life are listed. They are all forms of consecrated life, e.g., monastic life, consecrated virgins, hermits, institutes of religious dedicated to the apostolate, religious institutes completely devoted to contemplation, and secular institutes. Each of these is a separate category under the larger, general "umbrella" term of "consecrated life." Each form is distinct in itself with its own attributes. Each form, however, lives the evangelical counsels in imitation of Jesus Christ Himself, poor, obedient, and chaste. That does not mean, however, that all forms pronounce poverty, chastity, and obedience as vows.
In the case of Religious profession, the vows are pronounced and received by the Church. In the case of consecrated virginity the virgin presents herself to the Church and she is consecrated by the Church as a virgin living in the world. The Consecration is a definitive act on the part of the Church, constituting the individual in a particular state of holiness by the Church. Whereas it can be fitting, even, to speak of dispensing someone from vows or promises which she may have made, it does not make sense to speak of dispensing someone from an act of consecration made on the part of the Church itself.
The Consecration of a Virgin is a sign of the relationship of Christ, the Bridegroom, to the Church, the Bride. The consecrated virgin is a sign of the relationship of the Church, the Bride, to Christ, the Bridegroom. The sign is founded on the natural order, the relationship of a man and a woman in the marriage bond. Clearly, a man cannot be the sign of the Bride of Christ. Likewise, the spiritual relationship with Christ the Bridegroom is expressed in action by spiritual maternity in the Church. A man does not have the natural gifts of woman to exercise spiritual maternity.
The bond of Christ with His bride, made as a definitive act on the part of the Church as stated above, cannot be "undone." That is, it cannot be dispensed. For that reason, a virgin should not be admitted for Consecration until she has reached a mature age, has lived consistently a chaste life, and shows every sign of perseverance in the gift of her virginity.
As such also, the Consecration cannot be "renewed," as vows are, because the Consecration was received by the woman, not made or professed by her. She can reflect on the great gift of the Consecration which she received, she can renew her resolve to live as a virgin, but she cannot "renew" her Consecration as such. It is God who consecrates; the virgin merely offers herself.
We often hear of "Orders" in the Church, and most of the time reference is being made to a Religious institute, e.g., Order of Carmel, Order of St. Francis, Order of St. Benedict. In English we have only one word for "Order" which could mean a Religious institute as well as a category of consecrated life. The Order of Virgins refers to the latter meaning, that is, a category of consecrated life. It is not an Order in the sense of a Religious order, which is another form of consecrated life. One cannot, therefore, transfer vows from a Religious institute to the Order of Virgins and thereby be constituted a consecrated virgin under Canon 604.
Lastly, some people raise an objection or question why one would even aspire to receive the Consecration of Virgins when one already has a private vow or promise of perpetual virginity in place. Sacramentals are part of the treasury of the Church constituted to confer grace when received properly. As any consecrated virgin can tell you now, great graces are conferred through that sacramental of the Church when the candidate properly prepared for this Consecration.
Today, even with just the relatively few consecrated virgins living in the world, we know that they are praying for families, priests, and Christian unity. Prayer is their primary "work." They do not wear habits and veils, nor use the title "Sister," nor write "OCV" after their names--these marks of consecrated life for those living in a Religious Institute do not belong to their state of consecrated virginity lived in the world. However, consecrated virgins witness subtly, but powerfully, by their very lives as virgins. Their life in their occupations often draws people to ask questions of them, and this is the very same kind of witness that the early virgins in the Church gave. They did not wear habits or live and work apart from the everyday world, yet they witnessed very powerfully by their consecrated life given exclusively to Jesus Christ alone. Consecrated virgins today wear their ring, but their comportment, modesty in dress, simplicity in life style all betoken their living of the evangelical counsels. Their loyalty to their bishop and the entire Magisterium of the Church should be a flawless witness of their obedience in the Church. They often are known in their parish communities or in other diocesan groups or apostolic endeavors, as they give of their time on a volunteer basis. They are not obliged to take up any particular work or apostolic activity in their parish or diocese, but they do all that they can as their circumstances permit in service to the Church.
3. As women discerning the call to consecrated virginity, what concrete steps should they be taking?
Certainly one should start with the prayer life of a consecrated virgin: daily Mass if possible, the Liturgy of the Hours, frequent Confession, and when possible the Rosary and visits to the Blessed Sacrament. They should read the Rite of Consecration and the lives of the virgin saints. If possible, they should then read what the Fathers of the Church wrote on consecrated virginity. Of course it is understood that if one cannot pray the Divine Office by reason of some handicap or another, one could still be consecrated. The same applies to daily Mass.
It is understood that those discerning this call should progress toward the Consecration with a spiritual director. Eventually, if it be discerned that this is the proper call, then the spiritual director will help them receive the Consecration properly and with its full effect as a sacramental in the Church.
