Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
PITTSBURGH — The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is witnessing history on Sunday, when Bishop David Zubik for the first time — and for the first time in local church’s history — consecrates a woman to perpetual virginity with an ancient rite restored in 1970.
Sheila Ryan will be specially consecrated to Jesus Christ at St. Richard’s parish in Richland Township during the 8 a.m. Mass on May 31, when Bishop Zubik will celebrate the Rite of Consecration of Virgins Living in the World. When the rite is celebrated, Ryan will be dressed like a bride, and Bishop Zubik will give her a veil, a ring, and a book of the Liturgy of the Hours — all symbols of her new life committed to Christ.
This rite of the Church, once celebrated in the early Church’s history for lay women living and working in the secular world, was restored by Blessed Paul VI more than 45 years ago. Now, Bishop Zubik will be the first of his predecessors in the diocese to use it.
Bishop Zubik told the Register in this interview that he hopes Ryan’s public witness as a consecrated virgin will inspire others to consider her way of life, help others recommit themselves to walking the path of holiness in their own vocations, and remind all of their role helping the Church in the “work of salvation.”
Tell me about Sunday's upcoming consecration: Sheila Ryan will be the first virgin consecrated in Pittsburgh since 1970, under the restored rite, correct?
Absolutely! It’s exciting — with the celebration of the consecrated virgin, we really want people to know that if people feel called to that lifestyle in the Church, we should be able to afford to them that opportunity, and give them the support system intended for that lifestyle. This is a woman who has in fact been expressing some interest for some years; she has worked closely with the diocese. I had a chance to meet with her, and we are all set to go with a special ceremony recognizing her as a consecrated virgin.
What do consecrated virgins give to the life of the church?
In terms of the work, they can be involved in whatever their vocational skills may be. I think the fact is, what becomes the thrust for what they do and how they do it, is that the consecrated virgin is very much committed to a life of prayer. That becomes for them what they see will help them to grow in holiness — which is the purpose of any vocation — and it is a vocation recognized by the Church, in which consecrated virgins, by their very fidelity to their lifestyle, really help the holiness of the Church. Because obviously the life of prayer that a consecrated virgin is involved in — together with the manner in which she does her vocation [in the world] — adds to the vibrancy of the Church.
I think the more people hear about what a consecrated virgin is, and start to see publicly people that have embraced that call, we will start to see more people who are going to be interested in it as well, who hear the Spirit call them to that lifestyle.
What support system does the Church provide to a consecrated virgin?
I think the work that they have been called to do is to meet, over the course of every year, with myself as bishop. And they have a relationship with our delegate for religious, and they work with her during the course of the year for support. I think relative to her connection with spiritual direction…and there’s the internal support systems that people in religious life or ordained life would face. I think that that’s one of the things we’re offering Miss Ryan, who is just going to be recognized as a consecrated virgin this coming Sunday.
I think because of the public recognition of who she is, it helps people to understand that this is a longstanding tradition that has existed in the Church that is being renewed. This goes back to the 4th century, where consecrated virgins were noted in the Church. It was also part of the focus of the Lateran Council in the 12th century, and we know that the Second Vatican Council called for the restoration of the liturgical rite that supported this particular kind of consecrated life.
We have another group of people, women, who have been establishing a community. They don’t see themselves as consecrated virgins, but they do see themselves as called to do special work in the Church, as women of the Church. These were women who have come together from various parts of the country and have decided that they would like to see living within the Diocese of Pittsburgh as being a welcome home for them to exercise their ministry. Well, that’s different from being consecrated virgins. Their lifestyle in a very particular way speaks to the dedication to the Church, but they’re not taking the steps to any consecration as a consecrated virgin.
What is it like for you as a bishop, performing this rite for the first time?
I think it’s exciting! It’s employing an option that the Church has appreciated for many, many years. It’s wonderful that we can do this in the diocese here. It’s a form of life that is only going to attract a small number of people, but at the same time, it is a very specific call that the Holy Spirit has given certain women. And I want to be able to support that call the best way I can, using the resources of the diocese.
How did you help Miss Ryan discern this calling as her bishop?
Sister [Geraldine Marie] Wodarczyk, who is our delegate for religious, she worked very closely and also our auxiliary bishop has a particular affinity for working with women religious. In the past, in the diocese of Harrisburg, he has worked with women, who are called to life as a consecrated virgin. He’s been extremely helpful in all of this as well. Those two individuals have done great work to prepare us for this — a history moment in the Church.
What do you hope Miss Ryan can give to the church in Pittsburgh as a consecrated virgin?
The very same thing that I hope the rest of us can demonstrate with our own vocation, whether those who are ordained, or for lay Catholics who are committed to each other in marriage, or people who live the consecrated life as religious brothers or sisters, or single people who are very committed to the church which is [showing]: “here is another path to holiness.” I think when it’s all said and done, everything that the Church is called to do has one particular focus, and that [focus] is the work of salvation. Sometimes, I think we forget that that’s what we’re all about. As a Church, we’re not about developing one program after another, unless the purpose is to focus on that purpose of salvation.
What is the symbolism here of a person consecrating their virginity to Christ? What is the public witness of that?
I think that it will cause lots of us to witness that what this person is doing is out of love for the Church. My hope is that it’s going to get anyone who is there on Sunday to say, “How am I using my vocation in life to grow in holiness? How am I using my vocation in life to support the work of the Church?” Obviously, the largest number of people will be either married people or single people. But I hope that this particular model of vocational life causes the rest of us to think about the commitment that we received from the Lord as well.
What steps should others take who might be interested in this life of consecrated virginity?
You need to contact your bishop, and make sure they’re going to be supportive of that ministry. Some of them might choose not to, simply because they might not feel that they have the support system available to be able to offer that. It’s not simply a matter of somebody saying “hey, I want to be a consecrated virgin, so I should be recognized as such.” There has to be that support system, calling on the universal Church. A person needs to be supported by the Church, if they’re going to be recognized for that important role in the Church.
Reporter’s note: More information on consecrated virginity can be found at the website of the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins (USACV).