Legal Issues for Older and Indebted Candidates for Religious Life

I often work with communities when they are considering candidates for entrance into their formation programs. Today's inquirers are a diverse group, from the perspective of age, life experience, professional and academic background, physical and psychological health, personal assets and debt, language and culture. Exploring these factors brings to light the blessing and challenge of diversity which places new demands on vocation and formation personnel as well as on leadership.

What does canon law say about issues common with older candidates entering religious life? Canon law speaks of requirements for admission, and particularly admission into novitiate. Those doing vocation ministry are often called to work through these issues with inquirers. A familiarity with the issues, requirements and options brings clarity that can assist in the mutual discernment of vocation and in arranging for candidates leaving jobs that may have taken a long time to acquire, and their assets such as a house, car, household goods, pensions, valuables and how to handle relationships with adult children, etc. Another area that often raises canonical questions is the issue of a candidate with significant student debt. This issue has raised concern in the wider society, and can also cause concerns for those discerning a vocation.

In speaking of older candidates, I realize that one older candidate may be thirty and another older candidate may be sixty. The thirty-year-old will have issues of career and property, while the sixty-year-old may have additional issues of health, family ties and retirement. Each candidate and each community is unique. The law can articulate principles whose application will vary.

Canon 597 sets out the basic requirements for candidates for novitiate in all religious communities.

  • §1. Any Catholic endowed with a right intention who has the qualities required by universal and proper law and who is not prevented by any impediment can be admitted into an institute of consecrated life.
  • §2. No one can be admitted without suitable preparation.

This canon raises questions regarding accepting of new converts, and the various impediments that may arise, from prior marriage, prior membership in a religious community and debt. The required qualities are mentioned in other canons. For example, Canon 642 states:

  • With vigilant care, superiors are only to admit those who, besides the required age, have the health, suitable character, and sufficient qualities of maturity to embrace the proper life of the institute. This health, character, and maturity are to be verified even by using experts, if necessary, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 220.

For older candidates, health may become an increasing issue. Their health should be age appropriate, and a community should evaluate accepting candidates with a history of cancer, heart problems, etc. While these are not prohibitive, one would have to consider the prognosis and the length of the formation program. Maturity must also be age appropriate. One would expect older candidates to exhibit more maturity, and they should also have the openness and flexibility to enter into a formation program. A respected professional with advanced degrees will still be a novice in the life of the community. This will require an appropriate level of maturity on the part of the candidate as well as on the part of the vocation and formation director and leadership. Maturity is multi-faceted: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, academic, professional, linguistic, cultural.

Older candidates often have rich social, professional and familial networks. Entrance into religious life will not replace these networks, but it will call for a focus on developing the community relationships and then integrating these into their other support systems. This takes time and should be done with attention and deliberation on the part of the candidate and the vocation/formation directors and leadership. Discernment, discussion, planning and communication can help to smooth the transition.

Candidates may have academic and professional credentials and may have ongoing requirements to maintain them. A plan in this regard should 1) ensure the candidate's ongoing ability to earn a living should they leave the community, 2) consider the ministry potential of the credentials and 3) consider the time and cost of maintaining the credentials throughout the period of formation. The same concerned may be raised by an older candidate who leaves the workforce to enter a religious institute. Prior planning can help to ensure that the candidate's return to ministry and employment after initial formation is as smooth as possible.

Integration of family ties, particularly adult children can also be a challenge. Children should be independent, and should be made aware of the candidate's availability for visits, for family celebrations, for support, etc.

A major issue for many older candidates is how to deal with property and fiduciary obligations. Taken from the perspective of moving from independence into interdependence, a candidate must evaluate his or her assets, liabilities and fiduciary obligations and determine how to deal with each of these matters as they move into the formation period, which is a transitional period of discernment, and then how the matter will finally be resolved when they are finally incorporated into the community. It can be helpful to use an inventory of legal and financial matters (Hereford, 2012) to help identify all the issues that need to be discussed.

Despite the best preparation, unforeseen issues may arise during the formation process. Nevertheless, initial discussions with the vocation director can be invaluable in addressing these issues early in the candidate's discernment. They can be opportunities to deepen the discernment process and afford clarity to candidates as well as to formation personnel and communities.

For more on Older and Indebted Candidates for Religious Life, register for May's webcast. There is also time to register for the Covenant Project workshop in April 2015: www.ahereford.org/registration

Recorded Webcasts: Not available for a webcast? You can register to view it On-Demand or on CD-ROM, go to www.ahereford.org/registration.

Please let me know if I can be of assistance to you or your organization.

Sincerely,
Amy Hereford

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