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August 1, 2011

Diocesan Spirituality and Dress of Consecrated Virgins

The Early Church was called ‘the Way’ because it started more as a movement which got institutionalized by the 4th century. The Order of Virgins formed a definite socio-liturgical category within the Christian community and consisted of women –mostly converts. Often they had to observe some discretion with regard to their identity in the  world. They continued to live with their families or in households of virgins without structured lifestyle.  Their status as consecrated virgins was sometimes known only in the church. Hence in most local churches they did not have a uniform attire. Each one dressed according to the local circumstances, culture, occupation, etc., while maintaining modesty. As Christianity became more widespread and accepted, there emerged a specific Rite of consecration or ceremony called the ‘veiling of virgins’ based on Roman marriage rituals, to express their marriage with Christ.

During the 4th century as persecution ceased, some of the women chose to move into the desert and developed a spirituality –more akin to the monastic and religious life today. Religious life seems to have based itself on the Beatitudes, gradually more defined in the form of the three evangelical counsels and is a ‘world-renouncing’ spirituality, with influence also of Buddhist monastic forms.  They wore a habit as a sign of  consecration, renunciation from the world, identity of their religious community, and/or as a penance.

In today’s world, after the decision of the Second Vatican Council-

once again the seeds of the Order of virgins (a gift of the faith of  the ancient church) preserved in the 4th century ‘prayer of consecration’ of the Rite of consecration to a life of virginity (according to canon #604), are being sown in the  reality of various local churches or Dioceses around the world.

Virgins are called to  absorb the water and the tears poured in hope by people of the land, die to self and become new life- personifying the Gospel message in their lives, inculturated or incarnated in the  context, becoming trees which give food and shelter to the people around. This is the true self-actualization in the Christian sense.

The diocesan  life-style is one lived ‘in the world’ yet not ‘of the world.’ It does not have a world-renouncing spirituality, but its spirituality is deep, as it is based on Jesus’ incarnation and passion, death, and Resurrection. It is a call to radical discipleship and the beatitude it lives is not to be ‘like’ Jesus by imitating Him but to be Jesus’ own presence -The body of Christ- in the world. It reaches in a somewhat different kind of journey towards God and His Reign.

Diocesan and Religious life are two different paradigms in Christian life. They are demanding with regard to the Christian call to discipleship, but in different ways, through different reasons for consecration.  A consecrated virgin is  ‘set apart’ to live and manifest the identity and mission of the Church as a virgin, bride, mother. A religious woman is ‘set apart’ for the specific charism of her religious congregation of institute.

Inculturation of Attire for consecrated virgins

Since consecrated virginity is lived mainly in the diocesan local community,  a uniformity of dress/ attire around the world is neither advisable nor practical.

Within some local churches, due to presence of religious life which did not exist in the Early Church, it has becoming challenging for consecrated virgins to publicly  manifest their own consecration. Hence, in some dioceses, even consecrated virgins wear a habit although they do not live together like a religious community. In most churches, they do not have any specific attire or identifying clothing.

Several consecrated virgins  wonder whether a specific attire would help them to live the vocation more publicly, at least within the Church. Perhaps the following points will be helpful-

  • Attire  depicts the Identity of the individual. It  should respect self, the  community, family, or institution it represents – and also respect the community, family, or institution it  interacts with  during work,  worship, celebrations, social life, etc.

  • The life-style of the consecrated virgin within the diocese is usually decided in consultation with the bishop of the diocese.

  • Consecrated virgins are called to inculturation which is based on the spirituality of Incarnation of the Word in the particular context.

  • Dress which shows an informal, family spirit is closer to the local customs at least in Asia.

  • An important element of culture is colour. I’m sure  heaven would be a very colourful  and beautiful experience. So there’s no reason why a consecrated virgin should stop wearing simple, beautifully designed, modest, colourful clothes, according to local culture. Don’t we like to admire the beauty of well painted and decorated  cathedrals and churches ? A consecrated virgin represents  the Church as Sponsa Christi or Bride of Christ and People of God. The  Christian community does not wear a uniform to distinguish itself from others.

  • During worship - colour of attire could be  in harmony with the Liturgical season, feasts, etc. Maybe a scarf around the neck of the Liturgical colour could  help manifesting the identity of the consecrated virgin publicly.

  • Wearing a cross or crucifix  is a sign of the Paschal Mystery, the Treasure of the Church. Every church has it. Also, there is no reason why a consecrated virgin should not wear pieces of simple jewellery  which depict  her faith in the Lord Jesus or devotion to saints.

