Hearts united: Senite Sahlezghi joins the ancient order of consecrated virgins

On the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the heart of a Denver woman was united to that of Christ, Our Lady and the Church in a humble act of consecration.

As she lay before the altar, donning a pure white dress and an even purer heart, Senite Sahlezghi was consecrated a virgin before the Lord in a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. In his homily addressed to her, the archbishop recalled the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”; words that will serve as a guiding light and a True North in Sahlezghi’s vocation as a consecrated virgin.  

“It is precisely in seeing God first that we become pure of heart,” Archbishop Aquila told Sahlezghi. “It is his work, it is his love that transforms our hearts and will transform your heart, my daughter, as you continue to grow and to fall in love with him, to grow deeper into intimacy with him.  

“You are called to reflect the very purity of God. You are called to a life of greater fervor to spread the kingdom of God by your prayer, by your example and your good words. You are to give to the world the spirit of Christ. You are to live the virtue of chastity that is rooted in the virtue of charity. 

“You are called to have the heart of Mary.” 

A twitch of the thread 

Sahlezghi’s act of consecration was a beautiful yet radical statement in 2021 about who God is and how his call for the lives of his people sometimes leads them down the most surprising of paths. 

This was certainly the case for Sahlezghi, who works as the director of Marisol Health in Lafayette. A Colorado native, her parents immigrated from Eritrea separately, met each other in Colorado, got married and raised four children, of which Senite is the eldest. She went to Bishop Machebeuf High School and had a profound conversion during her junior year. 

“[It was] very unexpected and unwanted,” Sahlezghi told the Denver Catholic. “But God is so faithful. Sixteen was a big year for me for different reasons, and I took the faith on as my own. I’m a big fan of metanoia, I think we all live continuing conversions. There are these definitive moments that are so profound and important and then it’s just this constant invitation to love him. I would teeter, and he would bring me back.” 

Senite Sahlezghi was consecrated as a virgin to live in the world on June 12 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Sahlezghi currently works as the director of Marisol Health in Lafayette. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

“It’s like that great line from Brideshead,” she said, referring to Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. “‘A twitch of the thread.’ He just twitches it. That was a lot of that season of my life.” 

After high school, Sahlezghi earned her undergrad degree at Franciscan University of Steubenville and then obtained a master’s in counseling from the University of Denver to become a licensed professional counselor. Prior to Marisol Health, she worked as a mental health case manager and the intensive case management supervisor at Samaritan House. 

“I worked with the general population, which was incredible. I saw the higher needs clients, and all of them either had overt mental health diagnoses or substance use diagnoses and all experiencing homelessness,” she explained. “I was in Christ in the City way back when and was at Sam House once a day doing ministry, so I have roots there. It’s a huge part of my heart, so I’m grateful to have been able to serve [those who are in that situation].” 

‘What does this mean for me?’ 

To the outside observer and even those who know her, Sahlezghi’s servant heart seems to lend itself perfectly to some form of consecrated or religious life, but it was never on her radar. However, that all changed rather unexpectedly during a hike with friends on the feast of St. Catherine of Siena in 2015 and a Mass celebrated on the side of the mountain. 

“During Mass that day, the Eucharistic prayer was being said, and there was just this moment in my heart where I heard, ‘I am supposed to be Christ’s.’ It was simple and silent and still. It was so peaceful, and while walking off the mountain literally, I was like, ‘oh, no, what does this mean for me?’” she said with a laugh. 

The obvious answer for women is to discern religious life within a religious order. Sahlezghi was always drawn to the Missionaries of Charity and their charism of service to the poor and continual growth in personal holiness, so she discerned with their community in Denver for a year. Towards the end of that process, during a visit to the Missionaries of Charity convent in Chicago, she heard the Lord’s voice again. 

“I was in a two week visit with them in Chicago, and after a year of discerning with them and getting to the point where I could commit to the next big thing, a few days in, I was praying, and I just heard that I’m supposed to be Christ’s bride, and it was as a consecrated virgin,” she said. “I think it had to be that definitive for me not to shake it. It was just this incredible grace and relay of my identity and my mission, all in this beautiful moment in the garden outside of the Missionaries of Charities convent in Chicago.” 

