The Forever Virgins
Even before the Catholic Church had nuns, it had consecrated virgins. And, today, women like Kathy Reda are choosing and reviving this largely forgotten vocation. They're walking down the aisle and betrothing themselves to God.
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By Liz O'Donnell
May 24, 2009
It was a large wedding, even by modern-day standards. Some 600 guests filled the pews at Dedham's imposing St. Mary of the Assumption Church on a Friday evening last August. The clergy had turned out in full force: 10 priests, a bishop, and Cardinal Sean O'Malley, head of the Boston Archdiocese, processed up the main aisle -- said to be the longest of any in Massachusetts -- some sprinkling incense as the choir sang. At last came the bride, dressed in white lace, her only jewelry a simple gold cross on a chain. She smiled widely and carried a single red rose, and when she reached the front pew, she took a few deep breaths, as though to steady herself.
Kathy Reda, a 42-year-old nurse, prays daily at the chapel she created in her home. She became a consecrated virgin last year in a ceremony at St. Mary's of the Assumption Church in Dedham. (Christopher Churchill) Kathy Reda, a 42-year-old nurse, prays daily at the chapel she created in her home. She became a consecrated virgin last year in a ceremony at St. Mary's of the Assumption Church in Dedham.
But no bridegroom waited at the altar. Kathy Reda, an emergency room nurse at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, was about to make a promise of perpetual virginity and become mystically betrothed to Jesus.
Consecrated virgins have existed in the Catholic Church longer than nuns. The tradition died out around the ninth century but has made a comeback after the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, in the 1960s emphasized the idea that everyone is called to holiness. Women who join the Order of Virgins feel called to Christ, much like a priest or a nun does. And, as with priests and nuns, the Catholic Church recognizes consecrated virginity as a distinct vocation. Unlike nuns, however, consecrated virgins don't take a vow of poverty. Instead, they live in their own homes and support themselves by working in jobs outside the church. Like Reda, they are women who are inspired to make a public commitment to Jesus. They dedicate much of their free time to prayer, including reciting the thrice-daily Liturgy of the Hours, and volunteer work.
There are about 250 consecrated virgins in the United States and about 3,000 worldwide -- the Boston Archdiocese is home to 13 of them. The vocation even has its own membership organization, the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, which holds conferences and provides information to members and prospective members. But the church does not actively recruit women to consecrated virginity -- in fact, many Catholics say they have never heard of the Order of Virgins. But the church says interest may be on the rise. "The number of women inquiring about it is increasing," says Sister Marian Batho, O'Malley's liaison for the religious communities of the archdiocese. Batho says the membership organization has helped build awareness, and that bishops have also played a role. "As bishops come to understand it, they can encourage women to listen carefully to see if God is calling them to this vocation," she says. Those who wish to join the order "are women who have never been married or lived in open violation of chastity," says Batho. The church doesn't require any proof of virginity -- a woman's character determines her eligibility. She can be admitted into the vocation by her local bishop and must work with a spiritual director before and after her consecration.Continued...
Kathy Reda, 42, never planned to marry Christ. In fact, in 1991 she vowed never to set foot in a church again. That was the year Reda's mother died, two weeks after having heart surgery. Reda, who had been raised Catholic, was 24 years old and devastated. "Screw you, God," she thought.
Though she'd been planning to get her own place, Reda decided to stay with her grieving father. Then, in 1995, her father passed away. At age 29, Reda was responsible for a mortgage and keeping her three younger siblings together. "My friends were going skiing and my money was going toward the gas bill," says Reda. She was bitter; this wasn't what she'd planned for her life.
After her parents died, Reda spent her time working at the hospital, checking in on her siblings, and helping out her friend Paul McMurtry at his Dedham video store. She'd met McMurtry in high school, and though their relationship was platonic, Reda dreamed of marrying him. Eventually she got the courage to tell him how she felt. "He said, 'I do love you, but I'm not in love with you,' " Reda recalls. "What do you do with that?" Soon after, McMurtry started dating another woman, and Reda was crushed. Eventually she started dating, too. "I dated a guy who was a paramedic and was going to become a fireman. He would buy me flowers and bring me coffee prepared just how I liked. But then he slept with a woman I worked with. I was left wondering why this happened to me." There were other boyfriends after him, but Reda never felt any chemistry.
Through all of this, she continued helping at McMurtry's video store. One snowy Sunday in January 1998, Reda's car wouldn't start and a woman from the Domino's Pizza shop next door offered her a ride home. In exchange for the lift, she asked Reda to come to a Mass held by Life Teen, a youth group that her son was involved in at St. Mary's. Reda went reluctantly and sat alone in the back. Soon, however, she started to thaw.
"I loved the live band -- there was a guitar, a piano, and drums. The kids were singing and holding hands." She started attending the Life Teen Masses every week. On Palm Sunday that year, she had an epiphany. That night, the kids staged a Passion play. They turned off all the lights except for a single spotlight on the teen playing the role of Jesus. He carried a crucifix up the main aisle and stumbled under its weight. As he neared the altar, the shadow of the cross grew larger on the back wall of the church. The other teens were all singing "Jesus remember me." "Something just hit me," explains Reda. "I had this strong physical sensation in my chest. Never before did I really get it. Jesus died for me. I started to sob. There I was, 30 years old, and I was watching Jesus die for me."
