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In honor of the feast day of St. Maria Goretti, I would like to share an adaptation of the encyclical “Sacra Virginitas” by Pope Leo XII with all young men and women. I have shortened the document greatly so that many might make easy reading of it. The entire original document can be read here.
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HOLY VIRGINITY which is consecrated to the service of God is, without doubt, among the most precious treasures Our Lord has left us.
Innumerable is the multitude of those who from the beginning of the Church until our time have offered their chastity to God. Some have preserved their virginity unspoiled, others after the death of their spouse, have consecrated to God their remaining years in the unmarried state, and still others, after repenting their sins, have chosen to lead a life of perfect chastity; all of them at one in this common offering, that is, for love of God to abstain for the rest of their lives from sexual pleasure.
And while this perfect chastity is the subject of one of the three religious vows, it also flourishes among many who are lay people in the full sense: men and women who by private promise or vow completely abstain from marriage and sexual pleasures, in order to serve their neighbor more freely and to be united with God more easily and more closely.
However, since there are some who, straying from the right path in this matter, exalt marriage as to rank it ahead of virginity, We must declare and uphold the Church’s teaching on the sublime state of virginity, and so defend Catholic truth against these errors.
First of all, We think it should be noted that the Church has taken her teaching on virginity from the very lips of Jesus Christ. For when the disciples thought that the challenges of marriage seemed extremely heavy, they said to Him: “If the case stands so between man and wife, it is better not to marry at all!” Jesus Christ replied that some are hindered from marriage because of some physical problem, while others freely abstain by their own will–”for the kingdom of heaven.” By these words, Our Lord is speaking of a resolution freely made to abstain all one’s life from marriage and sexual pleasure.
Here also it must be added, as the Church has always taught, that virginity is not a Christian virtue unless we embrace it “for the kingdom of heaven;” that is, unless we take up this way of life to be able to devote ourselves more freely to divine things to attain heaven more surely, and to lead others more readily to the kingdom of heaven.
Those therefore, who do not marry because of selfishness, or because, as Augustine says, they shun the burdens of marriage–none of these can claim for themselves the honor of Christian virginity.
Moreover, St. Paul makes this point: “He that is without a wife is worried about the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. . . And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and spirit.”
This then is the primary purpose, this the central idea of Christian virginity: to aim only at the divine, to turn to God the whole mind and soul; to want to please God in everything, to think of Him constantly, to consecrate body and soul completely to Him.
The Fathers of the Church considered perfect chastity as a kind of spiritual marriage, in which the soul is wedded to Christ. As early as the fourth century the rite of consecration of a virgin was very like the rite the Church uses in our own day in the marriage blessing.
For the same reason the Church Fathers urge virgins to love their Divine Spouse more than they would love a husband had they married, and always in their thoughts and actions to fulfill His will. Augustine writes to virgins: “Love with all your hearts Him Who is the most beautiful of the sons of men.” The Church requires of virgins on the day they are solemnly consecrated to God to recite these words: “The kingdom of this earth and all worldly trappings I have valued as worthless for love of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Whom I have seen, loved, believed, and preferred above all else.” It is nothing else but love of Him that sweetly constrains the virgin to consecrate her body and soul entirely to her Savior; thus St. Methodius, Bishop of Olympus, places these beautiful words on her lips: “You yourself, O Christ, are my all. For you I keep myself chaste, and holding aloft my shining lamp I run to meet you, my Spouse.” Certainly it is the love of Christ that urges a virgin to retire behind convent walls and remain there all her life, in order to contemplate and love the heavenly Spouse more easily and without hindrance; certainly it is the same love that strongly inspires her to spend her life and strength in works of mercy for the sake of her neighbor.
And here, let us explain more fully why the love of Christ moves generous souls to abstain from marriage, and what is the mystical connection between virginity and the perfection of Christian charity. From our Lord’s words referred to above, it has already been implied that this complete renunciation of marriage frees men from its grave duties and obligations. Writing by divine inspiration, St. Paul proposes the reason for this freedom in these words: “And I would have you to be without solicitude. . . But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife; and he is divided.” Here however it must be noted that the Apostle is not reproving men because they are concerned about their wives, nor does he reprehend wives because they seek to please their husbands; rather is he asserting clearly that their hearts are divided between love of God and love of their spouse, and beset by gnawing cares, and so by reason of the duties of their married state they can hardly be free to contemplate the divine. For the duty of the married life to which they are bound clearly demands: “They shall be two in one flesh.” It is easy to see, therefore, why persons who desire to consecrate themselves to God’s service embrace the state of virginity as a liberation, in order to be more entirely at God’s disposition and devoted to the good of their neighbor. How, for example, could a missionary such as the wonderful St. Francis Xavier, a father of the poor such as the merciful St. Vincent de Paul, a zealous educator of youth like St. John Bosco, a tireless “mother of emigrants” like St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, have accomplished such gigantic and painful labors, if each had to look after the corporal and spiritual needs of a wife or husband and children?
