GREEN BAY — On May 24, the Diocese of Green Bay will experience something rare: the consecration of a woman as “a virgin living in the world.”
Sara Scheunemann, 42, will receive a ring as a bride of Christ in a ceremony at 5 p.m., celebrated by Bishop David Ricken at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral.
Scheunemann, who works at the UW-Oshkosh’s Newman Center, will join two others — Shirley Farrell and Jenny Johns — as consecrated virgins in this diocese.
Consecration of a virgin is a tradition dating to the time of the early Christians. Some women then felt called, not to marriage, but to serve Christ and devote themselves entirely to him and his church. Today, the Code of Canon Law explains them as women who “pledge to follow Christ more closely” and who are “consecrated to God, mystically espoused to Christ and dedicated to the service of the Church” (n. 604).
Order reinstituted by Vatican II
The order of consecrated virgins fell out of use in the church as religious communities of women arose. However, the order was reinstituted by the Second Vatican Council and the rite of consecrating “a virgin living in the world” was promulgated by the Congregation for Divine Worship on May 31, 1970.
Scheunemann grew up in a faith-filled Protestant family in West Bend. All her life, she wanted to be married.
“In high school even, and in college and my adult life, I had really been praying about my desire to be married,” Scheunemann told The Compass. “In the Protestant world, the only vocation that’s really known is marriage. … That’s what I knew and I really longed for it.”
She prayed about this and said God’s reply was, “Maybe it will be fulfilled in ways you don’t expect.”
Scheunemann attended Marquette University, majoring in English and Classics.
“That’s the first time,” she said, “I really encountered faithful Catholics who loved Jesus, too, and that opened my world to the broadness of Christian community, that it was bigger than the world I grew up in.”
Later, she worked for six years for the headquarters of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Madison. She describes that as a time of “this stream of the Catholic faith coming in and out of my life.” She attended Catholic retreat centers, read Catholic authors and developed an interest in spiritual formation.
Eventually, she went to the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution, to earn a graduate degree in higher education administration. Just before graduation, she was invited to attend — for free — an eight-day, silent, directed Ignatian retreat.
“On an Ignatian retreat,” Scheunemann explained, “you are encouraged to come with a desire that you have for that time with the Lord.”
She brought her desire for marriage. She spent days meditating on Old Testament Scriptures about God’s spousal relationship with Israel. On the seventh day, she awoke to what she describes as a vision of Jesus.
“He put a ring on my finger,” Scheunemann said, “dressed me in a white dress. We sat together in a garden, kind of like the Song of Songs unfolding.”
She realized that, in some way, this was God’s answer to her marriage prayer. However, being Protestant, she had no knowledge of the vocation of consecrated virgin. Her retreat’s spiritual director told her to read about Catholic mystics, such as Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila.
Looking back, Scheunemann now says, “That was the kernel of my life that said, ‘OK, God, I think you’re doing something different that I never would have dreamed of in a million years.”
Unable to receive Communion
Another pivotal event of that retreat involved daily Mass. As a Protestant, Scheunemann could not receive Communion. One day, she broke down and sobbed about that. One of the calls of consecrated virgin is a deep love of the Eucharist.
Today, Scheunemann attends daily Mass and even has the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the Newman Student House where she lives and works.
After that retreat, Scheunemann went to work at Indiana Wesleyan University. There, she joined the Episcopal Church.
“That’s one of the gifts of my Christian journey,” she explained. “I’ve been part of a lot of Christian communities that are really beautiful. They were like my family.”
She stayed in Indiana for six years, attending Catholic retreats and getting spiritual direction. She completed a two-year program to become a spiritual director.
“I joke that my hobby – my very expensive hobby — is to be a student,” Scheunemann said.
She then earned a master’s degree in Christian spirituality from Creighton University (a Catholic institution) in Omaha, Neb. She also lived on campus for a summer.
Surrounded by other celibates
“There, for the first time,” Scheunemann said, “I was surrounded by people who felt like ‘my people’ — other celibates following that call. A lot of priests and religious women were in the program. And I thought, ‘Yes, that call is like what I’m sensing from the Lord in my own life.’”
While there, she befriended a priest of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Fr. Bob Gross. When he heard her story, he said, “Sara, you’re like the Protestant version of a consecrated virgin.”
Scheunemann had “no idea what a consecrated virgin was, but something in it really spoke to my heart. Thinking back, I think it was a prophetic word from the Lord: ‘This is your vocation.’”
She returned to work in Indiana, and coincidentally began meeting consecrated virgins. One even worked at the same university — Laura Anderson of Sioux Falls, S.D.
Desire to become Catholic
A desire to become Catholic filled her. She had already planned a year in prayer at St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minn. The Benedictine Sisters there have a program for lay women. In exchange for volunteering, room and board at the monastery are free. During that time, Scheunemann went through the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) process. She was confirmed in the Catholic Church by Bishop Paul Sirba of Duluth at the Easter Vigil in 2016.
“That was a really beautiful year,” Scheunemann now says. “I sensed (then) that the call to prayer and intercessory prayer is really central to my vocation.”
When the time came to leave Duluth, she prayed to the Lord, asking for “a day job.”
In August 2016, she took part-time work at the Newman Center. Since she also manages student housing at Newman Student House, her rent is covered. She joined Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, which has a parish site next door.
Scheunemann waited a few months before contacting Bishop David Ricken in January 2017 about becoming a consecrated virgin. He had her meet with Shirley Farrell, who had become the diocese’s first consecrated virgin in 2010.
Formation begins in 2017
After Farrell’s affirmation, Bishop Ricken allowed Scheunemann to begin formation in May 2017. Fr. John Girotti, diocesan vicar for administration, oversaw that. He said this means two to three years of formal formation, so the woman “understands what she is entering.”
Fr. Girotti also explained that, “by living as a spouse to Christ in the world, (consecrated virgins) are a symbol for the church and the world of the spousal love of Christ for his church. They are leaven in society.”
“The nature of (this vocation) is a very quiet, intimate thing,” he added. “They don’t wear distinctive garb, don’t live in a community. The average person would not know they are consecrated to Christ.”
Will receive ring at liturgy
On May 24, Scheunemann will receive her ring from Bishop Ricken, who acts for Christ. Engraved inside the ring are the words: “You are my Beloved. Abide in my Love.”
A consecrated virgin is also required to pray morning and evening prayer. Scheunemann’s book of the Liturgy of the Hours — which she started praying as a Protestant — will be presented at the ceremony by Fr. Gross.
Concelebrants at the May 24 Mass include Fr. Girotti, Msgr. John Schuh, Fr. Jerry Pastors (her pastor at Most Blessed Sacrament), Fr. Jason Blahnik, Catholic Campus Ministry Director at UW-Oshkosh, Fr. Dave Duffeck, who serves at Fr. Carr’s Place 2B in Oshkosh, Fr. Gross, and Fr. Michael Garry of the Diocese of Duluth.
Scheunemann will also have two attendants: her best friend, Aimée Molmar, and Suzanne Lott, who is in similar formation with the Diocese of Duluth.
One final note that touched Scheunemann’s heart about May 24 — a date chosen by Bishop Ricken’s calendar — is that she has learned it is the feast of Mary, Help of Christians. The shrine at Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wis., is dedicated to Mary under this title. Hubertus is 17 miles from Scheunemann’s home town. So it feels, she said, as if “Mary was watching over me from Holy Hill.”