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September 15, 2021 27 mins

BONUS - Jenna Cooper is a 36-year-old consecrated virgin who lives in Winona, Minnesota. She tells us what that means, what her life is like now, and what it’s like to feel called when you’re 12 years old.


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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:07):
From a cocoa puncheon. I heart radio. This is the
turning I am Erica Lance. Today we have a bonus episode.
Maybe you remember Sister Kathleen Hughes. She was the former
MC sister who became a consecrated virgin after she left,
and I wanted to learn more about that. If your
ears also perked up when you first heard that Sister

(00:29):
Kathleen was a consecrated virgin, then this is an episode
for you. We are called to live a simple life.
We don't marry, we're chased, we don't you know, I
have intimate relations with a man. I'm sorry for sounding
like a victorian there. This is Jenna Cooper, and she
knows a lot about consecrated virgins because she is one.

(00:51):
Jenna is thirty six years old and lives in Minnesota.
I explain it to people in a practical kind of way,
as all the love I would have given to I say,
a mortal husband. That's the only way I can really
describe it. All the love I would have given to
a mortal spouse and natural children. I offer that to

(01:11):
to Jesus and to his children, which is really everyone
in the church or all humanity. So this episode of
the turning is a little different than most. I'm just
going to have a conversation with one person, Jenna Cooper,
to hear about her experience as a consecrated virgin, what
it is and what it means to her personally. Jenna

(01:32):
became a consecrated virgin thirteen years ago. She's a cannon
lawyer in Monona, Minnesota. She also writes a blog called
sponsor Christie where she talks about her life is a
consecrated virgin. So, Jenna, could you just explain, first of all,
what is consecrated virginity. So there are kinds of vocations

(01:52):
in the church. We call them consecrated life collectively, and
that's in the same category as like nuns and sisters.
The spirituality of being a created virgin, it's all centered
around being a bride of Christ and that sometimes people
say that sounds antiquated or it might sound a little weird,
but it actually there's a lot of very profound theology,

(02:12):
and it's being available for others but being available to
the Lord in a more, much more radical way. And
it is hard to explain, but that spousal to mention
it is really real. I mean, you really do open
your heart to the Lord, and he he makes himself
present to you. So you know, again it's not like, Okay,
well Jesus is my husband and I'm watching his socks

(02:34):
like I would for a normal husband. But you know,
there really is a presence there and a sense, you know,
that you are walking through life with another person. Now
content created virginity actually existed in the early Church. So
what was it like back then or what was the
role back then? So their main role seems to have
been prayer, and we talked today about prayer and witness,

(02:56):
and it seems like they would have had a very
similar role that way, so you know that witness also
it extended beyond just the household of the family of
the church too. You know, there is some evidence they
would have done active works of charity, like taking care
of the sick and the poor. So they probably would
have had a role very very similar to nons and

(03:17):
sisters today. Do you feel connected to some of these women,
you know, from early early Christianity. It's it's crazy to
me to think about this ancient tradition that is continuing today.
Actually I really do, and that's part of what made
me follow this path instead of becoming a sister is

(03:42):
Remember when I was younger, I used to love reading
stories of the saints, and the ones who really spoke
to me the most were these early Virgin martyr saints
like St. Agnes or St. Lucy. But I really admired
their courage and just their singleness of purpose, and those
were the women who were most inspiring to me. And
when you join a religious community, like if you become

(04:04):
an on or a sister, you know, part of joining
a community is you're following the first steps of a
founder or a foundress, and a lot of times that's
a saint. And I remember, you know, thinking like, Okay, St.
Francis is great, wonderful saint. I don't really see myself
as a Franciscan. St. Dominic's great wonderful St. Just really
don't see myself as a daughter or St. Dominic. And

(04:25):
this was actually when I first started thinking about my vocation,
when I was a teenager, and this was before I
knew that being a consecrated vision was still a thing.
But I remember thinking like, wow, you know, those early
Virgin martyr saints, those are the ones I really feel
like I want as my sisters. But it's too bad
you can't do that anymore. So that connection to the

(04:45):
early Church is very important to me my own life
and spirituality. Jenna says consecrated virginity started to become less
popular in the Middle Ages. Women who wanted to dedicate
their lives to God started entering monasteries, and being a
single woman not living in a cloistered convent became less common.
Some religious communities continued to consecrate virgins so that ritual

(05:07):
was preserved, but it wasn't until the late twentieth century
that the vocation really had a resurgence. Today there are
an estimated five thousand consecrated virgins. This boom came after
an update to Canon law Canon six O four. It
officially included consecrated virginity in the same category of religious
life as religious sisters and nuns, but there are some

(05:29):
distinct differences. For one, consecrated virgins aren't in an order
or community based around a founder. They're associated with the diocese,
which is basically a religious district. And although Jenna says
she's called to live a simple life, she doesn't take
the same vows of poverty and obedience that nuns and
religious sisters do so for religious they don't own anything personally.