Reda says she felt the Holy Spirit that night. As her faith grew, she looked into becoming a nun, but an informational session turned her off. "I just didn't see any joy there," recalls Reda. "The meeting was more about what we would have to give up. Not one of the nuns described how Jesus made them feel." Eventually the Rev. Matt Williams, a priest at St. Mary's at the time, suggested she look into consecrated virginity. "My first reaction when Father Matt told me about consecrated virgins was no, no, no, no. But I met with another consecrated virgin in the archdiocese, and I was on fire when I left," she says. "I was excited, full of energy."
When Reda finally made her decision, she dreaded telling her family. "My decision was so counterculture," she says. "It was the V-word. People are just so hung up on it. It's not considered normal for a woman not to want to have sex." In fact, Reda thought about omitting the word "virgin" from her invitations for the consecration. "Maybe I don't have to use it," she told a friend. "He told me, 'Kathy, I'm pretty sure it will be mentioned, like, 50 times during the Mass. I think you need to get over it.' "
Two weeks before Reda's wedding at St. Mary's, Alma Bella Solis, now 53, also married Jesus, at St. John the Evangelist Church in Chelmsford. A petite woman with a big smile, Solis wears her hair in a simple bob and dresses conservatively. Born in the Philippines, Solis came to the United States 20 years ago and today works at a home for adults with mental illness. Prior to her consecration, Solis lived as a novitiate cloistered nun. She says she liked the life of prayer but missed social interaction. In the cloistered setting, she couldn't hug anyone. She could call her mother just once a month. "Ultimately, I wanted to live in the world, not in the four walls of the convent," she says.
Most days now, Solis attends the 9 a.m. Mass at St. John's. She runs errands and goes to work. She prays again before going to bed. On her days off, Solis attends Mass and teaches art and religious education classes to children. She stopped watching television last June, and she doesn't read a newspaper. "I like a lot of silence in my life," she says. "A consecrated virgin lives out in God's world, so there are more obstacles," she adds. "Sometimes when I am with friends I can be tempted to drink too much wine. But I prefer to keep my mind clear."
Since her consecration, Solis says friends and family are always asking her if she is lonely. "I am not lonely," she says. "I have my friends. I have my books. I have art." And she is never tempted by men, she says, although she's been asked for dates since her wedding.
Consecrated virgins live in a world where sex is discussed everywhere -- in magazines, on television, among friends, at work. "Our society is so wrapped up in sex," says Reda. "I'm surprised there isn't a game show about losing your virginity." Celibacy is a commitment, she says. "You may have desires, but you don't act on them. I still recognize a handsome man when I see one. But sex is not in the equation. Commitment and faith help you." She adds: "You don't always have to have sex to be fulfilled. I know a lot of people who are having sex who aren't fulfilled."
Leading up to her consecration, loneliness was a greater concern than celibacy for Reda. Eight months before her wedding, she was at Mass and something didn't feel right. "What if I get lonely?" she thought. "I started sobbing and sobbing." She still tears up remembering that day. "But it was a test. Father Matt told me it would have been abnormal if I hadn't had some doubt."
Elizabeth Lee understands these concerns. Lee became the first consecrated virgin in the Fall River Diocese when she took her vows in 1995 at the age of 33. At that time, there was no nationwide membership organization. "I was sort of a pioneer in the field. Even the people at my church didn't understand," says Lee. "They thought a consecrated virgin was a quasi-religious."
Lee had always been religious in a private way. While attending Middlesex College, she was involved in a youth ministry. She volunteered with the elderly and the homeless, but her primary love was prayer. "I could spend hours in prayer," she says. Lee had dated men in college and after graduation. She wanted to make a deeper commitment to the church, but she was torn by the idea of never marrying or having children. "I wanted to marry and have lots of kids. But God wanted me for himself."
Eventually she accepted what she describes as an invitation from God into consecrated virginity. Lee says she never felt lonely when she was first consecrated, but now there are more challenges. "It's hard sometimes. My friends are busy, and it's hard to find the time to get together." But her friends' hectic lives give Lee more time to pray. "I discovered who I was when I was consecrated. Now I am called to go deep."
Last year, Lee quit her job as a dental assistant to start her own business. She publishes informational pamphlets supporting Catholic Church doctrine on such issues as brain death, end of life, in-vitro fertilization, and stem cell research. Lee speculates that Reda and Solis are still in the honeymoon phase of their marriages -- eager brides, happy to discuss their spouse and newly married status with anyone who will listen. They have not so far experienced any loneliness.
Says Reda: "I used to pray for a family and kids after my mom and dad died. Well, I got a family and lots of kids," a reference to her involvement with Life Teen. "It's cute. The kids at church call me Mrs. Christ."
"Kathy is one of the most selfless people I've ever met," says Williams, who oversaw St. Mary's Life Teen program. Today, he heads the Office for the New Evangelization for Youth and Young Adults for the Boston Archdiocese. "She is well rounded, funny, joyful. She loves the Lord. It's a powerful combination."
Even her old friend McMurtry, now a state representative, says he is not surprised by Reda's choice. "I can tell it's genuine," he says. "She truly loves God and wanted to make a commitment."
When asked if anything is missing from her life now, Reda pauses. "I don't know. I feel completely fulfilled," she says, then adds: "Well, maybe being a size 4. But I'm trying. I go to Curves.
"I had the choice to do anything. And I choose this. I choose to be mystically connected to Jesus but still live in the real world."
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