Congregation for institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life directives on formation in religious institutes

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* The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which publishes this document, gives it the weight of an Instruction according to can. 34 of the Code of Canon Law. It deals with provisions and orientations approved by the Holy Father and proposed by the Dicastery with a view to clarifying the norms of law and assisting in their application. These provisions and orientations presume the juridic prescriptions which are already in effect, referring to them on occasion, and in no case derogating from them.



1. The proper renewal of religious institutes depends chiefly on the formation of their members. Religious life brings together disciples of Christ who should be assisted in accepting "this gift of God which the Church has received from her Lord and which by his grace she always safeguards."(1) This is why the best forms of adaptation will bear fruit only if they are animated by a profound spiritual renewal. The formation of candidates, which has as its immediate end that of introducing them to religious life and making them aware of its specific character within the Church, will primarily aim at assisting men and women religious realize their unity of life in Christ through the Spirit, by means of the harmonious fusion of its spiritual, apostolic, doctrinal, and practical elements.(2)


2. Well before the Second Vatican Council, the Church was concerned about the formation of religious.(3) The Council, in its turn, gave doctrinal principles and general norms in Chapter VI of the dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium and in the decree Perfectae caritatis. Pope Paul VI, for his part, reminded religious that, whatever the variety of ways of life and of charisms, all the elements of a religious life should be directed toward the building up of "the inner man."(4) Our Holy Father John Paul II, from the beginning of his pontificate, and in numerous discourses which he has given, has frequently taken up the matter of religious formation.(5) Finally, the Code of Canon Law has undertaken to indicate in more precise norms the exigencies required for a suitable renewal of formation.(6)


3. In 1969, the Congregation, in the instruction Renovationis causam, expanded certain canonical dispositions then in force, in order "to make a better adaptation of the entire formation cycle to the mentality of younger generations and modern living conditions, as also to the present demands of the apostolate, while remaining faithful to the nature and the special aim of each institute."(7)

Other documents published later by the dicastery, even though they do not bear directly on religious formation, still touch it under one or another aspect. These are "Mutual Relations" in 1978,(8) "Religious and Human Promotion," and "The Contemplative Dimension of Religious Life" in 1980,(9) and "The Essential Elements of the Teaching of the Church on Religious Life" in 1983.(10) It will be useful to refer to these different documents, since the formation of religious must be given in complete harmony with the pastoral directions of the universal Church and of particular Churches, and in order to assist in the integration of "interiority and activity" in the lives of men and women religious dedicated to the apostolate.(11) Activity "for the Lord" will thus not fail to lead them to the Lord, the "source of all activity."(12)


4. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life deems it useful, and even necessary, to address this present document to major superiors of religious institutes, and to their brothers and sisters charged with formation, including monks and nuns, all the moreso since many of them have requested it. It does so in virtue of its mission of giving guidance to institutes. This can help them to elaborate their own programs of formation (ratio), as they are obliged to do by the general law of the Church.(13) On the other hand, men and women religious have the right to know the position of the Holy See on the present problems of formation and the solutions which it suggests for resolving them. The document has been enriched by the numerous experiences which have been made since the Second Vatican Council, and it treats questions frequently raised by major superiors. It reminds all of certain requirements of the law with respect to present circumstances and needs. It hopes, finally, to be of special help to institutes which are coming into existence, and to those which at this time have few means of formation and information at their disposal.

5. The document is concerned only with religious institutes. It deals with what is most specific in religious life, and it gives only one chapter to the requirements necessary for approaching the diaconate and priesthood. These have been the object of exhaustive instructions on the part of the competent dicastery, which instructions are also pertinent to religious who are to be ordained for these ministries.(14) The document strives to give valuable directions for the religious life in its entirety. Each institute will have to make use of them according to its own proper character.

The contents of the document apply to both sexes, except where it is obvious from the context, and from the nature of things, that it does not.(15)



6. The primary end of formation is to permit candidates to the religious life and young professed, first, to discover and, later, to assimilate and deepen that in which religious identity consists. Only under these conditions will the person dedicated to God be inserted into the world as a significant, effective, and faithful witness.(16) It is consequently proper to recall, at the beginning of a document on formation, what the grace of a consecrated religious life represents for the Church.