(05:50):
I I can own my own property. You know, their
way of living out obedience is different, and it's different
for every community, but it's much more an emphasis on
you see the will of God and the superior as
will for you and whereas you know for us it's
a little more open ended. So that that's one difference
as well. What was your path to choosing this vocation?

(06:15):
So for me, I well, I knew well. I grew
up in a Catholic family, and you know, we we
went to Mass every Sunday. We weren't unusually devout, but
I always really loved God and really loved prayer. Even
when I was very very young. I remember I used
to draw like pictures of angels and I put them
in the collection basket at church because I thought that

(06:37):
went straight to God and I thought he'd liked my tiyes.
So I was really very pious as a very little girl.
And when I was twelve, I just started having experiences
in prayer where I really felt like the Lord was
asking me to, you know, to give him more, or
be closer to him, or give my life to him
in a more radical way. Wow, that's really young. Yeah, well,

(07:01):
you know, young vocations actually aren't that uncommon. But you know,
and when you're twelve, that's you know, you're starting to
get older. You're seeing the world in a different way.
There's a lot of you know, identity developmental things that
are happening. Even even at that age, though, I really
did see myself relating to God in very spousal terms.
That's obviously deepened as I've gotten older, and it's you know,

(07:24):
live us out in a much more ture way than
I did when I was twelve. But I really did
feel a call to that, and I was in sixth grade.
And when you're in sixth grade, you're not gonna do
anything about that kind of call. So did you tell anyone? Well,
I think I well, at that point, I assumed, oh,
this means I'm called to be a nun, and that's
what I knew was out there. And I think I

(07:44):
told my parents, and they are good Catholics, so they'd
probably be a little embarrassed about this, but they, um,
I don't think they were thrilled with that idea. And
but you know, I was twelve, so I think they
might have assumed Okay, well she might grow out of it.
And um, I was Catholic school to I was in
eighth grade, and then I went to a public high school.
And you know, obviously nobody's going to talk to you

(08:07):
about being an in a public high school. So this
is really just this deeply personal thing for you know,
I did try telling people about it, but nobody's really
going to engage a teenager seriously about that kind of thing.
So it was really just between me and the Lord
and for yeah, all my teen years. Then when I
was eighteen, I went to college. And most dioceses have

(08:32):
like a vocation office or priest you can call and
get put in touch with different communities. So sin as
I got to college, I did that, and I got
put in touch with a few different groups of sisters,
and I went to visit what you do when you're
thinking you might have this kind of call, And so
I remember feeling like it was a very weird cross
between dating and looking at colleges to go do so

(08:55):
oh my gosh, interesting, Yeah, you would go and stay
overnight at these different rent convince. Oh. Sometimes sometimes they
have like little retreats, you know, for like a weekend
for women who are discerning. Sometimes you just call and
visit and go for launch or pray with the sisters.
So I did you know a few different things like that,
and some communities, you know, we're really great, and some

(09:16):
you know, maybe I didn't feel as interested in right
away and went away. I was with these sisters and
it just kind of this one group in particular. You know,
they seemed like a healthy community, and they seemed like
they love Jesus, and you know, they were very nice.
But and I felt like I could have lived their life,

(09:38):
but it just really wasn't matching the way I felt
called in my heart. How did you end up deciding

(10:03):
to become a consecrated Virgin? Well, I was nineteen actually,
and I visited several communities and I just realized it
wasn't clicking, and I wasn't sure. Have I just not
found the right community yet? Um, this is something else.
And then um, I met a priest who was a
younger priest and he was really excited to give me

(10:26):
literature on vocations and stuff. And I was really excited
to get it because this was actually I'm only thirty six,
so I'm not that old, but this was actually kind
of pre the Internet getting really really big, And at
one point he said, oh, well, would you be interested
in the part of Cannon Law on consecrated life to
read just for your own edification And and okay, you

(10:46):
can see how cool I was when I was a teenager.
You're reading about consecrated life. Oh yeah, yeah. So I
was very excited to read Cannon Law when I was
nineteen so um and that's when I stumbled across Cannon
six so four and I remember thinking, huh, that's interesting.
You can still it sounds like you can still do
what st Agnes did back in ancient Rome. And you know,

