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Photo: Chao Wang
Among their ministries in Washington, D.C., the Marians in formation pray in front of Planned Parenthood.
There's a Reason They Call it 'Formation'
Father Mark Baron, MIC (right), with seminarian Br. Matthew Holladay, MIC.
By Dan Valenti (Jan 9, 2013)
In this Year of Faith, we are called to examine our own personal relationship with Catholicism. This applies to all of us, layperson and religious alike. For the layperson, this means taking an honest look at how the tenets of our faith become incorporated into our daily lives, with all its pressures, hurries, and worries. It is a chance for each Catholic to "re-propose" our faith and "renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church" (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, statement on the Year of Faith).
For a dedicated religious, especially a member of a Congregation such as the Marian Father of the Immaculate Conception, this Year of Faith, too, is an invitation for renewal, says Fr. Mark Baron, MIC, house superior and novice master at the Marian House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Religious, by virtue of their vocation, already live a "year of faith." For them, the Year of Faith then is a call for revitalization, for experiencing again the dynamism of faith, those aspects of faith that bring one into a personal, literal relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But what about men in formation? For novices, this Year of Faith, declared by Pope Benedict XVI to run from Oct. 11, 2012 to Nov. 24 of this year, occurs as a great moment of serendipity. These young men, who are "trying out" the religious life, can use the Year of Faith to "realize a conversion — to turn back to Jesus and enter into a deeper relationship with Him" (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).
This formal, Church-wide call to conversion is ideal for novices in formation, says Fr. Mark, since "conversion and a deepening of their relationship with Christ" describes one of the novice's main duties in the first place. For the novice, this involves going through what Fr. Mark calls spiritual boot camp, where they leave their secular lives behind for a new life in formation with other men who, though much different in personality and other traits, nonetheless seek similar spiritual goals.
"I tell the novices that they will have to work hard on getting along," says Fr. Mark. "For example, they have to choose to be charitable. In their former lives, that wasn't a requirement. We have many different personalities in the novitiate. Human nature being what it is, of course, it's inevitable that they will rub against each other. That tests all of us in communal life.
"To tell you the truth, most people wouldn't hang out here if it was solely up to them," Fr. Mark says with a laugh. "We are brought together here by God."
The Day-to-Day Challenges of Group Living
It's the day-to-day aspects of living with one's brothers that provide one of the biggest challenges of the novitiate year, says Fr. Mark. But how does that tie into the Year of Faith? The U.S. Catholic Bishops did not shy away from the tough questions that the Year of Faith invites. Have you been away from the Catholic Church? Are you thinking about coming back? Do you know someone who wants to come home to the Church but is struggling with his or her faith? Novices deal with their own version of such questions. They are members of the Church, certainly, but they are about to enter into a profound deepening of being a member in the Body of Christ. They do so in community.
"In this community, you have a lot of good guys," Fr. Mark says. "But when you're with them day in and day out, you run into disagreements, just like in all close families. There are great conversations. You laugh. You have joy, but on an everyday basis, you will see others in all their strengths and weaknesses. You'll have to deal with people's quirks and weird habits. We emphasize this sense of brotherhood. It's an opportunity for to practice charity and experience spiritual growth."
Father Mark says that often, the biggest shock a person experiences in his novitiate year, especially in the beginning, is what he calls "the shock factor." This involves "getting used to the fact that your life is no longer your own. When you come into the religious life, you find yourself under a daily schedule, seven days a week. Out in the world, you're used to doing your own thing. Now you can't. There are regimented times for prayers, meals, and most of your other daily activities."
Life by a Schedule
The novice's formal day begins at 6 a.m. for prayer and meditation, followed by Mass with fellow novices ending at 8 a.m., followed by breakfast. After that, novices meet with Fr. Mark, who teaches them in classroom work. The seminarians go off to their studies at Catholic University or the Dominican House of Studies. Novices continue in class time with Fr. Mark until noon, when they join with seminarians for prayers and enjoy lunch. The novice's afternoons are spent in more class time and housework assignments. Evenings are reserved for prayer time, dinner, personal study, and group recreation, before lights out at 11 p.m.
What type of person do the Marians look for when they consider men for the novitiate? While it's hard to generalize, Fr. Mark says, the Congregation looks for "a balanced personality." He says the Marians "want a personality that shows flexibility in dealing with situations and with people. We look for good communication skills, especially communicating truthfully with the superior and fellow novices. You want someone with a good work ethic, and a person who can handle responsibility with a certain level of maturity. You're looking for a maturity level appropriate to their age."
Formation: Learning to Live the Religious Life
The Marian Fathers novitiate lasts one year. In this year, the Congregation provides the initial foundation for living a consecrated life. At the conclusion of the year, the candidate is then invited to take his first vows or not. That's what the year in the novitiate is designed to determine: Is there a good fit for this person in the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception? This yearlong process is called "formation."
"Formation," Fr. Mark says, "is the development of a religious personality, learning to be religious Marians. It's a spiritual boot camp. We're trying to give young men an opportunity to pursue what they perceive as the call of God. In that, if a person isn't cut out for this life, we tell them. Formation is about paying attention to God's call. We try to help men to become more sensitive to the call of God in their lives, wherever it is taking them. In the novitiate, a person tries to discern the answer to this question: 'What is the best way to live my life for God's greater glory? What manner of life will be the way in which God will be able to best manifest His life to the world.'"
This intense work can be well adapted to the opportunity provided by the Year of Faith, which is about our re-examination of our relationship with God. Not all of us are called to the religious life, of course. Some of us best live our lives in a manner most pleasing to God through marriage or the single life. All of us, no matter what our calling, have this opportunity to deepen our faith.