- Consecrated Widows: Altars of GodA Restored Ancient Vocation in the Catholic Church
Recent events in the Catholic Church have brought the question of ordained deaconesses back to the fore. In August 2016, Pope Francis established a commission to re-study this proposal. Not surprisingly, the announcement brought much media coverage and heated discussion. However, many Catholics—while tending to have strong opinions about the feminine diaconate—have virtually no familiarity with another ancient female vocation alive and well in the Catholic Church today: the ancient order of consecrated widows—from which, incidentally, the deaconesses emerged. The Holy Spirit has been quietly but fruitfully inspiring a restoration of this ancient order in various parts of the contemporary Church—long before the debate concerning deaconesses attracted popular media attention. And remarkably, the pastoral functions of the consecrated widows are exactly those attributed to the female diaconate. Perhaps a serious study of this ancient, and fully sanctioned, form of consecrated life may demonstrate that the current debate concerning deaconesses is redundant in many respects. [End Page 108]
The Order of Widows (Ordo Viduarum) is composed of widows who live under a vow of widowed continence for the sake of the kingdom; they vow to never remarry after the death of their first husband, and this vow is publicly received by competent ecclesiastical authority. These vowed widows give testimony to the perfect fidelity of the nuptial bond, and are dedicated to prayer and charity. The juridical bond of marriage ends with the death of one of the spouses, but the bond of love remains and continues to configure the woman into a type of the pilgrim Church awaiting the return of the bridegroom. Francis recently preached that the Church militant is similar to a widow and progresses through history searching for her divine spouse Jesus Christ. The widow of Nain in scripture is "an icon of the Church, because the Church is in a certain sense a widow," the Holy Father said, reflecting on Luke 7:11–17. "The Bridegroom is gone and she walks in history, hoping to find him, to meet with him. And she will be his true bride. In the meantime she—the Church—is alone! The Lord is invisible. She has a certain dimension of widowhood."1 Thus the consecrated widow is an eschatological sign of hope in the Resurrection and perseverance in prayer.
The term "order" (Ordo Viduarum) is used in this sense as a class of persons sharing common characteristics. It can be used analogously to the Order of Deacons, Order of Presbyters, Order of Bishops, or—because it does not necessarily imply sacramental ordination—to the Order of Catechumens, Order of Virgins, Order of Spouses, and so on.2 In this case, "Order of Widows" is likewise not to be confused with the religious orders, such as Order of Benedictines and Order of Preachers, to name just two of the most prominent.
The Order of Widows has its Biblical origins in the First Epistle to Timothy:
Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let these first learn to perform their religious duty to their own family and to make recompense to their parents, for this is pleasing to God. The real [End Page 109] widow, who is all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. But the one who is self-indulgent is dead while she lives. Command this, so that they may be irreproachable. And whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years old, married only once, with a reputation for good works, namely, that she has raised children, practiced hospitality, washed the feet of the holy ones, helped those in distress, involved herself in every good work. But exclude younger widows, for when their sensuality estranges them from Christ, they want to marry and will incur condemnation for breaking their first pledge. And furthermore, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house...