(11:08):
but I didn't know any consecrated virgins. I never really
heard of this. So then I told the priest that, oh,
this is interesting, and he gave me a copy of
the ritual so the Right of Consecration to Life of Virginity,
which is the prayer for actually consecrating somebody, and I
read it and instantly I even remember the day. It
was November one, two thousand four, and I read it

(11:29):
and I just knew. I'm like, okay, this is it.
It just was so clear to me in that moment.
It's just everything in the prayers. It just it was
like a key in a lock. Just it fit perfectly
for the way I felt called, like every little aspect.
So I was nineteen and we went to the archdiocese
at the time and we were basically I'm I was

(11:50):
told you're nineteen, You're way too young, so no way.
And there was a thought going around that there was
a minimum age limit was thirty five, and it wasn't
really the law. It was one bishop had an opinion
that it should be thirty five of them in a
magor limit, and that kind of just you know, got
around and people sort of assumed it was law, but

(12:11):
it actually wasn't. But I was told, okay, well, you know,
you come back when you're thirty five, and when you're nineteen,
that is absolutely not what you want to hear. That's
a long time. So I assumed when I was nineteen, okay,
well it sounds like the churches said no. So I assumed, okay,
I didn't discern this correctly, Let me see what God
actually wants. So I spent two more years visiting more communities,

(12:34):
and actually this second round, I was much more focused
and really like not just going where a priest told
me to check out, but like really reading their materials,
seeing okay, is this something I can see myself being
called to? And so I was more focused that way,
and being more focused, I encountered a few more communities
that I could have really seen myself joining, But there

(12:56):
was always the sense that I it wasn't quite it,
that God wanted something different, and it's it's hard to explain,
but it was just very clear. So when I was
twenty two, I I was thinking, Okay, well, if this
is really going to be a no, I need this
to be a very, very very clear no, so I
can set this sense that I'm called this aside and

(13:18):
then and maybe join one of these communities with a
clear conscience or not conscience, but with a more a
greater sense of peace in my heart and not constantly
having this other thing in the back of my mind
nagging at me. So when I was twenty two, I
had a meeting with the Vicar for religious in the
archdioces at the time, and I remember starting the meeting
with him saying, there was a priest, oh, well, you

(13:41):
know you are kind of young. But at the end
of the conversation he's like, you know what, I think
you have a vocation. If we need a dispensation, we
can talk about that. And of course we didn't need
a dispensation. So Jenna started the process to become a
consecrated virgin. She says it was a surprise to her parents,
but eventually they were supportive. The day I was consecrated
was January third, and my parents wedding anniversaries January seven,

(14:03):
and my mom was twenty one when she got married.
I was twenty three and I got consecrated. So it
wound up working out that I could wear my mother's
wedding dress. Um, and that was really, um, just just
a special detail, you know, an unimportant detail in the
big picture, but that was kind of a nice symbol
to have that day. And they've yeah, they've just I
think gotten more and more supportive as the years go on.

(14:25):
So at one point I think he still does this.
My dad had like little business cards like printed up
with Kennon six o four on it on the one
side on the back that pray for consecrated virgins, and
he keeps them on him when he travels and every
time he sees a priest, like if he's traveling and
goes to a different like traveling for work and he
goes to different paris, he like hands a priest of
card and it's like really embarrassing, but I can't really

(14:48):
be upset, so I tell people my parents are like
embarrassingly supportive. Now. Jenny was consecrated in two thousand nine
at a church near where she grew up, just north
of New York City. You know, a lot of people
were very just warm and supportive that day, and of
course it was a big day for me, but I
was very touched by that. The ceremony feels like this

(15:11):
interesting combination of a Catholic wedding and the way religious
sisters professed their vows. At one point in the ceremony.
Consecrated virgins often lie on the floor, belly down at
the front of the church. Sometimes they wear a white
wedding dress. They even wear a wedding ring. You know,
your procession kind of with all the priests. You know,
they come in and it's really one really beautiful thing

(15:35):
about the ceremony of a consecration of virgins. And actually
the ceremony is very different from a noun making vows,
and actually you have two women with you among consecrated virgins.
We kind of informally called them bridesmaids, but they're attendants,
so there. I think they're kind of there to make
sure you're standing in the right place because like it's
kind of an overwhelming day. And yeah, so you're sitting

(15:56):
with them in the main part of the church and
a certain point in the mass when you're called forward
and then you enter into the sanctuary, like the part
close to the altar. So that's a really neat some
neat isn't the right word. It's really it's a really
neat symbol of you know, you're being called to belong

