The visitor as the Formator of the Province

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

by: Fr. Stanislav Zontak, CM


[This Material was present at the New Visitors Meeting that was held in Rome during the month of January 2014]


Part I: The Visitor is the one who is primarily responsible for the formation of the community and is the primary formator

In the consecrated life the role of Superiors, including local Superiors, has always been of great importance for the spiritual life and for mission. In these years of change and experimentation, the need to revise this office has sometimes been felt. But it should be recognized that those who exercise authority cannot renounce their obligation as those first responsible for the community, as guides of their brothers and sisters in the spiritual and apostolic life (Vita Consecrata, #43).

At this time of crisis with regard to authority there is much discussion on the role of authority in the process of discernment and this can prevent us from seeing the role of authority as a formator and a spiritual guide. Vita consecrate places this duty in a primary position. The superior is a formator and a guide and through his presence and activity he ought to promote personal development, on-going formation and on-going renewal of each member of the community.

Experience teaches us that life in any community is possible and will function if organized community relationships are established. This is especially true for those communities that have chosen a common purpose. Within such communities, the personality of the individual ought to be developed in such a way that each person becomes more and more aware of their proper autonomy and responsibility and at the same time will work toward the accomplishment of the common purpose. In order for this to occur the community must not only establish norms that will guide its life but must also support one of its members to accept the duty of formator and guide and to become concerned about the personal growth of each member of the community. This duty cannot be founded on authority but rather must be based on the esteem that the other members have for this particular individual, that is, others view him to be competent in this area and also view him to act on behalf of the overall good of the community which is always before him. The expectations and the challenges that such a formator places before those who are being formed are not demands of power but rather are communications that are based on objective reality and that the formator offers to those being formed, and which in turn can be freely chosen. And the selection is made not because they are proposed by someone in authority but because the decision is in accord with that which is truly good.


The need for on-going formation and its demands

The theme of on-going formation is a professional demand, a technical and administrative inevitability of the post-industrial society. Rapid social change, demands for ever greater specialization and the pressures of a consumer society have led various civil institutions and financial organization to the situation in which they need constantly updated information.

The request for on-going formation have been extended to ecclesial circles for quite some time and this theme has become one of urgent and perduring concern for the church. During the synod of bishops (1990) which was dedicated to the consecrated life, on-going formation emerged as the primary means to insure the development of the person as well as the development of the Church. This does not mean that previously there were no means for personal development, rather we are emphasizing the fact that in the modern world there will be no advancement without some form of on-going formation. The same demand surfaced once again during the Synod of 1994 and therefore Pope John Paul II wrote: Continuing formation, whether in Institutes of apostolic or contemplative life, is an intrinsic requirement of religious consecration. The formation process is not limited to the initial phase. Due to human limitations, the consecrated person can never claim to have completely brought to life the "new creature" who, in every circumstance of life, reflects the very mind of Christ. Initial formation, then, should be closely connected with continuing formation, thereby creating a readiness on everyone's part to let themselves be formed every day of their lives (Vita consecrate, #69). Today, more than ever, we are aware of the importance of the presence of formators in every area of consecrated life, persons who will promote on-going formation and constant up-dating. The present situation in which people are living out their lives as consecrated individuals requires much time for gradual maturing. Formation in today’s world has to be aware of the primary ways in which people come to full maturity. Thus we are dealing with the cornerstones of on-going formation, those areas of focus that the formator has to grapple with. The Church’s documents highlight the following:

