As consecrated virgins, three women promise lifelong fidelity to Christ

Karen Ervin, Theresa Jordan and Laurie Malashanko pause in prayer before the altar at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit on June 24. They were consecrated into the Catholic Church's order of virgins. (CNS photo/Joel Breidenbach) Karen Ervin, Theresa Jordan and Laurie Malashanko pause in prayer before the altar at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit on June 24. They were consecrated into the Catholic Church's order of virgins. (CNS photo/Joel Breidenbach)

Three brides in long, white dresses stood before the altar of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit. There was not a single groom in sight.

Like the 10 wise virgins from Matthew's Gospel, each carried a lighted lamp. Together, they joined their voices in an antiphon, "I am espoused to him whom the angels serve."

These women are "brides of Christ," and through this ceremony, they have sealed their intention to dedicate their lives to God in perpetual virginity.

"It's a promise that we make to be faithful to Christ all our life," Theresa Jordan explained shortly after the June 24 ceremony. "(We) make him a promise of our virginity as a gift back to him."

"Making a resolution to live in perfect chastity my whole life, I get to testify that God satisfies. He is enough," Karen Ervin added.

This particular ceremony of consecration had never been performed before within the Archdiocese of Detroit. As far as records show, it was the first time in the United States that three women committed their lives at the same time in this way.

Yet this vocation, the order of virgins, whose members are known as "consecrated virgins living in the world," dates back to the very beginnings of the church.

"If you've heard of St. Cecilia or Agnes or Lucy, they were all virgins living in the world," said the third bride, Laurie Malashanko, referring to first-century martyrs.

This particular ceremony of consecration had never been performed before within the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Women called to this vocation do not live in a community as religious sisters do, nor are they called by a title like "sister" or wear distinguishing garb. These three women will continue their professional careers—Jordan as a college professor; Malashanko as an acquisitions editor for a publishing company; and Ervin as a principal at an all-girls Catholic high school.

As consecrated virgins, however, they intend to show a profound commitment to the Lord during their everyday interactions.

"I think young women really need to see who they are, and who they are is reflected in God's eyes not the world's eyes," said Ervin, who had already explained her vocation to the students at her school. "I witness that to them and they know that I'm completely captured by God."

During the ceremony, the three brides each placed their hands between the hands of Detroit's Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron and requested that he accept their resolve to live in chastity. Similar to the sacrament of holy orders and religious profession of vows, the women then lay prostrate while the congregation petitioned the saints to intercede.

The newly consecrated also received a prayer book containing the Liturgy of the Hours along with wedding veils and rings, clearly symbolizing their mystical marriage to Christ.

"Consecration, in general, means something is being set aside. It's set aside for God alone," said Judith Stegman, a consecrated virgin and president of the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins, a group founded to facilitate communication among those who follow this vocation.

"In this case what is being set aside is a person," she told Catholic News Service.

To be set aside as a bride of Christ, the woman must have lived a life of perfect chastity. This is another factor that distinguishes the vocation of consecrated virginity from religious orders, which women may join if they are widowed or if they resolve to live a chaste life from that day forward.

"Virginity itself is important because virginity is important in the eyes of God," Stegman said. "This is representing the church as a virgin, this is representing the Virgin Mary."

"(We) image the church herself as virgin, as bride, as mother, so this whole vocation reflects Christ's spousal union with his church," said Malashanko.

Although prevalent in the early church, the vocation of virgins living in the world disappeared after the 11th century as women living a life of chastity came together in communities. By the time of the Second Vatican Council, the consecration of women existed entirely in conjunction with religious life.

"The rite of consecration of virgins in the world dropped off over the centuries as monastic community life for women developed," explained Mary T. Kantor, who studied the vocation extensively for her doctoral dissertation at Harvard Divinity School. "The rite for women living in the world was brought back with Vatican II. It is specifically noted in the liturgy document, 'Sacrosanctum Concilium.'"

The renewed rite for virgins living in the world is both overseen and administered by diocesan bishops, making it necessary for each diocese to develop its own formation program if a woman within its borders feels called to the vocation. This requirement, combined with this rite's novelty, slowed its spread in the United States in the decades directly following Vatican II.

"During my research, I spoke with someone in the bishop and/or vocation offices of each diocese in the country," said Kantor in an email interview with CNS. She had begun her national survey in the early 2000s.

"Some had no knowledge of the rite," she said. "I was hung up on more than once by those who thought I was joking or a prank caller. One secretary in a diocesan office said: 'I've never heard of it, and if I've not heard of it, it must not be happening.'"

