St. Isaac Jogues & Companion Martyrs
Life in the Institute begins in the novitiate.
About the Novitiate
Besides what is stated in the quote above from the Code of Canon Law, the first objective of the novitiate is to help the aspiring religious in his search for God. Life of a religious must be directed to an exclusive and supernatural search for God who calls and to whom one must respond. This is the novice’s chief occupation, to search for God, a God revealed through faith. One does not enter to dedicate oneself to science, philosophy, theology, or art or to train for an apostolate or to teach. It is true that one must serve God with the talents that he gives one; yet, these works are merely a means to a higher goal—God himself.
Neither should perfection in work be a goal: making everything perfect, organized, and complete. That is an adornment of the exterior work, but the aim is more internal—to know and love Jesus. The goal is not to form educated or very obedient persons. To form according to the liking and manner of the superior. Everyone must know Christ in order to imitate him in that which God has given him as a particular vocation or as his own manner of holiness. Vocations cannot be treated as if there were all the same.
The second objective is self-knowledge. Spiritual edification must commence in the novitiate, and knowing what the building materials are is of prime importance. This knowledge has two components: of faults and limitations and knowledge of the gifts received.
In order to learn how to be disciplined and as a result of sharing a life in common, novices follow a daily schedule. The day is anchored in the Eucharist, as Mass is the first activity in the morning and Adoration falls later in the evening. Besides these two intense moments of prayer, novices also have class and study periods in the morning and afternoon, as well as communal meal times.
A typical schedule looks like this:
6:30 am – Wake-up
7:00 am – Mass
8:00 am – Breakfast
8:30 am – Class / Study
12:45 pm – Midday Examination of Conscience
1:00 pm – Lunch
1:30 pm – Rest
2:30 pm – Rosary
3:00 pm – Work
4:00 pm – Snack / Showers
4:30 pm – Class / Study
7:30 pm – Adoration
8:30 pm – Evening Prayer and Benediction
9:00 pm – Dinner
9:45 pm – Spiritual Reading
10:15 pm – Night Prayer
The novitiate year usually begins in August so that men entering the community can take part in the summer convivencia, which is a special time for seminarians and priests to spend outdoors, growing in human virtues and in community. Otherwise, the official “entrance” date of a new novice depends on individual situations. Since the academic year for all the houses of formation (novitiate, seminary, convents) begins in September, a novice’s “canonical year” (365 day time period required in the novitiate) usually begins during this same month.
Wouldn’t it be better to begin religious life by observing the conduct of other major religious? To see their example, their way of understanding and living the laws and customs. Activities are already underway there, and novices would only need to join in. Wouldn’t time be saved in the teaching of customs, schedules, way of living in silence, and prayer? Wouldn’t many improvisations, typical of the first stages, be avoided?
These objections seem to be confirmed during the first days of the novitiate, when progress is very slow and when much effort and patience are required to endure the faults and mistakes typical of beginnings. There is no religious style yet. Silence is not appreciated; there are no study habits; the liturgy is not very solemn; schedules are not exactly kept, and improvisations are made in work, cooking, etc. In terms of the candidates’ way of being, there are many faults, disorder, lack of punctuality, and irresponsibility in work, in the use and care of things. This upsets, discourages, etc., those who are more organized. Generally, this is what happens in the first days.
But the good of the novitiate should not be sought in its beginnings; rather, it is a more long-term project. In the novitiate, one should seek the start and maturation of religious life. In supernatural life, progress is slow; development is like that of a seed, like that of yeast. It is a process of maturation, and wanting to hasten it is like taking a fruit from its tree and rushing it from the outside so it can ripen. Inside it will remain green, and the exterior will appear ripe, lacking consistency.
In a major religious house, everything is already in operation; laws are abided by, schedules are kept, bells are obeyed, and the religious show that they know how to work. Perhaps a candidate thinks that by adapting to what has already been established, all is done, that by acquiring the manners and behaviors of others, he is already a religious, that with the faithful compliance of exterior works he advances by leaps and bounds toward holiness. These things are not bad; what would be bad is neglecting the search for God and self-knowledge and being satisfied with “doing things right.” One is getting dressed as a religious, but perhaps the inside remains yet immature.
It is not so easy to fall into that in the novitiate. In this house, the novice awaits the teachings of his Teacher. In terms of the exterior works, they are riddled with imperfections and will be defective. It will be the duty of the person in charge of formation to constantly stress that holiness does not lie there, that doing things right takes a second place and will be the result of the love for God that they will be acquiring. He shall repeat the novitiate’s objective—the search for God—and the two wings of that search: prayer and penance in the atmosphere of fraternal charity in which they must live. The novices’ sight must be set on this, knowing how to transcend exterior appearances.
Let us consider other benefits of the novitiate. The Code of Canon Law calls for a house different from other houses of formation. The aim is to live purely and exclusively dedicated to commencing religious life. The concerns must not be the same as those of the other religious. It is advisable to know what will later be done or studied, the virtues that are lived in the major seminary, in fact, to know the problems that might arise, but painlessly, maintaining a peaceful atmosphere, a longing to proceed to the major seminary, but that meanwhile they live with their sight set on their own objectives.
It is also the time to evoke generosity and maturity, for responsibilities must be had from the very beginning. A religious and holy atmosphere must be created; if the novices do not do it, no one else will.
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