There is a particular charism within this vocation that resonated deeply within my own soul. This vocation is so beautiful in that it is inviting women to live a unique expression of the mystery of the Church. And that’s insane to say out loud, but there’s a dignity that comes from that, and it even strikes the hearts of those who don’t attest to believe what we believe. It’s profoundly human. 

Senite Sahlezghi

Over the past five years since that moment, she’s been discerning God’s call for her to become a consecrated virgin, which culminated with the consecration Mass on June 12, when she said “yes” to the Lord. 

“Mother Teresa has this great line, ‘according to his heart,’ and that’s what it’s been,” Sahlezghi said. “There have been moments it really has felt like a twirl-a-whirl, and there are moments of just a great peace, where it would have been dishonest for me not to have said ‘yes’ because this is what I was made for, this is who I was made to be. 

“And the gift of that ‘yes’ in that garden in Chicago, any time I revisit that moment, I think I’ll spend the rest of my life returning to it and unpacking it. But this whole process since coming back from Chicago has just been like a deepening of my ‘yes.’ I’ve been trying to say, ‘yes’ more and more.” 

During her consecration Mass, Sahlezghi invited four priests who have walked with her along this journey to stand at the altar beside her as she gave herself fully to Christ. Father Brady Wagner, a formation advisor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, met with Sahlezghi every month over the past four years to study different aspects of the Christian life, especially those regarding consecrated life. 

“Her longing to belong fully to Christ has been a beautiful testimony of love’s desire, to make a promise and commitment that does not calculate or hold anything back,” Father Wagner told the Denver Catholic. “It is the only thing that really makes sense in response to the unreserved gift of Christ to us, especially in the Eucharist. 

An ancient vocation 

The vocation of consecrated virginity dates back the to the early Church. In fact, Mary herself was a consecrated virgin, though in a very distinct way. As Sahlezghi dove into the rich history of the vocation and noticed a growing number of women answering the call to become consecrated virgins, she found herself drawn to it more and more. 

“I’m a big fan of roots, knowing who you’re from and where you’re from, and the Church has this incredible treasury within it,” Sahlezghi explained. “This vocation is an ancient vocation, and I think to remember the roots of it has been so helpful and profound to me. The apostles were ordained, and then women were consecrated and then the religious came from it. I think that there’s a really beautiful opportunity, and I’ve always just been stunned that in the 21st century, there’s been a revival of this vocation. You just wonder what the Holy Spirit is doing.” 

Before discerning a life of consecrated virginity, Sahlezghi discerned with the local Missionaries of Charity community for one year. The consecration Mass on June 12 marked the culmination of a six-year discernment process for Sahlezghi. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

In both the ancient and modern understanding of consecrated virginity, this vocation is reflective as an image of Christ and his bride, the Church, in a very particular way — in its radicality, to be sure, but more importantly, in its purity. Sahlezghi understands that consecrating herself as a virgin can be perceived as quite an “extreme” thing to do in 2021 — especially for those outside of the Church. 

“This vocation is so beautiful in that it is inviting women to live a unique expression of the mystery of the Church,” she said. “And that’s insane to say out loud, but there’s a dignity that comes from that, and it even strikes the hearts of those who don’t attest to believe what we believe. It’s profoundly human. 

“My hope is that people know the richness of this vocation and what the intention was to begin with, why Christ made it so, and to realize that it’s not a competition,” she explained. “We all play a part in the salvation of the world and each other and ourselves, and the fact that it’s God’s work before it’s any of ours and that he lets us help is astounding. There is a particular charism within this vocation that resonated deeply within my own soul. I am excited to see how it unfolds and how I can be of service to the local Church and to the Church, period.” 

‘Our Lady’s heart is a home’ 

As she fully enters her vocation as a consecrated virgin, much of Sahlezghi’s life will look the same. She’ll have the same family and friends she’s always had. She’ll continue to work in the world and use the gifts and talents God gifted her with. She’ll still endure the same struggles and challenges and sufferings that are common to Christian life. But through the lens of a heart fully united to the hearts of Jesus and Mary, she’ll encounter the world with the love of Christ and orient all she does toward helping others have that same encounter with Christ that’s changed her heart for good. 

