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“Sign of the Great Mystery of Salvation:” a Reflection on the Rite of the Consecration of Virgins

While the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium is suitably known for its call for the reform of the liturgy in general, it can come as a surprise that the Constitution also mandated the revision of the Rite for the Consecration of Virgins.[1] Despite the promulgation of the Rite, the vocation to consecrated virginity remains relatively unknown today. Nevertheless, the vocation dates back to the very earliest times of the Church, pre-dating even religious life.[2]

The virgin martyrs of the Roman Empire are among the first consecrated virgins. Take, for example, the consecrated virgins, St. Lucy and St. Agnes. These women lived in the world, but as brides of Christ. They did not take religious vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, nor did they live in community or wear habits. Their life was marked by a love for Christ the Bridegroom and service to his Church, but they lived externally “normal” lives.

For reasons outlined elsewhere,[3] over time the consecration of virgins became associated exclusively with religious life. In the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council, however, there were a growing number of requests throughout the world to restore the ancient custom of consecrated virgins living in the world. Paragraph 80 of Sacrosanctum Concilium is the Council’s response to the request for the restoration of the integrity of the rite: “The rite for the consecration of virgins at present found in the Roman Pontifical is to be revised.”

The virgin martyrs of the Roman Empire are among the first consecrated virgins. St. Lucy and St. Agnes, for example, lived in the world, but as brides of Christ. They did not take religious vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, nor did they live in community or wear habits.

Virgin Revision

Promulgated in 1970, the revised ritual reestablishes the ancient vocation of virgins living in the world as its own unique vocation in the Church. The rite may be found in the Roman Pontifical alongside the rites for the ordination of a bishop, the institution of lectors and acolytes, Confirmation, and the consecration of an abbot. With the release this summer of the instruction, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, the vocation has drawn increasing attention from bishops and laity alike. The Instruction provides needed clarification, particularly in the area of formation, even while it raises other questions about the nature of consecrated virginity.

But the question remains, what exactly is consecrated virginity? The best place to answer this question is found in the Rite itself. Taking seriously the principle that the law of prayer establishes the law of belief,[4] I will examine the Rite of the Consecration of Virgins in order to shed light upon the vocation and offer a reflection on its bridal and virginal nature.

First, then, to the praenotanda, or introductory notes. These preliminary words, which now precede each of the Church’s rites, provide the Church’s own explanation of the nature of consecrated virginity. Two eloquent sentences of the praenotanda sum up the essential elements of the vocation to virginity. “The custom of consecrating women to a life of virginity flourished even in the early Church. It led to the formation of a solemn rite constituting the candidate a sacred person, a surpassing sign of the Church’s love for Christ, and an eschatological image of the world to come and the glory of the heavenly Bride of Christ.”[5] There are three elements here which bear examining.

 

The Total Image

First, the consecrated virgin is a “surpassing sign of the Church’s love for Christ.” In other words, the virgin stands as an icon of the Church, manifesting in her own individual life the total spousal dedication that the Church has for Christ. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is referred to as a Bride of the Lord, whom the Lord espouses to himself. “For as a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you” (Isaiah 62:5). Idolatry was seen as a kind of impurity, and Israel was to keep her heart pure for the Lord. This she did not do, falling time and again. “Your depravity and prostitution brought these things upon you because you served as a prostitute for the nations, defiling yourself with their idols” (Ezekiel 23:29-30).

In the New Testament, the covenant with Israel is fulfilled when Christ comes as the Bridegroom to save his people from their idolatrous sins. Indeed, John hails him as the Bridegroom of Israel, and Christ too refers to himself as the Bridegroom (John 3:39; Matthew 9:14-15). In the new dispensation, the Church is the Mystical Bride of Christ, dedicated entirely to her Divine Spouse. The consecrated virgin, in turn, reflects the Church’s spousal identity, by living in her own life a total, personal dedication to Christ. The Rite of Consecration is a liturgical act by which the Church reveals to the faithful an image of herself in the person of the virgin.[6]

Consequently, the virgin is secondly an eschatological image. As a bride of Christ, the consecrated virgin lives in the present world the life that each baptized soul is called to live for eternity. She is a living reminder that eternity is the heavenly wedding feast of the Lamb and his Bride the Church. In his vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem, St. John hears the righteous exclaim, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:6-7). In this way, the virgin acts as a prophetess, reminding the Church of the glorious heavenly wedding feast.

