Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Formation of Novices and Seminarians: Nine Signs of Steady Growth

by Basil Cole, O.P.


This article, by Fr. Basil Cole, presents and excellent checklist for discerning spiritual growth.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, April 2011

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

When one becomes a formator of novices or seminarians, by what criteria does he or an individual novice or seminarian discern whether or not someone has an authentic vocation? The formator normally only knows the external forum, the confessor the internal forum, and the person in formation may know very little of both. Yet in the history of spiritual theology, there are a number of signs that one is at least growing in the spiritual life and may, therefore, be growing in an authentic religious vocation. As someone becomes spiritually attuned to the presence of God and to the needs of others, it becomes easier for him or her to know who is calling. Is it God? Is it one's parents, one's self? This essay seeks to explore some signs as measuring rods in coming to discern whether someone is called to a religious or priestly vocation.

A first sign of growth is whether or not the candidate is God-centered. Does this person live a life with God at the heart of all he or she does and is about? Another way to ask this question is: does this person discover traces of God in other persons (primarily), in other living things, and in other good creations, from the arts to the stars? Does this person have the gift of wonder, the gift of receiving joyfully all God puts in his or her day? Contrarily, people who are negative and whiners find it difficult to see the glimpses of good and virtue in persons they do not like, and so they complain more often than not about the imperfections of those around them. This is essential, because such a person knows that he or she is not at the center of reality, for they are centered around the divine. Such a God-centered orientation enables one to let divine providence reign, especially in temptations, as well as in situations where one cannot change certain problems. The graces of divine providence are such that they differ from day to day; they come not only through and with consolations, but also through trials requiring patience in allowing God to permit what he permits to happen, trusting him to bring something beautiful out of the circumstance.

The second sign is related to the infused theological virtue of charity, because the formator has to discover by observation if a candidate takes joy in serving others, especially in small or difficult ways. It is possible that initially assigned tasks–cleaning toilets, washing dishes, or even coming to identify oneself as part of a religious community (a dying to "self')–may repel some individuals. Eventually, persons being formed in their vocations have to show how they are rising above themselves. Especially when someone enters the purely contemplative life, he or she must be able to do hard work and not simply think that praying quietly all day in a chapel is all there is to contemplation.

The third sign is not so obvious externally. Is this person growing in a holy hatred for sin? This does not mean simply hating grave sin, but even lesser sins against the more mundane virtues. While this does not mean one becomes impeccable, because of the condition of original sin's effects on the soul and body, still, one attempts to grow in the perfection of the virtues and in the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. The greater the hatred, the fewer the falls. Great love for God includes hatred of all that may become an obstacle to that loving relationship.

The fourth sign is really a cluster of other signs, and it is likewise not very obvious because delicacy of conscience is only known by the confessor. Looking at many of the saints, the closer they approached God, the more they felt the disorder of even the smallest of sins. St. Catherine of Siena comes to mind. At times, she felt that she was responsible for many of the evils in the world. This caused her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua, to become puzzled. To him, her failings seemed so picayune.

Yet, through her he learned how a delicate conscience is radically distinct from a scrupulous conscience, which sees sin to exist where it does not. And unless scrupulosity has a supernatural origin as a special trial, as in the later years of the life of St. Alphonsus Liguori, it generally is found in persons who are neurotic, overly zealous, and who lack a sense of humor. People who have delicate consciences also have a greater sense of watchfulness over their desires for pleasure and repulsion for pain and difficulties. They do not let themselves become pushed and pulled by what they see and hear when disordered goods are placed before their imaginations. While they may have many first movements of lust or anger (or whatever disordered emotion may emerge), they do not follow it and they learn how to master themselves without becoming excessively worried. They understand that many fallacious imaginations or old memories are temptations and as long as they are not freely entertained or lingered upon, there is no sin. Together with the delicacy of conscience comes a certain holy dissatisfaction with one's self, or as St. Bernard put it somewhere: "He has ceased to be good whosoever does not desire to be better." This does not mean an inferiority complex but a blunt appraisal of one's graces and talents, their limits, and how far one has to go to actualize these gifts from God.

