There have been a recent onslaught of negative comments on social media towards and about consecrated virgins living in the world in recent weeks. I have both seen and have been on the receiving end of some of those comments, most of which come from people who don’t know about this legitimate and valid vocation.
Amanda Marie, a consecrated virgin of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Montana created a great thread of tweets regarding the history of and the specifics of the vocation. While the thread is rich in its content for those who want to know more about consecrated virginity, the length may spook some people. With her permission, I’ve compiled a list of seven must-know facts about consecrated virginity as it pertains to the most commonly asked question/misinformed argument stance—has it been a valid vocation throughout the Church’s history or is it an “invention of Vatican II”?
Are you ready to learn a bit more about this lovely vocation? If so, here are seven things you need to know about consecrated virginity lived in the world.
1. It pre-dates religious communities for women
Yes, you read that right: consecrated virginity existed before religious orders for women. In fact, it also pre-dates Western monasticism founded by St. Benedict (A.D. 530). Evidence of the existence of this vocation during the early years of the Church comes from the writings of Church Fathers such as St. Justin Martyr, St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius of Antioch, etc.
2. One of the 3 “orders” for women in the early Church was consecrated virginity
As previously stated, the vocation existed in the early days of the Church, even during the Roman persecution of Christians but it wasn’t the only one for women. There were three options (“orders,” though not in the same definition that we use today). The first was the “Order of Ascetics.” These women would withdraw from the world like the early Desert Mothers (e.g. St. Mary of Egypt). The second was the “Order of Widows”.—self explanitory The last was the “Order of Virgins.” Women in all three orders consecrated themselves to Christ and the Church, just in different ways as it fit their state in life.
3. Saints have written about the liturgical rite
If you’re still having a little trouble believing the historical roots of the vocation, look no further than the writings by Sts. Methodius, Cyprian, and Tertullian. Texts written by these Saints include details that weren’t recorded in previous centuries. They reveal that by the third century there was already a liturgical Rite for women who wanted to be consecrated virgins.
4. Saintly advocate for consecrated virgins
St. Ambrose of Milan’s sister, St. Marcelina, was also a consecrated virgin, so it’s no wonder why he was a champion of the vocation. He advocated for women who chose to become consecrated virgins by stating that if a woman was deemed old enough to be married, she should also be deemed old enough to make the decision to become a consecrated virgin. As he argued, if a woman had the maturity to enter into a lifelong commitment with a man, she likewise would be able to make that same oath of fidelity to God. What he wrote on virginity was preserved and can be read (or listened to in audiobook version) if you want to hear his powerful words.
5. A saintly pope’s prayer is still used for the consecration
I bet you didn’t know that the Prayer of Consecration of a Virgin Living in the World in the Rite of Consecration is attributed to Pope St. Leo the Great. Yes, it’s true! In fact, it’s still used in the ceremonies to this day, over a millennium and a half after it was first used. And, for those keeping track at home, yes! This prayer also pre-dates women’s religious orders!
6. Valid through the Middle Ages
While it’s true that the majority of consecrated virgins were living together in many religious communities by the middle of the tenth century, it didn’t mean that there weren’t consecrated virgins living in the world. In fact, you can still see the work Guillaume Durand, a thirteenth century French canonist, liturgical writer, and Bishop of Mende did on the Rite of Consecration. From the fifteenth through the early nineteenth centuries, there were few consecrated virgins living in the world that used this Rite. Notably exceptions were the women who were consecrated by St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop Jerome Crispi of Ravenna, and Pope Benedict XIV.
7. What about Vatican II?
And here we come to the most common misconception/argument from those who don’t know the history of the vocation: what about Vatican II? As you’ve read, the vocation is not a Vatican II invention. What did happen was that at the Council it was asked that the Rite be revised since Pope Pius XII had reserved the Rite for women living in religious communities only. This has been the only time single lay women were unable to be consecrated virgins through the Rite. This period lasted from 1950 to 1970 when The revised Rite once again allowed consecrated virgins to live in the world as brides of Christ. So much for that argument!
Of course, this isn’t the entire history. There is so much more that wasn’t written. The vocation is a rich one that grew and met obstacles as the Church grew and faced its own crises. If you’re interested in learning more about the vocation or are interested in discerning it for yourself, please visit the United States Association for Consecrated Virgins (USACV) website.
Sts. Cecilia, Lucy, Agatha, Agnes, Philomena, & Kateri, pray for us. Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Virgins, pray for us!
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