  • Attire also depends on the climate, local conditions, and occupation. It should be  comfortable for the kind of work she is called to, while respecting self, what / whom she represents, and whom she works for / with. This is especially if she is working in the secular world.

  • Consecrated virgins are not called to a degree of poverty that depicts renunciation. But simplicity and moderation in choice would be helpful. If working with people who are materially poorer than her, it would be good to wear less expensive clothing in the spirit of incarnation in the context.

  • If a consecrated virgin in consultation with the diocesan  bishop,  see reasons for a particular or uniform attire / or depicting  consecration to some degree, such attire with the occupation which is very active, social-services, involvement with people, may suggest the positive quality of combining contemplation with action. In such a situation, it would be recommended to choose blue which is the colour of  Virgin Mary, since consecrated virgins are especially called to live like her as virgin, bride, mother- Or white which is the colour of virgin-bride in Christianity.

  • Whenever possible, attire should also help in purifying local culture according to Christian values and dignity of women. If wearing a veil depicts subjugation of women, it would be better for consecrated virgins not to wear a veil in daily life.  If it helps prayer, it may be worn.

  • She should not forget that she is a bride of Christ and should thus try to express the dignity of being His spouse. Her attire should show that Jesus Christ comes first in her life.

I like to think of  the following statement from the address of  Holy Father Benedict XVI during the International congress-pilgrimage of Ordo Virginum in Rome in 2008 :

Take care always to radiate the dignity of being a bride of Christ, expressing the newness of Christian existence and the serene expectation of future life.


  1. This is a response to questions about veils in the online discussion-forum :

    In the early christian community , the cultural practice of a veil used in a marriage ceremony was applied to the consecration of virgins . For that time and culture it was the most appropriate symbol of marriage.

    This vocation is diocesan . Since a consecrated virgin represents the local church community , she should ideally depict the local culture in her dress according to christian values.

    Ladies, don't you think using a veil in daily attire will somehow dampen the struggle of women to live in freedom and equality ?

    The veil at least in my particular ancestral culture is NEVER worn on the head by an unmarried girl or woman even during worship . It is coincidentally a marriage symbol even in my ancestral culture .

    The older generations were very strict about head and even face-covering by married women.
    It is seen as a sign of respect for elders- in -law and for God during worship. However nowadays most women in cities are well-educated and working . People have adapted to these changes and the practice of covering the head with a veil is gradually getting lost for the better except during worship.

    I don't think consecrated virgins should bring back a practice that is not good for the advancement of women in general around the world.

    Consecrated virginity is the vocation of the early church times : but it is not a 'traditional' vocation. It was counter-cultural in many ways even for a woman in the early church times to decide to remain a virgin. I hope today's cons virgins will keep that spirit and eschatological tension alive and not bring back medieval practices.

    I myself covered my head during my consecration . But I've very rarely covered it after that except while riding a two-wheeler to protect from the sun or wind going in the ears , or maybe during a three-hour agony service during holy week , only to avoid being recognised weeping.

    Regarding the question about using the veil as a distinct sign of the vocation, I think in a local parish it should be sufficient for a newly consecrated virgin to cover her head for a few days or weeks till the community knows she is consecrated.

  2. Catching up on my blogroll!

    I'm so glad you posted about this, N. I feel like you and I are definitely on the same page in this regard... I'd love to discuss it further via e-mail or perhaps even Skype. The question of dress has been on my mind more and more particularly as my consecration approaches (only 8 months away!).

    Please do be in touch!

  3. Dear Charity,

    We can sure discuss this further.You will find my contact email address in the right hand side column by clicking 'Email me'.

    I've been praying for you as you prepare for your consecration!

  4. The issue of veiling or headcovering seems to raise the blood pressure in many people but I'd like to bring up a few points.

    I think that consecrated virgins should cover their heads in church. However, I also think that the other women in the church should be doing the same.

    N-R you say that a veil is never worn by unmarried girls- the consecrated virgin is the bride of Christ, she isn't marking time with God until Mr Right comes along. She is spoken for, committed, just as much as any married woman.

    The dress of a consecrated virgin cannot, and should not be just what other people wear. I'm not saying it needs to be a habit as a habit is a sign of inclusion in a religious congregation. However, few trendy clothes are modest and a woman, especially a young woman, not showing off private areas of her body stands out, simply by virtue of that fact. Should a consecrated virgin wear a miniskirt, like the girl I sat next to in church last week, or a T- shirt with eye-catching slogans emblazoned on the breast? Of course not.

