The novena of prayer for vocations to Oblate religious life which we have just experienced has allowed us both to renew ourselves in our own vocation and to understand that in addition to vocation ministry, each activity and missionary presence should be an opportunity to pray for vocations to Oblate missionary life and promote them. The support of and familiarity with the candidates, beginners at this stage, will continue and intensify during the later stages, starting with the prenovitiate.
I would like to emphasize the important role of the prenovitiate in the Oblate formation journey today and the need to better attend to the formation process during this stage.
Of all the stages of Oblate formation, the prenovitiate, in its current forms, is certainly the newest and most diverse stage. In recent years, the need for better accompaniment of young men before the novitiate experience has become obvious. As Fr. Jetté noted in his report to the General Chapter of 1980: “Young people who wish to enter religious life today are often unprepared to begin a novitiate. Their previous religious formation is weak; their decision needs to be clarified, purified, matured … Just about everywhere, the prenovitiate is considered necessary.” (OMI Documentation, 29 November 1980). As a Congregation we have gradually realized the importance and benefit of this stage of formation, thanks to experience and in the face of the different challenges that first and continuing formation pose for us today. The prenovitiate has become the first phase of first formation (GNOF, 156), mainly centered on human growth and Christian formation.
In the preface to the Constitutions and Rules of 1825, Eugene de Mazenod defines what might be called the missionary pedagogy of the Oblates: to help people become sensible (human), then Christians, and finally help them to become saints. The attention on the human person characterizes the Oblate way of living and doing mission. To remain faithful to the charism, Oblate formation must take into account the human dimension in the accompaniment of each Oblate. As Christian life is realized and develops in a concrete human context, we cannot ignore it in proclaiming the Gospel and in discernment and the formation journey.
Constitution 54 clearly states one of the goals of this experience: to help candidates “to achieve the personal and Christian maturity necessary for a fruitful novitiate and to assess their suitability for our way of life.” While the purpose and importance of the prenovitiate are no longer in any doubt in the Congregation, its program and its duration are not the same everywhere. Where the program lasts between six months and two years, the formation process tries to address mainly the human and Christian accompaniment of pre-novices. In this case, it is necessary to program this time so that the young men can make of it an experience of discovery and growth in their human, Christian and spiritual lives.
Where the prenovitiate program also includes the study of philosophy, the duration is usually between three and four years. In this case, if the prenovitiate program is not well defined, one often runs the risk of building everything around the study of philosophy and neglecting other dimensions of formation, especially human accompaniment, Christian and spiritual formation. Whatever the duration or the system followed, the question is to ascertain whether the current prenovitiate programs help to accompany the candidates and prepare them for the crucial stage of the novitiate. We are often tempted to forget or even ignore the main objectives of this formation stage in the development of its program.
In July 2014, while meeting in Aix-en-Provence for a formation session, prenovitiate formators had the opportunity to share and listen to their experiences about the objectives and the current prenovitiate programs. At the end of the session, and despite the diversity of experiences, the formators, among other things, became deeply aware that the prenovitiate is a time of preparation for the novitiate which consists in getting to know the candidates better and accompanying them so that they can better understand and better respond to God’s call. Human growth and Christian formation are two areas to which the prenovitiate stage must pay particular attention, in the context of community life. We must take time to accompany each pre-novice; this implies full-time formators, well-prepared and supported by a stable team. The lack of a clear formation plan can easily lead to improvisation of this formation phase. In many cases, one is often tempted to fill in the gaps with a variety of activities that do not really help young people deepen their vocation and know themselves better so as to grow.
In his message to prenovitiate formators, Father Louis Lougen recalled that the prenovitiate is the “door” to all Oblate formation and, consequently, formators should ensure the good health of this human “raw material” and the solidness of their spiritual formation.
It is indisputable that the accompaniment of young men at this stage of formation must consider the socio-cultural and ecclesial contexts where they come from and the concrete situations of their respective Units. However, to live Oblate formation as an experience of growth, freedom and internal coherence, a good human and Christian accompaniment that begins already at the prenovitiate seems essential. It is also necessary that our formators be ready and well-prepared for the challenge.
Fr. Cornelius Ngoka, OMI, Assistant General
(OMI Information No. 556, June 2015)