Prayer To Live A Consecrated Life
My Life as a Consecrated Virgin – Marrying God
Sep 8, 2016
One August morning, I walked to the front of the church in my white gown, nervous and excited. Family and friends stood in the pews of Queen of Apostles in Alexandria, Virginia. They smiled and wiped tears. The bishop began the ceremony. I was getting married — not to a man, but to Jesus.
It's been seven years since I became a consecrated virgin. Since I was a young girl, I assumed I'd marry and probably have children. And in a way, I was right: I'm one of the estimated 3,500 women in the world who are wed to God. I'm not a nun, nor do I live in a convent, contrary to what people may think. But I am, and have always been, celibate.
But that's not the only thing that defines me: My name is Carmen Briceno, but everyone calls me China (sounds “cheenuh”). I'm 35 years old, the daughter of a diplomat, and I was born in Venezuela but have lived in United States for most of my life.
Growing up, I was what you might call a “cradle Catholic” — my family went to mass every Sunday, but we weren't incredibly religious, more culturally Catholic. I didn't have a deeply personal relationship with God in any sense. It wasn't until later, as a young adult, when my faith became my own and I allowed God to change my life.
Falling in Love With God
When I moved to Virginia as a young adult, I got into volleyball — which, in a way, paved my way toward God. While playing, I met a Christian girl. She was my first non-Catholic friend.
She wasn't pushy and never tried to get me to convert. Instead, she was instrumental in demonstrating to me what a relationship with God could really be , because in her I saw a deep, tangible love and a personal connection to Jesus Christ.
Watching Jesus alive in her, I thought, That. I want that.
She brought to light some of the answers to questions I never knew I had. When she asked me about my relationship with God, I truly had no idea how to answer.When you're not questioned about your faith, you may not know the depth of what you're missing. Around that time, I also met a priest, Father Juan, who met with me regularly and explained so many things about faith and the Bible to me.
So through these two blossoming friendships, my faith was deepened, or, in many ways, awakened.
In 2005, I got the opportunity to go to Cologne, Germany, with 20 other young adults, led by Father Juan, for International World Youth Day. It was a powerful week of prayer, service and fellowship with the Pope. I'd never seen anything it; people were on fire for God and were not afraid to express it.
There, I felt the first inkling of what would become my vocation. I felt the Lord speak to me in prayer about my relationship with Him — and no, it's not a dramatic audible voice or anything that! He simply said to me: You've given time to other boyfriends, but have you ever thought about me? How about you give me a chance? I had to listen. I had to give him the chance.
After World Youth Day, my faith was set ablaze and I was thirsting to know more about what the Lord was asking of me. During this time I was given a book that changed my life. The book was Theology of the Body for Beginners, by Christopher West on Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. In short, it explains the gift and purpose of human sexuality.
Sex and virginity are gifts of yourself you give — not something you lose. This wasn't at all about religious jargon; it was about the beauty of being human. I connected in a major way to the idea that expressing love isn't all about sex. It's about wanting the best for the other person.
Because virginity is a great gift, I had always been upfront with my past boyfriends. I wanted to wait until marriage because I understood the purpose of sex, and when this became an issue in the relationship I would inevitably have to break it off. If they couldn't respect and understand my decision, then I didn't want to waste my time.
A Difficult Decision
After my time in Germany, I was so eager to learn more about my faith. I asked countless questions of my priest, and I studied the Bible closely, really encountering God in a new way.
This journey wasn't always easy, though. At the time, I was also learning about consecrated virgins, which lined up with what I understood of God's gift of sexuality. Though I hadn't made the decision yet, I felt a great attraction to it and my family were slightly concerned.
Turbulence between my family and I followed. They wondered why I had so many questions. I got the sense that they were wondering if they'd taught me well or let me down in some way. To the Venezuelan people, who are very religious, my questions were almost insulting in that they suggested I hadn't learned something or hadn't been taught enough.On top of that, my father would ask, “But who is going to care for you!?” while my mother asked about future grandchildren.
(Fortunately, between my two siblings, I have five nieces and one on the way, so there's no lack of kids!) After talking it out, these issues didn't last. Despite the initial worry, my parents stood by me.
They saw the changes occurring in me and the joy I had from experiencing God. They watched me fall deeply in love with my faith, and it began a process of conversion for them as well.
I was attracted to becoming a consecrated virgin because of its beautiful, ancient roots — in the early church women made private vows to belong fully to Christ and not marry.
These were the early virgin martyrs Agatha and Lucy, who were executed for not wanting to marry Roman citizens because they were already vowed to God. They lived in their families and dedicated themselves to works of mercy in their community.
