“A Prayerful Advocate”

From Catholic New York
By John Woods
Like many of you, I occasionally ask someone to keep me or a member of my family in their prayers. And when someone makes a similar request of me, I take it seriously.

This week, I made such a request of someone the first time I spoke to her, and I have a good hunch that she’ll follow through.

Her name is Jenna Marie Cooper. She is 23 years old and a graduate student in theology at Ave Maria University in Florida. On Saturday, Jan. 3, she will be consecrated to a life of virginity at an 11:30 a.m. Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Newburgh to be celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Dominick J. Lagonegro, co-vicar for Orange County and pastor of Sacred Heart.

As a consecrated virgin, the oldest form of consecrated life in the Church, Ms. Cooper will spend much of her time in prayer. (A Vatican II document called for a revision and revival of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for Women Living in the World, restoring the ancient vocation in the life of the modern Church.) It will not be a great departure from her current daily life, which includes praying the Liturgy of the Hours five times, attending Mass and spending other time in prayer.

Chief among her intentions are the Church and people of New York. Cardinal Egan granted permission for Ms. Cooper to be consecrated and she will remain directly under his authority as Archbishop of New York.

She said she felt privileged to be invited to attend the Mass for clergy and religious that Pope Benedict XVI celebrated in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in April. “That was such a wonderful and awesome experience. I couldn’t talk about anything else for a week afterward,” she said.

When the Holy Father thanked those present for their prayers on his behalf, it made a firm impression on her. “That sense that prayers were needed and appreciated was very meaningful to me,” she said.

She will be the youngest person in the United States living as a consecrated virgin, and one of four active in the archdiocese, according to Father Bartholomew Daly, M.H.M., who as co-vicar for religious is in charge of their oversight and meets with them regularly.

During our phone interview, Ms. Cooper said she had felt a religious calling since she was about 12. She is part of a devout Catholic family that includes her parents, Douglas and Judith, and two younger siblings, Joseph and Tess. They are parishioners of St. Thomas of Canterbury parish in Cornwall-on-Hudson. She assumed that she would eventually join a religious congregation. She met with several during her undergraduate days (she holds a bachelor’s in philosophy from Seton Hall University), but didn’t feel like that was the right choice for her. Still, she continued to feel a call to serve the Church in a special way.

In 2004 she met Father Luke Sweeney, now the vocation director for the archdiocese who was then serving at Sacred Heart in Newburgh, where Ms. Cooper at times attends Mass. He gave her information about different religious orders and showed her a copy of the rite for consecrated virgins. She said that she was familiar with the lives of some of the consecrated virgins of the early Church, including some who were martyred for their faith.

“The courage they had to live a Christian life in such a hostile culture made me realize what a foundation they were for the Church,” she said. “I wanted to be able to imitate that courage and love in my own life.”

Eventually Father Sweeney arranged for her to meet with Father Daly. Last year, she began meeting with him on a more regular basis in pursuing her vocation. She had to formally request Cardinal Egan’s permission for her consecration, which was given shortly before the papal Mass.

The prayer request I made of Ms. Cooper was for Catholic New York and its readers. It’s only fair that we return the favor as she enters consecrated life.