Consecrated Virgins Become Brides of Christ in Controversial Catholic Rite

PHOTO: There are around 3,000 consecrated virgins of the Catholic Church worldwide. The rite, which dates to the early years of Christianity, centers on a symbolic moment when the virgin prostrates herself on the floor.
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In many ways, Elizabeth Lee's consecration ceremony was similar to the wedding that every little girl dreams of.

"I had two bridal showers. My mom helped me write out the invitations. She went with me to look at dresses. I even had my own veil handmade," she said.

The big day occurred in 1995 when Lee was 33 years old, and 200 of her family and friends gathered to watch her walk down the aisle. Many of them told her it was the most beautiful wedding they'd attended, she said.

"My friends were so excited for me," she recalled, "[but] they all didn't quite understand exactly what was going on."

It's no wonder. The groom was nowhere to be seen.

To Lee, that didn't matter. He was ever present: "I am espoused to Christ."

Lee is one of around 3,000 consecrated virgins of the Catholic Church worldwide. The rite, which dates to the early years of Christianity, centers on a symbolic moment when the virgin prostrates herself on the floor.

"It's such a powerful moment," Lee said. "The two come together; this to me is a self-offering where I am totally given to Christ."

Raised in a Catholic family, Lee says she had a close connection to Jesus, but dated and assumed she would get married and have many children some day.

Her epiphany came when she was on a flight with her then-boyfriend. "We were flying around the Statue of Liberty, the sun is just starting to set ... and I thought, this is just so beautiful.... I should be really, really happy.... Then I said no, something's missing," she said.

She came to realize she couldn't give herself totally -- body and soul -- to one person.

Lee requested that details about her and her family not be mentioned to protect their privacy.

The vocation has always been controversial. It was banned for many centuries until Pope John Paul II reinstated it.

Judith Stegman, president of the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, said the strict requirements ensure that there are very few women who are able to become brides of Christ.

"We're talking about someone who has never knowingly and willingly given herself in sexual union with a man.... We're giving our virginity, that which we've always kept intact, to Christ," she said.

A nun wouldn't necessarily qualify. "The woman who's making a vow of chastity to a religious order could have been married before," Stegman said. "The consecrated virgin doesn't need that vow."

Another difference is that consecrated virgins lead "normal" lives -- no convent, "Sister," habit or veil. Elizabeth Lee works as a bioethicist, and Judith Stegman is an accountant.

"We live in total imitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary," Stegman said. "She lived her life entirely in the world.... Sometimes we'll smile and say she's our mother-in-law."

Still, both said they'd wrestled with reconciling their unusual marital and sexual status with the wider world.

"When I was first consecrated, it was really a question for me whether I was going to use the word virgin when I was describing myself, because it seems so odd to focus on something so personal when I'm just telling who I am," Stegler said.

But over the years she's gotten comfortable with the word. Sometimes it even comes in handy.

"[As an accountant] I often work with men, just because they're the business owners," Stegler said. "I noticed distinctly after my consecration that their wives were much more comfortable having me work with their husbands."

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