CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—Catholic widows in recent history have had just three choices for a meaningful second vocation. Some remarry, a few choose religious life, and most live as unmarried lay persons devoted to prayer and good works in the parish or community.
Now another way of life is budding forth in the Church: consecrated widow-hood.
“Canonically this is neither lay nor religious. It's a whole category in itself,” said Catholic author and professor Ronda Chervin, a consecrated widow of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity in Corpus Christi, Texas.
“It's along the lines of consecrated virgins,” she said. “You could live with others, but that's not the purpose. The purpose is to be a bride of Christ, consecrated to Christ and the Church and to live very much as the widows in the early Church.”
Like a religious sister, the consecrated widow takes public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She lives simply, spends her life in prayer and service, and in some cases may don a habit, said Chervin, who wears a gray dress and a large cross. As in religious life, there are particular graces of consecration, she said.
But like a lay woman, a consecrated widow manages her own money and lives alone, with her family or with an apostolic community of priests and lay people—not in a community of other women, Chervin said. In her order, the vows of consecration are renewed annually, so that the widow is free to attend to her family if they should need her, she said.
Consecrated widows are mentioned specifically in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 922: “From apostolic times Christian virgins and widows, 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 the respective states of virginity or perpetual chastity ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’”
The Holy Father also refers to the unique state in life in his 1996 apostolic letter Vita Consecrata: “Again being practiced today is the consecration of widows, known since apostolic times, as well as the consecration of widowers. These women and men, through a vow of perpetual chastity as a sign of the Kingdom of God, consecrate their state of life in order to devote themselves to prayer and the service of the Church.”
It could be said that the first consecrated widow was Mary, whose many TITLEs include Exalted Widow, according to Chervin. Other holy widows who lived a consecrated or religious life include St. Monica, St. Brigid, St. Louise de Marillac, St. Jane de Chantal, St. Rita and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Consecrated widowhood in the first few centuries of the Church gave way to religious communities, but in recent years the vocational state is being explored in small but meaningful ways. The Society of Our Lady (SOLT) has two consecrated widows and four in formation, said SOLT founder Father Jim Flanagan.
The Holy Family Institute, part of the religious family that includes the Daughters of St. Paul, has about 1,000 widows in its international membership that also includes individual married people and married couples. A consecrated widow of institute does not live in a community or wear a habit but maintains her secular life, through which she is made holy and in which she can influence society, according to Father Tom Fogarty of the Holy Family Institute in Canfield, Ohio.
Various dioceses, such as the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, have had expressions of interest, but no vows as such, according to several vocations directors. Some, including the Archdiocese of New York, have moved forward in another revived form of consecrated life—that of consecrated virgins.
A few religious institutes in France include consecrated widows and widowers, and a lay association in Wisconsin, Widows of Prayer, offers a program of spiritual formation and prayer discipline for widows. While not actual consecration, membership includes a period of discernment and a spiritual rule beyond what is typical for laity.
“Now that lifespans are so much greater, with men and particularly women living into their 80s and even 90s, we are seeing in consecrated widowhood and similar calls a whole new challenge for both service and spiritual development for mature, older women,” said Ruth Lasseter, assistant editor for the Catholic women's magazine Canticle.
“Some women who have lived fully as wives and mothers and grandmothers in their younger days and in middle age are finding that they may have to face many years alone as widows; this would also apply to single mothers who have raised their children,” Lasseter said. “There is a vast number of older women who live alone. When such women become consecrated widows, they can find a very rich spiritual life of prayer and opportunities for service in companionship and in example.”
Following the practice of the Society of Our Lady, Chervin prays three hours a day, including the Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, adoration and the rosary. But she said the rule could be adjusted for a widow who is too old, tired or sick to maintain the schedule.
“This lifestyle is ideal, because very devout women who are older and have raised families don't need to be formed in the same way that young women do,” Chervin said. “They are already very formed, to the point of calcification! What you want is to grow in holiness, but you don't want thousands of rules.”
A Widow's World
As she relates in her book on the widow saints, A Widow's Wa lk (Our Sunday Visitor, 1998), Chervin herself was widowed in 1993 at the age of 56. She was open to remarriage, then later investigated joining a religious order that accepts late vocations.
Her search eventually brought her to the Society, and she became its first consecrated widow, in 1999.
A year later another widow, Billie Ann Steward, became consecrated, and after serving in the SOLT novitiate in New Mexico, she is now in semi-retirement in her former hometown of Jefferson City, Mo.
Steward, 83, was widowed at age 51, and after her youngest child graduated from high school she experienced a religious “awakening,” she said. She joined the Society of Our Lady as a lay member of one of its ecclesial teams, which include laity, priests and religious.
“Father Jim Flanagan had mentioned [consecration] to me once before. He didn't sound like he was pushing it too hard, and I didn't either,” she said. “But then Ronda came. I had read about that woman and I was so impressed. I thought, ‘Maybe I could give more than I think I can in that area.’ “
Steward said even now she keeps the Society's prayer practice, and she opened her home to a parish Lenten study group. But she said she does miss the SOLT community, and she would like to be more active.
“If I look at my age, I just think I don't have enough sense to quit. I'm just grateful to God for going this long.” She said she still wears her gray habit, although she jokes, “I'm going to have to start getting another wardrobe; it's getting kind of threadbare.”
Father Flanagan, currently teaching SOLT seminarians in Rome, said the Holy Father's document on consecration and the witness of holy widows in Church history inspired him to promote consecrated widowhood in his order.
“It's a question of a relationship with Christ. Every consecrated person has a personal relationship with Jesus himself, so I feel [consecrated widowhood] will bring forth a fullness, a fruitfulness of that relationship,” he said. “Even in their families it creates tremendous blessing and gifts to their own children.”
Chervin said her own grown children are sometimes embarrassed to be seen with her in what they call her “monkess outfit.” At the same time they see that her consecration makes her happy, she said, and “they're happy because I'm happier.”
The chief advantage of consecration to a widow is hidden but profound, said Father Fogarty.
“Each of your good thoughts, words and actions has a special spiritual value that it did not have in the baptized state,” Father Fogarty said.
Ellen Rossini writes from