We live in times when brave and audacious men are needed, when it is hard to live as witnesses of Christ, when one is being persecuted and challenged for being faithful to Him from all sides, and when basic human values are not commonly accepted. Still, in such times too, God is knocking on hearts all over the world, looking for someone ready to open his doors wide to Him.
In spite of all those interfering with God’s plans, there are still those who hear and feel something above the merely physical level. After conversations and spiritual counselling, they decide to leave everything for Christ and the Gospel, enter into a convent and embrace religious life. There are many of who serve as row models to the young, one of them undoubtedly being also the Poor Man from Assisi (Saint Francis), the founder of the three Franciscan orders.
Here is what friar Simone Schiavone shared with us about his own vocation: “I have always felt God calling me, but I lived my youth – now I could even compare it with Francis’ youth – same as all my other peers. I grew a little distant from the Church, but I nevertheless kept a certain relationship with Jesus. I never stopped talking to Him. Later, He became my true friend and brother, and, when a friendship bears fruit, it has a true meaning. After different friendships and relationships I had in the world, I realized finally I was not free to live that kind of life. In the meantime, I grew familiar with Franciscan Conventuals, who offered me to stay with them while I was studying in Naples. Having met them, I realized that was what the Lord wanted from me. And so I joined the postulature in Benevento, while I am currently at the novitiate in Assisi.”
Novitiate is a period of initiation into religious life, initiation meaning simply: the beginning. It involves the laying down of foundations and shaping one’s life, accepting the life of the community one becomes a part of. The beginning of religious life proceeds through experience, prayer, deepening of theological and spiritual realities under the guidance of the community’s magister (teacher). This period helps us to get to know and live the spirit of our Founder in the present day.
In Italy, at the very heart of the Franciscan order, in Assisi, there is the Sacro Convento (The Holy Convent, or Friary). The friary and basilica of St. Francis of Assisi have always been guarded by his heirs, Franciscan Conventuals, praying and keeping vigil by his grave. There are around seventy brothers living at the convent. Living, growing, and spiritually progressing among them are also the novices – young men who decided to follow Christ after the model of St. Francis.
The novices are on their initial religious path accompanied by friar Alfredo M. Avallone, the magister, and friar Lucio Massacesi, deputy magister. Their task is by no means simple. They have been entrusted young souls to guide and counsel. Their task is to be both their mother and their father; to be witnesses for them – more by deeds, than by words – of the life inspired by Gospel.
“The novitiate in Assisi has been reopened after full 38 years. The last Novitiate Register, well kept at the archives of the Sacro Convento, records 889 novices in the period from 1907 to 1971. On 17 september, 2009, the Order General, friar Marco Tasca, opened the novitiate by the rite of novitiate start and religious clothing. The novitiate in Assisi is an idea born from a series of meetings between the educators and the provincials of the Conference of Minister Provincials of the Mediterranean Area (CIMP). The intention was to improve education itself, because of the low number of vocations, as well as encourage the selection of religious vocation, and the like. “Joint novitiate in Assisi: – can there be a better place than Assisi for Franciscan education and formation of each individual candidate?” – was the comment of the Assisi’s novitiate history by friar Alfredo.
The novitiate community consists of fifteen novices from 20 to 38 years old, from three countries: eleven from Italian provinces, and two from Slovenia and Croatia each. The official language of the novitiate is Italian.
“Under the guidance of a magister, and according to the letter of the law, the novices should be gradually prepared to dedicate themselves to the deeds of the Order, establishing the connection with Christ that needs to be the source of all their apostolic activity; they should therefore not engage in a superficial (apparent) life, but rather live according to that which they shall have to perform after taking vows.” (Constitutions of the Order 38,2).
The novitiate was opened on the feast of the Wounds of St. Francis, 17 October 2010. On the occasion, the candidates expressed their desire to be accepted into the community, who was most happy to take them under its wing. The ceremony was performed after a common prayer of the Vesperes and the rite of St. Francis’ passing away. It was simple and solemn, all at the same time. Some of the novices shared with us their thoughts and feelings associated with putting on the religious attire.
Fra Nicola Solente: “I came to the postulature in Brescia with my own plans and ideas, but they obviously did not match with God’s plans, which is why they did not come true either. This new period: the period of starting religious life, I decided to abandon entirely to God’s hands. I want Him to show me day in day out what I need to do for others and for myself. That is why novitiate is a complete abandonment into God’s will and His leadership! It is with great joy that I welcomed the news about the novitiate in Assisi. Why? Living in a place where Francis made his first steps towards a change of life, wishing to shape his life according to Christ’s as much as possible, simply encourages me and gives me the strength to walk that same path and keep changing myself.”