During the consecration rite, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila bestowed a blessed ring to Sahlezghi, symbolizing her mystical brideship to Christ and his Church. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

“I’m just so grateful. I’m grateful to get to be consecrated to Christ and give him my full heart and my whole life and my whole love on the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” she said. “It’s overwhelming when I think about it. There’s a lot of mercy and me not realizing the full weight of it because it’s like a dream come true. Hearts united in more ways than one. 

“Our lady’s heart is a home, that’s what the Church is,” Sahlezghi concluded. “I just hope that this for me will be that, and I hope for the local Church at large to experience the hospitality and the joy of a home, to really find rest in her heart, and then by default, in his heart because of it. It’s the same heart.” 

COMING UP: For Christ alone: Andrea Polito added to the Order of Virgins

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It was April 6, 2012—Good Friday—and 26-year-old Andrea Polito was doing what many Catholics do on that sacred day: She was praying at the foot of the cross.

The pediatric oncology nurse told Denver Catholic that she had an experience in prayer she can only describe as a “profound moment of grace.”

“I was looking at Mary Magdalene,” she recounted, “and I asked the Lord, ‘Why, of all the people that you healed in your ministry, is she the one who gets to be here?’”

“And he just really simply said,” she recalled, “‘because she gave up everything and followed me.’

“And I just kind of instinctually said in that moment, ‘That’s where I want to live, that’s where I want to be.’ And he said, ‘Well, come and follow me.’”

Polito said the prayer surprised her: “I was like, oh no, I think I just kind of told Jesus I was going to be a nun, and I kind of freaked out.”

Andrea Polito, 31, consecrated herself as a virgin in the Archdiocese of Denver during a powerful ceremony celebrated by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila on July 22. (All photos by Joshua Paul Photography)

But as she prayed more over the next weeks and months, she realized that what God was asking of her wasn’t to leave the world as a religious vocation would require: “I didn’t feel called to leave the world. I felt really convicted of my work, I felt really convicted of a Catholic presence in the medical field, which is such a secular place…. I didn’t feel peace about going and leaving all of that.”

Through conversations with a friend, Father John Nepil, who would later become her spiritual director, Polito began to consider the vocation of a lay consecrated virgin.

Prayerful discernment

The 20-something embarked on a serious period of discernment and prayer.

“Over those years we studied it, and I did a 30-day silent retreat and made an election, and talked to the diocese, and this was what made the most sense and [what] I felt most called to,” she said.

On July 22, nearly five and a half years after hearing the first invitation to follow Christ, and on the feast of her patron Saint Mary Magdalene, Polito was consecrated a virgin of the Archdiocese of Denver.

Archbishop Samuel Aquila celebrated the rite of consecration of a virgin in the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, with more than 20 priests concelebrating the Mass.

“You are committing yourself permanently to the Lord, and giving yourself completely to him,” Archbishop Aquila told Polito during his homily. “If you truly want happiness and joy, you must belong to Christ, and he alone. This is the Lord’s deepest desire for you, Andrea, and for every Christian.” (All photos by Joshua Paul Photography)

The consecration of a virgin is one of the oldest sacramentals in the Church, and in the early Church, before religious orders existed, many women consecrated their virginity to the Lord to devote themselves full-time to evangelization.

The consecrated virgin lives in the midst of the world, in intimate union with God, offering the gift of her physical virginity to Christ as a sign of the total donation of her entire life to him.

There are approximately 3,000 consecrated virgins in the universal Church, according to the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, including 235 in the United States. The Office of Consecrated Life for the Archdiocese of Denver reports that there are currently six consecrated virgins in northern Colorado, and two more women who are actively discerning.

‘A day of great joy’

The rite of consecration began with the calling of the candidate after the Gospel, at which time Polito, with candle in hand, approached the sanctuary as the choir sang: “Be wise: make ready your lamps. Behold, the Bridegroom comes; go out to meet him.”