They loved the Lord so much they wanted to give all of themselves to Him.
Living as a consecrated virgin came from love, and it was that which so appealed to me. “Ordo Virginum” — which is the technically correct term — are just that. They have ordinary citizens; they have jobs and are responsible for their own keep. I've even known some who are doctor and lawyers.
My decision did not come lightly. I to tell people, “I did not give up romantic relationships for an idea. I fell in love with a person, Jesus Christ.” I understood the lifelong commitment this would mean, so I made sure that I was confident that this was God's will for me.
Father Juan had opened a house where myself and other women who were considering consecrated life could have the space to pray and discern whether this vocation was for us. We lived in the house and prayed together while still keeping our regular jobs. It was an old convent, so it had a chapel where we could pray and was right across the street from the local parish church.
In the Catholic Church, there are many forms of consecrated life. Not everyone is called to be a nun. There are many vocations and paths.At this time, I also had a spiritual director, who helped me walk through figuring out what God's will is for me.
After two years of prayer, reading, spiritual direction and discernment, I realized that God was calling me to be fully His as a consecrated virgin.
While the discernment process is key, the truth is that God picks you, makes you his and then puts you back into the world. You don't just get to become a consecrated virgin. God chose me as much as I chose God.
It was a courtship, in a sense. I said to God, “If you want me to be with you, you have to really make me fall in love with you.
” If I'd given other men in my life a chance, why not God? That may sound odd, but it was a logical rationale.
Choosing My New Path
In August 2009, at the age of 28, I decided this was, in fact, the path God was asking of me and also what I greatly desired. I needed the Diocese and the Bishop to accept my petition to become a consecrated virgin. The Diocese has its own requirements and process — including that one has to be a virgin.
I have had boyfriends but was never physical with them. I have always made it very clear that sexual intimacy is for marriage and for the purpose of union of the spouses as well as procreation. A woman who has freely engaged in sexual union is not eligible for this form of consecrated life, but any other form of consecrated life is open to them.
In the end, they want to make sure that it is an authentic call and that a woman is mature enough to understand the lifelong commitment. It is an irrevocable consecration. And luckily, my petition was accepted. I was consecrated, not in a wedding but a consecration. I wore a white dress and I had a wedding ring. It was a beautiful day.
People have asked if I can be as dedicated to my faith without having to marry Christ.
The answer is yes, I absolutely could — but I can't be married to another man while also fully giving myself to God in the way that God wants for me.
Because in that case, my main vocation would be a wife. In consecrated virginity, though, I give God the freedom to use me whenever and however He wants. All of me is His.
There are people who may think marrying Christ is somehow less real. But in many ways, I have the same struggles as a wife would.I just communicate with my husband through prayer, since He is not in the room with me physically. If I struggle with anything, I have places to turn. When I think about fidelity, I'm not concerned.
That's what my intense prayer life and my strong community are for. They help me restore my balance.
People also wonder about the permanency of such a vocation — but they forget that marriage is permanent as well! But perhaps the single most important thing is that even if I am tempted, I won't change the course of my life. My vocation is so much bigger than a momentary feeling.
Loneliness and desire are not bad words; they're not forbidden thoughts. It's not a secret that I have wondered what it would have been to be married and have children, but it's important that people know I chose my life.
It was not imposed upon me, even though it may be hard to understand. I don't doubt my vocation, and I see my saying “yes” to God as a gift. It's sacrificial, and I'm aware of that. I am completely filled with joy and happiness.
I understand that people are incredibly curious about the way a consecrated virgin goes about living her life. anyone else, I do normal things. I go to Starbucks, and I have a job — if I didn't I wouldn't eat because I'm responsible for my own income and sustenance.
My days are structured a little bit this: I wake up around 6 a.m. and I do The Liturgy of the Hours, a daily prayer that occurs at different times, first thing. I do have a dedicated prayer space, and my house is pretty normal in that sense.
But I prefer to pray in a church, where the sacrament is and I can pray more intentionally without distractions. I have a lot of art and drawing supplies everywhere in my house, but I don't have a TV.That's because I really love when people come over and actually talk to one another.
Around 7:30 a.m. I get ready for the day. I pray for an hour before mass, go to mass, and then I do some spiritual readings. I also spend my nights and weekends updating my website and creating goods, journals, for my Etsy shop, Sacred Print. It's fun and fulfilling for me to create these journals — they're each hand-drawn and painted.
