I had a chance today to chat with one of the consecrated virgins here in the diocese of Montreal. Let me begin by saying how much I admire her personally for the love she radiates for Christ her husband. Her vocation is an ancient one, so ancient that it is mentioned in the New Testament itself, but it is poorly understood by people in the world today — or even, I'd venture to say, by Catholics. Here is a web site with more on the life of consecrated virginity, if you'd like to know more before reading this post further.
I believe that consecrated virgins have a significant spiritual role to play in the Church, especially today. I've come to appreciate the importance of consecrated virgins particularly within the context of the modern debates on the admission of women to the ordained priesthood. People openly ask why the Church reserves the vocation of priesthood to men only, but few realise that there is an equally-ancient vocation that is reserved to women only, that of consecrated virginity. The Church does itself no favours when it ignores this important vocation, therefore, as it makes it harder to understand the very nature of the Church itself.
The Bible describes the Church as a Bride, waiting for Christ her Bridegroom. A priest is ordained to sacramentally represent Christ the Bridegroom. People sometimes say to me "Father, it's like you're married to God!" Well, not quite: it is more accurate to say I'm married to the Church. This is why, when a bishop is ordained in the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders, he gets an episcopal ring that goes on the same finger as a wedding ring: he is "marrying" his diocese, the community for which he must care.
A consecrated virgin, on the other hand, through her consecration, comes to represent the Church in a special way as the Bride of Christ. She also receives a wedding ring, but in her case it is to show she is in love with Jesus and, in effect, is married to him. While hers is a celibate vocation, in the human sense, it is definitely called to be fruitful: Mary was the first consecrated virgin, and she gave birth to the Messiah! The book of revelation portrays a woman clothed with the sun who symbolizes, at least in part, the Church, as it gives birth to new children of God by the sacraments. And so while consecrated virginity is more what you ARE than what you DO, this life of consecration implies a new activity and creativity in the service of nurturing the life of the Church.
The ordained ministry and the consecrated life are fundamentally oriented towards each other. The way I see it, the ordained ministry acts like the skeleton of a body, while the consecrated life acts like the muscles. If there was only a skeleton, the body would be only dry bones, terrible rigid and unable to move; indeed, it would be dead! But a body still needs a skeleton, or else its muscles create only a quivering, twitching heap. The ordained ministers possess a hierarchical vocation, providing structure and support to the Church, while the consecrated life is a charismatic vocation, meant to be bursting with the dynamism of the Holy Spirit. And the consecrated virgins, in particular, are meant to possess this life in the Spirit, living out the words of the book of Revelation: "The Spirit and the Bride say, Come!" (Revelation 22: 17)
As a final point, I think the life of consecrated virginity is important because it reminds the world (and the Church) of the eschatological dimension of reality. The simple fact is that Jesus is alive, and we are supposed to be Waiting in Joyful Hope for his coming. Consecrated virgins, by being visibly in love with someone our eyes cannot otherwise see (apart from in the Eucharist), witness by that love that Jesus really is alive. Their life of consecrated virginity is a proclamation of the coming great wedding banquet, when the new wine of God's Kingdom will be poured out. It is also a reminder that we must always be ready with our lamps lit, so as to welcome Christ when he does come. And how precious it is, that central to what they offer Christ is their perpetual virginity, an increasingly rare reality in our Western world which is more and more callous with regards to the gift of sexuality. Their virginal love for Christ is freedom, not oppression! Consecrated virgins are living symbols of the reality of the Christ's presence in the world, and of the profundity of our response we are called to have. May we have many more consecrated virgins in our Church, and may their vocation be held in honour everywhere.