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June 18, 2012

Pastoral re-vision of the ancient theology of irrevocable commitment to celibacy in OCV

Consecrated virginity / OCV has ancient origins closely linked to the Tradition of the Church whose founder is Jesus Christ Himself.  In the Early Church it was considered a True and not merely symbolic marriage of the virgin with Jesus the Christ. She was given the title ‘Sponsa Christi’ which was the title of the Church itself. 

The disciples [Church] had in mind  their Master’s  teaching ,” It was also said: anyone who divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. But what I tell you is this: If a man divorces his wife except in the case of unlawful union, he causes her to commit adultery. And the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. [Mt.5 :31-32 ]”

Besides women falling in love with Jesus Christ and His teachings, there were also sad practices of parents vowing to dedicate their  daughters to the service of the Church  and to Christ through consecrated virginity. Naturally  some of them were rebellious  and remarried or fell into sin. These virgins were thought to commit adultery and denied the reception of Holy Communion. There was varying practice in the local churches regarding the forms of penance and reconciliation for such women. Some bishops allowed  them to repent and return to full communion and the OCV. They were more understanding to those who had been pressurized by their parents to embrace a life of virginity  and allowed  the reception of Communion at the end of their lives. As monastic life developed  and the vocation of consecrated virginity was still considered a true marriage with Jesus Christ and hence irrevocable,  the virgins considered unfaithful were made to lead a life of penance through stricter regulation  in enclosed monasteries. 

Tradition thus  maintained the strictly indispensable nature of consecrated virginity. With the passing of centuries  even if some monastics who had received the consecration to a life of virginity -opted to leave their monasteries for grave reasons, they were released of all obligations except  that of leading a celibate life of virginity. Monastic life gave way to  apostolic religious life in recent centuries. The marriage of religious with Christ became more Symbolic than true. The vows in recent times  changed from Solemn to Simple in most institutes and  can be dispensed  completely from serious reasons. Religious women are symbolically the bride of Christ only as a community. Marriage with Christ  is no more the essence of religious life, although celibacy/ chastity  has remained  a central element  of their vocation, seen more as a way of life that leaves freedom and availability for the commitments of apostolic services. In the more conservative institutes, religious women still consider themselves the brides of Christ. The characteristics of marriage as a union between one man and one woman and the uniqueness it implies for every married couple  however is not tangible in the uniform, heavily institutional mentality in conservative religious congregations that live in large groups.

Taking a glance  at ancient history  as mentioned in the scriptures : The Early Christians had the hope of Jesus’  second coming, hence St Paul gave emphasis to the vocation of celibacy /virginity for the sake of the Kingdom. There was an eschatological tension signified  through the lives of virgins  for whom the world was a passing phase whereas  true Life could only be found in relationship with Christ, in the pursuit of holiness through Communion with Christ and the Christian brethren.

The whole community of believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but rather they shared all things in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, for all of them were living in an exceptional time of grace. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned land or houses, sold them and brought the proceeds of the sale. And they laid it at the feet of the apostles who distributed it according to each one's need. [Acts 4: 32-35]”

“Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she bent down to look inside; she saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, and the other at the feet. They said, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She answered, "Because they have taken my Lord and I don't know where they have put him." As she said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not recognize him. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?" She thought it was the gardener and answered him, "Lord, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned and said to him, "Rabboni" - which means, Master. Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me; you see I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them: I am ascending to my Father, who is your Father, to my God, who is your God."   [ Jn  20:11-17 ]

The words in scripture,”Do not cling to me.”  have always seemed a mystery to me when I compared them with the words in  the  Catechism of the Catholic Church:

922. "From apostolic times Christian virgins, called by the Lord to cling only to him with greater freedom of heart, body, and spirit, have decided with the Church's approval to live in a state of virginity 'for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.' [Mt 19:12 ; cf. l Cor 7:34-36.]

923. "'Virgins who, committed to the holy plan of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are betrothed mystically to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.' By this solemn rite (Consecratio virginum), the virgin is 'constituted . . . a sacred person, a transcendent sign of the Church's love for Christ, and an eschatological image of this heavenly Bride of Christ and of the life to come.'"

What is the mind of Jesus Christ regarding the Order of Virgins ?

The Early Christians thought  many of them would live to see the second /final coming of Jesus Christ. This did not happen as expected.  Virginity was embraced because it was considered somewhat superior to married life in a passing world. 

