Consecrated Virginity: St Agnes and After

One of the least understood aspects of Catholic teaching is the value it places on consecrated virginity, so the feast of St Agnes, who died a virgin martyr at the age of thirteen, is a good day to reflect on it.

First of all, let us be clear what we are talking about. Augustine points out that the whole Church is virginal by virtue of the integrity of her faith and love. She alone is the one true Bride of Christ. The consecrated virgin is a sign and symbol of this ecclesial reality. That is why the individual is ordinarily admitted to the state of consecrated virginity by the bishop of the diocese to which she belongs (canon 604). If you read through the Rite of Consecration, and the ancient prayer which is its constitutive element, you will notice similarities with the ordination of a deacon. That is no accident. The consecrated virgin may or may not have a secular job, but her commitment to prayer and works of charity within the diocese is her essential work. The Catechism sums this up as a ‘vocation to prayer, penance, and the service of her brethren’. (CCC 923)

Until comparatively recently, consecration to virginity had fallen into disuse in the Church generally. It was found only among monastic orders, as an adjunct to monastic profession. (If you wish to trace the liturgical history, René Metz, La Consécration des Vierges, is still the best guide, in my view.) Now you may well find a Consecrated Virgin in your own parish, unobtrusively serving the Lord and enriching the whole Church with her presence.

There can be no dispensation from the obligation to maintain lifelong virginity: the exterior sign of the interior commitment is one and indivisible. It is thus different in kind, though not in effect, from the prospective vow of lifelong single chastity made at religious profession. Again, the prayer of consecration lauds marriage but reminds us that those who have chosen a life of virginity do so out of a desire to follow Christ with all their potentialities. Consecrated virginity is thus an eschatological sign; and perhaps in these days, when sex has been trivialised into something that sells, we need that eschatalogical sign more than ever before.

Today, on the feast of St Agnes, let us pray for all consecrated virgins and for the witness they give.


21 thoughts on “Consecrated Virginity: St Agnes and After”

  1. I have to admit that this is a concept new to me. I had heard of vows of Chastity and have even met some people who seem to fulfil the lifelong commitment to that – but I wouldn’t know and probably wouldn’t think of ‘Consecrated Virginity’ in the same light.

    But seeing it explained shows another type of vocation dedicated to remaining pure as Christ was pure – to do his work among the faithful and probably wider in terms of mission and service to communities who may or may not be Christian.

    I’m not sure whether such a concept would be accepted by Anglicans, but there is strong evidence of many women dedicating their lives to good works, normally as professed Nuns or Missionaries over the years.

    How would this concept effect a widow for example who wished to make a profession of lifelong chastity as a member of the laity? Would they be accepted in the same way as someone who was professed as a Consecrated Virgin?

  2. UKViewer there are actually some Consecrated Virgins in the Church of England. Notably there have been two who have lived as Solitaries in Walsingham. (Both long dead now).

    Out of interest, D. Catherine is there a male equivalent?

    • No, there isn’t a male equivalent, as such. But with priesthood, diaconate, monastic life, religious life in various forms and the eremitical life open to men, as well as married life and single life, I suppose you do have a few choices available to you. 🙂

  3. I have only just heard of St Agnes, after being introduced via Keat’s Poem in another discussion group. This is fascinating, and as an Anglican I can assure UKViewer that there are many Anglican women who live their lives precisely like this, whether or not they have been intacta for all of their lives.

    When you meet Christ, you are forever changed and some find putting a sexual past behind them relatively easy. As Augustine said in his Confessions, “What I once feared to loose has been a delight to dismiss”. It certainly means that there is more time in one’s life to devote to mission and service in the community.

    Of course, it is a way of life that is not easily understood by wider society, there may be friends who think you just need to meet the ‘right one’ and think you are just being ‘too religious’ when you say that you have met The One (Christ) and do not necessarily need a sexual relationship with a man to live a happy and fulfilled life. It can lead to some unintentionally hilarious moments…I am thinking of the time I went to the doctor for a regular cervical smear test and when asked what method of contraception I was using replied “Celibacy”. To the doctor’s confused look I replied “It works every time!”

  4. A few clarifications about language: in the above, I am writing about consecrated virginity, not using that as a synonym for any other form of chastity.

    ‘Celibacy’ is a term that became popular at the time of the Reformation to describe a life of single chastity from the moment it is promised. It does not necessarily imply virginity. D. Felictas Corrigan refused to use the word ‘celibacy’, pointing out, quite correctly, that before the Reformation the English term ‘maidenhood’ had been preferred for both men and women.

