By Jenna Cooper, a consecrated virgin from the Archdiocese of New York.
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to be in touch with a number of women discerning vocations to consecrated virginity in the Catholic Church, with more than a few of these being former religious Sisters in the process of discerning their next step. Since consecrated virginity is not yet very well-known or well-understood, properly discerning a vocation to this particular form of consecrated life can be difficult for any woman. Yet I imagine it might present special challenges for those who have recently left a religious community.
Information and advice for former Sisters discerning consecrated virginity could fill several blog posts, but here are some basic points of consideration for anyone who finds herself in this position:
Not all women are called to be consecrated virgins.
While this may sound obvious and self-explanatory, I’ve heard of cases where a recent Sister is advised to discern a vocation to consecrated virginity by a priest, spiritual director, or former religious superior, even without anyone involved having much understanding of what the life and spirituality of a consecrated virgin actually entails. Other times, it seems women who have recently left convents consider becoming consecrated virgins almost reflexively, as though consecrated virginity were simply a sort of “catch all” category for unmarried women who needed to find a niche within the Church.
Yet consecrated virginity is not a general vocation which is categorically open to all the faithful, but is rather a relatively rare charism which results from a very specific call from God. Even a woman who meets all the canonical criteria to qualify for the consecration of virgins might not actually experience a true interior call to this way of life. And in some situations, there can be good pastoral reasons for advising women who are technically qualified to become consecrated virgins against discerning this vocation.
The upshot of all this is that no woman who has left a convent should feel in any way pressured or obligated to discern a vocation to consecrated virginity. As serious Catholics, we might sometimes be tempted to think that we should always be able to put ourselves into neat canonical boxes. But we need to remember that this is not the way that God thinks!
Our Lord loves and is pleased with everyone who sincerely seeks to do His will, regardless of whether or not one is settled into a permanent state in life. If a woman is truly called to be a consecrated virgin, this vocation will needed to be discerned on God’s time, and will come about solely as a result of His providential design and good pleasure.
Consecrated virginity is a distinct vocation in its own right.
Another common misunderstanding about consecrated virginity is that it is simply an “alternative vocation.” However, the charism of the Church’s ancient Order of Virgins is much more than simply “being dedicated to God, but without living in a convent.”
Consecrated virginity as a vocation actually pre-dates religious life by several centuries, and the spirituality of consecrated virginity is as unique as that of any religious family. For example, consecrated virginity as a form of consecrated life has a particular focus on the call to live as a bride of Christ, a special affinity with the Church’s early virgin-martyr saints, and a characteristic emphasis on the virtue of Christian virginity.
Consecrated virgins also have their own proper role and identity within the broader household of the Church. Through their consecration, consecrated virgins acquire a special bond with the local Church (and are therefore part of their home dioceses in a more “direct” way than religious, who are first and foremost members of their communities).
Likewise, consecrated virginity is also very different from simply making a private vow. A woman is consecrated as a virgin in a fully public liturgical rite, and from the day of their consecration consecrated virgins are called to bear a public evangelical witness.
Consecrated virginity has its own challenges
On the surface, a call to consecrated virginity might seem less demanding than a call to religious life, since consecrated virgins are not required to leave their homes and families or adhere to all the discipline inherent in community life. Still, my strong belief is that when a consecrated virgin is living out her consecrated life fully, this vocation is just as challenging as religious life, only in different specific ways.
One fairly obvious challenge inherent in the life of a consecrated virgin is the need for a great deal of self-motivation and self-discipline. Consecrated virgins are obligated to live serious lives of prayer (generally understood as the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, daily Mass in regions where this is possible, and daily time for private prayer), and they must be faithful to this even without the support of a community or the direct supervision of a superior.
Another significant challenge which is perhaps less readily apparent is the need for continual ongoing discernment. While canon law and the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity call consecrated virgins to be dedicated to the service of the Church, the practical details of how this can be best lived out concretely are left to the discretion of an individual consecrated virgin and her bishop. On even a purely human level, this requires a great deal of prudence and personal maturity; spiritually, it also demands a certain kind of asceticism. Consecrated virgins need to cultivate a listening heart which is truly open to God’s will and sensitive to the actual needs of the local Church, which underscores the necessity of fostering a profound sense of interior detachment in order to serve God’s people generously and disinterestedly.
A general lack of understanding and support is another difficulty which, while not intrinsic to this vocation, is a hard reality for most consecrated virgins at this point in time. Very few dioceses have well-developed formation programs for those aspiring to consecrated virginity, and young consecrated virgins in many places often lack peers and role models. Additionally, today’s consecrated virgins are likely to encounter, at least occasionally, dismissive attitudes and insensitive comments from even good people within the Church.
Of course, a woman who truly has a vocation to consecrated virginity will be given the grace to cope with these challenges. Still, it is important for discerners to be aware of them.
To sum up:
Consecrated virginity, like any life-long commitment, is a decision which needs to be carefully and peacefully discerned. Many recent Sisters may find it helpful to learn more about consecrated virginity, while keeping in mind that not every former religious who inquires about becoming a consecrated virgin will find that this is where she is called. Yet at the same time, I would also imagine that some former Sisters may actually have been called to the charism of consecrated virginity all along, with their time in the convent serving as part of God’s providential plan for the discovery of their true vocation.