Throughout the history of the Church there have been different forms of consecrated life; varied ways of expressing a desire to follow Christ with an ‘undivided heart’ (1 Corinthians 7:34).
Through vows of life-long celibacy and often through vows of poverty and obedience, men and women have sought to follow Christ’s own example as closely as possible.
Consecrated life may be lived as a member of an institute, such as in a religious congregation, or individually, where vows are made to the diocesan Bishop.
Religious life is the form of consecrated life that Catholics are most familiar with. There are hundreds of different religious orders or congregations, each of which contributes a particular gift to the life of the Church. Within religious life the main distinction is between monks and nuns who live in an enclosed convent or monastery and religious who work outside the cloister, for example in education, health-care or evangelisation.
Religious make vows of life-long celibacy, poverty and obedience (though these are named differently in some congregations). They usually live in a community, where they support each other in prayer, in ministry and in providing for the daily needs of each one.
Each religious congregation is a public witness to one particular way of following Christ. Some religious wear a distinctive clothing or habit, others express their solidarity with those among whom they live and work by wearing ordinary clothes, often with a cross or distinctive symbol of their religious congregation.
Many male religious are priests but there is also a strong tradition of religious brothers in the Church. The three types of male religious congregations are religious institutes of brothers (such as the De la Salle Brothers), clerical institutes (such as the Marist Fathers) and ‘mixed’ institutes, such as the Franciscan Capuchins, where members who are priests and those who are brothers express together the essential charism of the congregation.
Consecrated Virgins, Consecrated Widows and Widowers
Long before the emergence of religious life, consecrated virgins and widows had a distinctive identity in the Church. St Paul describes women who remained unmarried and devoted themselves to prayer (1 Corinthians 7) and records the personal qualities required to be eligible to be ‘enrolled’ as a widow (1 Timothy 5). However, as communal forms of consecrated life gradually became the central form of ecclesial consecration, these ancient Orders disappeared.
However, in the 1960s the Church reinstated the Order of Virgins, where women who have not lost virginity through voluntary intercourse and who have never married are consecrated to perpetual virginity, to a life of prayer and penance, and to the service of the Church under the guidance of their local bishop. Because consecrated virgins have no rule or community, own their own property and care for their personal needs, it is particularly important that those who are discerning this state of life are mature and self-reliant women. There are currently approximately 200 consecrated virgins in the UK.
While the numbers of those seeking consecration as widows and widowers appears to be growing, there is not currently a rite in the Western Church for this particular form of consecration.