Stages of Formation
Each year on August 27, the feast of St. Monica, a new class of postulants enters our abbey. The purpose of this first stage of formation is to introduce the new candidates into the life of a consecrated religious, beginning the necessary adjustment from life in the world to life in the monastery. Postulants live with the other seminarians in our house of formation. They participate in the abbey’s liturgical prayers, serve the brethren through manual labor, and attend classes with the novices. These first months are meant to help both the community and the postulant himself to make a responsible decision as to whether he should be vested in the Norbertine habit.
Christmas is a special time for our community, obviously first and foremost because we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, and secondarily because St. Norbert founded our Order of Prémontré on Christmas Day in the year 1121. But it is also a special time for us because of our annual Christmas Eve vestition ceremony, in which the newest men at our abbey put off the black suit of postulancy and receive the white habit of our Order. The abbot also bestows a religious name upon each of the new novices, which the man will bear for the rest of his Norbertine life. Compared to the later stages of our canonical formation, the novitiate has a pronounced monastic character to it. The life of a novice is relatively quiet. Free from clerical responsibilities, rigorous academic studies, and distractions from the outside world, the novice is able to focus more on his own inner life. Manual labor is emphasized in this stage, as are penance and prayer. The novices’ intellectual formation lays the groundwork for more formal studies during the juniorate and beyond. Novitiate classes focus on Catholic doctrine, spirituality, liturgy, and the essentials of a consecrated religious vocation. These fraters also study our Augustinian canonical life—its identity, charism, and history—along with the particular traditions of our own Order and abbey. The goal is for these young Norbertines to learn what it means to live out our specific vocation: as Augustinian canons regular, of the Premonstratensian Order, of St. Michael’s Abbey, in the Diocese of Orange.
We Norbertines call St. Augustine “our Holy Father,” both because he authored the rule of life that we follow and because he miraculously appeared to St. Norbert to instruct him in the founding of our order. Thus August 28, the solemnity of our Holy Father St. Augustine, is a fitting day for our seminarians to take their first religious vows. After two years in our community (postulancy plus novitiate), the fraters make their temporary professions of poverty, consecrated celibacy, and obedience. As junior-professed Norbertines, these seminarians will continue to live the liturgically-centered common life of our community, while also beginning their formal ecclesiastical studies for the priesthood. After the initial three years under vows, a junior renews his simple vows until his solemn profession.
Liberal arts studies: Conferes who enter the abbey without completing at least two years of college coursework begin their juniorate by taking basic liberal arts classes, via a university-level distance education program.
Philosophy studies: Juniors spend two years here at the abbey studying Thomistic philosophy, focusing especially on the writings of Aristotle and on St. Thomas Aquinas’ Aristotelian commentaries. They spend one further year of their philosophical education in Toronto, studying the Catholic intellectual tradition more broadly, including courses in literature and art history.
Theology studies: Our fraters receive their theological education at the Toronto Oratory. One of the finest theologates in the Church today, the Oratory offers a comprehensive program of study for future priests, which focuses especially on Sacred Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, and modern issues and clarifications. During their time in Canada, our Norbertine seminarians live in community together and continue their liturgical life in common. By the end of their studies, all of the fraters will have received a Masters of Theology.
Apostolic year: Every seminarian devotes at least one year of his formation to serving in an apostolate of our canonry. Most often, fraters spend their apostolic year as teachers in our abbey preparatory school. Getting some experience on the other side of the desk affords the seminarians a break from their own studies. But more importantly, it offers them a taste of what their life will look like after solemn profession, when preaching and teaching and other apostolic endeavors will become an essential ingredient in their Norbertine life.
Roman experience: Although we no longer send all of our fraters to Rome for extended theological training, we believe that some exposure to the Eternal City is important for men preparing to be Roman clerics. Thus all confreres will spend some time in Rome before the end of formation. Those Norbertines who will go on to pursue more advanced academic degrees—whether in theology, philosophy, sacred music, canon law, or another subject—usually will do so at one of the Roman universities. During their studies abroad, such confreres will spend several years living in Rome at our Norbertine Generalate House, oftentimes as deacons or young priests.
Canon Regular of Prémontré
At some point during his studies, a junior-professed seminarian requests to take perpetual vows. With the recommendation of the community, this confrere makes his solemn profession to the abbot in our abbey church. Solemn profession advances the religious to full and complete membership in the canonry of St. Michael’s Abbey, which means that he will be a Canon Regular of Prémontré forevermore. The canon irrevocably vows the religious life of the evangelical counsels, according to the Rule of St. Augustine and the constitutions of our Norbertine Order.
Sometime after solemn profession, the newly professed canon regular receives the sacrament of Holy Orders, shepherding him into the transitional diaconate. During his year as a deacon, the confrere assists the abbot and the priests at the altar. He also sings the gospel and begins preaching homilies, in preparation for his priestly ordination.
(according to the order of Melchizedek)
Having completed at least one year as a deacon, the canon regular is promoted to Christ’s holy priesthood, through the imposition of hands by the local bishop. The confrere will exercise his priestly ministry in service to the Church from that day forward. Our Norbertine priests spend their weeks teaching, or working in some other apostolate of our canonry, and they assist each weekend at local parishes. Of course, our priests also continue to live out their religious consecration in our Norbertine liturgies and common life. “You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchizedek of old.”