    ‘Chastity’ itself applies to both the single and the married state, although the vow of chastity made by some religious means the single form thereof.

    There has been some discussion about the possible restoration of the Order of Widows. If you do an online search for Elizabeth Rees, you may find an article she wrote on the subject which I recall being very good (she is herself a Consecrated Virgin). At the present time, I believe I’m correct in saying that in some dioceses widows have been admitted to private vows; but again, that is different from the Order of Consecrated Virgins.

  5. Sister, in these days when the laity (both men and women) have been commissioned as Extraordinary Ministers of the Word and the Eucharist, what would you say to the possibility of the Church returning to an ordination of deaconesses, as well as deacons (as there were up until about the sixth century)?

    To my mind, the three fold Ministry of the Permanent Deaconate, namely Word, Sacrament and Service, is something which women could surely undertake? Their essential essence, which is often better able to provide more intimate, nurturing attention to others, surely makes them suitable candidates? However, that is different to a vocation of prayer, penance, and the service of brethren (which may be a product of its time, when the role of women in society was different).

    • Discussion of the ordination of women, eg to the diaconate and priesthood, is not allowed me. It is, actually, the ONLY question Catholics are not permitted to discuss.

      I would not, if I were you, dismiss the vocation of the Consecrated Virgin as being merely ‘a product of its time’. That which has produced, and continues to produce, great holiness, is worthy of our respect and support.

      • I wasn’t dismissing the vocation of Consecrated Virgin; just wondering about its historical development…

        I didn’t realise that the ordination of women was the ONLY question we are not permitted to discuss, nor that ordination to the Permanent Diaconate was considered in the same way as ordination to the priesthood?

        I have no problem with women not being ordained as priests. For me, it again seems to be about the essential essence of our being. I was merely musing on what may be a role that women could take up in these days of diminishing numbers, when in Parishes they are often the ones who bear many of the day-to-day tasks.

        I didn’t realise that I was wrong to even think it. Sorry.

        • Please don’t get misunderstand me: you were not ‘wrong’ to raise the question of the ordination of women; but I would be very wrong to discuss it, especially since superiors of religious communities take an oath to observe the teaching of the Church.

          Diaconate and priesthood are not the same thing, you are quite right, but I haven’t the time to go into the question, and, to be perfectly honest, I have no desire to do so. Such questions tend to bring endless complaints and hectoring (both pro and anti) of a kind for which I have no appetite!

          The question of how women can best serve the Church is a vast one, and something I’d like to begin exploring in some future posts — when I shall look forward to reading your contributions. 🙂

  6. To ask what may seem to some (or all) a silly question ( my seeming speciality) how is the virginity of Mary, Mother of God, to be understood – as a quality of relationship to God? As ‘chastity’? Both/neither?

    Likely not the time or place to treat of this topic, but perhaps it could be held in a cowl sleeve for a future blog post? Or not? 🙂

  7. The ‘desire to follow Christ with all one’s potentialities’ : I can’t resist recalling Frances Havergal’s hymn, “Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” (For those who don’t know it, it’s easily googled.) Or there’s St Ignatius’s prayer : “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. All I have and call my own, you have given to me; to you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.” These set consecrated virginity in context, don’t they ?

    • Indeed they do. I think it is the commitment of what I clumsily called ‘potentialities’ that is, for many, a stumbling-block. Can I promise this for the whole my life? The answer I would give is yes, because we enter into a covenant with God; and God is always faithful.

  8. I am fine with the concept of someone choosing to be celibate or virginal and to consecrate this aspect of their life to God. I do think the fact that there are no male consecrated virgins does rather suggest a double standard though.

    • To see a double-standard is perhaps to look outside in. I think it is fair to say that the hierarchical part of the Church has a bit of a problem with women, but I’ve never known anyone who has received the Consecratio troubled by a feeling of ‘second-best’, if that’s what you mean.

  9. Thank you for all your comments/shared insights. You make me wish I had written at greater length and included a little more theology and history, but perhaps it is as well I had other things to do.

  10. I only know anything about one consecrated virgin, Wendy Beckett, but her life is so extraordinary that she may not be a good (typical) example. Consecrated virgins are seen to be living in the world; she is also a hermit and famously an art critic…

    Through her books (Sister Wendy on Prayer is a favourite ) and broadcasts it is clear to me that such a vocation can allow a tremendous sharing of spiritual gifts. It might be rare but all the more important and precious because of it.

    • Yes, there are quite a few Consecrated Virgins who are hermits/members of cloistered communities (eg the community here) but I was mainly thinking of those who are such ‘in the world’ and whose witness is all the more precious because it is counter-cultural.

Comments are closed.