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from issue no. 05 - 2004

«Virginity came into the world through Mary»

So declared Pius XII in the encyclical Sacra virginitas. On the fiftieth anniversary of the document on consecrated virginity we print some passages from the Fathers of the Church cited by the Pope

by Lorenzo Bianchi

The Annunciation

The Annunciation

«Sacred virginity and the perfect chastity consecrated to the service of God are certainly, for the Church, among the more precious treasures that its Founder has bequeathed her. That is why the saintly Fathers stressed that perpetual virginity is a sublime good of essentially Christian character… The saintly Fathers – such as Cyprian, Athanasius, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Jerome and Augustine and no few other – celebrated virginity in their writings with soaring praise. This doctrine of the saintly Fathers, enriched over the centuries by the Doctors of the Church and by the masters of Christian asceticism, undoubtedly has great influence on Christians of both sexes arousing and confirming the intention of devoting oneself to God with perfect chastity and of persevering in it unto death» (Sacra virginitas, 1.3).
Fifty years ago, on 25 March, on the feast of the Annunciation, Pope Pius XII published, in the sixteenth year of his pontificate, the encyclical letter Sacra virginitas (“Consecrated virginity”). It is divided, after the introduction, into three large chapters: “The teaching of the Church”, “The reasonableness of virginity”, “The practice of virginity”, followed by a conclusion in which there is mention of the decrease in vocations and of the persecutions suffered by people consecrated to God. It is the last, in chronological order, of the five most important encyclicals of Pius XII, after the Mystici Corporis (“On the mystical Body of Jesus Christ and on our union in it with Christ”), of 29 June 1943; the Divino afflante Spiritu (“On the best way to encourage biblical studies), of 30 September 1943; the Mediator Dei (“On the sacred liturgy”), of 20 November 1947; and the Humani generis (“On some false opinions that threaten to undermine the bases of Catholic doctrine”), of 12 August 1950.
Below we shall gloss Pius XII’s encyclical Sacra virginitas by means of some quotations from the writings of the Fathers of the Church named by the Pope, introduced by the words of the encyclical and grouped by author in chronological order: Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, where he suffered martyrdom on 14 September 258; Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, where he died on 2 May 373; Ambrose, bishop of Milan, died 4 April 397; and finally Augustine, bishop of Hippo, where he died on 28 August 430.

All the quotations from Cyprian used by Pius XII, of which we give three here, come from <I>De habitu virginum</I>, composed in 249

All the quotations from Cyprian used by Pius XII, of which we give three here, come from De habitu virginum, composed in 249


«The saintly Fathers exhort virgins to love their divine Bridegroom more than they would love their own husband»
Sacra virginitas, 15

«Neque enim inanis haec cautio est et vana formido quae ad salutis viam consulit, quae Dominica et vitalia praecepta custodit, ut quae se Christo dicaverint, et a carnali concupiscentia recedentes tam carne quam mente se Deo voverint, consumment opus suum magno praemio destinatum, nec ornari iam aut placere cuiquam nisi Domino suo studeant, a quo et mercedem virginitatis expectant»

«It is not a futile precaution or a senseless fear that has care of the way to salvation, and that safeguards the precepts of the Lord that give life, so that the virgins who have devoted themselves to Christ and, abandoning the lust of the flesh, have vowed themselves to God both in flesh and mind, may accomplish their efforts destined to a great prize, and may not concern themselves with beautifying themselves or with pleasing anyone except their Lord, from whom they expect the reward of virginity»
Cyprian, De habitu virginum, 4: PL 4, 443-444

«Virginity is angelic virtue»
Sacra virginitas, 27

«Quod futuri sumus iam vos esse coepistis. Vos resurrectionis gloriam in isto saeculo iam tenetis, per saeculum sine saeculi contagione transitis. Cum castae perseveratis et virgines, angelis Dei estis aequales»

«What we will one day be, you already begin to be. In this earthly life you enjoy the glory of the resurrection, you pass through the world without being infected by it. While you remain chaste and virgins, you are equal to the angels of God»
Cyprian, De habitu virginum, 22: PL 4,462

«Virgins offer a marvellous sign of flowering holiness and of that spiritual fertility in which the society founded by Jesus Christ excels »
Sacra virginitas, 27

«Flos est ille ecclesiastici germinis, decus atque ornamentum gratiae spiritalis, laeta indoles, laudis et honoris opus integrum atque incorruptum, Dei imago res­pondens ad sanctimoniam Domini, illustrior portio gregis Christi. Gaudet per illas atque in illis largiter floret Ecclesiae matris gloriosa foecunditas; quantoque plus copiosa virginitas numero suo addit, tanto plus gaudium matris augescit»

«Virginity is a flower that buds in the Church, decency and ornament of the grace of the Holy Spirit, beatific nature, incorrupt masterpiece of praise and glory, image of God that reverberates the holiness of the Lord, portion most elect of the flock of Christ. Mother Church rejoices because of them [virgins], and in them abundantly blossoms its glorious fertility: and the more the host of virgins grows the greater is the joy of mother Church»
Cyprian, De habitu virginum, 3: PL 4, 443

