Sheila Ryan said she sensed she has had an unusual call from God from the time of her upbringing in McKeesport, Pa.
It wasn’t until recently, though, that she learned the Catholic Church had a name for it and an official liturgy to formalize it.
Early on a recent Sunday morning at St. Richard Church in suburban Richland Township, the retired school teacher and administrator became the first woman in the Diocese of Pittsburgh to receive the Rite of Consecration of a Virgin Living in the World.
With Bishop David Zubik presiding at the ceremony, she wore a white dress and received a ring and veil to symbolize her marriage to Christ alone. She also received an edition of the Liturgy of the Hours, a set of daily prayers she has committed to offering.
“I knew as a teenager that I was not called to the married state,” said Ryan, who is active at St. Richard. “It’s listening to God and being open to his workings of grace within us. Nobody would seek this life, which is counter-cultural, unless it were a gift from God. And I consider it a gift.”
While exact numbers are not available, best estimates are that there are about 230 consecrated virgins in the United States and about 3,500 worldwide, said Judith Stegman of Michigan, president of the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins.
“We have to provide as many opportunities as we can to help people on their road to holiness,” said Zubik. “There’s not many people called to it,” he added, but for those who are, “it’s a legitimate option in the church.”
Unlike a nun, a consecrated virgin doesn’t join a religious community or make vows in the ritual, said Stegman.
While religious orders generally require a vow of celibacy beginning when someone joins, the rite of consecration is reserved for virgins, or those who have always refrained from voluntarily having sex with another. Those who have had sex but want to remain celibate in the future can make a private vow or join a religious order, Stegman said, “but it’s different from this particular rite.”
A consecrated virgin must provide her own home and livelihood. She doesn’t regularly wear the veil or any distinctive uniform, although she does wear the ring. She is expected to commit to prayer and to volunteer in her parish.
The rite traces its origins to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew that some people renounce marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. The ancient church had a liturgy for women making such a commitment, but it fell into disuse in the Middle Ages when unmarried women committed to chastity were steered to religious orders.
Pope Paul VI reinstituted the rite on May 31, 1970, exactly 45 years to the date of Ryan’s consecration, amid other reforms that sought to revive many ancient church practices.
Ryan attended Duquesne University, earning bachelor’s degrees in music and education and a master’s in music. She spent her career in public schools in Prince George County, Md., where she taught music and later became an administrator before retiring two years ago and returning to Pennsylvania.
“I’ve been an organist all my life,” she added. “I was in church for everything. You name it, I was there, many days of the week and evenings. I’ve always been close to the Lord through my work, which was a blessing.”
She only learned about the rite from a news article in 2009 and eventually petitioned Zubik to receive the blessing. She underwent a two-year preparation.
Sister Geraldine Wodarczyk, who directs the diocese’s Department for Consecrated Life, was impressed by Ryan’s knowledge and enthusiasm for her commitment.
“That for me was an affirmation she was heading in the right direction and helped me understand the value of consecrated virginity within my own life and the church,” she said.
Ryan volunteers at St. Richard in its music, educational and other programs.
She said when she tells people about her vocation as a consecrated virgin, “I’ve had nothing but positive reactions.”
Stegman said she encourages women who have received the rite “not to be too afraid to say, ‘I’m a consecrated virgin,’ even in our secular world.”
During her work as an accountant, Stegman said people sometimes see her ring and ask about her marriage. When she explains her symbolic marriage to Jesus, often “they’ll want more information and be filled with a lot of respect for it,” she said.
“On first hearing, some people may cringe,” she said. “So often our culture doesn’t use the word ‘virgin’ in a serious way, or makes fun of it. We’re very serious. … The woman is drawn to a love relationship to Jesus that is most fulfilled by giving herself entirely for him.”