SAUGUS, Mass. — Judith Stegman, owner of a tax and accounting firm in Lansing, Mich., doesn't mince words when describing her vocation. “I'm a consecrated virgin,” she says.
Even in Catholic circles, the statement doesn't always go down well. Once, about to speak at a finance seminar for area parish office workers, Judith was introduced as “a consecrated virgin in the Church.” Someone in the audience responded with a loud guffaw.
“Sometimes it seems that ‘virgin’ is one of the last dirty words left in our society,” Judith observes.
In a secular culture that treats virginity as an embarrassment, identifying oneself as a virgin invites snickers, even hostility. Still, without being in-your-face about it, Judith adamantly uses the word for two reasons. “It confronts people with the reality of something good, whose value needs to be recognized,” she said. “And it describes what I am!”
In 1993 Judith became one of perhaps only 100 women in the United States to experience the Solemn Rite of Consecration of Virgins for Women Living in the World, an ancient sacramental which Vatican II restored in 1970. Through it, in the words of the rite, a virgin's chastity is consecrated for the sake of “more fervent love of Christ and greater freedom” for serving others.
A virgin living in the world is rooted in the diocese, so it is the bishop who presides at her consecration; afterwards, he meets regularly with her and may request her help, as appropriate.
Consecration takes place in the context of a Mass, usually on a solemnity or feast of Mary or a virgin martyr. The rite is strikingly nuptial. Some virgins wear a wedding gown; each receives a wedding band signifying that she is a “bride of Christ.”
Immersed in the World
Typically, women called to consecrated virginity feel drawn to lifelong chastity but not to becoming nuns.
Judith says she realized early on, after hearing a “state in life” talk, that God had given her the gifts for single life. She prayed and searched for years before stumbling on a magazine article about the restored Rite of Consecration. She was immediately attracted.
So was Janet Maestranzi, of Saugus, Mass. Right after getting her M.A. in theology, Janet began a serious search for a “form” in which to live out her relationship with God. She looked into religious communities but found nothing that matched her desire for a spousal, consecrated, secular life.
Finally, having heard about consecrated virginity but feeling stymied about how to pursue it, Janet found an article on the subject; its author, a consecrated virgin, provided the necessary guidance.
Consecrated in July 1994, Janet sees her vocation as “such a good fit” and gratefully views it in terms of being loved by God. “It's a unique form among all the unique forms of the one vocation to holiness,” she says.
Janet appreciates the secularity of her vocation — the chance to bear quiet witness in the context of “very ordinary” activities that include working in a Boston office. But being immersed in the world, she has discovered, means not only giving but receiving. “In so many ways, God loves me through the world and reveals so much of his beauty in the people I meet.”
Hurdles and Challenges
As Janet's and Judith's stories suggest, lack of information about the vocation is one difficulty facing women who seek to become consecrated virgins in the world. That situation is changing, thanks to efforts of people like Bishop Raymond Burke, of La Crosse, Wisc., who serves as episcopal moderator for consecrated virgins in the United States. Still, many Catholics remain uninformed.
Another challenge comes from people who fail to see consecration to virginity in the world as a definitive vocation, or even a worthy one. More than one consecrated virgin has been criticized for not pursuing traditional religious life instead.
Still other critics contend that women who see themselves as “brides of Christ” guided by their bishops will inevitably be weak and passive. Consecrated virgins point out that their models, the virgin martyrs, were anything but.
“I feel stronger as a woman in the Church because of this vocation,” Janet affirms. “The Holy Father has said that the vocation to virginity is a way of understanding that women are created good in themselves. That's a profound insight — something to be taken very seriously and explored.”
Then, too, consecrated virgins face the same objections met by women entering religious life.
Barbara Swieciak, of La Crosse, Wisc., first ran into these in 1978, when she decided to quit a successful teaching job to enter the Poor Clares. “My family thought it was a cult!” she laughs.
They came to support her decision, but health problems forced Barbara to leave the monastery three happy years after she entered.
Deeply disappointed but knowing that Christ had another way for her to live as his bride, Barbara eventually heard about consecrated virginity in the world. Reading the Rite for the first time was a revelation, she says. “Bam! I recognized my vocation. I thought, ‘This is it! This describes my life!’”
Again, her family came to that conclusion more slowly. “This time, they really thought I had lost my marbles,” Barbara remembers.
They coped by joking. “If there's ever a volcano, at least we'll have a virgin to throw in!” one relative laughed.
Still, they all showed up at the cathedral for Barbara's consecration ceremony in 1984. “Seeing the bishop there with a dozen or so priests and the way I was supported by my parish family, my family was very proud of me. They could see the importance of a faith life and the power of prayer.”
Finally, as Judith Stegman experienced at that parish finance seminar, consecrated virgins face the challenges inherent in being willing to take a public stand for Christian values that run against the cultural grain. Sometimes, though, they meet with pleasant surprises.
Mary Kay Lacke, dean of evangelization at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio, remembers a plane trip when she found herself sitting among a group of rowdy young men headed for a Florida golf tournament. “One looked over my shoulder, saw I was reading something about consecrated virginity, and started asking questions.”
Mary Kay braced herself for ridicule that never came. Instead, “the guy got pretty interested and started explaining it to his buddies. They didn't know exactly what to say, but they all listened and got kind of awed. Once again, I was amazed at how the Lord works.”
Louise Perotta writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.