In Early Christianity, there was no specific Rite of Sacramental marriage. The local customs were followed. Marriage was not considered a sacred Christian vocation.  During recent centuries  the theology of Catholic Sacramental Marriage developed, borrowing the  symbolism of the  Church’s marriage with Christ. The Order of Virgins   which   has women  Truly  and also Symbolically  married to Jesus Christ, is not considered an additional Sacrament  in the Church. But  the Sacramentality of  consecrated virginity  cannot be denied.  The Prayer of consecration in the Rite of consecration of virgins  begins with saying that chaste bodies are the temple of God. Then it speaks about the Fall and Redemption of humankind  with particular reference to the account  in the Book of Genesis, about the vocation of marriage as well as the vocation to a life of virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.   This prayer recalls the sin of the first couple and how they are redeemed. How  virgins  make  a sacrifice of marriage for the sake of the love of which it is the sign.

To people who live under the influence of  sin – the witness of the lives of these virgins should become a sign to be internalized and to be imprinted on their hearts and change their life-scripts from  sin to liberation and redemption through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace. I personally think the consecration to a life of virginity has the potential  to be an efficacious sign of grace, especially  in today’s world  where sexuality and marriage are treated  as banal  rather than having a sacred  mission in the Plan of God. Read this  [Eph 3:10-11 ; 1: 9,13 ]

Scripture says: Because of this a man shall leave his father and mother to be united with his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a very great mystery, and I refer to Christ and the Church.[Ephesians 5 :31-32 ]

But  contrary to this potential  of the witness of virginity, in today’s Church  in most dioceses around the world – OCV being countercultural - is despised, hated  by clergy who  experience celibacy as a burden,  misunderstood  by most sections of the Church. The  Sign value of the vocation of consecrated virginity  seems negligible, especially due to the  tendency of  People to compare  OCV with  Religious life and see the former as worthless. 

 In fact  I myself  sometimes wonder whether  some consecrated virgins  who have a strongly individualistic and romantic inclination towards  the spirituality of OCV without  equal emphasis to  love of neighbour / service to others  as specific to this vocation -- may have seriously erred  in the discernment of their vocation and were actually called to the Sacrament of Matrimony . There is  an overlap of the  spirituality of Consecrated virginity and the Sacrament of Marriage.  Read this

Consecrated virginity, I believe is a vocation meant for young women. But  today’s culture  is not suitable  or supportive  of lifelong commitments. There is possibility of genetic  shifts  making it more and more difficult  for some  to stick through a wrong decision regarding ones fundamental vocation.  Young women  may be  rightly frightened  with the tradition  of irrevocable commitment to a  life of virginity / celibacy .  

What then is the Pastoral response to this situation ?

The consecration to a life of virginity  is considered to be permanent. There is no formal definition regarding the possibility of a dispensation from the obligations to service or an annulment of the consecration to a life of virginit. According to tradition the virgin is irrevocably espoused to Christ. If she married she was considered an adulteress.

 In the mystical journey of Union with God  as experienced during prayer  there comes a time when one moves from the finiteness of words, images, impressions, rites, etc., and becomes immersed in the silence of contemplation when it is not the individual but God  who possesses the person.[1] This is possible in the life of all human persons irrespective of religion, state of life whether single or married .

It is unlikely that a person who has resolved to live in the state of virginity and is moving deeper in union with God  while not living a complacent life –should feel a vocation to marriage. However if this does happen  --as it is the paradigm of the present day society, it may not be impossible to think of a possible dispensation from the obligation to be celibate  for serious reasons.[2]The  ‘prayer of consecration’ in the rite  speaks about  the vocations of  virginity or the married life as gifts  of God .If she  later feels a call to marriage –perhaps there would be a shift in focus. She would then be an image of the Church’s love for Christ  as it is in the theology of marriage, actualizing it with another person  who would signify Christ. Vocation is a freedom and not a burden imposed by the Lord. 

Another identity may thus emerge or be impressed on her without confusion. There would be a kind of re-alignment of the seal/Design of God for her with some aspects/phrases fading and others becoming more prominent –a change in the appearance and design of the seal of consecration. The call to be a visible image of the  Church  and its missionary dimension, maintaining an eschatological tension in the world -may not be clearly expressed in a vocation to marriage  as it would be lost in the sea of the vast number of lay faithful. However what is more fundamental is not ‘to be an image’ or ‘sign’ of  the church’s love for Christ –which even married couples  ought to signify ---but to really love God. Sometimes this may be missed in a complacent living as a consecrated virgin. On the other hand, it may be possible to love God if she feels a call to marriage  which has its own demands of chastity, provided she continues in her call to service  in faithfulness to the fundamental call of every Christian. 

