Instruction on the Renewal of Religious Formation: The Importance and Function of the Document

Author: LOR


L’Osservatore Romano

                                                                                                       See Renovationis Causam

The purpose of the Instruction is to facilitate the adaptation of the formation of Religious to the needs of our time. It provides the basis for a spiritual rebirth of the religious state, which is an essential element in the renewal of the entire Church envisaged by the Council. Its great importance lies in this fact.

It is necessary, therefore, to point out clearly the principles on which it intends to do this and how it means to reorganize the training of religious so that they may be better equipped for all the demands of their vocation.


The Second Vatican Council, as is known, has strongly insisted on the traditional doctrine of the universal call to holiness of all the members of the Church (Lumen Gentium, Chap. V). It has tried to show that all the faithful of Jesus Christ can and must in all circumstances strive towards the perfection of charity. In this way it has made it clear that the spiritual renewal of the faithful is its principal aim, through which its other aims would also be achieved, namely: the extension of God's kingdom (Ad Gentes, n. 23), the unity of all Christians (Unitas redintegratio,n. 7), the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam actuositatem,n. 3), the efficacious presence of Christians in the world (Gaudium et Spes, n. 43).

In this spiritual renewal of the Church, religious are called upon to play an irreplaceable role: "The profession of the evangelical counsels", as Lumen Gentium (n. 44) teaches, "is a sign which can and ought to attract all the members of the Church to an effective and prompt fulfilment of the duties of their Christian vocation".

The renewal of religious life is, therefore, highly important if the aims proposed by the Council are to be achieved. But as the Decree, Perfectae Caritatis (n. 18) points out, "the appropriate renewal of religious communities depends very largely on the training of their members". It is to this training that the Instruction Renovationis Causam is dedicated.

The supreme authority of the Church has given general norms which can be followed in adapting the formation of religious to the needs of our time and to the specific aims of each religious family. The evangelical counsels form part of the deposit of Revelation. Consequently, "Church authority, has the duty, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of interpreting these evangelical counsels and of regulating their practice" (Lumen Gentium, n. 43).

The Church has accomplished this task by the co-ordination of rules which have been presented to her by members of her faithful who were highly esteemed. Assisted by the Holy Spirit, the Church has given her approval to them, and the assurance that these rules are suitable for guiding the faithful towards perfection. She has never ceased her vigilance in seeing that the religious families remain faithful to these norms of perfection.

The Church has proceeded in exactly the same way in the present case. She has awaited the development of a great movement which began after the Ecumenical Council of revising of rules and constitutions, and the work of General Chapters following wide consultations of all their religious. With regard to formation, it has become clear to all the major superiors that in its present framework of rules, it does not correspond fully with the new requirements of the various religious families. They have, therefore, sent different petitions to the Congregation of Religious and Secular Institutes. These have undergone prolonged examination

In view of the many different forms of religious life today scattered throughout the entire world—composed of people different in so many ways, the Church does not wish to impose on all a uniform rule, but has given freedom to each institute to adapt the training of its own religious to the conditions of the place in which it is located, and to suit its own specific aims.

On the other hand, in a world that is constantly changing, it was not possible to determine "a priori" what the best solutions might be. Consequently the Church considered it best to grant to religious institutes a period for wider experimentation to help them to find such solutions.

To safeguard essential values

Above all, it is to be kept in mind that the primary intention of the Instruction is to safeguard the essential values of religious life. At the present time religious life is threatened by the so-called movement of "secularization", the aim of which is to substitute fraternal love and occupation with temporal affairs for one's relationship with and worship of God. As well as that, the needs of the Apostolate are regarded as being more important and urgent. As a result, some religious tend to think that these needs require the abandonment of conventual life for greater involvement in the world.

Aware of such dangerous lines of thought, the Instruction again restates the essential principle which must determine the choice of apostolate for religious; that the forms of the apostolate for religious must be compatible with their vocation of witnessing Christ, of being men who are consecrated to God. Apostolic activity in our day demands the collaboration of all, but it requires that each one be dedicated in his own vocation. How many actual difficulties there are affecting priests and religious, to which solutions could be found in the judicious application of this principle!

For this reason the Instruction insists on the primacy of the interior life of the religious apostle. It re-echoes the appeals of Pope Paul VI in his discourse to a group of major superiors on May 23rd, 1964 (A.A.S. LVI, 1964, pp. 569-570): "In the renewal of your institutes you must be careful always to give first thought to the spiritual life of your religious. We certainly do not wish that, among your religious devoted to the external works of the Apostolate, an opinion should prevail that it is necessary to be concerned firstly about external activity and afterwards only to interior perfection, as if this were the great need of our time and this the Church's answer to modern problems. Ardent activity and serious application to the spiritual life, far from being in opposition, are so closely connected that there is no hope of progress unless they go hand-in-hand. To activity must also be added the application to fervent prayer, concern for purity of conscience, perseverance in adversity, an active charity and eager zeal for the salvation of souls. If these virtues are overlooked, the labours of the Apostolate will lack true fruitfulness. The soul that has become tepid will not succeed for long in escaping the dangers that are to be found in carrying out the sacred ministry".

All this is but re-echoing the teaching of the Ecumenical. Council, which stated that for institutions given to apostolic works "the entire religious life of the members should be penetrated by an apostolic spirit, as their entire apostolic activity should be animated by a religious spirit. Therefore, in order that members may above all respond to their vocation of following Christ and of serving Christ Himself in His members, their apostolic activity should result from intimate union with Him" (Perfectae Caritatis, n. 8).