Thirdly, because the virgin is an image of the Church, her consecration takes on a public dimension. While certainly acting out of personal devotion to Christ, the woman to be consecrated also stands as a public witness of the Church’s devotion to her Spouse. This is what the praenotandum means when it speaks of the virgin as being consecrated by means of a “solemn rite.” Later in the text, it is even stipulated: “to deepen understanding of the Church… the faithful should be notified of the celebration in good time.”[7] The virgin is not only consecrated to God for her own salvation, but also for the good of the whole Church.

 

Spouse in the House

With all this in mind, let us turn to the ritual itself. On the day of consecration, the candidate approaches the sanctuary in a wedding dress with a lit lamp recalling the lamp of the wise virgins of the parable. The consecration commences after the Gospel when the bishop begins by calling the virgin, “Come, listen to me, my child; I will teach you reverence for the Lord.”[8] The virgin responds, “Now with all my heart I follow you, I reverence you and seek your presence.”[9] The calling of the virgin highlights the fact that the vocation is a response to the gift of Christ. The bishop as another Christ calls the virgin to this vocation. She hears the Bridegroom’s voice and follows him. “My lover speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come” (Song 2:10)! Only after she has responded to the call does the candidate enter the sanctuary and take her seat for the homily, further underscoring that she comes to the vocation out of a response to grace.

The homily provided by the rite contains some of the most beautiful explanations of “the gift of virginity and its role in the…welfare of the whole Church.”[10] Consecrated virgins are seen by the Fathers as “images of the eternal and all-holy God”[11] inasmuch as they remain unchanged and set apart. God the Father showed his love for this vocation because he chose a Virgin to be the mother of his Son. Indeed, Our Lord himself was a Virgin, and the Holy Spirit continues to anoint virgins with a new grace to be brides of Christ. The virgin is to be a witness of God’s love for man, and she is set apart for the service of her neighbor. The bishop reminds the virgin, “Make your whole life reflect your vocation and your dignity.”[12]

Immediately after the homily the bishop examines the virgin with three questions to confirm her readiness to take on this way of life. “Are you resolved to persevere to the end of your days in the holy state of virginity and in the service of God and his Church? Are you resolved to follow Christ in the spirit of the Gospel that your whole life may be a faithful witness to God’s love and a convincing sign of the Kingdom of Heaven? Are you resolved to accept solemn consecration as a bride of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God?”[13] Here we see a theological deepening in the examination of the candidate. Is she prepared to live physically as a virgin in service to God? Is she ready to deepen that service so that her whole life is a “convincing witness”? Is she prepared to be transformed in her very being by accepting consecration as a Bride of Jesus Christ? Each question reveals a deeper meaning of the vocation.

The wording of the third question is of particular interest. The bishop inquires whether she is prepared to accept consecration. This “passive” phrasing of the question reveals that the Church understands the consecration to be a wedding wherein Christ espouses the virgin to himself. “For as a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you” (Isaiah 62:5). In the Rite of Consecration, while the Church ascertains that the virgin is “resolved” to act in living out the life that the vocation demands (i.e., the spousal gift of self in service to God and his Church), the virgin is fundamentally in a receptive posture in relation to Christ, for it is Christ who espouses the virgin to himself in the person of the bishop.

 

Lay Down Your Life

In a gesture replete with meaning, the virgin kneels, or even prostrates herself, at the foot of the altar while the congregation chants the Litany of the Saints. Each saint bears some connection to the vocation of consecrated virginity. The Church asks the intercession of the early virgin martyrs and other women saints who have lived this charism. St. Maria Goretti, St. Rose of Lima, and St. Catherine of Sienna all find their way into the litany. Also included are St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome, eloquent defenders of the vocation. While the Church is interceding for the woman, she offers herself to God, body and soul.

Following the Litany, the virgin once more renews her intention to be consecrated (the propositum),[14] and the bishop extends his hands over her and offers the Prayer of Consecration. The oldest element of the Rite,[15] this prayer is in the form of a preface and describes the consecration as an action of Christ to which the virgin responds. “You prompt them in this, their intention; now they give you their hearts.”[16] Furthermore, virginity is a spiritual gift which does not stand in opposition to human marriage. “[Y]our loving wisdom chooses those who make sacrifice of marriage for the sake of the love of which it is the sign. They renounce the joys of human marriage, but cherish all that it foreshadows.”[17]

The prayer describes Christ as the “heavenly bridegroom” who is the “origin and inspiration” of those who give themselves to this way of life. It then concludes with the bishop begging Christ: “Be yourself their glory, their joy, their whole desire…. They have chosen you above all things; may they find all things in possessing you.”[18] The Prayer of Consecration is a splendid prayer of the Virgin Church begging for the action of the Holy Spirit upon the woman to establish her as a Bride of Christ. In this prayer, the Church reveals her tender love for her daughters who are chosen to “follow the Bridegroom wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4).

