Women Religious: Forming and Transforming

   Judette Gallares, R.C.

Formation in religious life today is crucial for initiating and deepening a person’s commitment to the Gospel and Christ’s mission. Even before the Second Vatican Council, the Church has been concerned about religious formation. The 1990 publication of the Directives on Formation in Religious Institutes by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) documents the Church’s view of formation as key to building up the person according to the doctrinal principles and general norms put forth by Lumen Gentium and Perfectae Caritatis.

            Religious formation is understood primarily as the shaping of a person’s self-image and vocation in “conformity to the Lord Jesus in his total self-giving” (Vita Consecrata #65). It is the invitation to place one’s personal growth and spiritual journey within the framework of religious life where persons are immersed in the experience of God as it is gradually perfected in their lives (cf. Directives #35). The integral formation of a human being includes all processes that would aid a person in understanding and living the three hierarchy of calls: (1) the call to be a human person, which serves as a foundation of one’s response to; (2) the call to be a Christian, and gradually deepening this by one’s choice to respond to; (3) the call to live one’s Christian faith radically that bears witness to evangelical counsels.

            These calls are integrated into the following formative stages.

            1. The Pre-Novitiate. This period forms the discerning of one’s attraction to religious life through three dimensions—the human spirit, participation in the Church’s mission, and the chosen institute’s charism and mission.

            2. The Novitiate. During this phase, the focus is to reorient the whole person to conform with the mind and heart of Christ. The novice at this stage must grow in her conviction that Christ is her all and test her suitability for religious life.

            3. Post Novitiate. A period of temporary profession, from first vows to final vows lasting five to nine years, aims to strengthen and deepen what has been started from the earlier stages of formation. The transformation of the human heart continues as one lives the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

            4. Continuing formation. Vita Consecrata #69 stresses that continuing formation “is an intrinsic requirement for religious consecration.” Due to human limitations, the consecrated person can never be completely “formed” according to Christ’s mind and heart. Therefore, ongoing renewal opportunities must be provided for one’s entire life.


            Many religious congregations have rapidly spread beyond their historical origins which has resulted in accepting members from diverse cultures. Most institutes have not taken into consideration the psychological effects of being uprooted from one’s culture to be transplanted into a totally different one, and how diverse mindsets affect relationships, gospel witness, and mission.  This has caused the CICLSAL to address the various challenges in its 2018 document entitled New Wine in New Wineskins. It acknowledges the need for focused attention on the “recent and hurried process of internationalization, especially of women’s institutes, and the solutions which are often improvised and lacking in prudent gradualness.” (#39).

            Forming intercultural missionaries remains a challenge for both women and men institutes. As religious communities become increasingly multicultural, the questions that concern us are: how can religious life bring the sociological reality of multiculturalism into an intercultural theological process? And how are we to respond to the pluralism that impacts the Church and religious life?

            New Wine in New Wineskins emphasizes the importance of learning to dialogue with cultures, “by asking concrete questions about the institutions and about the consecrated women as individuals and as a community…” (cf.#38). In addition, interdisciplinary studies affirm that human and cultural processes related to feminine identity are different from those of masculine identity. Therefore, challenges to Consecrated life involve identifying these differences in order to avoid perpetuating masculine models of discipleship and further undervaluing women in the Church.

            Growing in understanding one another in community and the cultures that form each person enables true listening, dialogue, and communion as it does in helping to overcome women’s sense of unworthiness. In highly restrictive and male-oriented cultures, the belief that “women are less worthy than men” has seeped deep into women’s unconscious, so that experiencing the liberating message of the gospel requires greater effort and openness. It is important that religious institutes provide an integral human and spiritual formation for their members to help them develop their gifts and potentials and realize their “feminine genius” in serving the Church.

            Conclusion. Consecrated life today challenges religious institutes to create an egalitarian and respectful atmosphere in their communities as places and spaces for formation and transformation. This atmosphere allows their members to freely mature in their sense of self as gifted women of faith in their choice to live the evangelical counsels and mission. In our increasingly multicultural world and our growing human consciousness, religious formation calls for the adoption of interdisciplinary methods.  The process of forming and transforming as a religious is maturing within the human-divine relationship, and converting to what matters most —Christ and his mission—takes a lifetime.


Pope St. John Paul II, Vita Consecrata: Post-Synodal Exhortation (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, March 25, 1996).

Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), Directives on Formation in Religious Institutes (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, February 2, 1990).

__________, New Wine in New Wineskins: The Consecrated Life and its Ongoing Challenges since Vatican II (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, May 2018).