A Virgin Reunion; Remembering the 1400s

Vatican Congress Gathers 500 Consecrated Women

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 22, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Modern society admires a woman who lives on her own, makes her own way in the world, and builds a successful career. Even more impressive is a woman who doesn’t succumb to the throes of sentimental entanglements, who knows what she wants in a relationship and will settle for nothing less.

But when this emancipated, empowered woman reveals herself to be a consecrated virgin, those same admiring faces change into raised eyebrows and quizzical expressions.

“The word virgin has become embarrassing for people in this day and age,” commented Judith Stegman, consecrated virgin and press officer of the Order of Consecrated Virgins. “The world is so mixed-up about sexuality, it’s time for us to reclaim this word.”

Last week, 500 consecrated virgins came to Rome for an international congress and pilgrimage convoked by Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

These women came from 52 countries throughout the world to share their witness and experiences with each other and with the Church hierarchy.

While this opportunity held special meaning for all the participants, Stegman pointed out that for the “consecrated virgins living in Muslim countries, this was their first possibility to openly talk about a vocation that they lived in secret.”

“There were immediate bonds of friendship among all the consecrated virgins,” said Stegman. “We all share the same joyous smile, the same knowledge of our spousal love of Christ.”

This was the second time the consecrated virgins in the world were called together, and the first time the meeting was convoked by the Vatican. They met with cardinals and archbishops, although the highpoint of their visit was their private audience with Pope Benedict XVI last Thursday.

The theme of their visit was “Consecrated Virginity Lived in the World: A Gift in the Church and for the Church,” drawn from the writings of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before his election to the pontificate.

Consecrated virgins live a distinct vocation in the Church; they live in the world, choose their own professions and are responsible for their own material needs. Each consecrated virgin is under the direction of a bishop and wears a ring as a sign of her consecration to perpetual virginity, but no other form of habit.

“It is a public vocation, expressed in a public ceremony where everyone is invited,” said Stegman. “We are showing that the love of Christ as Bridegroom is what we will all experience one day in heaven.”

Consecrated virginity is one of the most ancient forms of consecrated life in the Church. It must have been inspiring for these 500 women to come to Rome and pray in the churches of St. Agnes, St. Lucy or St. Cecilia, the heroic role models for consecrated women today.

The virgin martyrs defended the gift of their virginity to Christ to the death and are still celebrated and honored in the most beautiful churches in Rome.

But the consecrated virgins have a particular love for Mary whose decision to commit herself completely to the Lord in virginity was the beginning and inspiration of consecrated virginity in the Church.

“John Paul II talked about love as a complete gift of self, and the Virgin Mary gave herself entirely to Christ,” said Stegman. “Hers was an active role; it is easier to close oneself off, to remain distant but Mary allowed herself to be open and vulnerable.”

After the early years of the Church, consecrated virginity was overshadowed by the vocation to religious life in community. Many young women who felt the call to consecrated virginity would be directed into convents instead.

“Instead of being recognized as brides of Christ as they were in the ancient Church, women called to consecrated virginity were seen as anti-community,” said Stegman.

“One of the great feats of the Second Vatican Council was to restore the rite of consecration in 1970,” said Stegman. “It helped people to see that consecrated virginity is a full vocation, not a stepping stone to something else.”

Bishops from all over the world were invited to the congress to gain a better understanding of consecrated virgins and their vocation. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, who serves as episcopal moderator for the U.S. association of consecrated virgins, addressed the women recognizing their distinct form of life.

Archbishop Jean-Pierre Cattenoz of Avignon, France, and Bishop Demetrio González of Tarazona, Spain, spoke to the assembly as well, discussing the historicity and sacramentality of the vocation of the consecrated virgin.

The number of consecrated virgins is on the rise with about 3,000 worldwide at the moment. Much has to do with the straightforward and joyous witness of the virgins themselves.

“When I let other people present me as a consecrated virgin, there are often snickers or eye rolling,” explained Stegman. “But when I take the initiative and using an opening where another woman might say she was married with children, I say that I am a consecrated virgin, people treat me with respect and interest.”

For more information on consecrated virginity: www.consecratedvirgins.org.

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Pre-Renaissance Rome

Many equate Renaissance Rome with Michelangelo and Raphael and their masterpieces in the Vatican Museums, but this extraordinary artistic flowering of the 1500s could never have happened with out the achievements of the previous century.

“The 1400s in Rome” opened at the beginning of May in the Museo del Corso in Rome. The exhibit aims to open our eyes to the beauty of the art and architecture of the busy era of Rome’s rebirth.

The exhibit is divided into five manageable sections emphasizing the principle factors of the Roman renewal: the city, the popes, the antiquity, the society and the revival of art.

After the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, more and more pilgrims flocked to Rome to see the great Holy Sites of the city. With the first Jubilee Year of 1300, Rome became the principal pilgrimage point in the world.
But this glory was short-lived, in 1307, the papacy moved to Avignon and Rome suffered almost a century of neglect.

At the dawn of the 15th century, Rome was again in ruins. Backed up sewers poured refuse on the streets, and hovels perched against crumbling ancient columns had left Rome far from its glorious days as the “caput mundi,” or head of the world.

A large map greets visitors to this world -- not the sort that guides tourists through the metropolitan maze, but Rome’s image of herself in 1400.

A ring of walls encloses thumbnail icons of churches and ruins. This circle of wall, the symbol of eternity, stands at the center of four cardinal points; the buildings may be crumbling, but Rome knows that spiritually, she is still the center of the world.

Enter the papacy. The election of Pope Martin V (Odo Colonna) in 1417 ended the Great Schism and effectively returned the papacy to Rome.

A scion of one of the oldest Roman families, Martin V set about restoring the city. His efforts were continued by his successors. Rome’s amazing turnaround was propelled by the papacy that viewed the temporal splendor of the Eternal City as a hint at the greatness of the kingdom of heaven.

Medallions and portraits of the Popes allow visitors to gaze upon the faces of these successors of St. Peter who reshaped the city. Silver processional crosses and ornate reliquaries glow in the darkened setting.
A silver bust containing the precious relics of St. Margaret boasts a delicately modeled face in silver framed by waves of gilded hair. Her collar sparkles with jewels as a finely wrought golden dragon curls protectively around the base.

The importance of these dazzling objects is illustrated in a small panel showing cripples, paupers and pilgrims all gazing in awe at a shining reliquary. These displays of earthly beauty amid a world of hardship and squalor, offered a glimpse of the wonders of heaven.

Bright and colorful are apt adjectives for the Rome of 1400. Cheery ceramic tiles and exquisitely carved instruments reveal a world that embraced both hue and song.

Lighting the path for Rome’s Renaissance was the wealth of antique art and architecture scattered all over the city. Drawings from Nero’s Golden House, Trajan’s Column, as well as other lost monuments provided endless stimuli and inspiration for the artists of the age.

The result was a rebirth of the arts. Dozens of paintings assembled in the largest hall astonish viewers with a stellar array of the great names in 15th century art. Andrea Mantegna, Masaccio, Donatello and Fra Angelico merely scratch the surface of the wealth of talent that that passed through Rome during the 1400s.

The arrival of artistic superstars inspired Roman artists to achieve greater heights in art. Painter Antoniazzo Romano and sculptor Paolo Romano both produced magnificent works, which are proudly displayed in the exhibit, combining the new techniques brought by the foreign artists with their own distinctly Roman vision of monumentality.

“Rome in the 1400s” will run until September 7 and offers visitors a rare opportunity to appreciate the fertile and exciting artistic era that laid the foundations that would eventually support the revolutionary works of Michelangelo and Raphael.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.