The global church has more than 3,000 of them, with more than 150 in the States. And almost by stealth, their numbers keep growing. While many serve in parishes or church ministry of some sort, most don't, working instead in venues ranging from hospitals to classrooms to your run-of-the-mill suburban office park.
The option's door first opened by Pius XII in the latter part of his pontificate, a formal rite for the consecration of a virgin -- a practice reserved to the diocesan bishop -- was approved by Paul VI in 1971.
And earlier today, as 500 CVs from across the globe gathered in Rome for an international congress, the group got an encouraging B16 shot:
"The Order of Virgins represents a particular form of consecrated life which flowered anew in the Church after Vatican Council II," the Pontiff explained. "However, it has ancient roots that go back to the beginnings of evangelical life when, in an unprecedented novelty, the hearts of certain women began to open to a desire for consecrated virginity: in other words, the desire to give one's entire being to God, which had had its first extraordinary fulfillment in the Virgin of Nazareth and her 'yes.'"-30-
"Your charism must reflect the intensity, but also the freshness, of its origins," said the Pope, noting how, "when it came into being, the charism did not involve a particular way of life. Little by little, however, it was institutionalized, finally becoming a full public and solemn consecration conferred by the bishop through an inspirational liturgical rite that made the consecrated woman 'sponsa Christi,' an image of the Church as bride."
"Your vocation is profoundly rooted in the particular Church to which you belong," he told the women. "From the diocese, with its traditions, its saints, its values, limits and difficulties, you open up to the scope of the universal Church, sharing particularly in her liturgical prayer."
"In this way your prayerful 'I' progressively broadens out," the pontiff continued, "until in the prayer there is nothing more than a great 'we.' In your dialogue with God, open yourselves to dialogue with all creatures."
"The choice of virginal life," the Pope concluded, "is an allusion to the transitory nature of earthly things and an anticipation of future good. Be witnesses of vigilant and industrious hope, of joy, of the peace that belongs to those who abandon themselves to the love of God. Be present in the world, yet pilgrims on the journey to the kingdom."