Middle years of formation: (post novitiate)
From realism of love and work – to definitive commitment.
(There is a great variety of modalities of this phase in religious congregations: in duration, types of communities’ insertion, studies and apostolic commitments. Still we believe that the core infernal experience of growing toward definitive commitment is true of all religious formation at this stage).
Time, studies, knowing the religious institution with its traditions better, and the social reality where members of that religious family live and work, are not enough though, to make personal limitations disappear. Some tendencies – especially those that have to do with the affective-emotional type -, tend to surface again even if the young religious himself and superiors considered this to be a finished-business. It hurts to see limitations in other religious, in the congregation itself and in the Church. At the same time the young religious after novitiate, discovers and develops new talents, receives academic and professional training, and trusts experience on a deeper level. All this makes the young religious “student” more of a “person”: he gains deeper self-acceptance and self-esteem, and is better pre-pared to express himself and to do personal discernment in decisions.
At this stage the temptation to cross to another personal and future orientation in life where one can equally serve the Kingdom may appear, sometimes insistently. Renunciations implied by the religious vocation are now lived on a deeper level: not having one’s own project and not deciding the future for oneself, not having one’s own family, wife and children, when it is the proper time to opt for this. New questions regarding the definitive commitment arise: will I be a first class religious? Will I have enough strength to persevere? Would I daré identify fully with the common apostolic project? Does my personality fit well with this way of life? Solitude at this phase is lived in a more mature way and this makes it “more” solitude. It tells about missing someone with whom one gives and receives, sharing “intimacy” and a common project for life. Peer groups with whom one studied in college or at the university are already marrying and practicing their profession and one has the feeling that he is just beginning.. .The truth is that love and the giving of oneself are purified in a new way. There is more realism toward life, more lucidity, deep down there is more capacity to love even if this last element does not always come out forcefully.
Community life becomes more austere, more conscious of what really happens in relationships and common works. The seeking of personal prayer – quality and rhythm – does not come easily. Apostolic work, studies and relationships with other persons outside the community may become a real temptation if not discerned in time. There is certainly a more human and spiritual maturity further away from external signs such as the way one dresses; it is more than evident that a new style of life has been embodied: the way of proceeding, working, resting, relationships. Others with their petitions and demands help make the young religious more of a “servant” rather than a “commander”, something which deepens his identity for service.
What is basic (I would say structural) is that during this period a deeper introjection-identification of the congregation’s charism and common apostolic project takes place. The young religious has grown in his capacity to transcend his personal plans and needs, to identify himself with wider and greater scopes of the whole body. This is perhaps the central sign of human religious growth : to perceive and live deep self-actualization in the Lord, as personal and apostolic availability, in function of and at the service of the whole apostolic body, of the common good, surpassing ego-centrism and proper interests. There is greater capacity to take care of the other brothers. Long term and urgent tasks have priority over short term personal projects. There is more lucidity and realism as well as more generosity of the stature of a mature person, possessing inner freedom to choose.
Life capacity to hold on in frustration and to postpone satisfactions has made of the young religious someone more human and a more adult person. Life takes on the dynamic of the Pascal Mystery – life, death and resurrection – of Jesus the Lord. Jesus becomes a companion on the road, with whom one shares and in whom one discerns the day and projects to come. The religious trusts in the Lord even if he does not always express and pray for it sufficiently.
Religious young men in formation at this stage are more familiar with adult communities and know the apostolic works of the congregation better. The human and spiritual ecology present and lived in the congregation, is subliminally perceived and introjected during this period. Men in formation reflect the style of life, values and limitations of the whole congregational body.
Regular Spiritual Accompaniment with an experienced adult religious is needed. Through this accompaniment the young religious discerns and integrates in a better way, a life of studies, prayer, community and apostolate.
After the intensive spiritual formation in the novitiate, it is basic to have continuity in spiritual formation with a programme that is pedagogical, a programme that follows a process, according to the period of formation. Academic studies even if ecclesiastical as philosophy and theology are not enough. Rather than a doctrinal approach we are talking here of personalized spirituality, as a way of living the gospel according to the congregation’s charism. Many times it happens that after a very intensive spiritual experience in the novitiate, students go to academic studies without a solid spiritual formation to accompany them. The first couple of years after the novitiate which are years of transition need special attention to this aspect.
A commitment in a serious apostolic endeavour ideally carried out by a team that is periodically prayed about and discerned/evaluated. What gives strength and motivation to religious students during the phase of academic studies is their apostolic commitment, even if this happens weekly within limited periods of time.