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.

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Steadfastness

St Agnes was martyred early (at age 12 according to Ambrose, 13 according to Augustine) and is today chiefly remembered for being one of the female saints mentioned by name in the Roman canon. She is the patron saint of virgins, rape victims, gardeners, etc (there is a lot in the etc. but we’ll leave that for the moment) and has a singularly beautiful Office, so it would be easy to drift off on liturgical and historical reminiscence, but I think that might be to miss the point. The saints are not given to us so that we can commemorate them with exquisite art (though we often do) nor are they meant to be the subject of historical enquiry (though they often are). Saints are given to us for our encouragement. What encouragement can we derive from this young Roman girl martyred more than 1700 years ago?

For a start, she is a wonderful example of holiness in the young; and not the namby-pamby kind of ‘holiness’ which is in the eye of the sentimental beholder alone, but the real thing — gutsy, determined, tough-minded. Agnes stood up to her elders for what she believed and paid the price. Moreover, she stood up for something that many today find laughable or even an embarrassment: the freedom to choose whether to marry or not, whether to have sex or not. In her case, she chose a state of permanent virginity as an expression of love for Christ. That was the original ‘woman’s right to choose’ which she defended at the cost of her life. It is worth remembering that whenever we hear her named in the Mass, whenever we hear of someone being forced into an arranged marriage or raped. Let us ask her prayers for all vulnerable girls and women today.

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