The quotation from Athanasius offered here is taken from  the <I>Apologia ad Constantium</I>, begun in 353

The quotation from Athanasius offered here is taken from the Apologia ad Constantium, begun in 353


«The Catholic Church is used to call virgins the brides of Christ»
Sacra virginitas, 14

«The Son of God, our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, become man for us, has abolished death and freed mankind from the slavery of corruption. Besides all these graces, he has granted us to possess on earth an image of the very holiness of the angels, virginity. Those who profess this virtue, the Catholic Church is used to call the brides of Christ. The Pagans who see them admire them as temples of the Word; for nowhere, in truth, is this venerable and heavenly institution found except among us Christians» .
Athanasius, Apologia ad Constantium, 33: PG 25, 640


«Perpetual virginity is a sublime good essentially Christian in character and is to be distinguished from the pagan sort because that has a temporary character»
Sacra virginitas, 1
There are numerous quotations
 from Ambrose; those given here come from <I>De virginibus</I>, a work of 377, and from the 
<I>De institutione virginis</I>, dated to 392

There are numerous quotations from Ambrose; those given here come from De virginibus, a work of 377, and from the De institutione virginis, dated to 392

«Quis mihi praetendit Vestae virgines et Palladis sacerdotes? Qualis ista est non morum pudicitia, sed annorum: quae non perpetuitate, sed aetate praescribitur! Petulantior est talis integritas, cuius corruptela seniori servatur aetati. Ipsi docent virgines suas non debere perseverare, nec posse, qui virginitati finem dederunt. Qualis autem est illa religio, ubi pudicae adolescentes iubentur esse, impudicae anus?»

«And who is there who would praise to me the Vestal virgins and the priestesses of the Palladium? What modesty is this not of behavior, but of years, that is not given over to perpetuity, but to time? This integrity is shameless, the breach of which is booked for a riper age. They, who have set a term to virginity, teach their virgins that they should not persevere. But what holy tie is that whereby maidens are forced to be chaste and the old immodest?»
Ambrose, De virginibus, I,4, 15: PL 16,193

«There is great similarity, already from the time of Ambrose, between the ceremony of the consecration of virgins and that of the wedding blessing»
Sacra virginitas, 14

«Te quaeso ut tuearis hanc famulam tuam, quae tibi servire, tibi animam suam, tibi integritatis suae studium dicare praesumpsit. Quam sacerdotali munere offero, affectu patrio commendo; ut propitius et praesul conferas ei gratiam, quo coelestium thalamorum immorantem adytis Sponsum excutiat, mereatur videre, introducatur in cubiculum Dei sui regis: mereatur audire dicentem sibi: “Ades huc a Libano, Sponsa, ades huc a Libano; transibis et pertransibis a principio fidei” (Ct 4, 8); ut transeat saeculum, ad illa aeterna pertranseat. [...] Egredere itaque tu, Domine Iesu, in die sponsalium tuorum, suscipe iamdudum devotam tibi spiritu, nunc etiam professione»

«I beg you that you safeguard this your handmaid, who has dared serve you, consecrate you her soul and give you the care of her integrity. I offer her you as priestly gift. I recommend her with fatherly affection, that you, benevolent guardian, grant her the grace of waking the Bridegroom who lives in the celestial bridal chamber, of meriting to see him, of being led into the chamber of God her king, and of deserving to hear him say to her: “Come here from Lebanon, O Bride, come here from Lebanon; you will be passed and gone through by the principle of the faith” (Cant 4, 8), so that she pass the earthly life and go through to eternity… Come out then, O Lord Jesus, on the day of your wedding, welcome her who has long-time been devoted to you in spirit, now also in professing»
Ambrose, De institutione virginis, 17, 107.114: PL 16, 331.334

«But so as to preserve intact and perfect chastity, a means exists whose marvelous efficacy is confirmed by the repeated experience of the centuries: and that is a steadfast and ardent devotion to the Virgin Mother of God. She, according to the words of Saint Ambrose, is “the teacher of virginity” and the all powerful mother of souls consecrated to the service of God»
Sacra virginitas, 58

«Et quae esset, cui maius quam matri Dominus meritum reponeret, praemium reservaret? Nulli enim uberiora quam virginitati deputavit munera [...]. Aliis promittit ut non deficiant: matrem suam deficere patiebatur? Sed non deficit Maria, non deficit virginitatis magistra; nec fieri poterat ut quae Deum portaverat, portandum hominem arbitraretur»

«And to whom should the Lord have attributed greater worth, reserved the prize, than to his own mother? In fact to nobody has he destined richer reward than to virginity… To others he promises that they may not lack: might he tolerate that his mother lack? But Mary does not lack, the teacher of virginity does not lack; and it could not happen that she who had borne God, could think she was bearing a man»
Ambrose, De institutione virginis, 6, 45: PL 16, 317

«Cuius tanta gratia, ut non solum in se virginitatis gratiam reservaret, sed etiam his quos viseret integritatis insigne conferret»

