At a conference two years ago, I met a woman whose daughter had just become a consecrated virgin. Nearly everyone with whom she shared the news asked, “What’s a consecrated virgin?”
A consecrated virgin is a woman who has been consecrated by her diocesan bishop to a life of perpetual virginity. While she may live as a nun in a monastic order, the term is more commonly used for those who choose to live a dedicated life in the secular world.
It is expected that the consecrated virgin, when not occupied with her work life, will otherwise devote herself to prayer, penance and service to the Church.
History of the Rite
This practice of consecration goes all the way back to the Apostles and may, in fact, be the first form of consecrated life in the Church. It expresses the ideal of marriage in its irrevocable unity of a bride of Christ, representing the church, with the bridegroom of Jesus.
The concept is that the love of the Lord is enough, which clashed dramatically with the pagan way of life. Many women paid for this deviation from the norm with their lives — consider the virgin martyrs mentioned at every Mass: Sts. Agnes, Lucy and Agatha.
Eventually, in the third and fourth centuries, Christian life developed monasticism. Women wanting to remain virgins and dedicate themselves to Church service were absorbed into religious orders since it was otherwise not acceptable to be an unmarried woman.
There is a long history of attempts to officially revive this life through the centuries, but the revised Rite of Consecration of Virgins was not approved until 1970 under Pope Paul VI.
Today, it’s estimated there are 5,000 consecrated virgins worldwide. There are only a few hundred in the United States, but it is a growing trend according to the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins. https://consecratedvirgins.org/
A Catholic Review article, published October 8, 2021, discussed the rising interest in this vocation. https://catholicreview.org/some-see-growing-trend-in-women-choosing-vocation-as-consecrated-virgins/
This article quoted consecrated virgin Karen Ervin who said,
“[I]t’s a sign of the Holy Spirit moving through a culture hurting from sin that more women are stirred to seek something so radically different as choosing a vocation as a consecrated virgin.
“Perfect chastity is so profoundly mocked and misunderstood (in today’s culture) that I think the Holy Spirit is bringing this vocation back to the forefront to make it as another image of what happens in heaven. . . . when we are in that spousal union with the Trinity, in communion with God.”
In an Australian article (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-03/meet-zara-australian-consecrated-virgin-married-jesus/10837420), Zara Tai explained the attraction of becoming a consecrated virgin over becoming a nun:
“In a religious order you might have some say in what you do, but you are under a vow of obedience,” so you do what the diocese tells you to do.
“But [consecrated virgins] have professions, we have careers . . . we have lives, basically, that are outside the structure of the church. It’s a modern way; it gives a lot of freedom to do whatever you like to do.”
Ms. Tai added that she is more than permanently single because she is married to Christ.
Also, since she is out in the world, Ms. Tai says that people who wouldn’t go anywhere near a church will come to her with questions. “In fact, Rome has often called us the ‘secret service of the church’ because we are in all walks of life.”
Mature, Independent and Single
Obviously, a woman has to be truly mature and independent to assume the life of a consecrated virgin. She must be at least thirty years old to take her vows, and many who are consecrated are over fifty.
The maturity and independence are needed not only for her to be able to make a life-changing and lifelong decision, but also for her to take on the responsibility for her own spiritual development and financial support since she does not belong to a religious community.
Not everyone wants to or should get married. A single Catholic woman once told me that she was disappointed that the Church didn’t put more emphasis on the single life as a vocation. I agree, and I mean the single life, not necessarily consecrated life. Being single is a perfectly valid choice, and one that more and more men and women are making in this culture for a variety of reasons.
Besides being single, why isn’t there an option to be a consecrated virgin for men? If men can make a vow of celibacy in religious life, they can be virgins in secular life as well.