 

With This Ring…

After the Prayer of Consecration, the bishop sits and formally bestows the insignia of the vocation: the ring, veil, and the Liturgy of the Hours. The ring and veil indicate the virgin’s new status; no longer is she an unmarried woman. The ring is perhaps the most recognizable sign that the virgin is now a Bride of Christ, while the veil is an ancient Roman custom which represents the matronly modesty of a married woman.

Moreover, with the privilege of a new status comes the responsibility of prayer. The bishop announces this when he entrusts the Liturgy of the Hours to the newly consecrated. “May the praise of our heavenly Father be always on your lips; pray without ceasing for the salvation of the whole world.”[19] The ring, veil, and Liturgy of the Hours are visible reminders to the virgin and to the world that she is a married woman, dedicated entirely to the service of Christ in his Church.

Although the consecration is concluded when the virgin receives the insignia, she nevertheless fittingly attends the rest of Mass seated in the sanctuary, much as married couples do on their wedding day; she continues the wedding feast close to the Lamb, offering her sacrifice in union with Christ’s. By positioning the ite of the consecration of virgins within the context of Mass, the Church highlights the close association of the two sacrifices: Christ’s and the virgin’s. “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

In the homily of the rite for the consecration of virgins, the bishop reminds the candidate, “You are a sign of the great mystery of salvation, proclaimed at the beginning of human history and fulfilled in the marriage covenant between Christ and his Church.”[20] In the totality of her person, body and soul, the virgin responds to the Bridegroom’s call. In turn, through the intercession of the Church, the Heavenly Bridegroom espouses the virgin to himself, and sets her as a sign to the whole world of the heavenly life to come where Christ will be all in all (I Corinthians 15:28). The rite of the consecration of virgins brings to light this spiritual richness of the vocation to virginity, and, further, reveals the Church’s own virginal heart, dedicated entirely to her Lord.


[1]Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1965), no. 80.

[2] Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, “Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago,” no. 5, accessed September 10, 2018, https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/07/04/180704d.html.

[3]See René Metz, La Consécration des Vierges: Hier, Aujourd’hui, Demain (Paris, France: Cerf, 2001).

[4]“…ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.” Literally translated, “…that the law of prayer establishes the law of belief.” Prosper of Aquitaine’s (5th c.) famous maxim, more colloquially known as lex orandi, lex credenda may be found as a theological and liturgical principle in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana-United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000), par. 1124.

[5]Congregation for Divine Worship, “Consecration to a Life of Virginity,” in The Roman Pontifical. (Totowa, New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing, 2012), 1.

[6]“With the celebration of consecration, the Bishop presents the consecrated women to the ecclesial community as a sign of the Church as the Bride of Christ.” Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, “Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago,” no. 47, accessed September 8, 2018, https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/07/04/180704d.html.

[7]Ibid., 4.

[8]Congregation for Divine Worship, “Consecration to a Life of Virginity,” in The Roman Pontifical. (Totowa, New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing, 2012), 14.

[9]Ibid.

[10]Ibid., 16.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid., 17.

[14]“In the rite, those to be consecrated express the sanctum propositum (the holy resolution). This is the firm and definitive resolve to persevere for their whole life in perfect chastity, and in the service of God and the Church, following Christ in accordance with the Gospel, to give the world a living witness of love and to be a clear sign of the future Kingdom.” Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, “Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago,” no. 19, accessed September 10, 2018, https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/07/04/180704d.html.

[15]The earliest extant version comes to us from the Leonine Sacramentary (7th c.). United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, Information Packet Regarding the Life of Consecrated Virginity Lived in the World, 54, accessed September 1, 2018, https://consecratedvirgins.org/usacv/sites/default/files/documents/VocRes1-1InfoPkt_new.pdf.

[16]Congregation for Divine Worship, “Consecration to a Life of Virginity,” in The Roman Pontifical. (Totowa, New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing, 2012), 24.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]Ibid., 28.

[20]Ibid., 16.

Elizabeth Black

Elizabeth Black

Elizabeth Black is currently pursuing a Masters in Liturgy from the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, having received a B.A. in Classics and Early Christian Studies from Christendom College.