A Western New York woman has chosen to follow an unusual vocation in which she commits herself to a single life by symbolically getting married to God instead of a human husband. It is one of the oldest rituals of the Catholic Church that remains relatively unknown.
Michele DiVito took her vows as a consecrated virgin in 2009. A parishioner of Holy Angels Parish in Buffalo, she has worked as a physical therapist for 26 years. In addition to frequently volunteering for events at her parish, she decided to pursue the vocation which was more commonly practiced during the Middle Ages. The Church reinstated the vocation after Vatican II. In addition to DiVito, there are two others in the diocese, with another planning to be consecrated in April.
"As I was getting into my 30s, I had pretty much figured out that I was not called to a married life, so I was trying to discern whether God wanted me to enter a religious order," DeVito said. "I never really felt called to a religious order, either. I felt called to something more, and that's when I started to see a spiritual director. He was the one who directed me to the vocation of consecrated virginity."
DiVito's spiritual director was Father James C. Erving, OMI, who served at Holy Cross and passed away in 2014. He provided her with various documents to read as she discerned and considered the possibility of this vocation. As she saw him, she received the sacraments and consulted the website for the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. She also consulted with Sister Mary Charlene Nowak, CSSF, who served as vicar for religious in the diocese at the time.
"I didn't feel called to a particular charism, or called to living in community life," DiVito said, noting people frequently ask why she did not become a nun. "It really is a different vocation. I'm a consecrated person, so there is that distinction from the laity."
In the process of becoming a consecrated virgin, DiVito also spoke with many people in her life who are also people of faith. As time went on, she felt it would be the right choice for her, and her family was supportive.
"I continued to get confirmation from everywhere - from God, from people," DiVito recalled. "I went on a pilgrimage to Italy, and everything just seemed to be directing me toward this."
Consecrated virginity differs from consecrated religious life in that consecrated virgins do not live in communities. They participate in a variety of different professions as laypeople would and are required to provide for themselves since they do not get medical insurance, retirement or other benefits from their diocese. They do not wear habits or veils, nor do they use any formal title such as "Sister."
The ceremony for consecrated virginity is similar to a wedding ceremony, although the woman does not have a man standing next to her at the altar. The rite dates back to apostolic times, and the consecrated virgin is typically wearing a white dress and a veil and makes promises during the ceremony.
Elements of an ordination include the singing of the litany of the saints, reserved within the Church for exceptionally special ceremonies. Much as a priest prostrates himself before the altar when he is ordained, consecrated virgins do this during their ceremony as a sign of humility and obedience to God. Beforehand, she went through a formation process, the length of which depends on the process.
After they are consecrated, consecrated virgins will continue to wear rings on their left ring fingers as a sign of devotion to God. DiVito said this has led some people to think she is married. Since the vocation is not very well known in the United States, this led to opportunities for her to teach others.
"Reactions were interesting," DiVito added. "Most people had never heard of it. Probably the only person that was not a religious that had heard of it was my one sister."
According to the website for the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, there are only about 3,000 consecrated virgins living today, with about 235 in the United States. Archdioceses and dioceses in 39 U.S. states are known to have been home to at least one consecrated virgin.
Since she was consecrated, DiVito said she has experienced a deepening of her faith by making a public declaration of devotion to her religion via a formal ceremony, especially since the topic often comes up when she does not expect it. Since she wears a physical reminder of her commitment like a married person would, if her clients notice that she has a ring on her finger, they will ask about her husband.
"I really feel there is a deepening of responsibility," DiVito said. "Even though I'm not wearing a religious habit, I am an official representative of the Church as a consecrated person. It's visible, and it's something that people see, especially in my job. You get close to people. I'm seeing people two times a week, for four or six weeks, and you're talking to people while you're working with them. They don't hear me talking about my own children; they hear me talk about my nieces and nephews. They don't hear me talk about a husband, and they ask questions. It is an opportunity to educate and evangelize."