«So great was her grace, that she did not reserve only for herself the gift of virginity, but also on those whom she saw she bestowed the ornament of wholeness»
Ambrose, De institutione virginis, 7, 50: PL 16, 319

« The fidelity of virgins to their divine Bridegroom depends on prayer»
Sacra virginitas, 56

«Oratio quoque nos Deo crebra commendet. Si enim propheta dicit: “Septies in die laudem dixi tibi” (Sal 118 [119], 164), qui regni erat necessitatibus occupatus; quid nos facere oportet, qui legimus: “Vigilate et orate, ne intretis in tentationem” (Mt 26, 41)? Certe solemnes orationes cum gratiarum actione sunt deferendae, cum e somno surgimus, cum prodimus, cum cibum paramus sumere, cum sumpserimus, et hora incensi, cum denique cubitum pergimus. Sed etiam in ipso cubili volo psalmos cum oratione Dominica frequenti contexas vice, vel cum evigilaveris, vel antequam corpus sopor irriget; ut te in ipso quietis exordio rerum saecularium cura liberam, divina meditantem somnus inveniat. Denique etiam qui primus philosophiae ipsius nomen invenit, quotidie priusquam cubitum iret, tibicinem iubebat molliora canere, ut anxia curis saecularibus corda mulceret. Sed ille, sicut is qui laterem lavat, saecularia saecularibus frustra cupiebat abolere; magis enim se oblinibat luto, qui remedium a voluptate quaerebat: nos autem terrenorum vitiorum colluvione detersa, ab omni inquinamento carnis mentium interna mundemus. Symbolum quoque specialiter debemus tamquam nostri signaculum cordis antelucanis horis quotidie recensere: quo etiam cum horremus aliquid, animo recurrendum est. Quando enim sine militiae sacramento, miles in tentorio, bellator in praelio?»

«For prayer recommends us to God. In fact, as the prophet says: “Seven times each day I spoke thy praise” (Psalms 118 [119], 164), he who had been absorbed by the needs of the kingdom; what should we do, who read: “Watch and pray lest you fall into temptation” (Mt 26, 41)? Certainly solemn prayers with thanksgiving must be offered when we wake, when we go out, when we prepare to take food, after eating and at dusk, finally when we seek our bed. But I want you even in bed to recite the Psalms repeatedly interwoven with the Lord’s prayer, both while you wake and before sleep relaxes the body, so that sleep find you, at the beginning of your rest, free from worldly worries, while you meditate on the things of God. And indeed he who first invented the term “philosophy” [Pythagoras], each day, before going to bed, ordered the flute player to play sweet music, to soften a heart oppressed by worldly worries. But he, like to one that washes a brick [i.e. that does a futile task], wished in vain to be rid of worldly things by worldly means; for by seeking remedy in pleasure, the more he mired himself in mud. We, instead, having washed away all filth of earthly vice, let us purify our inward minds from all blemish of the flesh. We must, in particular, each day before dawn, recite the profession of faith as if it were the seal of our heart, to which we must also make recourse with courage when anything frightens us. Whenever did a soldier find himself in camp, a combatant in battle, without having sworn the military oath?»
Ambrose, De virginibus, III, 4, 18-20: PL 16, 225

The two quotations from Augustine offered here, out of the many that occur in the encyclical, are taken from the <I>Epistolae</I> and from <I>De sancta virginitate</I>, written in the 401

The two quotations from Augustine offered here, out of the many that occur in the encyclical, are taken from the Epistolae and from De sancta virginitate, written in the 401


«All the saints male and female have always considered escape and careful vigilance for driving off with diligence any occasion of sin as the best means of winning in this matter»
Sacra virginitas, 49

«Nec dicatis vos habere animos pudicos, si habeatis oculos impudicos: quia impudicus oculus impudici cordis est nuntius»

«Do not say you have righteous souls, if you have impure eyes: for the impure eye is herald of the impure heart»
Augustine, Epistolae, 211,10: PL 33, 961

«No one, perhaps, better than Saint Augustine, has demonstrated the importance of Christian humility in safeguarding virginity»
Sacra virginitas, 54

«Perpetua continentia, maximeque virginitas, magnum bonum est in sanctis Dei, vigilantissime cavendum est ne superbia corrumpatur. [...] Quod bonum quanto magnum video, tanto ei, ne pereat, furem superbiam pertimesco. Non ergo custodit bonum virginale, nisi Deus ipse qui dedit: et “Deus charitas est” (1Gv 4, 8). Custos ergo virginitatis charitas: locus autem huius custodis humilitas»

«Perpetual continence, and even more virginity, is a great good in the saints of God; but one has to be most alertly aware that it be not corrupted by pride… The greater the good I see, the more I fear that pride may seize on it. No one, therefore, safeguards virginity better than God who gave it; and “God is charity” (I John 4,8). The custodian, then, of virginity is charity, but the dwelling of this custodian is humility»
Augustine, De sancta virginitate, 33.51: PL 40, 415.426

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