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'Bethrothed to Christ': a growing number of consecrated virgins in the U.S. attest to the vocation's appeal.

Forty years later and the memory is still vivid. Her family is living in Chicago and she is so small she can barely touch the top of the kitchen table. The adults around her must have been talking about child-rearing, because one turns mid-conversation and says to her, "You'll understand someday, Maryann, when you grow up and have kids of your own."

"I'm not going to get married when I grow up," the little girl declares.

The certainty of celibacy has always been a part of Maryann Srbljan. "It's like your hand. You look down and see it's there," she said. Although she considered marriage good and holy, she knew it wasn't for her. Nor did she desire religious life. But Srbljan, 48, who is the only female firefighter in Oklahoma City, believed she was "called to something in the church." After years of keeping a private vow of celibacy, she asked her local bishop to consecrate her virginity and betrothed herself to Jesus.

Srbljan is among a small but rapidly growing number of women who belong to the secular order of consecrated virgins. The Vatican's Annuario Pontifico, keeper of ecclesial statistics, has yet to track this vocation, but the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins estimates there are 2,500 consecrated virgins worldwide, 175 of whom live in the United States. Financially independent from the Catholic church, they represent a variety of professions and interpretations of Catholicism--from CPA to former cafeteria worker, from traditionalists to feminists.

Given America's public preoccupation with sexuality, the emerging interest in the "holy state of virginity" might seem an oddity. But women who have embraced this vocation, with its paradoxical charism of spousal love sans sex, say consecrated virginity offers a flexible and distinctly feminine form for expressing their faith. They say it has freed them to be wholly available--body and soul--to Jesus.

"No one is going to do this except out of complete love for Christ," said the association's president, Judith Stegman. "There is no title involved of 'Sister.' No particular dress. One needs to be responsible for one's livelihood. What I see in young women [considering this life] is a deep love for the eucharistic Christ and a deep desire to give their all, their virginal love in a total and complete commitment to Christ."

One of the oldest vocations in the Catholic church, consecrated virginity dates back to the first centuries of Christianity when Christians organized themselves into "orders" or associations according to their station in life. (Church legend claims the Apostle Matthew consecrated the first virgin.) Ranked second to deacons, the Order of Virgins featured prominently within the ecclesial structure that preceded the establishment of the priesthood and religious communities. By the ninth century, the rite for consecrating a virgin fell into disuse as more and more women entered religious life and kept their vow of celibacy behind cloister walls. The rite was revised and promoted during Vatican II.

An ancient rite revived

Unlike other forms of consecrated life within the Catholic church, admission into this order requires no vows. During a simple ceremony, the woman, often dressed in a white bridal gown, declares her resolve to follow Christ in "perfect chastity" in the presence of her local bishop who then consecrates her dedication. She receives a ring, signifying her betrothal to Christ, the Liturgy of Hours, a book of Catholic prayers, and a veil, an optional symbol not meant for everyday attire. In the language of the rite, she is "mystically betrothed to Christ ... dedicated to the service of the church."

Aside from a lifelong commitment to celibacy, this vocation's practical obligations are few. A consecrated virgin must support herself financially, pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and attend daily Mass, if possible.

"We are somewhat analogous to the diocesan priesthood in that the woman's ecclesial superior is her bishop," Stegman said. "She lives individually. Her role is prayer and service to the church." But consecrated virgins are free to define how they serve.

"One woman is building a girl's school in Rwanda and she considers that her service to the church," said Mary Kantor, who said she thinks interest in this vocation is increasing "because the places for women to live out lives of service within the Catholic church have gotten more Limited." A doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School, Kantor is doing her dissertation on American consecrated virgins and their role in the Catholic church. She recently conducted the lest nationwide demographic study of these women. During her six years of research she has seen the U.S. order swell from 20 women to her estimate of 200.

For many women, the vocation's adaptability and its emphasis on living a sacred state within the world are part of its appeal.

"If you join a religious community, you have to bend to fit into their mold. With this, the vocation is more fexible," said Srbljan. On the job as an Oklahoma City firefighter 10 days out of every month, Srbljan said she spends the other 20 days volunteering at her small parish that celebrates the traditional Latin Mass.

"Women in all professional situations are finding out their professional and spiritual lives are compatible. It's an integrated life," said, Mary Kay Lacke of Steubenville, Ohio. A Franciscan nun for 21 years, she left religious life and became a consecrated virgin 12 years later.

"It was a wonderful experience to be part of the church at the time of Vatican II, but I never really did fit in the community," Lacke said. Convinced she was called to live a celibate life within the world, she welcomed the opportunity to join an order that did not require a common enterprise, that emphasized being over doing. "The heart of my vocation would be the consecration and not any work that I had to accomplish," she said. Lacke, who formerly taught theology at Franciscan University, is now caring for her elderly mother.

Like Srbljan, many of the women Kantor interviewed reported experiencing an early call to live a celibate life for God. "They spoke of prayer experiences, visits from saints and Mary during their childhood," Kantor said. "[Consecrated virginity] is like nothing else in the church. The women choose this, and the church blesses it. They don't get anything out of it in a worldly sense. In some dioceses, the women have to prove they have their own burial plots, the church is that eager to be reassured the women are financially independent. They don't have the stability that comes with the priesthood or religious life. That is what has been so curious."

