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Jesus, Da Vinci and Cheerios

By Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP
May 10, 2006

When I get up in the morning, the first thing I don’t think about is whether or not Jesus was ever married. However this is the premise of Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code, so it is something I have thought about at breakfast while munching my Cheerios. The idea makes for interesting, innovative, and potentially volatile table conversation in the convent. The first time I asked the sisters of my community if it would make any difference to them as women religious (nuns) if Jesus had been married, one hooted, another squinted, another mumbled something, and another went, “Huh?”

“Well, what would it mean for you if Jesus had gotten married? Marriage vows are a sacrament and making the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience isn’t, so what do you think?”

We hadn’t covered this topic in the novitiate (convent boot camp), so, no time like the present.

This was the first of several conversations we had on the subject. Over time it made us talk about theology (faith seeking understanding), the theology of the Church (ecclesiology), the theology of Jesus (Christology), and of course, the theology, and history of our life as sisters that we call “religious life”. We concluded that although Jesus’ virginity is not a dogma, the Catholic Church’s consistent belief in his virginity and celibacy is based on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Indeed, Jesus is the Bridegroom whose Bride is the Church. We also wondered if Dan Brown’s fictional Mr. and Mrs. Jesus had really had a child, why would women have begun living virginal and/or chaste lives from the first centuries of Christianity and so on and so forth. Thinking of all of this over Cheerios was kind of a mind-bender.

A second reading of The Da Vinci Code let me see its cracks more clearly. If taken to its logical conclusion, the Gnostic (secret knowledge) premise of the book eventually leads to a human Jesus who came to build a human dynasty through a bloodline: the notion is antithetical to Christianity.

But the main question The Da Vinci Code evoked for me was: what does Christ’s virginity and chastity mean to me as a woman who has vowed perpetual chastity within a Roman Catholic community of women religious, the Daughters of St. Paul? (Don’t go there, Dan! We know St. Paul was not married from 1 Corinthians 7:7, so we are Paul’s spiritual daughters.)

We can trace Christianity’s reverence for the vocation to celibacy to Paul’s musings about it in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35. Virginity is not a requirement to be a religious sister or nun. Even widows can enter the convent. But once a woman makes the public vow of chastity, she implicitly promises not to marry and explicitly promises to follow Jesus’ example as recounted in the four Gospels. Jesus lived a chaste life for the sake of God’s kingdom on earth and in heaven. There is one requirement, however, to be a nun and that is love.

I entered the convent at the age of fifteen in 1967, just on time for my junior year in high school. I had been interested in the nuns at our parish since I was about eleven though I had always attended public schools. I believe God’s call came to me one day at the Del Mar County Fair in San Diego. After a morning of service with my Girl Scout troop (pinning name tags on little kids) we roamed among the rides in a pack. At one I volunteered to look after everyone’s stuff while they went on it. As I watched my friends screaming their heads off as they spun around, the thought came to me, “I am happy now, but what about tomorrow? What or who can assure me of happiness every day of my life?” The answer came: only God.

I had recently seen the movies The Trouble with Angels, The Song of Bernadette and of course, The Sound of Music. One of my favorite songs was, What the World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love (“not love just for one, but for everyone.”) So between my family (Catholic mother, non-practicing Protestant father, and church-switching grandma) going to our parish church, catechism classes, belonging to a vibrant Girl Scout troop with a leader who believed in the absolute value of community service, immersion in popular culture, and the needs of a society caught up in civil rights and the escalating Vietnam War - as idealistic as it sounds, becoming a nun made great sense to me.

The next thing I had to do was find a community that accepted girls in high school. At that time, several did, but a friend introduced me to the Daughters of St. Paul and I entered their convent in Boston soon after. I studied, worked, prayed, and lived the life of the Sisters. After five years I made my first vows; when I was 26, I made final or perpetual vows.

It is a fact that no one can live a life of religious chastity freely without an appreciation for marriage. Becoming a nun is not about running away from something, it is about running toward Someone. The first thing I knew when I felt God’s call and decided to enter the convent was that I would be giving up a husband, physical intimacy, (you know, sex), and children in exchange for a life of love for God and others. To use the spiritual marriage analogy, Jesus would be my spouse (yes, I would have to share him with a gazillion other nuns dead and alive), my family would be my community of sisters, my children would be any and all people that God would put in my path, and my work would be the particular ministry of my community – in this case, using the communications media: books, audio-visuals, music, art, radio, television, film, and now the Internet - so others would know that God’s love is constant for them, too.

When I received the religious habit back in the late 1960’s we dressed as brides for the ceremony, in old wedding dresses that dozens of postulants had worn in the years before us. Within a year that particular tradition was retired as the emphasis on the bridal imagery was sentimental and outdated.

A person chooses to take a vow of chastity, but it doesn’t mean it is easy. A woman becomes a nun but she’s not dead. Chastity for the sake of the kingdom of God on earth and in heaven is a spiritual gift from the Lord that you choose over and over again. The chaste life is possible through prayer, ministering to others, and living an ascetical life - though no chastity belts please like the misguided and tormented Silas. If the poor, obedient, and chaste life is not for you, either you will realize it - or the other nuns will – and you will be free to depart – or be invited to. (Many nuns who are notoriously grumpy probably should have gotten married.) When I celebrated my 25th jubilee of vows, I think I finally understood what I had done with my life. And it was good.

In conclusion, even if Jesus had gotten married, he still would have lived that union in faithful chastity to one woman. Along with Christianity, I don’t believe that Jesus ever married. This conviction we share about his dedicated life of loving service is enough for me.

Dan Brown’s readable fiction doesn’t threaten me in my vocation as a Catholic sister; good grief! It’s a novel. Neither am I involved, nor do I know of any nuns who are involved, in secret societies and conspiracies, like poor Sister Sandrine Bieil in the book. Our life is interesting enough and most of us are still waiting for the routine to start. But The Da Vinci Code sure makes for tasty and thoughtful conversation over a bowl of heart-healthy Cheerios.

Thanks, Dan!

Celibacy: to abstain from marriage

Chastity: the virtue of chastity means to be pure in thought, word, and deed and it is for everyone. In addition, the unmarried person abstains from sexual behavior; the married person is faithful to one’s spouse; the person vowed to chastity does not engage in sexual behavior nor does he or she marry.


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