The Novitiate is the candidate’s time of initiation into Oblate religious life…..
This sentence tells us what is the scope of the Novitiate and what is expected of a Novitiate. In other words, what is the nature of the Novitiate? The Oblate formation begins here. The Novitiate plays a major role in the life of a Novice or a Religious. It is here that the candidate is initiated into the Oblate life and family. It is here that he learns the A, B, C’s of the religious and the Oblate life. It is here that the Oblate color or Oblateness is given to him. In the words of the present Superior General, the Novitiate is like a womb where the little baby is formed. Every essential thing regarding a child is given in the Womb. What is not formed or given in the womb will not be given or received elsewhere. It is the same with regard to the Novitiate. Who is an Oblate, who is a Religious or who is a consecrated person is instilled and driven and initiated into the candidate during the Novitiate year. The candidate is given the basic ingredients of Oblate life during the Novitiate year.
It is in the Novitiate where the candidate will be truly immersed, introduced, and initiated to this way of life where at the end of the year he would be able to say “now I am ready to make a public commitment and surrender my entire life and existence to the Lord in and through the Congregation because I truly understand what religious life is all about, and what the Oblate way of life is all about.” Though a candidate is recruited, he may not have a clear understanding as to what he is going to be. He simply wants to be a priest. He doesn’t know the difference between the religious congregations and the religious and the diocesan priesthood. He simply wants to be a parish priest. But during the Novitiate he would learn about all these things and thus, all through the Novitiate, he would able to make a very mature decision. Therefore, the Novitiate programme must have the means and ways of instilling the charism of the Founder and the charism of the Congregation. Thus, we include in the curriculum of the Novitiate a study of the charism of the other Congregations and how the Oblate charism differs from them. We need to instill in the candidate the conviction that they are not going to be a diocesan priest or a Jesuit or a Blessed Sacrament priest or a Benedictine monk, but an Oblate. So, what is typical for the Oblate way of life is given here.
It is not only through the things that we teach that a candidate will learn and that they will be initiated into the Oblate way of life. They learn from observing the life and the example of the Novice Master, the Novitiate formators and other Oblates of the Unit. It is through their life that the novices learn who is an Oblate, who is a consecrated person, and what is the Oblate charism. This is why we believe that it is important to appoint the right persons for staffing the Novitiate. They can form or deform the candidate. So, the example of the daily life of the Novice Master, including his prayer life, is important. Because it is under the guidance of the Novice Master, the Novice comes to know or grasp the full meaning of their religious consecration. So, the Novice Master’s life speaks louder than words. He must be a man of prayer who has experienced God very powerfully in his life and he must be able to communicate that experience to the candidate, as well as his commitments, dedication, and love for the congregation. Through the life and the example of the Novice Master, the Novice learns the seriousness and the gravity of the commitment they are going to make. As our Holy Founder says “The Novitiate is the place where the subjects are fashioned with a master’s hand.” It is here that he is truly backed or formed as a missionary. A course on spiritual discernment is given here so that the candidate is helped to make a mature decision.
The most important thing in the Novitiate is to initiate and invite the candidate to a deep personal relationship with the Lord. This is a must. The Novice develops a deep personal friendship with the Lord, where he will be able to say that God alone suffices. This we do through the liturgy, the Eucharist, the Word of God and prayer. Thus, in setting the Novitiate programme, more time must be allocated so that there is adequate time for the candidate to spend in solitude and in prayer. Constitution number 33 speaks of a few spiritual resources, namely: the Eucharist, the Word of God, the Liturgy of the Hours, prolonged silent prayer and examination of conscience. It is in the Novitiate that the candidate must be initiated into these resources so that, making use of these resources, he will be able to establish a very deep personal relationship with the Lord. If the candidate doesn’t discover the true wealth and the richness of these resources he will never discover it elsewhere. It is in prolonged silent prayer that we make each day that the candidate allows himself to be molded by the Lord. Thus, the novice must be initiated and helped as to how to be comfortable before the Lord in prayer. With this in mind, in our Novitiate I have introduced something called “tasting the intimacy of the Lord” where the Novice is invited to take personal time (about an hour each day) before the Blessed Sacrament. It is not just 10 or 15 minutes, but it is prolonged, silent prayer. It is not once in a while, but each day. There is a constancy in this as we invite the candidate to personally experience and taste God and to seek God above all else. He has to inculcate a holy friendship with the Lord. “I have called you friends not servants…” It is a personal journey with the Lord who has called the candidate by a personal name and a vocation. It is a personal discovery. This is why the atmosphere of silence and prayer is very important in a Novitiate community. The candidate must be brought to the awareness that the Lord is the true wealth of the human heart. They must be able to say like St. Paul, “I consider everything else as rubbish for the surpassing knowledge of knowing Christ my Lord”. Hence in the Novitiate they are also introduced to self-denial and self-mortification. We help the candidate to listen to the Lord. With this in mind I have introduced personal retreats. Each candidate will have at least 2 personal retreats during the Novitiate where he is all alone. We help the candidate to discover the Lord in the Lectio Divina. At the beginning of the Novitiate they are introduced to Lectio Divina. (We teach them the following: What is Lectio Divina? how to choose a good book, how to reflect, and that the Bible is the main spiritual Book.) Once the candidate selects a book from the Bible he brings it to the Novice Master. It is with his recommendation that the novice starts reading it, because there are instances where the candidate might select a very highly controversial book. During the reading of the book he is accompanied as much as possible by the Novice Master. Once the reading of one book is over, the Novice Master will have a personal chat with the candidate to see what he has learned and to see whether he has met the Lord in that particular reading. In the Unit prayers the candidate is introduced to a sharing of the word of God with his peers. Once in a while the Novice Master will join them in the unit prayer. (Unit prayer means for example: Sinhalese, Tamils, and Bangladeshis praying separately in their own language.)
We have had in our experience where the candidate may not acquire the need of the Eucharist even after daily Eucharist in the Novitiate. So we need to try to make the candidate aware of the importance of daily Eucharist and how they can discover the true meaning of this discipline (C.33).
We give the Novices some pastoral experiences. On Saturdays and Sundays they do pastoral activities with the children, the youth and the poor. For example, presently some candidates of our Novitiate go to a place where the whole village practically was destroyed by a land slide. When they come back they have periodic evaluations with the Novice Master. What is most important is not what they have done, but what has happened to them as a result of their pastoral work. They constantly ask the questions: “Did I meet the Lord today? “ In whom’? “What did he tell you?” and “How do you respond to him?” We help the candidate to meet the Lord present in the poor and the marginalized and help them to develop a relationship with Him by developing an authentic, sincere and loving relationship with the poor and the marginalized. So, every pastoral encounter is a moment for them to encounter the Lord in the persons and in the events. We help them to reflect as to how God is working in the lives of the people.
The Novitiate programme includes also some manual labor, to show them that as a priest or a religious, commitment, dedication, responsibility, a sense of belonging and accountability are important factors.
To do all these things, the Novice Master and his staff must be fathers, brothers and animators. In them the novice must never see only a task master, but a father figure. Then they will never hide anything from their superiors or play hide and seek, or wear masks. The Novice Master must have a personal journey with the candidate. With this idea in mind I have introduced something called “the encounter with the Novice Master”. They must be able to trust in the Novice master. The candidate must be allowed to form himself, taking formation into his own hands in freedom. Creating conviction in them is very important and is more important than creating rules and regulations in the Novitiate.
Fr. Roshan J. L. Silva OMI
Bandarawela, Sri Lanka.