In 1970, Pope Paul VI reinstated an ancient rite that dates all the way back to Apostolic times, one which allowed for women — virgins, specifically — to actually wed themselves to Christ while living in the world.

Though there are now 4,000 consecrated virgins worldwide, including five here in the Milwaukee archdiocese, there is still an abundance of misinformation and confusion about the vocation. When Eileen Belongea, director of youth ministry for St. Peter’s in Slinger, informed her family that she had decided to consecrate her virginity in 2007, their reaction was supportive, but similar to “most of the public,” she said.

“They thought, well, that’s sort of quasi-religious — why don’t you just enter a convent?” she recalled.

The answer is actually pretty obvious — entering a convent simply isn’t what she was called to do.

“In God’s garden, there are many different vocations flowering,” said Belongea. “A consecrated virgin is not called to community life but is called to live in the world — in and among God’s holy people.”

Consecrated virgins are unmarried women who have maintained their virginity and wish to be, in the words of Canon 604 of the Code of Canon Law, “mystically betrothed to Christ, the Son of God, and … dedicated to the service of the Church.” The consecration is performed by the virgin’s bishop and takes place during Mass.

Judith Stegman, president of the US Association of Consecrated Virgins, estimates that consecrated virginity is the oldest form of consecrated life in the Church.

“It dates back to apostolic times, when women would … present themselves to the apostles and bishops … they would commit their virginity to Christ alone and say, ‘I want to live entirely for you.’ They would live on their own or with their families, as we say now, ‘in the world,’ instead of segregated from it.”

Some of the earliest heroines of Christianity, said Stegman, including Sts. Agnes, Cecilia and Lucy, were consecrated virgins.

In later centuries, vocations trended toward monastic life, which afforded women not only the support of community but protection from a sometimes hostile world. By the 11th century, consecrated virginity as lived outside monastery walls had become extinct, said Stegman.

Following the Second Vatican Council and in response to a movement that lobbied for the return of the vocation, Pope Paul VI reinstated the rite by which virgins are consecrated. It is an ancient prayer that dates to at least the fifth century, and should not be confused with taking religious vows.

“It’s a cross between a priestly ordination and a wedding feast,” said Belongea. At her 2007 consecration, which was presided over by then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan at St. Paul Parish in Genesee Depot, she wore her mother’s wedding gown. “Just as a priest has an indelible mark on his soul marking him as a priest forever, so a consecrated virgin is marked as a bride forever.”

Some might call it a bold move, publicly celebrating one’s virginity in a world where the secular culture often uses the term disparagingly.

“That word ‘virgin’ can sound shocking to someone because they’re not used to someone wanting to describe themselves in those terms,” said Stegman. “I’ve found with a little bit of explanation, it can actually draw respect from people.”

Though Belongea has worked at St. Peter’s since 2013, consecrated virgins don’t necessarily have to be employed in ministry. Stegman, for instance, is a CPA who owns her own business. Consecrated virgins do not rely on their diocese or bishop for any financial support, medical care or retirement. They do, however, put themselves at the disposal of the Church, specifically the diocese within which they live. Their main occupation is prayer and works of mercy.

“It’s really a reciprocal relationship to the priest,” said Belongea. “The priest stands in persona Christi, manifesting Christ to his Church, the bride of Christ. The consecrated virgin presents the whole Church to Christ. When I pray, the prayer isn’t my prayer — I’m praying in and through and for the whole Church to God — in essence, lifting up the whole Church to God.”

So what is life like for a woman who has consecrated herself to Christ?

“It’s a married life,” said Stegman, who consecrated her virginity in 1993. “To a spouse who is perfect, who is eternal, who does everything for me, takes care of every detail, and who I just love with all my heart and soul and mind.”

“I look back on my life and I can see it was the Holy Spirit who preserved my virginity,” said Belongea. “At a discerning age, I offered that gift back to God. That really is the essence of the life of a consecrated virgin: she offers her gift back to God. Virginity is a gift, and it is meant to be given only once — to our beloved.”