Joanne Whittering, a consecrated virgin and Oxford theology graduate, shows how such consecrated living is seen by the modern magisterium as a powerful embodiment of a key meaning of femininity.
The Catechism says of the vocation of consecrated virginity:
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) 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 (CCC 922-4).In today's culture the language of spousal love is unlikely to be the most obvious way in which a young woman will understand or express her love for Christ, much less His relationship to her. It seems either a bit alien, or in fact a bit presumptuous! What came naturally to St Catherine of Siena and Elizabeth of the Trinity does not come naturally to us any longer. But perhaps that is because it hides a confusion. What is being spoken of here is not the state of "mystical marriage" of which so many of the great contemplative saints were writing.
"The Son, pleading for his bride, says to the Father, 'I desire that as you and I are one, so too they may be one with us.' The bridegroom [Christ] then is one with the Father, and one with his bride. All that he found alien in her he took away by nailing it to the Cross. He took upon himself what was her own proper nature and clothed himself in it; what was his own as God he gave to her. He took away what was of the devil: what was human he took upon himself; what was divine he conferred on her, so that all that belongs to the bride should become the bridegroom's" (Sermon 11).That is a profound reflection for all the baptised in their relation to Christ, but what makes it applicable to the consecrated virgin in particular is that her virginity embodies the purity and fidelity of the Church to Christ. It is in that sense that it has a value beyond simply its own moral good. The prayer of consecration itself picks up this language when it speaks of this vocation in relation to marriage. It is careful to affirm that "the honour of marriage is in no way lessened", but it continues in a thoroughly Pauline language: "Yet your loving wisdom chooses those who make the sacrifice of marriage for the sake of the Mystery of which it is the sign. They renounce the joys of marriage but cherish all that it foreshadows".
"From a certain perspective, the [consecrated] vocation is a call to 'an interior encounter with the love of Christ, which is a redemptive love'. Christ calls you 'with an immense interior love'; it is a 'love of election', which invites you to belong no longer to yourself, but to belong exclusively to Him" (Redemptions Donum n 3,7).Vita Consecrata affirms that consecrated virgins "constitute an eschatological image of the Heavenly Espousal and of the future life, in which they find the final plenitude of life in Christ their Spouse."
"Love Mary of Nazareth, model of Christian Virginity ... She had the fullness, in her body and in her spirit, of that which you desire with all your might to be: virgin in her heart and in her body, espoused with a total and exclusive adhesion to Christ; Mother by the gift of the Spirit. My dear sisters, Mary is your sister, your Mother, the Mistress of your life" (Discourse, 2 June 1995).
"The example of Mary contains all the beauty of virginity and encourages all those who are called to the consecrated life to follow her example. The hour has come to re-evaluate virginity in the light of Mary. The hour has come to propose anew to young men and women [virginity as] a serious way of life. Mary is our aide to engagement, as in her appears the nobility of a total gift of the heart to God, and her fidelity strengthens our perseverance, always in moments of difficulty or danger" (29 March 1995, on The Virgin Mary and the Consecrated Life).It is clear from the papal teaching that these two aspects, the Marian and the ecclesial, are inextricably linked. It is an inseparable link, which is clearly made in relation to the feminine in general in Redemptoris Mater 46:
"The Marian dimension of the Church's life takes on special importance in relation to women and their status. In fact femininity has a unique relationship with the Mother of the Redeemer... the figure of Mary of Nazareth sheds light on the vocation of womanhood as such by the very fact that God, in the sublime event of the Incarnation of his Son, entrusted himself to the ministry, the free and active ministry, of a woman. It can be said that women, by looking at Mary, find the secret of living their femininity with dignity."At an essential level Our Lady's response is the perfect response of the created order to God the Father, in Our Lord Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That perfect response is one which she, free from original sin, is able to make perfectly, but which we can only make by the redeeming grace of God, through our incorporation into the Body of Christ in its sacramental life. The life of redeemed humanity in the Church is one of full, humble, faithful, obedient response, one which Our Lady in her assent at the Annunciation, her faithful service of Christ in His ministry and in the life of the Apostolic Church, and her Assumption prefigures and exemplifies. It is that Christocentric Marian understanding which par excellence describes the vocation of consecrated virginity in particular.
"voluntary celibacy chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, in view of man's eschatological vocation to union with God. ... it represents an 'innovation' with respect to the tradition of the Old Testament... celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, or rather virginity, is undeniably an innovation connected with the Incarnation of God. From the moment of Christ's coming, the expectation of the people of God has to be directed to the eschatological kingdom which is coming and to which he must lead the New Israel."It is in such a context that 1 Cor 7 needs to be understood as a complete affirmation of the vocation to be wholly concentrated on Christ, in anticipation of that time when Christ will be "all in all" in the Kingdom of God. As with the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, virginity is a radical orientation towards Christ, living the Gospel in the here and now, which is thereby an efficacious sign in the present of that final salvation which will be fully realised in the eschatological Kingdom at the end of time.