I love the arts, and I truly believe in the power of beauty as a means to evangelize! Each journal takes me about an hour and a half to complete, and I pray for everyone I make one for. When someone receives it, I hope it'll provide them the opportunity to talk about faith.
The main reason I do these journals is so that I can still go to different groups that may not be able to give me a stipend.
For the past few years since becoming a consecrated virgin, I've done a lot of things in the way of work: I have worked at a parish for many years and taken teens on international missions. I've taught in Catholic schools.
I have traveled around the world giving talks to teens and young adults on matters of faith.
I don't try to doctrinize them; I just try to explain the logic in the church's teachings, to show them that Catholicism isn't just about fire and brimstone and condemnation. It's about love.
When it comes to human sexuality, they think that they know what the church teaches and why — and they make up their mind against it. But when you explain the meaning of the human body and sex and the beauty of the church's teaching, they often understand and fall in love with how God made them.I explain that God has designed everything for a specific purpose, and when we go outside of that purpose, we find confusion and brokenness.
Just a phone that is designed for communication breaks if you use it as a hammer or to play baseball, so do our bodies and relationships suffer brokenness when we use the great gift of human sexuality and its purpose for union and procreation outside of marriage.
I explain that many people think that you will die if you don't have sex, but I am happy and fully alive and joyful and never have — nor never will have — sex!
anyone else, people do flirt with me. For anyone who might approach me but doesn't know me, I simply say that I am married and not interested. It might not be the right context to go into my consecration, so I just keep it at that.
I know that, in our over-sexualized culture, it might seem that sexual intimacy is my greatest challenge, but it's not. For me, I find it a challenge to ensure my life is balanced between prayer, work, friendships and family.
I have learned how to foster deep, personal, intimate and non-sexual friendships — and this has been a key factor for me and in maintaining my vow and vocation.
I hope that through my faith and my vow I can bring love into this world. I have consciously and freely chosen to forego marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of God, which is a sacrifice. I hope there can be a positive lesson learned from my experience.
I hope that others understand I am not a masochist. I am a woman in love.
Consecrated Life – Consecrated Life
Formation is the process by which we grow spiritually, intellectually, and personally. In consecrated life it follows certain standard methods and proceeds through established stages.
These will vary from place to place, as they’re tailored to each community’s particular charisms and goals. But, generally speaking, a candidate will move — from discernment to final vows — through at least some of the following stages.
1. Preparation. Learn about yourself, God, and the Church. Build relationships. Do research. Explore.
2. Discernment/Inquiry. Meet with a vocation director. Visit the community. Make a retreat. Ask for a formal application.
3. Application. Gather your sacramental certificates and academic transcripts. Fill out the application. Schedule your physical and psychological exams and complete your medical forms. Compose the statements the community requires.
4. Postulancy/Candidacy. This is the time of transition into community life. Postulants and candidates help with the community’s ministries and begin to learn the unique spirituality of the community.
5. Novitiate. This is a longer period, often two years, of intensive theological, personal, and spiritual formation.
6. Canonical year is a time of deeper prayer and focused studies.
7. Apostolic year is a time of in-depth focus on the ministries of the community — often spending time in active service.
8. First profession. At this time a candidate professes vows for a determined length of time, but with the intention of making final, permanent vows.
9. Temporary vows mark a time of integration of vows, community, prayer, and ministry.
10. Final profession marks the solemn, formal commitment of one’s whole life to God within a particular community.
11. Ongoing formation. A person committed to consecrated life is committed to lifelong spiritual and personal growth. The community never ceases to form its members.
A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God.
Vows mark the ordinary way of love. Married couples exchange vows as they begin their life together. Religious sisters, brothers, and priests profess vows as they fully enter life in community.
The basic vows traditionally correspond to the three evangelical counsels: to live simply in imitation of Christ in poverty, to live with an undivided heart in chastity, and to surrender one’s will to God in obedience. Some communities require further commitments as well — a vow of stability, for example, or hospitality, or service to the poor.
In consecrated life as in marriage, vows represent a total giving of oneself.
In consecrated life as in marriage, vows are not restrictions. They are paths to freedom. They are commitments of availability for loving service. Religious sisters, brothers, and priests can serve more freely because they are not limited by family ties, worldly cares, or their own personal preferences. They can move as God wants them to move — and that is the most perfect freedom.Poverty, chastity, and obedience — all Christians are called to live these counsels, but in different ways. Religious communities are free and able to observe them in greater measure.
Poverty does not mean that religious communities are destitute, but that they strive to be free from wealth and its corresponding demands, from material possessions, and from societal pressure to have more “stuff” and more status.