To determine what the training of religious should be today, the Instruction counsels that formation be entirely orientated towards the profession of perpetual vows, the meaning of which it also explains. So as never to lose sight of this it stresses the actual requirements in the training of religious. The period of training must be extended, and the training itself must be more progressive and better adapted to the particular aims of each institute.1) Nature of perpetual profession of the vows

Religious profession through which a religious publicly pledges himself by taking vows to practise the evangelical counsels is essentially a total consecration by which he is committed to the service of God. Its very nature implies the necessity of its being perpetual.

Already, through Baptism, the Christian is incorporated in Jesus Christ. By virtue of this incorporation his human nature is enriched by the gifts of divine grace and is dedicated to the worship of God. He is destined to continue the teaching, redeeming and sanctifying mission of Christ of whom he is a member. By religious profession the follower of Christ removes all the obstacles which might hinder him in realizing his Christian vocation.

Charity orientates the life of the religious toward the same end for which Christ came amongst us, the worship of God and the teaching, redemption and sanctification of all men. This is the Church's mission in the world. The Church receives in God's name the public vows of a religious and consecrates him to the service of her own mission on earth: "thence arises his duty to be discharged to the extent of his capacities and in keeping with the form of his proper vocation. The chosen means may be prayer or active undertakings in order to implant and strengthen the Kingdom of Christ in souls and to extend that Kingdom to every land" (Lumen Gentium,n. 44).

Religious consecration is not, therefore, directed solely to the good of the individual religious but also to the common good of the Church, and to the fulfilling of the very essence of religious life. In order to do this external apostolic activities are not indispensable. Contemplatives, through the example of their lives, through the sacrifice of praise that they ceaselessly offer to God, through their constant intercession, and through their union with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, accomplish in an eminent manner the apostolic function of their religious vocation (cf. Perfectae Caritatis, n. 7).

Such total consecration to God by its very nature cannot be otherwise than perpetual.

The love, in fact, that inspires this consecration is such that it leads the religious never even to question the totality or finality of his gift. The detachment required for such a consecration does not give any grounds to the religious who, having offered himself totally to the service of God might later wish to withhold a part of his affections, his. thoughts or his activities. Doubtless, in exceptional cases the Church can dispense a religious who through his own fault, or for other reasons is no longer able to live up to what he has promised. But these exceptional dispensations do not make religious consecration any less total or definitive.

Such an important and decisive act cannot be made unless the candidate for religious life has reached sufficient human and spiritual maturity, which alone makes him capable of assuming in full knowledge an undertaking "until death". He must clearly know the special nature of the life of the institute in which he will have to live out his consecration to God.

2. Long preparation, gradual and corresponding to the character of each institute

The preparation for religious profession is comprised of two essential phases; the novitiate and the trial period during which the members are bound by temporary vows or other commitments (Special norms, 10, 1) which separates the end of the novitiate from final profession.

The religious life begins with the novitiate. The novitiate is the primary initiation.

However, because of age, or of having lived up to then in a non-Christian environment, or of having insufficient knowledge the candidate for religious life may not be ready for this first stage. The superiors can demand of him a period of trial and formation of longer duration. This does not mean that the aims of the novitiate are any different from those proper to the formation of a candidate for religious life: "whatever may, be the special aim of the institute, the principle purpose of the novitiate is to initiate the novice into the essential and primary requirements of the religious life, and also in view of greater charity, to implement its evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience (Special norms, 13, 1).

Nevertheless it is well to recall that the conditions under which religious are called to live out their spiritual lives differ greatly according to whether they enter purely contemplative institutes, or institutes devoted to apostolic activities or charitable works. Hitherto, life inthe novitiates was substantially the same for all candidates to the religious life. The novice living in strict separation from the world, without any external activity, devoted his time to interior formation and learned the needs of the life of a religious through meditation, prayer and reading. It would appear then that in institutes dedicated to the apostolate, the novitiate should be begun in a manner better suited to the life of the religious of that particular institute. It is very important, in fact, that from the beginning of his religious life the novice should be confronted with the fundamental problem of the kind of life he is facing, namely, the uniting of contemplation with apostolic activity. In order to ensure this, during the course of his novitiate his superiors may set aside special periods—to be spent even outside the novitiate—during which the novice will make this difficult apprenticeship. Such periods can also serve in completing their personal formation and in giving them a better knowledge of the environment and society that they must one day evangelize (Perfectae Caritatis, n; 2-d). But it is necessary that they do not overlook their essential aim: formation for a life of union with God in work, and so continue in themselves the purpose and aims of the novitiate which consist in providing an adequate formation for the religious life of their particular institute. Superiors must strictly respect the purpose of "experiments". Those who are surprised at these periods to be spent outside of the novitiate should call to mind that St. Ignatius predicted them: pilgrimages, assisting in hospitals and various other forms of the sacred ministry.

Formation must continue

After the novitiate, the formation must be continued until the taking of final vows for a period of at least three years and not more than nine years.

The problem arises concerning the nature of the temporary commitments. Since the Pontificate of Pius IX, in the last century, these bonds were constituted temporary vows. They had the advantage of establishing the candidate in religious life. And it is lawful for institutes to keep them. But some are likely to meet difficulties with temporary vows. While they only oblige temporarily, the intention of those who make them is directed

towards perpetual vows. Moreover, the facility with which they can be dispensed from such vows does not add to the prestige of temporary vows. For this reason some have considered eliminating temporary vows and of putting in their place some other kind of bond, such as a simple promise, an oath, etc. To prepare for final profession, the object of this temporary bond must be the practice of the evangelical counsels aiming always towards the perfection of charity.

The superior is given the faculty of allowing leave of absence in particular cases, so that they may test their vocation and resolve any difficulties about which they might be hesitant at the moment of their definite promise.

In short, no effort has been spared in the Instruction to give the candidate for the religious life the possibility of preparing himself, with full knowledge and responsibility, for the definite decision he must make at final profession.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
27 February 1969, page 10

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