    I would be interested to see if you can you point to a Scripture that says that Christians should fit in with unbelievers? I can recall a few about not conforming to the world, being set apart, in the world but not of the world.

    St Paul was pretty clear about the veiling of women for prayer and prophecy, despite all the modern commentaries that have tried to dodge the matter in the last eighty years. The Church Fathers took for granted that consecrated virgins would be veiled. You can only interpret St Paul's 'covering' as hair if you try really hard to justify yourself. The text wasn't read that way for nearly two thousand years. Does that make it a likely interpretation, or an excuse?
    Why are women, consecrated or not, so afraid of headcoverings? They are a sign of submission- as Christians, is that a bad thing? Aren't we called to submit to God, to the Church, to authorities, to one another. I don't recall where the Bible says that we should rise up, declare our independence and claim our rights.

    And as regards the struggle for freedom and equality? For me, my headcovering is a sign of strength- a badge of my freedom and equality to make my own choices. Whatever I might feel at sticking out roughly matches the way I feel when people tell me that they think virginity for the kingdom of heaven is silly and a waste of my life- and so few people are shy about doing so! I have decided that I belong to God, not to the world, and that I will serve Him. I don't fully understand all the subtleties of the passage in 1 Cor 13 but I figure that I don't have to. The passage says, 'Cover you head for prayer and prophecy,' so I cover it. It is only a small obedience. Male and female are one in Christ Jesus- St Paul said so and we all assent to that verse. St Paul also said for women to cover their heads and we all get embarrassed. Just because I cover my head doesn't mean that I'm going back to medieval times. When a man takes his hat off for a prayer it isn't offensive, and that's for exactly the same reason.

    This is my understanding of the reasons for veiling- the Church's historical teaching, Scripture, modesty, committment, obedience. Are these not all good reasons?
    And why not? Modern culture (ie., the world), independence. Is this what should inform our choices?

  5. Dear Anonymous friend in Christ,
    I respect and appreciate your understanding of the reasons for veiling . We as Catholics have a ‘ hierarchy of truths’ . We profess our common faith thru the ‘I Believe’ . The Creed clearly mentions the teachings of the Church which all Catholics are committed to believe and are central to our faith.
    Besides the central elements , the Church in the East and the West , the North and the South – has grown from seeds of the faith into trees of so many dioceses, parishes, with so many local cultures [ here I don’t refer to the globalisation or secularization in some western countries and the metropolitan cities in eastern countries].
    Perhaps you write from a more secularized context. That’s why we may unknowingly misinterpret each other. From what you have written I think we agree on ninety percent of the content. The remaining ten percent of which we share difference of opinion is very healthy and it is the beauty of our catholic faith that allows variety and even encourages it .
    This comment box is not sufficient to discuss Inculturation in detail -which is very important for my country India , if we want to live peacefully with people of other faiths. India is a very spiritual country . In fact I was born in a hindu family and the culture in my parental family was very different in the past from the culture of most of the catholics who are westernised in attire . To add a pinch of humour : the people in the world dress more modestly than most young catholics do ! The unbelievers are more Pauline than the believers.
    After my baptism , I have been privileged to be forced to move from one city to another, from one end of the diocese to another . I have had to live in many parishes with each parish having its own culture. Honestly speaking , worrying about attire and veiling etc. is last in my list of essential elements for my life as a human being, as a woman , as a convert , catholic consecrated virgin. But yes, I never remember wearing mini-skirts to church.

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  7. Okay. I'm 6 years behind in this discussion. When I was Consecrated, my bishop wanted me to wear a religious type veil to Mass and other Church functions. So I did. Since I lived so far from anybody, my confessor allowed me to wear one in my home to help me live my vocation. I have since moved out of his diocese.

    In my present circumstance, I wear a mantilla to Mass. Since I live with non-Catholic family members, my clothing reflects my position... And my lack of funds.

    As Consecrated Virgins it is my belief that our manner of living should depict who and what we are, not what we wear. While we have not vowed poverty, I believe it would be terribly inappropriate to wear expensive clothing or jewelry. Other than my ring the only jewelry I wear is a Medic Alert medallion and my watch. Occasionslly I wear a cross given me by my sister at my Consecration. I don't wear it every day because she bought it from the Franklin Mint and it's pricey. But it is very small and doesn't scream "religious fanatic". I want my actions and behavior to speak to who and what I am.


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