Poverty is a radical freedom, and it empowers religious to focus on relationships with others and service to others. In consecrated life, property is owned not by individuals, but by the community. Resources are shared, and so is their upkeep.
Religious are free to live in true solidarity with the poor and marginalized.The vow of poverty also includes “spiritual poverty.” It’s not just the giving up of material goods, but something much deeper.
It is the emptying of oneself before God as well as letting go of one’s ego and need to have things one’s own way. Religious open themselves up to all that God wants them to know and understand, which sets them free to do the work of Christ.
Chastity in marriage is the pledge of affection for just one spouse. In consecrated life, however, it is the choice to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom.
The commitment to chastity and lifelong celibacy leaves one completely free for service to the Church and the community. It is a life full of love, entirely given to God and God’s people.
Such love finds expression in prayer, communion, service, and fellowship.
Obedience is free surrender to the will of God in the context of a community, and trust in the authority in that community. Obedience leaves one radically free from personal preferences and ambitions. Through obedience, religious men and women are able to go where they are needed and where God wants them to be.
The Gift of Consecrated Life
Sisters from various U.S. religious institutes gather for prayer in the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jeanine Roufs, courtesy of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious)
When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope in March 2013, he became not only the first pope from the Western Hemisphere, but also the first from the Jesuit order.
Some commentators quipped that it would not be difficult for the new pontiff to follow the distinctive “fourth vow” that Jesuits have traditionally taken in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience — namely, special obedience to the Successor of Peter.
Pope Francis, in fact, became the first supreme pontiff to be elected from any religious order since the mid-19th century, as well as the first to take the name of the beloved 13th-century saint who is the father of Franciscan religious communities worldwide. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Holy Father has proclaimed a Year of Consecrated Life to celebrate the vocations of men and women who dedicate themselves wholly to God.
“I am counting on you ‘to wake up the world,’” Pope Francis wrote to all consecrated people in an apostolic letter announcing this special year, which began Nov. 30, 2014, the First Sunday of Advent, and will close Feb. 2, 2016, the World Day of Consecrated Life. “This is the priority that is needed right now: ‘to be prophets who witness to how Jesus lived on this earth.’”
Rooted in baptism, consecrated life takes a variety of forms and is most often characterized “by the public profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in a stable state of life recognized by the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 944).
Today, even as the call to radically follow Christ becomes increasingly countercultural, consecrated life in the United States is showing signs of renewal.
CALLED BY THE ‘VOICE OF LOVE’
The Year of Consecrated Life coincides with the 50th anniversary of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church, and of Perfectae Caritatis, the council’s decree on the renewal of religious life.
Religious sisters, priests and brothers no doubt account for the most visible and recognizable form of consecrated life. In the United States alone, there were 179,954 religious sisters, 22,707 religious priests and 12,271 religious brothers when the Second Vatican Council concluded in 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.
Generations of Catholics were educated in grade schools by religious sisters and brothers in full habits the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers, and many have attended high schools and universities run by religious orders such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines and Holy Cross fathers.But over the past 50 years, due to a variety of societal and demographic factors, the ranks of religious men and women in the United States have dwindled. In 2014, CARA counted 49,883 religious sisters, 12,010 religious priests and 4,318 brothers.
Nevertheless, these statistics do not tell the whole story, for a quiet renaissance in religious life has been underway in recent years.
Worldwide, more than 200 new religious communities have been founded since the Second Vatican Council, according to Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocations Conference.
“The Holy Spirit continues to call and raise up gifts within the Church,” said Brother Bednarczyk, who is a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.
A 2012 CARA study indicated that Millennials — those born after 1981 — are much more ly to consider a religious vocation than the previous generation. The study also identified key factors commonly found among young Catholics who consider a vocation, including regular Mass attendance, a home life where faith is discussed and encouraged, and formal Catholic education at any level.
A number of religious leaders, too, say they are seeing a rising tide of interest.
“The voice of Jesus, the same voice of love that called women and men in the past to courageously and selflessly tend the poor, weak and young, is still calling young people today,” said Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, the superior general of the Sisters of Life, which has grown to more than 80 members since its founding in 1991.
Mother Agnes currently serves as chairperson of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which represents 125 communities in the United States — many of them growing in numbers. Nearly 1,000 of the 6,000 sisters in CMSWR communities are in initial formation, and more than 80 percent are active in ministries.
A number of men’s religious communities are also receiving a steady flow of young vocations, even if the number of religious on the whole continues to decline.