The archbishop then delivered his homily, which he began by proclaiming that day as “a day of great joy.”

“You are committing yourself permanently to the Lord, and giving yourself completely to him,” he said. “If you truly want happiness and joy, you must belong to Christ, and he alone.

“This is the Lord’s deepest desire for you, Andrea, and for every Christian.”

After the homily, the archbishop examined Polito about her readiness to accept solemn consecration as a bride of Christ, and then, similar to the sacrament of holy orders and religious profession of vows, Polito lay prostrate while the congregation petitioned the saints to intercede.

Polito said that kneeling before the Archbishop during the Mass and “experiencing that I had a father in the diocese, and I was a daughter of the diocese was really beautiful.” (All photos by Joshua Paul Photography)

Polito then approached the archbishop, and placing her hands in his and addressing him as father, she offered her resolution to “follow Christ in a life of perfect chastity.”

The prayer of consecration was said by the archbishop, and then the newly consecrated received a volume of the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as a ring, clearly symbolizing her mystical marriage to Christ.

Polito noted that a key moment of the consecration was when she was kneeling before the archbishop with her hands in his, “experiencing that I had a father in the diocese, and I was a daughter of the diocese was really beautiful.”

Called to Denver

Andrea, now 31, is a native of San Diego, California. She studied nursing at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and after college moved to Washington, DC, to begin working as a pediatric nurse.

She moved to Denver in 2010 without a job out of an interior conviction that she was supposed to live in Colorado. “It was a horrible decision at first,” she revealed, as it took her four months to find a job, and moving in the middle of winter was not easy for the California native.

“But the Lord definitely provided,” she said. “Obviously, I see in hindsight why God called me here. It was for the sake of this vocation. For the sake of the mission here in Denver.”

More than 20 priests concelebrated the Mass during which Andrea Polito, 31, consecrated herself as a virgin in the Archdiocese of Denver on July 22 in the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. (All photos by Joshua Paul Photography)

Listen to the Archbishop’s homily here: https://archden.org/andrea-polito-consecration/#.WYJjcYQrKV6

Below, you will find a summary of the Rite of Consecration of a Virgin.

RITE OF CONSECRATION OF A VIRGIN

Procession

The procession moves through the church to the altar in the usual way, while the choir and people sing the entrance song of the Mass. The candidate may join in the procession. It is appropriate for two women – either consecrated themselves or chosen from the laity – to accompany the candidate to the altar.

When she comes to the sanctuary, all make the customary reverence to the altar. The candidate takes her place in the pews and Mass continues.

Rite of Consecration

After the Gospel, if the consecration takes place in front of the altar, the bishop goes to the chair prepared for him and sits. If candles are used, the choir sings the following antiphon:

Be wise: make ready your lamps. Behold, the Bridegroom comes; go out to meet him.

The candidate with her lamp or candle, and accompanied by the two women, approach the sanctuary and stand outside it.

Then the bishop calls the candidate; he sings or says aloud:

Come, listen to me, my children; I will teach you reverence for the Lord.

The candidate replies by singing this antiphon or some other appropriate song:

Now with all our hearts we follow you, we reverence you and seek your presence. Lord, fulfill our hope: show us your loving kindness, the greatness of your mercy.

As she sings the antiphon, the candidate enters the sanctuary so that everyone may have a complete view of the liturgical rites.

She places her candle in a candelabrum, or gives it to the ministers, until it is returned at the end of Mass. They she sits in the place prepared for her.

Homily

The bishop then gives a short homily to the candidate and the people on the gift of virginity and its role in the sanctification of those called to virginity and the welfare of the whole Church.

Examination

After the homily the candidate stands and the bishop questions her in these or similar words:

Bishop- Are you resolved to persevere to the end of you days in the holy state of virginity and in the service of God and his Church?

Candidate- I am.

Bishop- Are you so resolved to follow Christ in the spirit of the Gospel that your whole life may be a faithful witness to God’s love and a convincing sign of the kingdom of heaven?

Candidate- I am.