Today, the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins counts about 245 consecrated virgins living in 106 dioceses across the United States. For this first consecration ceremony in the Archdiocese of Detroit, a congregation of hundreds as well as two dozen priests and deacons celebrated alongside the three brides.

"We're delighted that God should have called these women from our local church," said Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Donald F. Hanchon, who had helped to oversee the women's formation. "They're going to be great witnesses for the Lord in the businesses and careers that they already have."

A constant stream of friends, family and complete strangers congratulated the newly consecrated at a reception following the ceremony. Between poses with a huge bouquet of red roses, Jordan paused to give advice.

"(Jesus) is waiting for whatever gifts you have to give back to him," she said, "and to have an eternal relationship even here on earth."

Beth Cioffoletti
3 weeks 6 days ago

No. My better angels tell me to leave this article alone, walk away. Let it be what it is and don't judge or offer any comments. My other angels tell me to speak up. Express what a confused and mixed message this gives girls about their sexuality. Heck, we can barely talk about women's sexuality in the Catholic Church, except in terms of "giving it up". Marrying Christ. Oh boy, this reeks of hidden complexes. There is a fine line - if there is a line at all - between spirituality and sexuality. Please. Stop this nonsense. It is one thing to vow oneself to celibacy in a religious order; it is quite another to wrap ones sexuality up in some kind of spiritual asceticism, complete with bridal gowns.

Sexuality and intimacy is scary, not for the faint of heart. But I guarantee you it will lead you to a lot more spiritual and human growth and maturity than marrying Jesus. This whole notion (and article) makes me mad. Sexuality does not mean just intercourse. Do not trick women into thinking that if they are "celibate" they are holy.

Lisa Weber
3 weeks 5 days ago

Beth,
Thank you for your comments. I am uncomfortable with this picture and the idea behind it. Picturing one's relationship to Jesus as a marriage is peculiar.

The Catholic Church has some major revising to do with regard to women and sexuality. Sexuality and spirituality are very similar - I appreciate your comment that there may not even be a line between the two. Everything Jesus did in regard to sexuality made it more private. If we are not to cast stones over adultery, perhaps we are also not to laud virginity - whether temporary or permanent. Perhaps these things are no one else's business.

Part of the good of developing the role of women in the church will be that women will be able to speak more sensibly about sex. We need women who are or have been married to speak truths about sexuality. Until then, thanks for ignoring your better angels and addressing this issues in this article.

Beth Cioffoletti
3 weeks 5 days ago

Thanks, Lisa. Feminine sexuality makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. It has been hidden and condemned for ages, and plays a big role in misogyny of all stripes. It is probably one of the most powerful energies of humanity - look at how much we fear, protect, cover, abuse it?
Can you imagine a man whose vow of celibacy is couched in the context of "marrying Mary"? Oh my gosh, what a scandal.
We need more Mary Magdalene models in our Church. Real, sexual women, whether celibate or not.

Lea Karen Kivi
3 weeks 4 days ago

The dedication of one's life to the service of God is always an occasion to be celebrated, and I pray that these three women and all who have made such a promise are able to witness that it is possible to be happy in life without a sexual relationship. Many people are pressured into having relationships to fit into society's definition of 'normalcy' with disastrous results (for example, divorce and abusive relationships.)

One point to be reflected on is the notion of being a 'consecrated virgin.' How does one define 'virginity' exactly? Is the fact that some women have experienced childhoods in which they were not the victim of rape or incest, and did not experience date rape or other sexual violence elevate their status in the Church compared to those women who were not able to choose a state of virginity?

Lisa Weber
3 weeks 4 days ago

I agree that dedicating one's life to the service of God is wonderful - I just don't see what virginity has to do with it. You bring up an excellent point in asking about the definition of virginity. A person can be quite experienced sexually and still technically be a virgin in a physical sense. I think virginity is primarily an issue that men may think is important in a bride. I cannot imagine why I would care whether another woman is a virgin or not. Other people's sex lives are of no concern to me unless violence or exploitation is involved - we do have an obligation to protect those who are vulnerable.

Imagining oneself to be Christ's bride is strange, especially if one intends to be a lifelong virgin. Much of the spiritual formation in marriage is a result of living in an intimate union with a member of the opposite sex, someone inherently different from oneself. I would guess that it is quite easy to imagine a trouble-free relationship with Christ the husband because he never comes home from work tired and hungry on days when cooking seems like too much to ask. Plus he doesn't throw his socks on the floor or fold the towels "wrong." A wedding ceremony with Jesus as the groom is simply peculiar.

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