“I’m seeing signs of renewal in groups that have a clear identity and clear ministries that are community-focused,” said Father James J. Greenfield, a priest of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales who serves as president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.
Among the more than 500 men being ordained to the priesthood in the United States this year, approximately 100 are members of religious orders.
A DIVERSITY OF GIFTS
Within religious institutes, traditionally called orders or religious congregations, there is a wide diversity of charisms and spiritual gifts.
Among those involved in active apostolic works, some religious serve in ministries education or health care, while others are sent to the peripheries of society to minister to the marginalized and outcast.
Other communities consist of monks or nuns who live in enclosed monasteries or cloisters; there they are called to a contemplative life of intimacy with Christ and prayer for the Church and the world.While the roots of religious institutes reach back to the first centuries of Christianity, a new form of consecrated life developed in the 20th century: secular institutes.
Formally approved by Pope Pius XII in 1947, secular institutes enable lay people to live out the evangelical counsels while working in society. In his 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, St. John Paul II described members of secular institutes as “a leaven of wisdom and a witness of grace within cultural, economic and political life” (10).
“We’re all called to holiness, and I have a beautiful way, a structure that Holy Mother Church provides, to be right in the world, but not of the world,” said Jessica Swedzinski, a member of the Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary in Sleepy Eye, Minn.
Swedzinski serves as secretary of the U.S. Conference of Secular Institutes, which represents the more than 30 secular institutes in the United States today. religious brothers and sisters, members of secular institutes live as a sign of God’s presence in the world.
“Religious life and secular institutes, in their way of leavening in society, continue to give a witness in the Church to the Gospel and the absoluteness of God, which are things we need to remember,” explained Sister Sharon Holland, a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who serves as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
In addition to religious and secular institutes, the Church also recognizes forms of individual consecrated life, such as consecrated virgins and hermits.
Dating back to apostolic times, women who discerned a gift to live in perpetual virginity for Christ alone were mystically betrothed to him through a liturgical rite of consecration.
The rite of consecration of virgins, a ceremony reserved to bishops, was restored for women living in the world in 1970, following the Second Vatican Council.
Today there are approximately 3,500 consecrated virgins in 40 countries, including some 230 in the United States.
“Consecrated virginity is probably the earliest form of consecrated life that existed in the Church,” said Judith M. Stegman, president of the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins.
“We live our unique vocation individually and in the midst of the world,” added Stegman, who is currently studying canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
While they are not associated with communal life or particular charisms, consecrated virgins devote themselves to prayer and remain a striking sign of the Church as the Bride of Christ.
WAKING UP THE WORLD
Just as Christ called the Apostles to leave everything and follow him more than 2,000 years ago, so he continues to call forth disciples to be consecrated entirely to him as witnesses to the Gospel.
“The consecrated life is about seeking Christ alone and living the life of Christ to its fullness,” said Father Thomas Nelson, O. Praem, a Norbertine priest of St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, Calif.
, who serves as national director of the Institute on Religious Life. “It’s a closer following or imitation of Christ.
It is supernatural in its very essence, and you find that under all forms of the consecrated life.”
At the same time, consecrated persons imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom the Church recognizes as “the sublime example of perfect consecration” and “the model of the acceptance of grace by human creatures” (Vita Consecrata, 28).In this way, consecrated men and women are called to be icons of Christian discipleship.
As Pope Francis said in his apostolic letter, consecrated life “is at the heart of the Church, a decisive element of her mission, inasmuch as it expresses the deepest nature of the Christian vocation and the yearning of the Church as the Bride for union with her sole Spouse.”
One purpose of the Year of Consecrated Life is to help the Christian faithful grow in awareness of “the gift which is the presence of our many consecrated men and women, heirs of the great saints who have written the history of Christianity.”
In addition, the Holy Father is calling on consecrated men and women to reflect on the meaning of their own vocations and to be attentive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
“Pope Francis is asking the religious to ‘wake up the world,’” Father Greenfield explained. “He tells us we need to be witnesses by living our lives and our vows authentically.”
In his letter, the pope underscored key ways that consecrated men and women can bear witness to Christ.
“The apostolic effectiveness of consecrated life,” he wrote, “depends on the eloquence of your lives, lives which radiate the joy and beauty of living the Gospel and following Christ to the full.”
In the face of the many challenges facing consecrated life today, Pope Francis also encouraged the Church to look to the future with hope.
“This hope is not statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust,” he wrote. “Let us constantly set out anew, with trust in the Lord.”
BRIAN FRAGA writes from Massachusetts, where he is a member of Father John F. Hogan Council 14236 in Dartmouth.