Read ordo-virginum-my-research-article.html

Points for reflection

·        In Early Christianity, there was no specific Rite of Sacramental marriage.  In today’s world the Image of the  love between the Church and Christ  -  should be manifest  in the  witness of the lives of  Consecrated virgins  as also  by   Women and Men  who are sacramentally married. I am often amazed  at the witness  of self-giving love  between a couple, especially in  Asian countries where relationships  still have a sense of permanency, are valued  and considered sacred. However, the influence of Post-Christian culture in some parts of the world is  rapidly influencing life in the cities in Asia. 

·      Consecrated virginity  that is  founded on mere  romanticism and feelings  is  empty. For the  efficacy of the witness of OCV it requires an active faith and desire  to  love God and love neighbour  in tangible ways. This I personally think is not happening around the world.

·       Today’s Church needs the witness of  sacramental marriage  for stable families and of course  with the long term effects of safeguarding the Catholic Faith itself. 

·       Tradition  has believed the consecration of virgins as a true marriage with Christ and hence  permanent and indispensable, just like  sacramental marriage.  If a valid marriage between a virgin and Jesus Christ can be dispensed, there is no theology or reason for  sacramentally married couples  to be denied  divorce   in the Church. 

·       For those women who have received the consecration to a life of virginity  while the tradition and theology of irrevocable commitment to celibacy in OCV   has continued,  perhaps  a dispensation  to allow  them to remarry  sacramentally  may become a grave compromise  on the mind of the Church  and the mind of Jesus Christ [ Mt 5: 31-32 ], creating a  ‘Conscientious’ objection, although Canon Law has a loophole since  it does not mention  consecrated virginity as an impediment for  the validity of Sacrament of Matrimony.

·      If the Church makes a formal definition  respecting the  permanence of  consecrated virginity as a marriage between Christ and the virgin for those women who never feel called to sacramentally remarry, while also  allowing a dispensation for  those who  feel called to sacramental marriage  later, it should not create a  conscientious objection.

[1] “The heart of Christian meditation is a return to the primordial state of ‘being’ . It is a journey from ‘words’ into the Creative ‘Word’ of God; and this Word is enveloped by Silence . …..In the realm of silence, irreconcilable differences can co-exist without tension because silence is non-judgemental ……words once spoken also die away and sink back into the oblivion from which they came……Silence is a deep presence within a person……….points a person to life that is beyond the word and ultimately beyond  oneself.” – Christopher Mendonca . The Examiner .Vol.155 No.38 .

[2] This ancient and new vocation seems quite relevant for the present times when  increasing number of women feel called to dedicate their lives to the Lord in service but do not feel called to join a convent.  However the traditional  theology of its irrevocability  could prevent younger women from living this vocation  and benefiting from the empowerment through the rite of consecration . The Church needs to have clarity in this regard  seeing the seriousness of this commitment.

The theology of the consecration of virgins influences also the theology of marriage . The former is supposed to be a model for the latter . During past decades some have questioned the paradoxical  practice of allowing  religious [ who also signify the Bride of Christ ] seeking  dispensation from their vows –to be married , whereas couples who are sacramentally married  cannot be divorced but the marriage is declared ‘null and void’.


  1. The Rite of Consecration to a life of Virginity has a 'prayer of consecration' which dates back to the Leonine sacramentary and is attributed to Pope Leo I [4th century]. This is the heart of the rite. All other liturgical elements have varied from time to time. According to the ancient tradition of the rite ,for the first 12 centuries it was considered one of the twelve sacraments. Later the list was reduced to seven. The consecration of virgins is considered a Sacramental. There could be several reasons for this :

    a] SACRAMENTS are of Divine institution and are God's action thru human ministers. Hence even a child can receive the grace of baptism , confirmation simply by being the recepient of the sacrament. Every sacrament involves immersion in the Paschal mystery of Christ and in some way signifies this mystery , especially the mystery of the union of Christ and the Church. e.g. in the sacrament of matrimony, the couple who are the ministers of the grace of the sacrament to each other , signify Christ and the Church to each other. The 'sign' element is prominent .

    b] SACRAMENTALS are instituted by the Church and depend on the intention of the Church regarding their effect. Hence since the 12th century the Rite of consecration to a life of virginity is counted among the Sacramentals.

