Consecrated Virgins

From the ABC:

What is ‘consecrated virginity’ and why are modern women marrying Jesus?

RN By Siobhan Hegarty for Soul Search

Posted about an hour ago

Zara Tai closing her eyes, kneeling and praying at St Patrick's Cathedral, Parramatta.

PHOTO: Zara Tai received her rite of consecration of virginity at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Parramatta. (Supplied: Cyron, Captured Frames)

Zara Tai didn’t wear white on her wedding day, but then again, it wasn’t a conventional ceremony.

She wasn’t marrying a long-term boyfriend or even a high school sweetheart — this Parramatta-based town planner was saying “I do” to Jesus.

Ms Tai is one of nine women in Australia known as a “consecrated virgin”.

It’s a title bestowed to virgin women who promise to remain physical virgins, as brides of Christ, for the sake of the kingdom of God.

Consecrated virgins dedicate their life in prayer and service to the Church, but unlike nuns and sisters, they live and work in the secular world.

“Consecrated virginity, as a concept, developed in the early Church at the time where Christians were being persecuted,” Ms Tai says.

“They were women who consecrated themselves to Christ in lieu of getting married [to men].”

Many of them, she explains, were martyred for their beliefs.

Fifteenth century painting of St Cecilia at the spinet by the Sandro Botticelli school.

PHOTO: St Cecilia, patroness of musicians, was a consecrated virgin before being martyred in 230 AD. (Getty: DeAgostini)

The rise of monasticism in the third and fourth centuries enabled women to join religious groups as nuns or sisters.

Some adopted the “rite of consecration of virginity”, as well their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

But gradually this became the only option for single, virgin women wanting to serve the church — as it had become difficult for women to live in the community without being married.

That was until 1970, when Pope Paul VI revised and reintroduced the rite and allowed it to be used for virgin women living in the secular world.

A modern way

Today, it’s estimated there are 5,000 consecrated virgins worldwide. Only nine are in Australia; the majority live in Europe, the US and South America.

A growing number of religious women are choosing this pathway over nunhood and Ms Tai isn’t surprised.

“In a religious order you might have some say in what you do, but you are under a vow of obedience, so if [the church diocese] wants you to be a teacher, a nurse or something else, you go off and do it,” she explains.

“But [consecrated virgins] have professions, we have careers … we have lives, basically, that are outside the structure of the church.

“It’s a modern way; it gives a lot of freedom to do whatever you like to do.”

'Consecrated virgin' Zara Tai wearing purple and white floral shirt.

PHOTO: Zara Tai says it was “in her veins” to become a consecrated virgin with the Catholic Church. (ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty)

More than ‘permanently single’

Ms Tai’s journey towards becoming a consecrated virgin hasn’t always been easy.

It took 15 years from when she raised the idea with her local church to the day of her consecration.

One of the greatest roadblocks was the lack of historical religious knowledge.

“There was not much known about the vocation … some felt I ought to become a nun,” she recalls.

Even after her consecration, Ms Tai wasn’t embraced by all members of the clergy.

“Some priests have said, ‘Oh, so you’re a permanent single person?'” she says.

“That’s clearly not the case, I am married to Christ.

“They’re still fitting me into a box that is not [correct]. They obviously don’t know the history of the church.”

Zara Tai performing prostration, lying flat on the floor face down, during her consecration ceremony.

PHOTO: Ms Tai performed prostration, lying face-down on the floor, during her consecration ceremony. (Supplied: Cyron, Captured Frames)

‘Secret service of the church’

Ms Tai’s decision also drew questions from her family.

Born to a Chinese-Malaysian father and a mother of Maltese origin, she was baptised Catholic, but didn’t practise the faith in her childhood.

“I grew up with two brothers and was a typical tomboy, so going to church was the last thing on our minds,” she reflects.

“We were always at the beach, playing cricket or going on adventures — being religious doesn’t meld with any of that.”

Upon turning 15, Ms Tai felt “a big call to God” and began pursing a religious life.

But her tomboy traits remained. When she’s not working or studying theology, Ms Tai can be found kayaking, hiking or “bodysurfing with the boys”.

Zara Tai kayaking in the ocean, with Argentina's Perito Moreno glacier in background.

PHOTO: Ms Tai says becoming a consecrated virgin hasn’t affected her independence or freedom to travel. (Supplied: Zara Tai)

She says her greatest contribution is being where the church is not.

“A lot of people come to me for different questions, but they may not go anywhere near a church or a church official,” Ms Tai says.

“In fact, Rome has often called us the ‘secret service of the church’ because we are in all walks of life.”

In a time where religious institutions are criticised for female exclusion and male privilege, Ms Tai say consecrated virginity is “one for the women”.

“Sometimes I get asked: ‘Oh, you’re part of the hierarchy of the church — do you feel put down or submissive?’

“Absolutely not. In my experience, the diocese has given me scope to do almost anything I like.

“I belong to Christ and I’m totally happy with it.”

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