Who Can Become A Religious?
Obviously God does not want all His children to become religious. If all men and women were to enter monasteries or convents, the world would speedily come to an end. Most Church people should find their religious vocation in fulfilling the ordinary Christian obligations with generosity. But always, in all ages and in every part of the Church, there have been certain souls in whose hearts God has planted a desire for special dedication. Like the rich young ruler, they seek a special way of keeping God's commandments. Such are the men and women who belong to religious communities.
"Ye have not chosen Me," our Lord said, "but I have chosen you." How can a person know whether God is calling him to follow this way of life? Every man and woman has a special vocation from his Maker; not everyone have a vocation to live the religious life. To some chosen souls God does give this great privilege. How is such a vocation made known, and how is it to be recognized? Sometimes it may come through the whisperings of the Holy Spirit in one's own inner soul; sometimes it is made known through the external circumstances of one's life. Always there are two unfailing signs by which it may be recognized, a compelling attraction to the life, and a fitness or suitability for it. However the call may come, God does not force obedience. He only makes it clear, and leaves us free to accept or reject His invitation.
Religious vocation must be a personal matter between God and the soul, but there is no doubt that it can be either fostered or lost. A little help and encouragement are often greatly needed by those in doubt about their vocation. "What shall I be ?" is a question every young person must face. Some of these young men and women need only have the way pointed out to them by their parents or their priest to find that God is calling them to be religious.
You may be wondering in your heart as you read these words, "Is God calling me?" If so, what should you do about it? There are three things you can do right away. First, pray earnestly and perseveringly for God's guidance. Second, do not talk much about the matter to others, for "it is good to keep close the secret of a king"; but go to some priest who understands this way of life and ask his advice. Third, get acquainted with some religious community.
Vocation to a particular community is almost as much a vocation as vocation to the religious life itself. One's personal inclination is perhaps a guide. If you do not feel an attraction towards any special community, get to know several of them. The experience will greatly enrich your spiritual life, and eventually you will discover the one community, among all the others, which is the right one for you.
Once you have made choice of a community, you will want to write to the Superior, giving a full and frank description of yourself and your circumstances. The Superior will probably invite you to make a visit in some House of the community. Such a visit is always preliminary to being received as a postulant. It gives you a chance to see what the community is like without committing yourself; it gives the community an opportunity to know you. You will find the Superior and the other religious eager to help you. They will encourage you to "try your vocation" if they feel you are fitted for the life. If not, they will tell you so frankly.
If you can fulfill the requirements necessary in the community of your choice, you may be accepted as a postulant, that is, one "asking" admission. From this point on you will be living the religious life. Though you are not yet technically a religious, you are learning how to be one. During the postulancy one is known by one's secular name. Postulants usually wear a black cassock or a special postulant's habit in communities of men, and in women's communities ordinarily a black dress with some sort of white cap or veil. The postulancy ends on your Investiture or "clothing" day, one of the most important days in the life of a religious. On that day you are invested or "clothed" in the habit of your community. In a special service the Church puts her blessing on you and on the habit you receive. You are given, if it is the custom of your community, a new name by which you are henceforth to be known. You are now a novice, a "new one".
During the novitiate your training goes on under the direction of the Master or Mistress of Novices. You are being prepared to take your place as a full member in the community. You have not yet taken any vows. (Ancient custom prescribes that there be not less than one whole year from the reception of the habit to the day of one's first vows.) You are free to leave the community any time you wish if you become convinced that this is not the right life for you. If you decide to leave, there is no disgrace about it. It is not a sign that you are a failure. You came into the community to find out if God was truly calling you to be a religious. Whether the answer is "yes" or "no", you have found out what you wanted to know.
When the period of your novitiate is over you may apply for permission to make your profession according to the regulations laid down in the constitutions of your community. Whether you take annual vows for a certain length of time before making life vows, or make your life profession immediately after your novitiate, depends of course upon the customs of the community. Once you have made your life vows, you are a full member of your community, and a real religious.