A fifth sign is a sense of humility, which means a submission to whatever God desires in the moment, even if it means being unknown and unrecognized. Christian humility keeps vainglory in check. Since the desire for praise and fame can be quite strong in many personalities, one who seeks to enter the religious or priestly life must be willing to sacrifice his own need for attention to the needs of others in the community or in the parish. Without humility, the notion of service becomes downgraded, while self-serving becomes upgraded. This in turn creates a great desire to be loved, admired and esteemed at the expense of forgetting oneself and giving self to others. The same problem can exist in marriages and family life. Moreover, once humility is strongly rooted in a person, he or she finds it easier to obey legitimate authority (a bishop or a superior) because obedience means submission to legitimate commands, even if they are not always the wisest or the best commands. Humble faith enables a beginner to see that God wants surrender to him through those who represent him, even though they too may be weak and not very holy.

The sixth sign is fidelity to prayer. Without a certain ease in being alone in silent prayer and in the stillness of a chapel, many graces, favors, and inspirations will either not be granted or will be lost. Prayer can be dry, filled with distractions, sometimes painful, annoying, boring and the like, but the will to be there in the presence of God is ultimately what counts for fidelity. This too is a gift, flowing from humility, in that one recognizes how his or her limitations cry out to God for extra help. As one grows in such faithful prayer, so one's conscience becomes more sensitive to the graces of the moment. This in turn leads to "suffering with love." Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), who spent his life in the scorching Sahara showing Christ to all who passed, said that someone who can suffer will be able to do things that others think impossible. To get to this point in one's spiritual journey, prayer must hollow out a great deal of the fear of suffering. Obviously, we excel at a task when we find it enjoyable, and this goes for the spiritual life as well. If a candidate finds prayer, service, suffering and intercession repulsive, a religious or priestly vocation becomes a struggle against constant sadness. In other words, such a life requires the courage to admit "this is not about me" and to seek the grace to do what has been asked. Even though the infused virtue of charity is the form of the virtues, it needs to be activated by grace (as do all the virtues, and prayer itself). Prayer, while not being its own activator, disposes one for the actual graces needed to act accordingly in apostolic or personal situations.

The seventh sign is similar to prudence, which uses the principles of morality and applies them to circumstances in a timely way for activating a virtue. It is ultimately a matter of loving truth rather than following simple whims and feelings. The purpose of seeking counsel is not that others may make decisions for the individual, but that one might grasp what is true and real for doing something. What feels good can also be true guidance for actions when feelings have already been integrated by reason, faith and the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Thomas reminds us that often some decisions require immediate action, which requires acumen or that special ability to find "the right course (of action) in sudden encounters" (Summa Theologiae 1141 49.4). This ability to act quickly and rightly can come only from familiarity with the Holy Spirit, can come only from one who has laid all his or her mental faculties before God in prayer.

The eighth sign is traditionally called an undivided heart. What does this mean? At first glance, someone might come to the erroneous conclusion that all loves and desires are to die except for the love of God. Grace is supposed to deny nature or uproot it rather than elevate it. This is not so: all of one's loves and desires are to be ordered properly among themselves with an orientation to and caused by the love of God. A person's friends, love of food, music, or sports are to be joined with a love for God. This, then, is the undivided heart: loving God first and all else in him. All legitimate attachments to this world are thus properly ordered by reason and faith to God. This is evident by a person's disposition to let things in his or her life go when they are either taken away by death or sickness or become an obstacle to one's union with God.

The ninth sign of growth in the spiritual life is a love of the Church where one encounters Christ through the sacraments, her ministers as teachers, priests and leaders. Notwithstanding irreverent celebrations of the Eucharist, imperfect priests, bishops and popes, one sees with the eyes of faith the Lord Jesus in them and hears the echoes of Jesus in their preaching, teaching and writings. The institutional Church is the unsullied Bride of Christ through which he gives himself and his graces to a flawed people in need of enlightenment and purification from sin.

When those in formation find a candidate believing and struggling to embody these signs, (inevitably imperfectly) they need to keep instructing those given to their care not to give up and become discouraged because they are not yet fully God's. Complete perfection is only found in heaven. In this life, one does the best he or she can, and leaves the rest to God's grace, always more powerful than human weaknesses. ■

Basil Cole, O.P. is prior of the novitiate community at St. Gertrude's Priory in Cincinnati. His most recent book is entitled A Sense of Humor: A Theological Thomistic Perspective.

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