Fra Simone Schiavone: “Novitiate is a path of grace from above, helping me to deepen my religious vocation – to entirely understand and embrace it. It is by all means a most interesting year, getting to know one’s Order and learning to live in a brotherhood. Speaking of brotherhood, I particularly mean that beyond the province itself, since Assisi is the only novitiate for the Italian provinces, but is at the same time also inter-cultural, since we share our novitiate with Croats and Slovenes. Novitiate in Assisi is an important reality, since it is there that the body of St. Francis is kept; it is there where his spiritual sons are. I was particularly impressed, when it comes to my opinion about Assisi and the novitiate there, by the reactions of different young religious in formation. Their fervour helped me to create certain higher expectations, with which I started off towards Assisi. Putting on religious attire was a truly beautiful moment. I felt the importance of the new task I was entrusted with, while I was in a special way supported by the brothers from my Naples province, who were present during the ceremony. To put on a habit for me means to change the manner and style of living.”
Fra Simone Milani: “What I have expected, and still am expecting, from the novitiate, is to further my knowledge of the life of Franciscan Conventuals in a concrete manner, by sharing brotherly life with them. I was a bit worried about what the novitiate in Assisi would look like. I thought that the community at Sacro Convento could be somewhat dispersed, less “family like”, but so far I was proven wrong. I am glad that our community is international, because it allows us to get to know each other, which advances both our personal development and mutual respect. Since the novitiate began on the feast of St. Francis, my whole person was going through what St. Francis himself was once going through: joy because of the start of the novitiate, and “pain” because of everything I left behind.”
Friar Daniel Golavšek: “In my opinion, novitiate is a year of trial, a time in which I can truly get to know Franciscan life first hand, understand one’s task and the task of one’s brothers, and advance one’s relationship with God. I am truly happy to have an opportunity to live in such a large brotherly community. Living with sixty brothers is not always easy and requires much patience. However, our common prayer is particularly beautiful – so many voices melting into one – lifted up to God on high. The first day in Assisi was the day of putting on the religious habit. It was full of happiness and joy.”
The Franciscan novitiate underwent by the novices in Assisi is characterized by Franciscan spiritual formation: both doctrinal and practical. The novices have an opportunity, as well as a special privilege, of being at the tomb of the Seraphic Father Saint Francis, thus breaking up with the mentality and way of life of this world and joining their new family of Friars Minor. “During formation, both educational and spiritual – explains Friar Simone Schiavone, I wish to welcome any advantage that will assist me in my human and spiritual progress, so that I may better live my religious life, as well as my relationships with others.”
Every day in the morning hours, the novices have their internal novitiate school. The first and the second part of education are based on Francis’ Testament, speaking of mercy and faith, of identity, of the gift of brothers, and of difficulties surrounding the right choice; the importance of Gospel, the following of Christ, radical poverty, manual work, announcing peace, liturgical prayer, etc. The topics they are treating help them enter the life of St. Francis and see how he used to think and talk. Each topic is accompanied by a given gesture, or a visit to a place associated with it. Thus, talking about the first community, the novices visited Rivotorto, while the speech about mercy was accompanied by the visit to Poggiobustone… One of the lovely moments (signs) was the washing of feet after completing the topic of the gift of brothers. “The signs we make at a certain point are most significant, because they help us recognize in the act itself the simplicity of what we are doing, but also the value beyond the sign. By washing a brother’s feet, we did the same thing Jesus did to His pupils on the Last Supper. It was an act reminding us of the fact that we are not to love are neighbour only during the washing of the feet, but also in everyday circumstances outside the chapel”, explained Friar Simone Milani. By the end of the novitiate, the novices shall be going over the Rule with various lecturers, become introduced with the history of the Order of Friars Minor, as well as with its major historical figures; they shall study the documents of the Second Vatican Council about consecrated life, as well as Constitutions.
After each completed stage, the novices spend several days evaluating with their magisters what they have been doing in the past period on both personal and common; both educational and spiritual, level. This particular time is filled with prayer and meditation, with “knowledge test” of what has been covered, whereas, in the end, the novices must make the decision about whether they shall continue the novitiate path they have begun, or give it up.
The novices share their prayer life with the community of Sacro Convento. They participate in all the devotions, as well as in the Holy Masses taking place in the Lower Basilica and on the tomb of Saint Frances. Along with common prayer, the novices remain daily connected with the Word of God through lectio divina, and the Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. “Prayer gives me comfort in sorrow, help in hardships. Common prayer with brothers teaches me how to pray and feel as a part of the community, as a part of the Church that prays” – said Friar Simone Schiavone.