(16:17):
to God's exclusively and you're demonstrating that by your moving
to this more sacred part of the church. Do you
remember what you were feeling when that happened? You know
when that happened. I remember in the whole ceremony around
right before you're entering into the sanctuary, you know, the
bishop and the ceremony asks you basically asking you to

(16:39):
state your resolve and you promised to do these things,
and I remember saying I do. And church had good acoustics.
I remember hearing it, and I remember I had wanted
to give my life to God since I was twelve,
so this has been almost half my life at this point,
and there was a sense of like, I can't there's
no going back from this now, and knowing that I

(17:00):
was closing the store, but feeling very happy to do it.
So I knowing that I couldn't go back and choose
a different path, but doing that very joyfully. And you know, I,
even though I wanted to do this, it not marrying
was a sacrifice. I did experience it that way. But
I was really very happy to give this gift to God.

(17:23):
It was just a joy to be able to give it.
And they always say God can't be out on in generosity,
So it wasn't as one side as I'm making it sound,
but that was what was going through my mind at
that moment. That's interesting, you know that it did feel
you felt it sounds like you felt so clearly called
to this, but it was still a decision to make

(17:44):
to give something up like a part of life. Oh
absolutely it was. And I and I talked to a
lot of women who are considering this vocation a lot
of times, even just through informal channels like a priest
I know knows somebody, And again, everyone has their own
walk with the Lord, and that can look different for
different people. You know, God speaks in the circumstances of

(18:06):
our lives. But if a woman doesn't feel that this
is a sacrifice, I would really discourage her from doing this.
You know, obviously, if it's a really gut wrenching sacrifice
that you absolutely can't get over or get peace with it. Okay,
God's probably not calling you to this, But if you
don't have a sense that you're giving anything up. You know,
the joy of this vocation and the sacrifice, they're not

(18:27):
two different things. There two sides of the same coin.
So if that's not something that really a woman feels
like applies to her, like, if she can't, if it's
all sacrifice and no joy, or even all joy no sacrifice,
then I either she doesn't have a call to this,
which is which is fine because not everybody's called to this.
This is a relatively unusual call. But you know, I

(18:48):
even wonder, okay, she even doesn't even maybe just need
to come to a better understanding of this. So yeah,
it was a very deliberate choice and it was a sacrifice,
but again, no regrets. What are some of the challenges
of being a consecrated virgin. You know, there's a lot
of challenges that are I think Jenna specific just for

(19:09):
my life circumstances, and there are challenges in general. And
one challenge I think as a church, as consecrated virgins,
were collectively discerning this is how do you live a
life that's healthy and balanced but sufficiently radical that your
sacrifices makes sense, because it doesn't make sense to sacrifice
the husband and children and family life, which is a

(19:30):
tremendous sacrifice. And then when you sacrifice this, you have
this empty space in your heart, which the idea is
you fill it with God. But if you're not filling
it with God, you're going to fill it with stupid things. So, um,
like what I will kind of a joke. I have
a cat, I kind of a rescue cat I recently adopted,
and I was a little worried that I'd become like

(19:53):
a lady with fifty cats and that would be unhealthy.
My mom said, well, if you have only one cat
and you don't put her in your Chris his cards,
you should be Okay. That's the that's the border line.
I mean, there's a lot of different things. I mean,
you can fill it with really stupid things like not
that hobbies are bad, but hobbies or even like you know, pettiness,

(20:16):
or you get just too into your job or something.
I feel like my version of that would be binging television. Yes,
perfect example, That's what I was looking for without looking
for it. Do you are you? Are You? Do you ever?
Binge TV? Is that? Yeah? Sometimes not? Um. I used
to when I was in Rome. I couldn't watch down

(20:37):
to Nabby and I used to binge watch that when
I come home for the summers. So yeah, I'm familiar
with that concept. I'm human. Jennet Cooper's day to day

(21:05):
life is pretty similar to any other professionals. She works
at nine to five as a cannon lawyer at the
marriage tribunal of her local diocese. Part of her job
is attacked to couples. She examines marriages to determine if
a marriage can or should be annulled. She also answers
any cannon law questions that come from the parish or
from local schools. So that's her job. But one of

(21:28):
the things that really sets her life apart as a
consecrated virgin is prayer and how often she does it.
We are obligated to pray a certain amount, and then
you even have extra times for private prayer. And that's
you know, that's to me the most important thing I
do all day. So that's an absolute priority. So for me,

