The formation program is ultimately nothing more or nothing less than various Dominicans, in different roles, helping others to discern the Holy Spirit’s call in their lives and to learn how to respond to that call in terms of a religious life oriented toward preaching.
That, however, is a simple summary of a very difficult and many-faceted program. And the real beginning of the process takes place before one ever contacts the Dominicans. It begins with the candidate’s own struggle to discern if he has a call to the religious life or not. This can take place over a number of years, and usually involves some help from others, especially a confessor or spiritual director. The dynamic here should be noted: it is a personal call from God to the individual, but the recognition and understanding of that call normally requires the help of others. This dynamic continues throughout the following, more formal stages of formation: the candidate continues to struggle to understand and give shape to his call under the guidance and direction of others. Nor should it be surprising to us that this is the case. God always enlightens us, teaches us, sanctifies us through the Body of Christ, his Church. His grace for us, in other words, is always ministered to us through others. The grace of a vocation is made incarnate in the service, education, and training that others give in order to bring that vocation to life.
The following is a broad outline of how a man moves forward from initial inquiry towards application to the Province and finally onto the path of formation.
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After you have gathered sufficient information about the Dominican Order and the Province of St. Joseph (such as attending a Vocation Weekend or visiting another house or priory), that is, enough to begin thinking seriously about applying to enter the novitiate, you must indicate to the Director of Vocations that you wish to become an “aspirant” – one who “aspires” to join the Order.
Any young man eager to join the Order and get on with his life’s vocation quite naturally desires to make the process unfold as quickly as possible. A sufficient period of aspirancy helps to ensure that haste does not make waste. A hasty entrance into a religious order could lead to a hasty exit.
Pope John Paul II taught in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (PDV) that 4 aspects of a young man must be developed simultaneously in any program of priestly formation. The four areas needing development are: the human, the spiritual, the intellectual and the pastoral. PDV no, 43 states: “The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked a suitable human formation.” In other words, the lack of a suitable human formation will hinder spiritual, intellectual and pastoral development. The document goes on to expound what a suitable human formation is.
Even though PDV is addressing the formation of future priests, these four areas of development can be applied fruitfully to formation in a religious order. During aspirancy the aspirant works with the Director of Vocations and his Dominican mentor to explore where he stands in relation to his own human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral development. If an aspirant is to apply to the Order, there will need to be signs that these four areas of development are initially underway – even though it belongs to the Province’s program of formation to bring them to mature development.
Put simply, aspirancy assists you and us to determine if you have, more or less, the “right stuff” to become a Dominican preacher. Aspirancy is a new step of commitment which invites you to consider even more seriously just what the shift from your current way of life into the life of a consecrated religious will entail and whether this is truly a realistic option for you. Typically, if he hasn’t done so already, during aspirancy a man begins to share his desire to enter the Order of Preachers with those closest to him (family, relatives, friends, etc.).
The length of aspirancy depends on where an aspirant is in his discernment. Its duration is up to the discretion of the Director of Vocations in consultation with the aspirant, his Dominican mentor and anyone else the Director wishes to consult. A typical period of aspirancy is a year. Some men need more time than that and some need less. For instance, a freshman in college who hopes to enter the Order upon graduation would need to be an aspirant for at least four years. A senior in college or a young professional working may need only a few months.
As soon as the aspirant believes that God could be calling him to enter the next novitiate class, he should contact the Director of Vocations for the application interview which must be done in person. The final goal of aspirancy is that you and the Director of Vocations observe sufficient evidence to show that an application is a realistic option for which you are well-suited and truly ready.
If distance is no problem, an aspirant is assigned a Dominican friar who will act as a mentor for him in his discernment of a Dominican vocation. Where possible, this mentor is chosen from the Dominican community which is closest to where the aspirant lives. The aspirant stays in touch with this Dominican friar on a regular basis (i.e. every 5 to 6 weeks by telephone, Email or in person). If it seems appropriate to the aspirant and the Director of Vocations, this Dominican mentor might also act as a spiritual director and/or confessor for the aspirant. From time to time, the mentor will invite the candidate to join the rest of the Dominican community for prayer and a meal or perhaps even an overnight stay. Overnight stays are always coordinated through the Director of Vocations. Throughout the entire period of aspirancy, the aspirant is responsible for maintaining contact with the Director of Vocations.
