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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

Lifelong Formation

December 30, 1983 — Evening Conference

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The new Code of Canon Law is remarkably clear and very detailed on the subject of continuing or lifelong formation of religious. There are many canons dealing with formation before first vows, but that is not the subject of our reflections. There are new canons, quite unknown in the Church's Canonical history before, specifying and obligating religious to have formation after their vows.

Why should the new Code be so insistent on continuing formation? First, because it is absolutely necessary. Moreover, many religious came into religious life lacking even a solid foundation in the basics of their faith. Nowadays, there is almost nothing that can be presumed when one enters religious life as already being in possession.

Third, there are nowadays so many vagrant, strange, heterodox, confused ideas about the most fundamental areas of our faith. Fourth, there is need to become discriminating about one's spiritual and secular reading. It is not enough to say, "I'm grown up now. I have reached adulthood. I can from now on read, view, listen to whom I want and not be damaged in the process." Not so. There is need to be able to read and study, to listen and discern truth from error. There are two levels: to be discriminating in distinguishing the good from the not so good, the true from the erroneous; and also, even for those persons entering religious life with a good, sound doctrinal foundation, unless there is continuing formation what we may have learned and perhaps mastered fifteen or twenty years ago will not keep them doctrinally alive. You need more today.

Finally, and most importantly, whatever reasons there are for continuing formation in the religious life, one crucial one has been given to us by our Savior in the well-known parable of the Sower. In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel we are told that the sower went out to sow his seed. The seed fell on different kinds of ground; the other kinds of ground are not pertinent to us here, but the first is. According to the parable, the first type of ground on which the seed fell was fruitless, and this first of the fruitless kinds of ground was, in Christ's estimation, the kind of ground in which the seed did not take root so the birds of the air came and picked the seed off the ground. This, Jesus says, is those who having received the word of God -- for us, our vocation -- but failing to understand it, the evil spirit came along and stole the word of God from their hearts.

If we want a critically important reason for continuing formation, it is the need to keep our minds always in contact with God's truth so that we keep penetrating, grasping, and understanding more and more clearly what God has revealed.

In the text of Canon Law, there will be no less than four quotations, each dealing with formation.

"After first profession the formation of all members in each institute is to be completed so that they may lead the life proper to the institute more fully and fulfill its mission more effectively."

Gone is the day when we can say that a religious has been formed once he or she took their vows.

"The Institute's own law is therefore to define the nature and duration of this formation. In this, the needs of the Church and the needs of the conditions of people and times are to be kept in mind insofar–as–required–by-the purpose and character of the Institute."
"Formation is to be systematic, adapted to the capacity of the members, spiritual and apostolic, both doctrinal and practical."
"Religious are to be diligent in continuing their spiritual, doctrinal, and practical formation throughout their lives. Superiors are to insure that they have the assistance and the time to do so."

What is formation in the religious life? Formation in the religious life is first the mental instruction needed to understand the Catholic faith, the spiritual life, and the particular institute to which a person belongs. The first meaning of formation is to educate the mind.

Secondly, formation is the training of the will and emotions to be able effectively to put one's knowledge into practice. These are not casual words. Some institutes, preoccupied with the academic and intellectual formation of their religious, have developed highly sophisticated men and women, trained intellectually to the hilt, the best instructed and most educationally sophisticated people in the country. In one small province of a religious Order, in one year, six PhD’s left the Order and the Priesthood, and it was the year of their graduation. The mind of the Church surely includes in formation the training of the intellect, but it dare not stop there; training must go on to train the will and the emotions. Otherwise, we will continue to have the spectacle of so many highly academic, well-trained mentally religious leaders among institutes of consecrated life who are men and women who are often infants in the use of their knowledge.

What are the stages in formation as the Church now understands it? There are three stages. The first stage is formation from the time of entrance into a religious institute up to first profession. The second stage is from first to final profession. The third stage is continuing formation from final profession to death.

What is the purpose of each stage? In the first stage, from entrance up to first profession, the main purpose is to verify one's religious vocation. That is, to verify that vocation on the side of God's grace. "Has God really given me a call to the religious life in general and this community in particular?" Discernment of spirits.

