What Is A Novice?
by Larry Rice
Every once in a while, I’ll see a movie with characters who are supposed to be part of a religious community of some sort. They inevitably will refer to a new member as a “novitiate.” But that’s not correct. A “novitiate” refers to a program of formation for new members, or the building where they live. A new member is a “novice.”
In the Church, there are several different kinds of religious communities, and they all have some sort of novitiate, or formation program for new members. In many religious orders, the novitiate is the first year of formation. For some, it’s the second year. Usually a novitiate lasts one year. In some orders, like the Jesuits, it’s two years. The Church’s Code of Canon Law requires that a novice stay on the grounds of the novitiate for a year and a day. Novices can leave for the day with the permission of their superiors, but not overnight.
Novices are expected to spend their time in prayer, and learning about the community they are asking to join. They study the order’s history, it’s founder, and its spirituality. There may be a program of spiritual exercises designed for novices. Often there will also be time for work, either on the grounds of the novitiate, or in some local ministry run by the community.
Of course, while the novice is learning all about the community, the community is simultaneously learning about the novice. Over the course of the year, it will usually become clear to everyone whether this individual and this religious order are a good fit. If, at the end of the process, the novice wishes to continue, and the community agrees, a novice will make his or her first vows or promises. Usually these are “temporary” vows, renewed annually until the new member is ready to make a permanent commitment.
The key to this process is “discernment,” prayerfully considering the nature of God’s call, and responding to that call. The nature of a religious commitment requires time, growth, and an openness to God’s will. In this respect, we’re all still novices.
Since we have a Novice Sister living here in our parish, I thought this article was appropriate to share with our parish family. Please keep Sister Michael Marie in your prayers as she soon will be concluding her novitiate.