Bishop- Are you resolved to accept solemn consecration as a bride of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

Candidate- I am.

Bishop and all present- Thanks be to God

Invitation prayer

Then all stand, and the bishop, without his miter, invites the people to pray:

Dearly beloved, let us pray to God the almighty Father through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, that, by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, he will pour out the Holy Spirit of his love on these servants of his whom he has chosen to be consecrated to his service.

Litany of the Saints

Then the bishop, the ministers, the candidate, and the people kneel (except during the Easter season, when all stand). Where it is customary for the candidate to prostrate herself, this may be done.

The cantors then sing the litany. At the proper place they may add the names of other saints who are specially venerated by the people, or petitions suitable to the occasion.

Then the bishop alone rises and, with hands joined, sings or says:

Lord, hear the prayers of your Church. Look with favor on your handmaids whom you have called in your love. Set them on the way of eternal salvation; may they seek only what is pleasing to you, and fulfill it with watchful care. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

All- Amen.

Renewal of intention

Then, the candidate offers herself to God at the hands of the bishop.

She kneels, places her joined hands between his hands and says:

Father, receive my resolution to follow Christ in a life of perfect chastity which, with God’s help, I here profess before you and God’s holy people.

Prayer of consecration

After the renewal of intention, the candidate returns to her place in the sanctuary and kneels. The bishop extends his hands over her, and sings or says the prayer of consecration.

Loving Father, chaste bodies are your temple; you delight in sinless hearts. Our nature was corrupted when the devil deceived our first parents, but you have restored it in Christ. He is your Word, through whom all things were made. He has made out nature whole again, and made it possible for mortal people to reflect the life of angels. Lord, look with favor an your handmaids. They place in your hands their resolve to live in chastity, You inspire them to take this vow; now they give you their hearts.

You have poured out your grace upon all peoples.
You have adopted as heirs of the new covenant
sons and daughters from every nation under heaven,
countless as the stars.
Your children are born, not of human birth,
nor of man’s desire, but of your Spirit.
Among your many gifts
you give to some the grace of virginity.
Yet the honor of marriage is in no way lessened.
As it was in the beginning,
your first blessing still remains upon this holy union.
Yet your loving wisdom chooses those
who make sacrifice of marriage
for the sake of the love of which it is the sign.
They renounce the joys of human marriage,
but cherish all that it foreshadows.

Lord, protect those who seek your help They desire to be strengthened by your blessing and consecration. Defend them from the cunning and deceit of the enemy. Keep them vigilant and on their guard; may nothing tarnish the glory of perfect virginity, or the vocation of purity which is shared by those who are married. Through the gift of your Spirit, Lord, give them modesty with right judgment, kindness with true wisdom, gentleness with strength of character, freedom with the grace of chastity. Give them the warmth of love, to love you above all others. Make their lives deserve our praise, without seeking to be praised. May they give you glory by holiness of action and purity of heart. May they love you and fear you; may they love you and serve you. Be yourself their glory, their joy, their whole desire. Be their comfort in sorrow, their wisdom in perplexity, their protection in the midst of injustice, their patience in adversity, their riches in poverty, their food in fasting, their remedy in time of sickness. They have chosen you above all things; may they find all things in possessing you. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. All: Amen.

Presentation of the Ring

The ring marks her as a bride of Christ. Keep unstained your fidelity to her Bridegroom, that she may one day be admitted to the wedding feast of everlasting joy.

Presentation of the Liturgy of the Hours

The candidate receives the book of the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the Church; may the praise of our heavenly Father be always on her lips; pray without ceasing for the salvation of the whole world.

Then the virgin says:

I am espoused to him whom the angels serve; sun and moon stand in wonder at his glory.

The bishop concludes the rite:

The almighty Father has poured into your hearts the desire to live a life of holy virginity. May he keep you safe under his protection.

Amen.

May the Lord Jesus Christ, with whose sacred heart the hearts of virgins are united, fill you with his divine love.

Amen.

May the Holy Spirit, by whom the Virgin Mary conceived her Son, today consecrate your hearts and fill you with a burning desire.