We generally ask that a man wishing to become an aspirant indicate his interest by October 15 of the year prior to the summer he hopes to enter the novitiate. Since the deadline for giving out applications is April 15, this gives the man roughly 6 months in the aspirancy phase before applying. Exceptions to the October date can always be made depending on extenuating circumstances. In fact, when possible, we prefer a man to be an aspirant for at least one year before asking to apply. The decision to become an aspirant is one’s initial commitment to focus discernment upon the Dominicans of the Province of St. Joseph before actually applying. As long as a man has intentions of investigating other religious communities, provinces of Dominicans or dioceses, he isn’t ready to become an aspirant in the Province of St. Joseph.
*** As soon as the aspirant believes that God could be calling him to enter the next novitiate class, he should contact the Director of Vocations for the application interview, which must be done in person.
If there are no impediments, and it seems prudent to do so, the Director of Vocations may supply the application. Application will involve the following: writing an autobiography, obtaining sacramental documents, college transcripts, a medical, eyes and dental examination, letters of reference, a criminal background check, a psychological evaluation, interviews with the Vocation Council and financial records.
At any time during aspirancy or application, the Director of Vocations may choose to consult with the aspirant’s Dominican mentor for his opinion and advice. Once all the steps of the application are completed, the aspirant’s petition is voted on by the Vocation Council who then passes along the result to the Prior Provincial. Acceptance by the Prior Provincial admits an aspirant to the novitiate.
Applications for the next novitiate class are generally not given out after April 15 each year.
After being accepted by the Prior Provincial, the man goes to the novitiate at St. Gertrude Priory in Cincinnati, Ohio usually the third week of July. He is now considered a postulant. After a brief orientation and a week long retreat, the postulant is clothed in the full habit of our Holy Father Dominic on the founder’s feast day, August 8, and thus begins his canonical year of novitiate. During this intense year of prayer and discernment, the novice is instructed in elements of religious life by the Novice Master and learns how to live as a Dominican friar among brothers.
At the same time, the solemnly professed members of the novitiate community are discerning whether the novice truly has a call to the Dominican religious life. The novitiate year concludes with the profession of simple (temporary) vows, usually made for a period of three years. Only one vow, obedience, is verbally professed. The other two, poverty and chastity, are included under the vow of obedience according to the Constitutions of the Order of Friars Preachers.
The novitiate of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph is located at St. Gertrude Priory in Cincinnati, OH. It is the house of formation for the men who have just entered the province and it is a time of continued discernment in preparation for profession of first vows. The novitiate year begins during first vespers of the Feast of our Holy Father St. Dominic when the postulants are vested in the habit of the Dominican friar and ends during the Mass of simple profession a year and a week later.
The novitiate is a time to discover whether one is fitted for the Dominican life – a blend of apostolic ministry and contemplative prayer. The emphasis is on prayer, the common life, and the study of the Constitutions and lives of Dominican men and women, both past and present. It is a time to ask the question: Can I see myself in the future as someone other than a friar preacher? Can I imagine myself doing anything else that brings me as much happiness and fulfillment? It is also a time for the Dominican community to determine the suitability of the man for Dominican life. It is a time of discernment of God’s will.
The Dominican Constitutions offer a definition of the Novitiate as “…a time of probation directed to this purpose, namely, that the novices come to know more deeply their divine, and indeed Dominican vocation, experience the Order’s way of life, be formed in the Dominican spirit in mind and heart, and manifest their intention and suitability to the brethren (LCO 177).” These words serve as the foundation of any novitiate in the Order. Coming to knowledge of a religious vocation requires time, silence, prayer and solitude. Our Constitutions and the law of the Church require that a novitiate last at least one year. Silence provides the framework in which the Dominican can pray and study, which must always precede our preaching.
Father Damien Byrne, O.P., the former Master of the Order wrote that vocations are drawn to us by a desire to preach the Gospel and because of a love for study, but even motives as exalted as these need to be tested by the experience of sustained prayer and solitude. And while involvement in the apostolic life of the Order must not be omitted, that is not the primary purpose of the novitiate. More than just a time of probation, the novitiate is a place and it is people. For the past fifteen years the novitiate house for the Province of Saint Joseph has been located at Saint Gertrude Priory in Cincinnati, Ohio. One responsibility assigned to the friars of the house is the pastoral care of a large and vibrant parish; the novices and the Novice Master are part of this community.
Our novice brothers receive their most important formation by actually living the religious life. Classes in the life and traditions of the Order and assigned duties are part of the life but the matters that have primacy in the religious formation of our brothers are our communal celebration of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours. Each brother becomes familiar with the cycle of the Church’s celebrations by taking an active part in the planning and performance of the Mass and Divine Office. In addition to these, the novices are expected to receive the Sacrament of Penance regularly and to foster a love for Our Lord in the Eucharist and devotion to Our Lady, especially through praying the Rosary. Note that the Novitiate is common for both the cooperator brother and clerical brother candidates.
