Stages of Formation in Religious Life
A young woman interested in becoming a Dominican Sister of Mary, is not presumed to have arrived at our doorstep already a Saint—or even an outstanding character on the natural plane.
What is anticipated is that she has the necessary dispositions to persevere in the path of growth in virtue.
The stages of formation in our community (along with a divine call and an openness to grace) set the candidate down the path to becoming a “living image of the church, virgin by the purity of her faith, bride by loving fidelity to the will of Christ in fervent charity, mother by self-sacrifice for the salvation of souls [and a] living temple of God by her life of prayer”. (Fr. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P.)
This is the period of one year following entrance into the community in which the young woman gets to know the community and the community gets to know her. She takes part in all of the daily prayers and activities of the convent and attends classes at the Motherhouse to enlarge her knowledge of religious subjects including Scripture, the Catechism, Church documents, theology, philosophy, and Dominican spirituality. She is guided in making the gradual transition from the lay life to the life of the novitiate. At the end of the year, if both the Sister and the Community discern that it is God’s will for her to continue, she receives the Dominican habit and a religious name.
A Sister is a novice for two years. During this time, she continues her religious studies and human formation. The Novice also studies the vows, the Rule and Constitutions governing the community and makes a second meditation together with her fellow Novices. One of the Novitiate years is primarily dedicated to study and development of the interior life and the other is dedicated to introducing the Novice to the apostolic life of the community. Since this is such an important time in the life of a young religious, no studies or activities are undertaken which do not have as their primary purpose the formation of the Novices.
At the end of the two years, if the Sister and the community discern that it is God’s will, she professes temporary vows of Chastity, Poverty and Obedience for three years. She then renews her vows for two more years, making temporary profession for a total of five years. During this time, the Sister receives guidance in the actual living of her vows. This guidance is both spiritual and apostolic, doctrinal and practical. She may begin to pursue any degrees necessary and begins to participate regularly in the community’s apostolate. At the end of five years, Sister may ask to make final vows or to renew if necessary.
He has pledged His troth with His ring and adorned me with His priceless love. He has placed His sign on my brow that I may admit no other lover. (Mass of Profession)
While her initial formation has ended, mindful that the gift of faithful perseverance in religious consecration is a grace given by God that must be cultivated, the Sister actively accepts her responsibility to deepen her own living of the vows and her personal growth in charity. Formation is a pursuit that never ends until the glorious day when she meets her beloved in His Heavenly Kingdom.
“The evangelical counsels are above all a gift of the Holy Trinity. The consecrated life proclaims what the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, brings about by his love, his goodness and his beauty. The consecrated life thus becomes one of the tangible seals which the Trinity impresses upon history, so that people can sense with longing the attraction of divine beauty.” (Vita Consecrata, 20)
What is a Vow?
A vow is a free and deliberate promise made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion (Can. 1191 §1.). As consecrated women religious we make the three public vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
A free and deliberate promise:
In professing our vows, we freely embrace a life of consecrated chastity, poverty and obedience. Contrary to worldly wisdom, we are not running away from the world or ourselves but passionately embracing the living God whom we love above all things. After three years of initial formation and prayerful discernment, the Novice freely lays down her life as a holocaust to become part of the beating heart of Holy Mother Church.
Made to God:
We make our vows not to the community or to the Church but to God. It is God who deputes the Church and community to receive our vows to Him on His behalf. We are not making these vows to some abstract entity or institution, but a living and active person, our Creator and Redeemer!
Concerning a possible or better good:
Yes, it is possible to live a life of chastity, poverty and obedience! If it were not possible, the Church as a loving mother would not allow Her religious to do so. Often people in our contemporary society look at our vocation and wonder how it is possible, or even healthy, to live as we do. Yet on closer inspection, there is no denying the joy of those consecrated to Christ. This is because our vocation is not natural; it is supernatural! We can only live this vocation if God has truly given us the gift of an undivided heart that cannot be truly satisfied unless it is given exclusively to Him. This does not mean that religious life is easy, but that it is only possible by His grace. With God, nothing is impossible!
Which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion:
The virtue of religion is the act of giving worship to God. By reason of our vows, our whole lives become an offering of praise, glory and honor to God. This is why our vow formula, begins, “To the Honor of Almighty God.”
“The chastity of celibates and virgins, as a manifestation of dedication to God with an undivided heart (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-34), is a reflection of the infinite love which links the three Divine Persons in the mysterious depths of the life of the Trinity, the love to which the Incarnate Word bears witness even to the point of giving his life, the love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5), which evokes a response of total love for God and the brethren.” (Vita Consecrata 21) “In Christ it is possible to love God with all one’s heart, putting him above every other love, and thus to love every creature with the freedom of God!” (Vita Consecrata 88)
In a world obsessed with materialism, the vow of poverty proclaims that God is man’s only real treasure. By the vow we renounce the right to personally possess any goods. Mindful that St. Dominic told his followers that a soldier must not be deprived of his weapons—meaning the books necessary for the preaching of the Gospel and defense of the Church—as teachers we certainly hold in common what is necessary for the apostolate. Yet we seek to live a life of simplicity so that unburdened by the care of material goods we may run more swiftly to the heart of our Spouse. Like St. Thomas Aquinas who, upon hearing our Lord say to him, “Thomas, you have written well of me, what do you desire?”, we wish to respond, “Nothing but Thyself, O Lord.”
“My aim is to do not my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (Jn. 5:30) Obedience, practiced in imitation of Christ shows the liberating beauty of a dependence which is not servile but filial, marked by a deep sense of responsibility and animated by mutual trust, which is a reflection in history of the loving harmony between the three Divine Persons. (Vita Consecrata 21)
By this vow, we participate in the very wisdom of God who became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. In a world that sees freedom only as not being restricted in personal desire, the vow of obedience testifies that true freedom is the happiness of being able to choose the good, the true and the beautiful.