7. "Religious life, as a consecration of the whole person, manifests in the Church a wonderful marriage brought about by God, a sign of the future age. Thus religious bring to perfection their full gift as a sacrifice offered to God by which their whole existence becomes a continuous worship of God in love."

"Life consecrated by the profession of the evangelical counsels" -- of which religious life is a species -- "is a stable form of living by which faithful, following Christ more closely under the action of the Holy Spirit, are totally dedicated to God who is loved most of all, so that having dedicated themselves to his honor, the upbuilding of the Church, and the salvation of the world by a new and special title, they strive for the perfection of charity in service to the Kingdom of God and, having become an outstanding sign in the Church, they may foretell the heavenly glory."(17)

"Christian faithful who profess the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience by vows or other sacred bonds according to the proper laws of institutes freely assume this form of living in institutes of consecrated life canonically erected by competent Church authority and, through the charity to which these counsels lead, they are joined to the Church and its mystery in a special way."(18)


8. At the origin of the religious consecration there is a call of God for which there is no explanation apart from the love which he bears for the person whom he calls. This love is absolutely gratuitous, personal, and unique. It embraces the person to the extent that one no longer pertains to oneself, but to Christ.(19) It thus reflects the character of an alliance. The glance which Jesus turned towards the rich young man has this characteristic: "Looking on him, he loved him" (Mk 10:21). The gift of the Spirit signifies and expresses it. This gift invites the person whom God calls to follow Christ through the practice and profession of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience. This is "a gift of God which the Church has received from her Lord and which by his grace she always safeguards."(20) And this is why "the final norm of the religious life" will be "the following of Christ as it is put before us in the Gospel."(21)


9. The call of Christ, which is the expression of a redemptive love, "embraces the whole person, soul and body, whether man or woman, in that person's unique and unrepeatable personal 'I'."(22) It "assumes, in the soul of the person called, the actual form of the profession of the evangelical counsels."(23) Under this form, those who are called by God give a response of love in their turn to Christ their Redeemer: a love which is given entirely and without reserve, and which loses itself in the offering of the whole person as "a loving sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God" (Rom 12:1). Only this love, which is of a nuptial character and engages all the affectivity of one's person, can motivate and support the privations and trials which one who wishes "to lose his life" necessarily encounters for Christ and for the Gospel (cf. Mk 8:35).(24) This personal response is an integrating part of the religious consecration.


10. According to the teaching of the Church, "by religious profession members assume by public vow the observance of the three evangelical counsels, are consecrated to God through the ministry of the Church, and are incorporated into the institute with rights and duties defined by law."(25) In the act of religious profession, which is an act of the Church through the authority of the one who receives the vows, the action of God and the response of the person are brought together.(26) This act incorporates one into an institute. The members there "live a life in common as brothers or sisters"(27) and the institute assures them the help of "a stable and more solidly based way of Christian life. They receive well-proven teaching on seeking after perfection. They are bound together in brotherly communion in the army of Christ. Their Christian freedom is fortified by obedience. Thus they are enabled to live securely and to maintain faithfully the religious life to which they have pledged themselves. Rejoicing in spirit they advance on the road of love."(28)

The fact that religious belong to an institute causes them to give to Christ and to the Church a public witness of separation with regard to "the spirit of the world" (1 Cor 2:12) and to the behavior which it involves, and at the same time of a presence to the world in keeping with the "wisdom of God" (1 Cor 2:7).


