One of the topics that generated a lot of interest at the 1996 Gathering on “The Lay Dimension of Our Capuchin Vocation” was formation and vocation promotion. Brothers from several parts of the world reported a sense that vocations promotion in their areas tended to focus on vocations to the priesthood. As for formation, most areas of the world reported that all the friars received the same formation up to and including the novitiate. The experience of post-novitiate formation, however, varied greatly from one region of the world to another. In a few regions, all the friars had a common post-novitiate formation up to the time of their perpetual vows. After vows, those wishing to be priests began philosophical and theological studies, while those wishing to be lay brothers began either specialized studies or work. At the other extreme, some areas of the world reported there was almost no post-novitiate formation for lay brothers. In between were jurisdictions in which all the friars had a year of post-novitiate formation in common before beginning studies for the priesthood or some other ministry. Many of those reporting lamented that their formation programs were built around studies for the priesthood, and everything else was an afterthought.
As I have traveled in various areas of the world during my first year as General Definitor, I have asked many brothers about their experiences of formation to see how things have or have not changed in the past eleven years. From this limited perspective, it seems like some progress has been made in moving toward a style of formation that is adequate for all friars and that gives more emphasis to the specifically Capuchin Franciscan elements of our vocation. Most jurisdictions that I have visited have a common formation for all the friars at least until the first year of post-novitiate. No one who has gone through formation in the past eleven years complained that his post-novitiate formation consisted of working in the kitchen, as sometimes happened in the past. In many jurisdictions, lay brothers are working as formation directors.
Where there is still a great deal of uncertainty in the Order, it seems, is the question of theological training for those wishing to be lay brothers. Most jurisdictions require at least one year of theological studies for those who are not planning to be ordained. They would normally attend courses meant for the laity. Some jurisdictions, however, require lay brothers to follow basically the same curriculum as their priesthood students do, including two or more years of philosophy. While most jurisdictions are convinced of the need for all friars to have some theological training, many seem to be still searching for the right measure of such training for lay friars.
I noted, as have several other General Definitors, a disturbing trend in the Order toward a return to the old system of formation—a system that was centered around studies for the priesthood, and which everything else seemed to be an afterthought. There appear to be at least two reasons for this temptation to turn back the clock. One is the lack of trained formation personnel. Rather than identifying and training additional friars to work in formation, it is easier to assign the personnel the province does have to the “obligatory” stages of postulancy and novitiate, and offload post-novitiate formation to a seminary. The other reason has to do with the scarcity of vocations in some areas of the world, and the age of the candidates in those same areas. When provinces are shrinking in size, its leaders are naturally concerned about how they will maintain the ministries of the province. When these ministries include parishes, as they very often do, provincial leadership will want to push candidates through formation and get them ordained as quickly as possible. They are tempted, therefore, to see an extra one to three years of post-novitiate formation free from formal studies as a waste of valuable time. When you add to this the fact that many of the candidates coming to the Order in these same areas of the world are older men—in the thirties, forties or even older—there is even more pressure to get them ordained quickly. This tendency is of serious concern to many friars in the world and to the General Definitory.