(21:48):
that looks like I I go to Mass every day
and unless there's some extraordinary circumstance, I mean, I book
my flights when I travel around, Okay, can I get
to Mass on either end? That's very, very big priority
for me. Jenna also praised the liturgy of the hours,
their prayers from morning, daytime, evening, and night. And so

(22:08):
that's a series of psalms, different ones that have at
at different times of the day on like a rotating
four week schedule, so you wound up praying all a
hundred fifty psalms every month. Jenna says that as she
gets older, she's experiencing a type of joy she didn't
expect when she was younger in her consecrated life. I mean,
part of this vocation even if you're not you know,

(22:29):
obviously we don't have natural children, we don't give birth physically,
but spiritual motherhood is a big component. I don't know,
maybe it sounds like a hokey concept. But the idea is,
even if you're you're still nurturing people, you know on
a level of their soul, you're you're reading a real mother,
even if you're not, you know, somebody who's given birth.

(22:51):
And now that I'm I'm not old, but older not
in my twenties anymore. Um. There's been a couple of
times when, like one of our localminarians asked me for prayer,
just wanted to talk to me about something, and almost
feeling like they were approaching me in this motherly role
and very very small little moments and not something I
sought out. But it's a gift to be able to

(23:13):
relate to people that way. Mm hmm. What is it
about the concept of virginity that is worth preserving in
this way? So for consecrated virgins, it's you're resolving to
persevere in this virtuous state that you've already been persevering in.
For Catholics, virginity it's it's not just like, oh I'm spotless,

(23:36):
I've I haven't made any mistakes. Virginity it's a much
more profound concept. It's a much richer concept. It's full
of deep theological meaning. On a more practical level, I mean,
there's healthy and unhealthy ways to understand virginity. Like I
I cringe like with everyone else when there's high school

(23:57):
chassis talks and they compare losing your virginity become used
gum or something like. Nobody likes that. That's not healthy.
That certainly wouldn't be the church's presentation of virginity. You know,
on a theological level, virginity reflects the nature of the Church,
and the Church is Christ's bride. So Jesus died on
the cross for the sake of his bride, the Church.

(24:18):
So again it's all this this mutual love. But we
talked about the Church is being a virgin, and the
Old Testament and scriptures, the people of God were talked
about as a virgin bride to God her spouse. So
there's a lot of imagery with that. But what I
think is especially relevant today is one of my biggest
pet peeves ever in life is when people talk about

(24:40):
early virgin martyrs like, oh, it's the patriarchy. So this
is the exact opposite of patriarchy, and the ancient world,
women were only valued by the relationship to a man,
so you were really only valued as as like if
you could be a wife to somebody or you know,
or God forbid, like a slave, being a virgin and
relating to God directly, not I mean married women really

(25:04):
to God directly, but you know, your you could really
to God directly. You have this human dignity where you
could make choices about your destiny. You could respond to
a call freely, and no man had the right to
tell you otherwise. When you grow up in a society
where women have dignity, that might not be the first
thing on your mind when you're choosing virginity as a spirituality,
but that that is, you know, a very important and

(25:25):
relevant point. I think one thing that is really interesting
to me too these days is in the Catholic Church,
the priesthood is is male only, and it's always been
that way and it's not going to change. I'm actually
fine without on a theological level, because the priest suit
it's really supposed to be about service, not about power.
And even when there is authority, true authority is you know,

(25:48):
always about service, not just self aggrandizement or something. You know,
but the priestoos all male, And then when I was
growing up was always oh, but girls can become nuns
and sisters. But you know that's not exactly the same
thing because there were male religious too, like men can
become monks, that's basically the equivalent of a nun, but
consecrated virginity, this vocation, this is actually the only state

(26:11):
of life in the church that's reserved to women, So
men categorically can't do this. So I think it speaks
a lot to you know, the unique dimity of women
that we have this role as being an icon or
an image of the church or reflection of the Church
and relating to Christ in this very privileged way that's

(26:32):
that's unique to us. So I do find that very
meaningful for me in my own life. Thanks to Jenna
Cooper for sharing her story with us. You can learn
more about her on her blog, Sponsa Christie, What do

(26:52):
you think? Drop us a note at the turning at
for Cocoa Punch dot com. That's r O c O
c O pun. This episode was written and produced by
Andrea A. Sway. Our executive producers are Jessica Albert and
John Parratti at Rococo Punch and Getrina Norville at iHeart Radio.
To see a photo from Jenna Cooper's consecration ceremony and

(27:14):
for more details on this series, follow us on Instagram
at Rococo Punch. I'm America Lands. Thanks for listening.
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