11. "Religious profession places in the heart of each one of you... the love of the Father: that love which is in the heart of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world. It is love which embraces the world and everything in it that comes from the Father, and which at the same time tends to overcome in the world everything that 'does not come from the Father'."(29) "Such a love should fill each of you... from the very source of that particular consecration which -- on the sacramental basis of holy Baptism -- is the beginning of your new life in Christ and in the Church: it is the beginning of the new creation."(30)

12. Faith, hope, and charity enable religious, by means of their vows, to practice and profess the three evangelical counsels, and thus to give "out standing and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes."(31)

The counsels are, as it were, the main support of the religious life, since they express in a significant and complete way the evangelical radicalism which characterizes it. In effect, through the profession of the evangelical counsels made in the Church, the religious wishes "to be set free from hindrances that could hold him back from loving God ardently and worshipping him perfectly and... to consecrate himself in a more thoroughgoing way to the service of God."(32)

These touch the human person at the level of the three essential spheres of his existence and relationships: affectivity, possession, and power. This anthropological uprooting explains why the spiritual tradition of the Church has frequently put them in relation with the three lusts spoken of by St. John.(33) The faithful exercise of them fosters the development of the person, spiritual freedom, purification of the heart, fervor of charity, and it helps a religious to cooperate in the construction of human society.(34)

The counsels lived in as authentic a manner as possible have a great significance for all people,(35) for each vow gives a specific response to the great temptations of our time. Through them, the Church continues to show the world the ways for its transfiguration into the Kingdom of God.

It is therefore important that attentive care should be taken to initiate candidates for the religious life theoretically and practically into the concrete exigencies of the three vows.


13. "The evangelical counsel of chastity assumed for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, as a sign of the future world and a source of more abundant fruitfulness in an undivided heart, entails the obligation of perfect continence in celibacy."(36) Its practice assumes that persons consecrated by the vows of religion place at the center of their affective life a "more immediate" relationship (ET 13) with God through Christ, in the Spirit.

"The observance of perfect continence touches intimately the deeper inclinations of human nature. For this reason, candidates ought not to go forward, nor should they be admitted, to the profession of chastity except after really adequate testing, and unless they are sufficiently mature, psychologically and affectively. Not only should they be warned against the dangers to chastity which they may encounter, they should be taught to see that the celibacy they have dedicated to God is beneficial to their whole personality."(37)

An instinctive tendency of the human person leads to making an absolute out of human love. It is a tendency characterized by self-centeredness which asserts itself through a domination over the person loved, as if happiness could be secured from this possession. On the other hand, one finds it very difficult to understand, and especially to realize, that love can be lived in a total dedication of oneself, without necessarily requiring a sexual manifestation of it. Education for chastity will therefore aim at helping each one to control and to master his or her sexual impulses, while at the same time it will avoid a self-centeredness that is content with one's fidelity to purity. It is no accident that the ancient Fathers gave priority to humility over chastity, since this latter can be accompanied, as experience has shown, by a hardness of heart.

Chastity frees the human heart in a remarkable manner (1 Cor 7:32-35), so that it burns with a love for God and for all people. One of the greatest contributions which religious can bring to humanity today is certainly that of revealing, by their life more than by their words, the possibility of a true dedication to, and openness toward, others, in sharing in their joys, in being faithful and constant in love, without a thought of domination or exclusiveness.

The pedagogy of consecrated chastity will consequently aim at:

  • - preserving joy and thanksgiving for the personal love in which each one is held, and is chosen, by Christ;

  • - encouraging frequent reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, recourse to regular spiritual direction, and the sharing of a truly sisterly or brotherly love within the community, which is brought about by frank and cordial relationships;

  • - explaining the value of the body and its meaning, acquiring an elementary physical hygiene (sleep, exercise, relaxation, nourishment, etc.);

  • - giving basic notions on masculine and feminine sexuality, with their physical, psychological, and spiritual connotations;

  • - helping in matters of self-control, on the sexual and affective level, but also with respect to other instinctive or acquired needs (sweets, tobacco, alcohol);

  • - helping each one to profit by past personal experiences, whether positive, in order to give thanks for them, or negative, in order to be aware of one's weaknesses, in order to humble oneself peacefully before God and to remain vigilant for the future;

  • - manifesting the fruitfulness of chastity, its spiritual fecundity (Gal 4:19), which begets life for the Church;

  • - creating a climate of confidence between religious and their instructors, who should be ready to listen to whatever they have to say, and to hear them with affection in order to enlighten and encourage them;

  • - helping them to act with prudence in the use of the communications media and in personal relationships which may present an obstacle to a consistent practice of the counsel of chastity (cf. can. 277.2 and 666). It remains the responsibility not only of the religious to exercise this prudence, but also of their superiors.


