Formation is the process by which we grow spiritually, intellectually, and personally. In consecrated life it follows certain standard methods and proceeds through established stages.
These will vary from place to place, as they’re tailored to each community’s particular charisms and goals. But, generally speaking, a candidate will move — from discernment to final vows — through at least some of the following stages.
1. Preparation. Learn about yourself, God, and the Church. Build relationships. Do research. Explore.
2. Discernment/Inquiry. Meet with a vocation director. Visit the community. Make a retreat. Ask for a formal application.
3. Application. Gather your sacramental certificates and academic transcripts. Fill out the application. Schedule your physical and psychological exams and complete your medical forms. Compose the statements the community requires.
4. Postulancy/Candidacy. This is the time of transition into community life. Postulants and candidates help with the community’s ministries and begin to learn the unique spirituality of the community.
5. Novitiate. This is a longer period, often two years, of intensive theological, personal, and spiritual formation.
6. Canonical year is a time of deeper prayer and focused studies.
7. Apostolic year is a time of in-depth focus on the ministries of the community — often spending time in active service.
8. First profession. At this time a candidate professes vows for a determined length of time, but with the intention of making final, permanent vows.
9. Temporary vows mark a time of integration of vows, community, prayer, and ministry.
10. Final profession marks the solemn, formal commitment of one’s whole life to God within a particular community.
11. Ongoing formation. A person committed to consecrated life is committed to lifelong spiritual and personal growth. The community never ceases to form its members.
A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God.
Vows mark the ordinary way of love. Married couples exchange vows as they begin their life together. Religious sisters, brothers, and priests profess vows as they fully enter life in community.
The basic vows traditionally correspond to the three evangelical counsels: to live simply in imitation of Christ in poverty, to live with an undivided heart in chastity, and to surrender one’s will to God in obedience. Some communities require further commitments as well — a vow of stability, for example, or hospitality, or service to the poor.
In consecrated life as in marriage, vows represent a total giving of oneself.
In consecrated life as in marriage, vows are not restrictions. They are paths to freedom. They are commitments of availability for loving service. Religious sisters, brothers, and priests can serve more freely because they are not limited by family ties, worldly cares, or their own personal preferences. They can move as God wants them to move — and that is the most perfect freedom.
Poverty, chastity, and obedience — all Christians are called to live these counsels, but in different ways. Religious communities are free and able to observe them in greater measure.
Poverty does not mean that religious communities are destitute, but that they strive to be free from wealth and its corresponding demands, from material possessions, and from societal pressure to have more “stuff” and more status. Poverty is a radical freedom, and it empowers religious to focus on relationships with others and service to others. In consecrated life, property is owned not by individuals, but by the community. Resources are shared, and so is their upkeep. Religious are free to live in true solidarity with the poor and marginalized.The vow of poverty also includes “spiritual poverty.” It’s not just the giving up of material goods, but something much deeper. It is the emptying of oneself before God as well as letting go of one’s ego and need to have things one’s own way. Religious open themselves up to all that God wants them to know and understand, which sets them free to do the work of Christ.
Chastity in marriage is the pledge of affection for just one spouse. In consecrated life, however, it is the choice to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom. The commitment to chastity and lifelong celibacy leaves one completely free for service to the Church and the community. It is a life full of love, entirely given to God and God’s people. Such love finds expression in prayer, communion, service, and fellowship.
Obedience is free surrender to the will of God in the context of a community, and trust in the authority in that community. Obedience leaves one radically free from personal preferences and ambitions. Through obedience, religious men and women are able to go where they are needed and where God wants them to be.