Specifically, the process usually goes this way. One normally should have had a spiritual director for some years, and it is understood that the virgin is a practicing Catholic and accepts all the teachings of the Catholic Church. After a discernment process with her spiritual director and after having lived in tranquil celibacy for a number of years, then she can write a letter of petition to the bishop of her diocese and request that she be considered to become a candidate for the Consecration of a Virgin living in the world. The bishop will usually meet with her to determine if she is a good candidate. If it is decided that she would be suitable for the Consecration, then she begins her preparation process. The time of preparation depends on how much the candidate already understands about the Consecration and how fast she can absorb the concepts. For each individual it will be different. The bishop of the diocese makes the final determination on whether the candidate, after her preparation, be suitable for the Consecration.
The Consecration as such has no upper age limit. At the other end of the scale, there is no certain age that one should have attained before one can receive the Consecration. Dioceses may choose to set a minimum age, but the important point is that the woman be of mature character, that she have lived in tranquil continence for a number of years, and that from all indications she will persevere in perpetual chastity.
The spiritual bond that the consecrated virgin will have with the bishop starts even before she receives the Consecration. In the introductory text for the Consecration, it is stated that the bishop is to start a dialogue with the virgin even before she is consecrated. It is understood, then, that if this dialogue is only to start before the Consecration, it will continue on after the Consecration too. Usually, the bishop will meet with the consecrated virgin every six months, or at least once a year. Of course the bishop himself will meet with the consecrated virgin as an individual, never delegating such a rich meeting to someone else nor meeting with all the consecrated virgins in the diocese at once. This is not an annual review, but a rewarding and pleasant dialogue. It is a good idea sometime to read the Fathers of the Church as they wrote about virgins as they knew them in the early Church.
4. Some practical questions often come up about the Rite itself and related matters. Let us tackle those briefly now.
Some candidates ask if they can receive a crucifix as part of the insignia during the Rite. It is discouraged to add anything to the Rite, and usually a crucifix is an insignia of mission to Sisters after they make Profession. This addition of a crucifix, as devotional as it is, would tend to blur the distinction of consecrated virgin living in the world and a Religious making Profession in an apostolic institute.
Sometimes it is thought that the Consecration could be delegated to a priest to perform. It is very clear from history and from the Roman Pontifical that this Rite is reserved to the bishop of the diocese. The bishop of the virgin's diocese, however, may delegate it to another bishop to perform, but he should not delegate it to a priest. The full symbolism of the Rite of Consecration is reflected when the diocesan Bishop carries it out because of the spiritual bond which exists between consecrated virgins and their bishop.
After the Consecration, an official notation should be made in the Baptismal record of the consecrated virgin, just as one records marriages or Religious Profession. The consecrated virgin herself should receive a document testifying to her Consecration and a copy of this document should be filed in the diocesan archives.
5. Could we look at some of the practical questions now about the actual living of this vocation in the Church? What are some of the aspirations of consecrated virgins today?
Because consecrated virgins want to grow in their life of prayer and to participate in their diocese as much as their individual situations permit, they often have two requests. They want to be able to adore the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as fervently and as often as they can and, therefore, they ask how they can receive permission to have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in their homes. This permission can be granted only by the Ordinary of the diocese. The pertinent canons of the Code of Canon Law are: cann. 934 § 1, no. 2; 934, § 2; 938, §§ 2-5; 940; 941, §§ 1-2; and 943. A second request is that they be notified of diocesan events that would pertain properly to them so that they can attend, if they can.
Sometimes they want to know if they can be a godmother for a child at Baptism. Of course they can. Others wish to know what procedure to follow should they have to move from their current diocese into another one, to take a job, for example. In the case of relocation, a consecrated virgin should write a letter to inform her current bishop that she will be moving and write a letter to the bishop into whose diocese she will be living to let him know who she is and of her plans to change residence. It is helpful for the bishop of her current diocese to write a letter to the bishop into whose diocese she will move to introduce her to him.
In some rare cases, a consecrated virgin may live in one diocese but work "across the border," so to speak, in another diocese. Then the question comes up as to which diocese she should consider herself a part. The answer is that her diocese is the one in which she intends to make her home.
Another question, sometimes posed, is whether a person after having received the Consecration of Virgin for a Woman Living in the World could become a Religious Sister at a later date. It is possible that a consecrated virgin living in the world may later discern a further vocation to the religious life. There is nothing in the vocation to consecrated virginity lived in the world which is contrary to profession as a religious. It would, however, mean that the consecrated virgin ceases to live in the world and accepts the essential elements of religious life, which are distinct from consecrated virginity. What must be noted here is that consecrated virginity lived in the world has its own integrity as a distinct form of consecrated life and leads the consecrated virgin to holiness of life. It is not a lesser form of consecrated life which can be perfected by the call to a higher form of consecrated life. Therefore, the consecrated virgin living in the world who has carefully discerned her vocation will not be likely to discern another form of vocation to the consecrated life. It is important to discern properly, through a thorough preparation, whether one is called to consecrated virginity lived in the world. Once the virgin has made the proper preparation and received the Consecration, she should devote herself with an undivided heart to fulfilling the requirements of her state and vocation in life.