Our Catholic Diocese of Memphis has a cause for celebration in the upcoming consecration of Tara Doyle as a Consecrated Virgin this Saturday, Dec. 17, 11:00am, at Our Mother Church, The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 1695 Central Ave., with Bishop David P. Talley as Celebrant and Homilist. All are invited to participate in this special Mass with a Reception to follow in Marian Hall, Downstairs in The Cathedral.
As we celebrate Tara’s consecration to Christ, this is an opportunity to learn more about the ancient custom of virgins being consecrated to Christ. In the New Testament, the Church is described as the bride of Christ (see Ephesians 5, Revelation 19:7-8) and Christ refers to himself as a bridegroom (Matthew 9:15). This spousal relationship between Christ and the Church is essential to the Church’s understanding of both marriage and celibacy. St. Paul describes the spousal relationship of Christ and the Church as the model for Christian marriages (see Ephesians 5). Yet, Saint Paul also had high regard for celibacy. Without in any way denigrating marriage, he recommends the celibate life as a means of being dedicated to the affairs of God (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). Jesus himself teaches that some are called to remain unmarried “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12).
Since apostolic times, certain people have perceived God calling them to dedicate themselves to Christ as celibates. Among these celibate Christians, a special place was accorded to consecrated virgins. Already in the First and Second Centuries, Saint Clement of Rome and Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote of certain women who were recognized in those earliest days of the Church as virgins dedicated totally to Christ. The Christians of the Church of Rome have long had great devotion to several virgins who gave their lives in martyrdom to remain faithful to their vow of virginity for Christ. These virgin martyrs, such as Saint Agnes, Saint Agatha, Saint Lucy and Saint Cecilia, saw themselves as married to Christ and would rather die that betray their divine Spouse. In time, the Church began to recognize these consecrated virgins as constituting a special state of life in the Church and began to refer to this state in the Church as the Order of Virgins. Special rites of consecration were composed in which a woman would declare her resolve to dedicate herself totally to Christ. The Bishop would then pray a prayer of consecration over her and place a veil upon her head as a sign of her consecration.
The first consecrated virgins usually lived with their own families, but as monastic life began to develop in the Church, virgins began to live together in communities. This is the origin of women’s religious communities. As religious life became more prevalent in the Church, these consecrated women became known to us as Nuns and, in later Centuries, as Religious Sisters. Though all Nuns and Religious Sisters dedicate themselves to Christ and make vows of chastity, the traditional ritual of the consecration of virgins was eventually restricted to the members of certain monasteries of cloistered Nuns.
Following the Second Vatican Council there was a renewed interest in the ancient Order of Virgins. In 1970, a new Order for the Consecration of Virgins was promulgated by mandate of Saint Pope Paul VI. Recovering the ancient tradition of consecrated women living in the world rather than in religious communities, Diocesan Bishops now had a ritual by which women who discerned this special calling could publicly dedicate their virginity to Christ and carry out their special calling to contribute to the sanctification of the secular world without joining a monastery or convent. The 1983 Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Saint Pope John Paul II, recognizes this state of life as a normal part of the life of the Church. Canon 604, paragraph 1 states: “…the Order of Virgins who, expressing the holy resolution of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the Diocesan Bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are mystically betrothed to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.”
Unlike Nuns or Religious Sisters, a consecrated virgin does not wear a habit and is not called by the title “Sister,” but she is recognized by the Church as having a special vocation and status. Though she makes her own decisions regarding where she lives and where she is employed, the diocesan bishop is always solicitous for her and her continuing formation as a consecrated woman.
So, we give thanks to God for Tara’s upcoming consecration. Let us pray that God will inspire more women of our Diocese to dedicate themselves to Christ for the sake of his kingdom as Religious Sisters and as Consecrated Virgins.
- For more information on the charism of virginity, see Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.’s book “…And You Are Christ’s”: The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987).
- For more information on the history of the Order of Virgins and the canonical norms regulating the life of Consecrated Virgins, see the Instruction on the Ordo Virginum entitled Ecclesiae sponsae imago (8 June 2018) from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at: VaticanCCSCRLife.