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Lengthening the period for novitiate

November 4, 2013

Will lengthening the period of religious novitiate (currently set at two years per 1983 CIC 648 § 3) cure the ills caused by the great exodus from religious life?

The current two-year limit for novitiate (it can be extended to two-and-a-half years, per 1983 CIC 653 § 2) is a post-conciliar attempt to give religious formators sufficient time to assess a candidate’s suitability for religious life (sort of, see below) while at the same time not leaving candidates in extended limbo about their vocations. The time period for novitiate is not carved in stone, so modifying it would be no big deal.

This two-year (and-a-half) year max applies only to novitiate, the completion of which period makes one eligible for temporary vows. Emphasis on temporary, meaning three to six years (per 1983 CIC 655), extendable to nine (per 1983 CIC 657 § 2). Now, one in temporary vows is a religious, and departures during temporary vows are distressing, but they are, in the final analysis, departures made during a period called temporary for a reason.

At which point we may ask, is it probable that one, having gone through at least two years (maybe two-and-a-half) of novitiate, followed by at least three more years (possibly nine more!) in temporary vows, fails to perservere in religious life because of too-brief a formation period?

It’s possible, I grant. But probable? Sufficiently probable to explain the tens of thousands of departures that the Church’s religious institutes have experienced over the last 40 years?

That, I frankly doubt. I think the problems go much, much deeper. + + +

Added: I wonder, too, whether part of the problem is Holy See’s practice (perhaps actual, but certainly perceived) of granting, eventually, every request for departure it receives, as if permanence simply were not an element of religious profession any more. On this latter point, see a 1984 essay by Paul M. Quay, SJ, available here.

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