A vocation in flux

Although the vocation was restored in 1970, it remained relatively unknown until recently. Those who joined the order in its early years were nuns or women who learned of this life by happenstance, through a friend, a newspaper article, or in Srbljan's case, a small blurb in the Catholic Almanac.

"At the time there was no place to go to find out about consecrated virgins. Everything we learned about ourselves was from the rite," Stegman said.

Established in 1996, the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins has done much to promote the order. Its well-linked Web site offers numerous vocational resources. Additionally, the association annually hosts a national convocation and an informational conference, scheduled this year in Chicago Aug. 1-3. Stegman estimates the Web site receives three queries a week.

She is currently helping to plan an international pilgrimage of consecrated virgins to Rome in 2008. At 600-plus women, France boasts the highest number of consecrated virgins. Argentina estimates 250. Organizers of the pilgrimage hope it will provide an opportunity for consecrated virgins around the world to discuss how they are interpreting this ancient practice in the 21st century.

This is a vocation "in flux," said Kantor. "The U.S. association is working to get clear and accurate material out to bishops. Some dioceses were trying to turn this into another religious order, requiring a Rule of Life, determining who is the woman's superior, requiring a set number of hours of service within the church."

According to Kantor, the growth of the vocation is outpacing efforts to formalize it. Canon 604, church law articulating the requirements of consecrated virginity, was last updated in 1983. The liturgy, derived from the Middle Ages, continues to evolve.

"It's a kind of messy, kind of exciting time," she said. "While the number of women interested in this life is rising, there are still some bishops who won't do consecrations because they don't want to take responsibility to oversee what they don't understand. The information keeps changing. Underneath it all are these women who are living this pure, clear calling and the church is trying to sort it out."

Sexist practice or feminine charism

Unlike applicants to a religious community, who pledge chastity upon entrance, a woman considering this order must be a virgin. Canon law ambiguously defines the requirement as having "never married or lived in public or open violation of chastity." Widows need not apply, but a woman who was raped or sexually abused is eligible.

"The issue is the woman's consent. In instances of rape or sex abuse, the loss of her virginity was against her will," said Stegman.

A consecrated virgin of six years, Janet Maestranzi, 39, admits her order could be construed as perpetuating the sexist practice of identifying a woman by her sexual history. Maestranzi, who has a master's in theology and is now studying to be a nurse, said she chose consecrated virginity "after a long journey" because it answered her need to make a total commitment to God while staying immersed in the world, "without any trapping of status that goes along with religious life."

Since joining the order, Maestranzi has acquired a strong feminist consciousness and now struggles to interpret her role in a church that narrowly defines how women are to be, she said. Uncomfortable with the association's traditional presentation of the order, she regards her consecrated virginity as "a statement of loving protest" against efforts to confree or objectify women. "God decides who I am," she said.

Definitions of virginity vary according to gender, argues feminist writer Andrea Dworkin in her book Intercourse. From the male frame of reference, "virginity is a state of passive waiting or vulnerability," antithetical to wholeness. But "in the woman's frame," Dworkin writes, "virginity is a fuller experience of selfhood and identity."

While Stegman agreed virginity could be interpreted as a passive state, she described consecrated virginity as "a sign of giving one's entire self ... my body as well as my mind."

"It is a choice to be free for God in a particular way," said Maestranzi. "It is not more freedom, not a purer freedom, not a bigger freedom, just one particular freedom, the way people who are committed in marriage represent a certain freedom."

For consecrated virgins, this vocation is "so about their relationship with Christ and not about what they don't have," said Kantor, who has attended several consecrations." Sex is so not even in the frame. There is this other amazing joyfulness that is not about a lack."

Consecrated virgin Jane Claire Forte admitted being espoused to Christ was "not exactly" like being with an earthly husband, but like any woman in a good marriage, she too experiences a love that is simultaneously intimate and expansive. "We see [Christ] in many people. He is also someone we go to in life on this earth," she said, later adding, "Someone doesn't have to be right there in the flesh to have you love them."

"In a society saturated with sex, consecrated virginity can be seen as a sign of contradiction. It's certainly a conversation stopper," said Joanne Pierce, a professor of theology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. But Pierce believes the vocation reflects a holistic theology and the Catholic church's practice of offering options, especially for women who wished to remain unmarried.

"In contrast to the other world religions, where it was marriage or nothing for women, the Catholic church has always argued that the single life was valuable," she said.

"We are definitely countercultural as any Christian should be," said Anne Stitt. A consecrated virgin for 23 years, Stitt confides her life has "not always been easy" but she has no regrets. She believes her vocation is a reminder that the church is the Bride of Christ and "not just a set of laws. The church is a personal relationship with God."

"There are various types of love," she said. "But the whole person is engaged in whatever form of love it may be just as Jesus' whole person was engaged in loving everyone he met, even his enemies. When you love someone, you get to know them. Whether it's husband and wife, priest and people, sister and her service, consecrated and God, it is a total giving. My vocation is one expression of what is universal in all of them."

Related Web site

U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins

[Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer and longtime contributor to NCR who lives in Worcester, Mass.]
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Author:Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 27, 2007
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