The second is to verify one's commitment to this grace on the part of the person preparing for first vows. Not everyone receives the grace of a religious vocation and not everyone who receives the grace responds with necessary generosity. So the purpose of the first formation is verification on the side of God, whether I have really received the grace, and on my side, whether given the grace, I have been as responsive as I should.

In the second stage, the main purpose (besides others) is to solidify and confirm one's vocation and develop such habits of character as are necessary for lifetime consecration to the evangelical counsels. The purpose of stage two is solidification.

In the third stage, from final vows until death, the purpose is to develop one's life of prayer, obedience, and community living to become ever better equipped to do the apostolic work of the community, but especially to preserve one's faith and dedication. Twenty or thirty years in the Community is no guarantee of final perseverance in the religious life. In other words, the purpose of this third stage of formation is preservation, and in today's chaotic world that is not an idle observation. You don't lose 60,000 Sisters in the United States since the Council without a reason.

Preservation and perfection. We must continue to perfect our practice of virtue over the years so that having entered a life of Christian Perfection, we verify our purpose and become under the influence of grace and our cooperation, ever more and more perfect in humility, patience, industry, chastity; in the love of God, in prayer.

One more area, Special Directives. Drawing on the Church's teaching, there are certain passages in the Code that bear more careful scrutiny.

The Church tells us that formation at every stage should be first of all systematic; in other words, it should not be haphazard. Somebody should plan and think it through. It should be organized, methodical, regular, and logical.

Second, formation should be adapted to the capacity of the members. Not everyone enters a religious community with the same background or with the same ability. Different people have to be dealt with differently because of their very different abilities. One of the most important things to keep in mind about formation at any stage is that no two religious either enter with or at any point in their lives have the same amount of grace of God; some have much more, some much less. Not everyone cooperates equally with the graces received and not everyone works as hard in using whatever abilities they have received. Be sure that the formation is adapted and keeps adapting to the people being formed.

Third, the formation should be spiritual. It should concentrate on the spiritual life, that is, growth in holiness. That is THE reason for reason for religious in the world, not merely the main reason or leading reason, to be holy so that by their holiness they might be instruments of God in sanctifying the rest of the world. God help us, and God help the Church if religious are not holy. There is an apt phrase: the corruption of the best is the worst; the worst corruption is that which should be the best. Or as one poet put it, "There is no stench like that of rotten lilies." We religious are called to holiness, and when a religious is unholy he or she is unholy indeed. Formation, training is for that most quintessential purpose of our existence, to become like the Christ whom we claim to imitate, who is the all-holy God in human form.

Fourth, the formation should be apostolic. The most cloistered, segregated and solitary religious is meant by the will of God to be apostolic. In other words, they are to reach out according to the charism of each community's Founder, to work for the salvation and sanctification of souls. The formation should always be aware of why we are religious - for others. Even our very sanctity is not to be hugged or squeezed or hermetically sealed and kept for ourselves; it is to be shared.

Fifth, the formation should be doctrinal. This bears emphasis. Religious must be formed and continually formed in knowing and understanding the authentic teachings of the Church.

Finally, the formation should be practical. This continuing formation of religious up to death should be useful, realistic, and suited to the needs and condition of the person, but especially to the needs of the people of God.

There are a few practical recommendations in closing. What we have been speaking about is not exotic; it is essential. Consequently, every religious and especially superiors should take the Church at her word and realize the importance of continuing, lifelong formation. Second, in order to help in people's formation, you must have "formers"; someone has to do the job. Ideally it will be members of the Community. If it is necessary, draw on others. But whoever is inducted into service and requested to contribute to the formation of religious must be sound, competent, and thoroughly spiritual. If you are going to progress in formation, you must have resources. There have to be good, sound books for adequate reading matter and nowadays recording and all the means of communication of ideas that are at our disposal.

Lifelong formation is the will of the Church, therefore, it is the will of God. And the future of religious life into the 21st century is only as assured and promising as those who hold the destiny of institutes in their hands in this century take what the Church tells us seriously and spare no time, no expense to provide what religious in the modern world desperately need in our day.

Retreat given to and recorded by the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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