There is yet another reason why souls desirous of a total consecration to the service of God and neighbor embrace the state of virginity. It is, as the holy Fathers have abundantly illustrated, the numerous advantages for advancement in spiritual life which derive from a complete renouncement of all sexual pleasure.
It is first and foremost for the foregoing reasons that, according to the teaching of the Church, holy virginity surpasses marriage in excellence. Our Savior had already given it to His disciples as a counsel for a more perfect life. St. Paul, after having said that the father who gives his daughter in marriage “does well,” adds immediately “and he that gives her not, does better.” Several times in the course of his comparison between marriage and virginity the Apostle reveals his mind, and especially in these words: “for I would that all men were even as myself. . . But I say to the unmarried and to widows: it is good for them if they so continue, even as I.” Virginity is preferable to marriage then, as We have said, above all else because it has a higher aim: that is to say, it is a very effective means for devoting oneself wholly to the service of God, while the heart of married persons will remain more or less “divided.”
Turning next to the fruitful effects of virginity, our appreciation of its value will be enhanced; for “by the fruit the tree is known.”
We feel the deepest joy at the thought of the innumerable army of virgins and apostles who, from the first centuries of the Church up to our own day, have given up marriage to devote themselves more easily and fully to the salvation of their neighbor for the love of Christ, and have thus been enabled to undertake and carry through admirable works of religion and charity. Works of charity are for the most part the field of action of consecrated persons.
The fruit of virginity is not only in these external works, to which it allows one to devote oneself more easily and fully, but also in the earnest prayer offered for others and the trials willingly and generously endured for their sake, which are other very perfect forms of charity toward one’s neighbor. To such also the servants and spouses of Christ, especially those who live within the convent or monastery walls, have consecrated their whole lives.
Finally, virginity consecrated to Christ is in itself such an evidence of faith in the kingdom of heaven, such a proof of love for our Divine Redeemer, that there is little wonder if it bears abundant fruits of sanctity. Innumerable are the virgins and apostles vowed to perfect chastity who are the honor of the Church by the lofty sanctity of their lives. In truth, virginity gives souls a force of spirit capable of leading them even to martyrdom, if needs be: such is the clear lesson of history which proposes a whole host of virgins to our admiration, from Agnes of Rome to Maria Goretti.
Virginity fully deserves the name of angelic virtue, which St. Cyprian writing to virgins affirms: “What we are to be, you have already begun. You already possess in this world the glory of the resurrection; you pass through the world without suffering its contamination. In preserving virgin chastity, you are the equals of the angels of God.” To souls, restless for a purer life or inflamed with the desire to possess the kingdom of heaven, virginity offers itself as “a pearl of great price,” for which one “sells all that he has, and buys it.” Married people and even those who are slaves of sin, at the contact of virgin souls, often admire the splendor of their transparent purity, and feel themselves moved to rise above the pleasures of sense. When St. Thomas states “that to virginity is awarded the tribute of the highest beauty,” it is because its example is captivating; and, besides, by their perfect chastity do not all these men and women give a striking proof that the mastery of the spirit over the body is the result of a divine assistance and the sign of proven virtue?
The most delicate fruit of virginity consists in this, that virgins make tangible, as it were, the perfect virginity of their mother, the Church and the sanctity of her intimate union with Christ.
The greatest glory of virgins is undoubtedly to be the living images of the perfect integrity of the union between the Church and her divine Spouse. For this society founded by Christ it is a profound joy that virgins should be the marvelous sign of its sanctity and fecundity, as St. Cyprian so well expressed it: “They are the flower of the Church, the beauty and ornament of spiritual grace, a subject of joy, a perfect and unsullied homage of praise and honor, the image of God corresponding to the sanctity of the Lord, the most illustrious portion of Christ’s flock. In them the glorious fertility of our mother, the Church, finds expression and she rejoices; the more the number of virgins increases, the greater is this mother’s joy.