Although they are a part of the friary community, the novices have their own schedule and duties up on their floor. Apart from the usual everyday tasks and activities, they take turns as altar boys, as well as in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. On Sunday’s, during the Holy Mass at 10:30, as well as on feasts, at 17:00 o’clock, the novices assist at the liturgy along with the clerics living at Franciscanum (in Assisi), lead by friar Giuseppe Marini, in charge of the ceremonies at the Basilica. Along with liturgical service, the novices love to help the friars at Sacro Convento with organizing various gatherings. We must point out in particular the decoration and preparation of the dining room for 500 guests on the feast of St. Francis, as well as for the Christmas concert. One among the important activities is also volunteering at the home for the mentally handicapped, the deaf and the blind “Serafico”. On Wednesday’s they help organize people which will assist in the Saturday liturgy. They work in several groups, one of which is in charge of the singing, the second one of the offering, and the third one with the visual presentation of the Gospel. It is exactly in this very home that the novices are doing what St. Francis did with the lepers. The beneficiaries of “Serafico” are often abandoned and neglected by others, and it is to them that they wish to bring the Good News – Christ, in a manner they can understand.
Not being able to carry along cell phone, camera, PC, mp3… This particular act invites you, at the beginning of the trial year, to seriously consider your decision and become open to a most radical following of Christ. The means present at the novitiate and at the friary are more than enough to keep in touch with the outside world. The Assisi novitiate encourages its novices to become poor and renounce contemporary facilities. Many have found this disappointing, or even frightening. Many have probably thought: “Not only that I cannot go home, see my parents… but now I cannot even have what I need to communicate with them?” Obviously, these are not the only things they gave up. Some find it hard to remain in silence on Monday’s and Friday’s from 15:30 to 19:00, when they are supposed to dedicate their time to personal study and work; also, the special days of the so called “desert”. Still, it is in silence – they say – that we can hear the voice of the Lord talking to us. Friar Nicola Solente says: “I found it difficult to accept the fact that I shall not be allowed to have a cell phone, or use the internet on a daily basis, thus keeping contact with all those with whom I have been keeping it so far.”
06:30 – Office of the Hours, Morning Prayer, Conventual Mass (7:15) – Lower basilica
07:50 – Breakfast
08:30 – 09:30 – Lectio Divina
10:00 – 12:00 – Formation
Wednesday: “school of music” with maestro della Cappella Musicale friar Giuseppe Magrin
12:30 – Midday Office prayer – at the tomb of St. Francis
12:45 – Lunch (rest)
15:00 – Reading of the Fonti Francescani (Franciscan sources)
16:00 – Activities:
Monday: personal studies
Wednesday: volunteering at the “Serafico” home
Friday: personal studies
Saturday: Holy Mass at the “Serafico” home
Sunday: free time from lunch to Vesperes
19:00 – Vesperes with different devotions: Tuesday: rosary
Friday: the rite of St. Francis’ passing away
20:00 – Supper – Brotherly night
(Saturday: a movie)
21:30 – Adoration
22:00 – Vesperes
Friar Alfredo M. Avallone: “The introductory ceremony clearly shows what is expected from a novice. It is what novices themselves are wishing for: “We wish to share the life of Franciscan family in the Order of Franciscan Conventuals, … follow the path of penitence, live according to the model of the Gospel, follow the simplicity and poverty of our Lord Jesus Christ, possess the Spirit of the Lord and always pray with a pure heart, thus growing in brotherly love.” They are expected to consider their vocation, experience the Franciscan way of life, shape their hearts and minds in the spirit of the Order, evaluate their own intentions, as well as the adequacy of their personal way of life. After the novitiate year, spent in a tight relationship with Francis, a novice should live the life of mercy, love and care for fellow man as a gift from above; live the Gospel with his brothers. Above everything else, one must get to know one’s virtues and flaws, overcome sin, as well as everything that turns him away from grace; learn to choose God’s will, be free and let it do its job. Then, one must also keep the Franciscan dynamics: to be responsible for one’s brother, to take care of him as a mother, to look in the Gospel for the right thing to do, to remain faithful to the Church.”
Friar Lucio Massacesi: “A novice is expected to be serious, loyal, and open for following Jesus Christ according to the model set by St. Francis, as well as according to the charisma of Friars Minor. I believe that every novice should adopt love and faith in God the Father, fervour in following Christ, and a stable relation with the Gospel, in order to be able to live the Good News and announce it through his words and deeds.”
To join the novitiate and start religious life means to truly want to follow Christ after the model of one of His most faithful followers: Saint Francis of Assisi.
After 365 days spent in the novitiate, follow the first temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, crowning the novitiate. Novitiate is the springtime of religious life, remembered always. It is the fire one warms his hands upon the whole life.
Published in Veritas, author: Josip Ivanović