One day out of the week the brothers engage in some apostolate. Some work in a nursing home assisting the chaplain in his duties, others visit the homebound elderly of the inner city. Others are engaged in a hospital ministry or work with the disabled. Even though the apostolic component of the life is limited by the nature and the purpose of the novitiate, it is nonetheless a component that brings before our mind that the Dominicans are a missionary Order founded for the preaching of the Gospel and the salvation of souls. The fruits of our prayer and study are the treasures that we share with our brothers and sisters.
*also see: What is the Novitiate?
After the novice completes his year of novitiate, the simply professed brother moves to the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Formation in the studium focuses primarily on four different areas: human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation (cf. Pastores Dabo Vobis nos. 43-59). If he is a clerical student brother, he begins his studies for priesthood and prepares for active ministry. The cooperator student brother also prepares for active ministry but with a plan of formation suited to his particular skills and interests and the needs of the Province.
Blessed John Paul writes, “In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 43). The four areas of formation begin with human formation, which entails a deepening of the virtuous life. A brother is not to be arrogant or quarrelsome, but affable, hospitable, sincere, prudent, discreet, generous, ready to serve, capable of fraternal relationships, quick to understand, forgive, and console (cf. Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 43). The Student Master is directly responsible for the human formation of all the brothers. He gives guidance about growth in human formation, and offers correction to the brothers where he sees them fail.
On the spiritual level, the Student Master oversees the process of spiritual formation for both the clerical and the cooperator student brother while the Master of Cooperator Brothers specifically oversees the ministerial formation of the cooperator brother and ensures that he develops his unique identity as a cooperator brother within the common brotherhood of all the friars. Besides the normal schedule of the Divine Office, Mass, meals and classes, the Student Master offers weekly “chapter” talks on religious life. He conducts private meetings with each student to mutually assess progress and note areas that need to be worked on. In addition to the Master of Cooperator Brothers, the Student Master is assisted by the “Formation Council” with whom he meets monthly. This council consists of the Assistant Student Masters, the President of the Pontifical Faculty, the Academic Dean of the Pontifical Faculty, the Director of Pastoral Formation and the Prior of the House of Studies. When the three years of simple vows is completed, the student brother professes solemn vows for life or renews his temporary vows for another year. He can renew his vows a year at a time up to three more years after which he must make a final decision to stay or leave. Upon solemn profession, the clerical student brother prepares for ordination to the diaconate and to the priesthood.
The academic program for clerical student brothers comprises philosophical and theological studies over six years. Studies begin with two years of philosophy followed by three years of theology, at the end of which the clerical student will have completed requirements for both the pontifical degree (called the Bachelor in Sacred Theology or S.T.B.) and the Master of Divinity (M. Div.) degree. Dominican clerical student brothers often take 5 years of theology. After completing the three years of theology for the STB/M. Div, there is the possibility of doing a two-year program to obtain the Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL). A student is admitted to this degree program upon the approval of the Pontifical Faculty. Since priestly ordination comes after the 4th year of theology, those who are on the “STL track” will remain at the Dominican House of Studies for another year beyond ordination. Those not on the STL track will round out their 4th year of theology before Ordination with elective courses in theology and practicums for priestly ministry before receiving their first pastoral assignment somewhere in the Province. Their 5th year of theology then becomes a year of “complementary studies” which must be begun within 5 years of priestly ordination. The course of studies at the Dominican House of Studies places particular emphasis on acquiring a solid foundation in the theological method of St. Thomas Aquinas (whose approach has been highly recommended by popes through the centuries and who was the only theologian singled out by the Second Vatican Council in its decree on priestly ministry as a sure guide in theological studies). The students can avail themselves of courses and resources outside the House of Studies through our membership in the Consortium of Theological Schools.
From the ministerial aspect, academic courses and various apostolates are arranged to give both clerical and cooperator students the opportunity to prepare for Orders and ministry respectively in a supervised setting. These programs help the individual discover his particular strengths and weaknesses. Courses in pastoral ministry aim to assist the student to reflect on and develop prudent ways to apply sound principles of theology to concrete pastoral situations. Apostolates vary from catechetical work, RCIA programs, helping in nursing homes, classroom teaching, parish and campus ministry, etc.. These apostolates are set up in the metropolitan area during the school year whereas summers allow students to take up apostolates in other locations where the Province has communities. Such placements afford student brothers a unique opportunity to experience life in another community of friars outside a house of formation.