    In the consecration of virgins, tradition holds that there is a real [ not merely symbolic] mystical marriage[not betrothal] between Christ and the virgin. In this case the virgin cannot be a minister of grace to Christ ! Hence the grace of mystical marriage is completely passive .[ akin to the theology of mystical marriage according to various mystics like St John of the Cross etc.] It is God's action through the very words of the prayer of consecration [constitutive sacramental] . The virgin should have an active intention to 'receive' this grace. After the consecration she is given the title Bride of Christ which is reserved to the Church of Christ. Hence this mystical marriage becomes a reality of the Union between Christ and the Church rather than a mere sign.

    Another reason why the consecration of virgins is not a Sacrament is because an infant incapable of giving consent for marriage will not become a consecrated virgin if the 'prayer of consecration' is recited by a bishop over her. The consecration of a virgin involves the intentions of the bishop [as her spiritual father] , the diocesan community and her own intention.

    In the decree passed by the Congregation for Divine Worship on May 31,1970 , it is written,

    The rite of consecration to a life of virginity is counted among the most precious treasures in the Roman liturgy.........................The Church from the earliest ages, as the Fathers attest has kept the practice of putting its seal through a consecratory prayer upon the devout and exacting resolve of virgins.

    Thus this Rite was revived in the Post Vatican Council II context as it was in the early centuries of the church. Vatican II left the seriousness [ simple or solemn] of vows or consecration to the Internal tradition of each vocation.According to tradition the virgin is irrevocably espoused to Christ. If she married she was considered an adulteress. The consecration is said to be permanent, leaving an indelible mark on the soul / a seal of consecration[ like the dedication of a church building]. According to my theology since it is the Church that has instituted this sacramental , it has the power to change its 'intention' thus revising this stand if necessary in individual cases.

  2. I see possibility of 3 levels of consecration depending on intention of the virgin, the community and the bishop of the diocese :

    1] Copper : If only the virgin is committed to give her 100 per cent to Christ , it is like she writing ' I Love Jesus' on her heart/soul. This is the situation when she lives a resolution to remain a virgin for sake of her love for Christ [ as in private vows/ commitment]. Here she is consecrating herself , setting herself apart for Him . The consecration is Uni-dimentional. But this copper could be more precious to Jesus than someone with gold ! because it involves her full self-gift to Him.

    2] Silver : If this virgin applies to the diocesan bishop - for the consecration to a life of virginity and receives the Rite of consecration , but they have the intention that this is merely a favour done to her by the Church authorities , so that she can enjoy the grace of marriage with Christ for her personal spiritual consolation and maybe even live it privately -----then this is like the words of the 'prayer of consecration' drawing an image of Christ on her heart and soul . It is two-dimentional seal like an approval rubber stamp on a piece of paper that mentions her marriage with Christ.

    3] Gold : If the virgin, the bishop and the diocesan community truly have the intention that she should be consecrated to God, mystically espoused to Christ and Dedicated to the service of the church as a virgin, bride and mother , then the consecration imprints a three-dimensional seal on her heart and soul . It is like a real wellspring from which flows out 'rivers of living water'

    Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ [ John 7:38 ]

    This is a well-spring of compassion with a truly maternal impact on the community thru prayer and charity or other services. This I believe is the specific grace of this vocation lived in its strict identity and mission. To put it clearly, it is the consummation of the marriage and spiritual motherhood !

    The three-dimensional seal / the well could become dry or the water become stagnant or it be filled with the dirt of sin , thus unable to be a channel of God's grace to the church and the world.

    I think theology on this Rite has varied potential. It could lead to an entirely new form in today's world. The effect of the consecration 'to a life of virginity' is said to be permanent according to tradition. But since it is a sacramental instituted by the Church , I think the Holy Father could decide to pass a decree stating ," ..........for consecration of virgins from this time onwards, the Church does not intend it to be irrevocable . A dispensation allowing a virgin to enter the sacrament of matrimony could be given in grave circumstances. " . This may not change her status as a bride of Christ , but she would be freed from a permanent consecration to live as a virgin.

    There is lot of room for discussion on the theology of the rite. But my personal opinion is that any human being , even an unbaptised follower of Christ , may reach the highest and deepest levels of holiness thru Union with God , while a consecrated virgin may not manifest the desired well-spring of compassion , the fruit of the Holy Spirit in her life. We can become too proud of being Bride of Christ and actually miss the crown.

    More details in my pdf article :


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