We Catholics are certainly familiar with religious women, since the Church has many institutes of sisters (who are engaged in active apostolates like in teaching or medical work) and nuns ( who are engaged in a contemplative life of prayer, apart from the world).
In a layman tongue, both types of religious women are referred to as “Sister,” but significantly, they involve two different types of religious life.
The most important type of religious life that both sisters and nuns have in common are the profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience ( Can. 573.1 ), and also community life in a canonically erected religious institute (Can. 573.2 ).
Note that all the religious both men and women also take a vow of chastity, but that does not really mean that all of them are virgins.
In fact, a fair number of the great saints of the Church became members of religious orders only after being widowed. For instance, Saints Bridget of Sweden (founder of the Bridgettines), Rita of Cascia (Augustinian), and Francis Borgia (Jesuit), all these were all married with children in their earlier life, and therefore, they were obviously not virgins when they entered their into respective religious institutes.
However, the vow of chastity involves abstinence from sexual activity from when the person is a member of a religious institute, and does not pertain to the person’s previous life.
Though, the life of a consecrated virgin is different. During the early years of the Church, there were women living in the world who voluntarily chose not to get married, instead they opt for life-long virginity as a “Bride of Christ.”
Over the years, it started to overlap largely with what gradually became “religious life” as it is known today, and so the original practice fell more or less into desuetude for generations.
Although, the current (1983) Code of Canon Law contains a specific reference to consecrated virgins, as an order different from the communal religious life of sisters and nuns.
The specific responsibilities of consecrated virgins are described in the 1970 document: The document states that those who consecrate their chastity under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit do so for the sake of a more burning love of Christ and of greater freedom in the service of their brothers and sisters.
They are to sacrifice their time in works of penance and of mercy, in apostolic activity, and in prayer, according to their state of life and of their spiritual gifts.
Moreover, to fulfill their duty of prayer they are strictly advised to recite the liturgy of the hours each day in this way, as they join their voice to those of Christ the High Priest and of His Church, they will offer unending praise to their heavenly Father and pray for the salvation of the entire world.
But nowadays, it’s possible for both cloistered nuns and secular women to receive this consecration.
Of course Nuns, have already taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as aforementioned; but women living in the world have not taken those vows and since the latter are often living alone, and are probably working to support themselves in some way, vows of poverty and obedience are not really appropriate for them in any case.
In that case, we can see that being a member of a women’s religious institute (i.e., a sister or a nun), and being a consecrated virgin, are not the same thing!
In either way, God is leading women to devote themselves to Him in this not-so-new, but a different way.