14. "The evangelical counsel of poverty in imitation of Christ who, though He was rich became poor for us, entails, besides a life which is poor fact and in spirit, a life of labor lived in moderation and foreign to earthly riches, a dependence and a limitation in the use and disposition of goods according to the norm of the proper law of each institute."(38)

Sensibility to poverty is nothing new, either in the Church or in the religious life. What is perhaps new, is a particular sensibility for the poor and for the poverty that exists in the world, which characterizes religious life today. There exist today types of poverty on a large scale that are either experienced by individuals or endured by entire groups: hunger, ignorance, sickness; unemployment, the repression of basic liberties, economic and political dependence, corruption in the carrying out of offices, especially the fact that human society seems organized in a way which produces and reproduces these different kinds of poverties, etc.

In these conditions, religious are thrust into a closer proximity with respect to the most needy and impoverished, the same who were always preferred by Jesus and to whom he said that he had been sent,(39) and with whom he identified.(40) This proximity leads them to adopt a personal and communitarian style of life more in keeping with their commitment to follow more closely the poor and humble Christ.

This "preferential option"(41) and evangelical choice of religious for the poor implies an interior detachment, a certain austerity in community living, a sharing at times in their life and struggles, without however forgetting that the specific mission of a religious is to bear "outstanding and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes."(42)

God loves the whole human family and wishes to bring all together without exclusion.(43) For religious it is consequently a kind of poverty not to let themselves be bound within a certain milieu or social class. A study of the social teaching of the Church, and particularly that of the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, and of the instruction "On Christian Liberty and Liberation"(44) will be of assistance in making the required discernments for a practical actualization of evangelical poverty.

Education to evangelical poverty will be attentive to the following points:

  • - There are young people who, before entering the religious life, enjoyed a certain amount of financial independence and were accustomed to obtain by themselves all that they wished. Others find themselves at a higher level of life within a religious community than they had in their childhood or during their years of study or work. Instruction in poverty should take account of the history of each one. It should also be remembered that among certain cultures, families expect to gain by what appears to them to be an advance for their children.

  • - It is of the nature of the virtue of poverty to be engaged in a life of work, in humble and concrete acts of renunciation, of divestiture, which render religious freer for their mission; to admire and respect creation and the material objects placed at their disposal; to depend upon the community for their level of life; to desire faithfully that "all should be in common," and "that to each one is given what is needed" (Acts 4:32, 35).

All this is done with the intent of centering one's life on the poor Jesus, who is contemplated, loved, and followed. Without this, religious poverty, under the form of solidarity and sharing, easily becomes ideological and political. Only one who is poor of heart, who strives to follow the poor Christ, can be the source of an authentic solidarity and a true detachment.


15. "The evangelical counsel of obedience, undertaken in a spirit of faith and love in the following of Christ, who was obedient even unto death, requires submission of the will to legitimate superiors, who stand in the place of God when they command according to the proper constitutions."(45) Further, all religious "are subject to the supreme authority of (the) Church in a special manner" and "are also bound to obey the Supreme Pontiff as their highest superior by reason of the sacred bond of obedience."(46) "Far from lowering the dignity of the human person, religious obedience leads it to maturity by extending the freedom of the sons of God."(47)

Religious obedience is at once an imitation of Christ and a participation in his mission. It is concerned with doing what Jesus did, and, at the same time, with what he would do in the concrete situation in which a religious finds himself or herself today. Whether one has authority in an institute or not, one cannot either command or obey without reference to mission. When religious obey, they offer this obedience in continuity with the obedience of Jesus for the salvation of the world. This is why everything which, in the exercise of authority or obedience, indicates a compromise, a diplomatic solution, the consequence of pressure, or any other kind of temporizing, is opposed to the basic inspiration of religious obedience, which is to align oneself with the mission of Jesus and to carry it out in time, even if such an undertaking is difficult.

