As I mentioned in another context a week ago, today is the 34th anniversary of my reception into my community's Novitiate - then still located at beautiful Mount Paul, Oak Ridge, NJ. We were a class of 8, which was then still considered small! (Of the 8 of us, 3 of us are still serving as priests, but I am the only one still in the community.)
This month, God willing, we will welcome two new novices. Their novitiate experience will undoubtedly differ from mine in important respects - not least because their novitiate year will not be in semi-rural northern New Jersey but instead will be passed in Washington, DC, and under the same roof as the students in Temporary Profession who have already completed their novitiate and are now studying theology at the Catholic University of America.
But, unlike the academic study of theology and the various programs of pastoral formation which are essentially similar in most seminaries, the novitiate experience - regardless of its physical location - is a unique component of formation for membership in a religious community. Its purpose is to provide a process for the novice’s transition from secular life to religious life, - no small feat in a society which is increasingly post-religious and thus less and less capable of comprehending, let alone supporting, any kind of spiritual vocation.
It would be false to say that as novices back in 1981-1982 we were isolated from the world around us, but it was (and was deliberately intended to be) an atypical and unique year - substantially different from the lives we had individually been living before that in order to enable us together to embrace a qualitatively different experience of life. A more simply focused style of life, revolving around the routines of shared community and a more intensely lived liturgical experience, it was intended to concentrate our attention by offering (as our wise novice director used to like to say) no escape from oneself, from the others in the community, or from God.
These many years later, I still treasure that experience, that time shared with myself, my fellow novices, and God in the natural beauty and uplifting environment of my novitiate. May all future generations of novices be similarly blessed as they respond to the invitation and challenge of religious life!