A superior who promotes dialogue educates to a responsible and active obedience. All the same, it remains for the superiors to use "their own authority to decide and to prescribe what is to be done."(48)

For the teaching of obedience, it should be remembered:

  • - that to give oneself in obedience, it is first necessary to be conscious of one's existence. Candidates need to leave the anonymity of the technical world, to know themselves as they are, and to be known as persons, to be esteemed and loved;

  • - that these same candidates need to find true liberty in order that they may personally pass from "what pleases them" to "what pleases the Father." For this, the structures of a formation community, while ever remaining sufficiently clear and solid, will leave ample room for responsible initiatives and decisions;

  • - that the will of God is expressed most often and preeminently through the mediation of the Church and its magisterium; and specifically for religious, through their own constitutions;

  • - that for obtaining obedience, the witness of the elder members in a community has greater influence on the young than any other theoretical consideration. Still, a person who makes the effort to obey as Christ did, and in Christ, can succeed in overcoming less edifying examples.

Education in religious obedience will therefore be given with all the clarity and exigency that is necessary so that one does not wander from the "way," which is Christ in mission.(49)


16. The variety of religious institutes resembles a "widespreading tree" which, beginning with a seed sown by God, "has grown up in the field of the Lord" and multiplied.(50) Through them the Church manifests Christ "to believers and unbelievers alike, Christ in contemplation on the mountain, or proclaiming the kingdom of God to the multitudes, or healing the sick and maimed and converting sinners to a good life, or blessing children and doing good to all men, always in obedience to the will of the Father who sent him."(51)

The variety is explained by the diversity of the "charisms of their founders,"(52) which "appears as 'an experience of the Spirit,' transmitted to their disciples to be lived, safeguarded, deepened and constantly developed by them, in harmony with the Body of Christ continually in the process of growth. 'It is for this reason that the distinctive character of various religious institutes is preserved and fostered by the Church'."(53)

There is thus no uniform way for observing the evangelical counsels, but each institute should define its own way, "keeping in mind its own character and purposes."(54) This is true not only with regard to the observance of the counsels, but with respect to all that concerns the style of life of its members in view of tending toward the perfection of their state.(55)


17. "Those who make profession of the evangelical counsels should seek and love above all else God who has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). In all circumstances they should take care to foster a life hidden with Christ in God (cf. 3:3), which is the source and stimulus of love of the neighbor, for the salvation of the world and the building up the Church."(56) This love, which orders and vivifies the very practice of the evangelical counsels, is poured out in hearts through the Spirit of God, which is a Spirit of unity, of harmony, and of reconciliation, not only among persons, but also within the interior of each person.

This is why the personal life of a religious must not become dichotomized between the generic end of religious life and the specific end of the institute; between consecration to God and mission in the world; nor between religious life itself on the one hand, and apostolic activities on the other. There is no religious life existing concretely "by itself" upon which is grafted the specific and the particular charism of each institute as subordinate additions. In institutes dedicated to the apostolate there is no pursuit of sanctity, profession of the evangelical counsels, or life dedicated to God and to his service which is not intrinsically connected with the service of the Church and of the world.(57) Further "apostolic and charitable activity is of the very nature of religious life" to such an extent that "the entire religious life... should be imbued with an apostolic spirit and all apostolic activity with a religious spirit."(58) The service of one's neighbor neither divides nor separates a religious from God. If it is moved by a truly theological charity, this service obtains its value as service of God.(59)

And thus it can truly be said that "the apostolate of all religious consists first in their witness of a consecrated life."(60)

18. It will be the duty of each one to verify the way in which their activities in their own lives are derived from intimate union with God and, at the same time, confirm and strengthen this union.(61) From this point of view, obedience to the will of God, manifested here and now in the mission received, is the immediate means through which one can secure for oneself a certain unity of life, patiently sought but never fully attained. This obedience is only explained by a resolve to follow Christ more closely, which is itself enlivened and stimulated by a personal love of Christ. This love is the interior principle of unity of all consecrated life.

The proof of a unity of life will be opportunely made in terms of the four great fidelities: fidelity to Christ and the Gospel, fidelity to the Church and to its mission in the world, fidelity to religious life and to the charism of one's own institute, and fidelity to humanity and to our times.(62)

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