  • Life in the Spirit: John Paul II states: Life in the Spirit is clearly of primary importance. Living in the Spirit, consecrated persons discover their own identity and find profound peace; they grow more attentive to the daily challenges of the world of God, and they allow themselves to be guided by the original inspiration of their institute (Consecrata vita, #71).
  • Deepening a sense of Church: The objective of this demand is to promote and develop a clear awareness and experience of the mystery and structure of the Church and of the vivifying indwelling of the Holy Spirit, by jointly organizing special seminars and encounters on spirituality. This Spirit dwells within the Church and guides it. This formation ought to take place during community meetings where fraternal dialogue is practiced and where experiences and ideas are shared (Mutuae relationes, #24). The sense of ecclesial communion, developing into a spirituality of communion, promotes a way of thinking, speaking and acting which enables the Church to grow in depth and extension (Vita consecrate, #24).
  • Deepening a sense of prayer: Members of communities of consecrated life, who are committed to following Jesus’ earthly lifestyle, should follow his example and withdraw so that they might pray alone (Mutuar relationes, #25). The spirit of prayer should be maintained and regularly developed in every member of the community: under the action of the Spirit, they resolutely keep times for prayer, silence and solitude, and they never cease to ask the Almighty for the gift of wisdom in the struggles of everyday life (Wisdom 9:10).
  • Development of the human and fraternal dimension: The human and fraternal dimensions of the consecrated life call for self-knowledge and the awareness of personal limitations, so as to offer its members the inspiration and support needed on the path towards perfect freedom. In present day circumstances, special importance must be given to the interior freedom of consecrated persons, their affective maturity, their ability to communicate with others, especially in their own community, their serenity of spirit, their compassion for those who are suffering, their love for the truth, and a correspondence between their actions and their words (Vita Consecrata, #71).
  • Deepen the meaning of their vocation: Today the sense of fidelity and permanent consecration to any activity or any state of life in the world is seriously threatened. This crisis has an impact on the attitudes of consecrated individuals. Formators, therefore, have an obligation to educate consecrated individuals in the meaning of fidelity for their proper vocation with a view toward helping them respond to the requirements of the apostolic commitments of the religious family itself, in harmony with the needs of the Church (Mutuae relationes, #26).
  • Deepen the meaning of their vocation: This demand is especially important in the midst of a secular and pluralistic society in which supernatural values are marginalized and viewed as secondary in importance. Consecrated individuals will maintain their zeal and their love for their lifestyle if they continually deepen the meaning of their vocation. Awareness of the nature of their proper institute provides these individuals with the fundamental elements of formation and is part of the contemplative dimension of consecrated life (The contemplative dimension of religious life, #18). This means that each members should study diligently the spirit, history and mission of the institute to which he or she belongs, in order to advance the personal and communal assimilation of its charism (Vita consecrate, 71).
  • Deepen the meaning of the vows and the apostolate: Attentive to the needs of the time and also to the need for on-going formation, an emphasis is now placed on renewing the witness to life that is given through the vow of poverty and especially the witness that is given through our service on behalf of the poor and the abandoned. The apostolic dimension opens the hearts and minds of consecrated persons and prepares them for constant effort in the apostolate, as the sign that it is the love of Christ which urges them on (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:14). In practice, this will involve updating the methods and objectives of apostolic works in fidelity to the spirit and aims of the founder or foundress and to subsequently emerging traditions, with continuous attention to changing historical and cultural conditions, at the general and local levels where the apostolate is carried out (Vita consecrata, #71).
  • Move active participation in the life of the local church. This demand is accomplished through obtaining a better knowledge of the directives and ecclesiastical rules of the local church (Mutuae relationes, #35) and also by becoming more aware of the reality of the area which is always related in some way to the local conditions in which people and the church find themselves. In order to define our priority it is necessary to develop a pastoral plan and we must commit ourselves to a regular evaluation of this plan (Mutuae relationes, #32),
  • Provide for the cultural and professional development of the person: The cultural and professional dimensions, based upon a solid theological training which provides the means for wise discernment, involve continual updating and special interest in the different areas to which each charism is directed. Consecrated persons must therefore keep themselves as intellectually open and adaptable as possible, so that the apostolate will be envisaged and carried out according to the needs of their own time, making use of the means provided by cultural progress (Vita consecrate, #71).


Part II: A Practical Guide for the Visitor (Part II, Article 7)

I want to draw your attention to some important points that are mentioned in Article 7: ministries of reconciliation and preaching.

[1] The Visitor, besides granting permission to the confreres to hear confessions, is asked to do two other things: a) verify the ability of the Missionaries to be good confessors, b) orient and guide the young priests in this ministry of confession and form them for this ministry which is bound up with the origins of the Congregation, is often utilized during popular missions and is also an important subject for the formation of the clergy.

Perhaps we are accustomed to leave the preparation for this ministry to those professors of theology who, without any doubt, are competent to do this, and therefore we do not think of verifying this preparation. Certainly with the changes that have taken place in recent years with regard to the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation, we ought to be attentive to this preparation and especially to the intentions of the confreres in this matter. We should be aware of the fact that this is a traditional Vincentian ministry and therefore it would be a sin to neglect this service.

Many priests today feel that people are not interested in confession and that it is necessary to look for other means to maintain and sustain the spiritual life. The experience in many places, however, teaches us that people do not go to confession because there is no one who will hear their confession. Good spiritual and psychological and sociological preparation, together with the conviction that as Vincentians we are called to provide this service to people, will make us effective instruments in the new evangelization

[2] Article 7 in the first part of the Guide requests that the Visitor be careful with regard to the formation of the members of his province for the ministry of preaching which in fact ought to be the proclamation of the Word of God … and this should be done according to our Vincentian tradition of preaching with simplicity.

Part III: A Practical Guide for the Visitor (Part II, Article 8.1, 8.2, 8.4)

Article 8: personal progress of the members of the province wants to focus our attention on the following points:

1] The Visitor, in accord with the Constitutions, Statutes and Provincial Norms, ought to respect and assure that others respect the rights of all those who are members of the province. The following are specifically mentioned: a) active and passive voice, b) the right of each member to have suffrages offered for him throughout the Congregation when he dies, c) to right to be granted each month the celebration of a certain number of Masses (at least two), according to his intention and without a stipend. Provincial Norms should establish the number of Masses.

[2] The Visitor must also be concerned to ensure that the members of Province fulfill their various obligations:

(a) from the time of their admission all members of the Congregation must obey the Constitutions, Statutes and Provincial Norms;

(b) the Visitor should provide education with regard to viewing obedience and dialogue as the place where we discover God and God’s will. Many missionaries find themselves in a difficult situation because they have been left to themselves, to their own will and options and have not been accompanied by a Visitor or a superior who could help them in a process of discernment in light of the Word of God and the Constitutions and Statutes.

* To be overly permissive is to provide inadequate and bad service to the confreres.  

* We have a need for true leaders who are very human and very humble; but we also need true prophets who know how to speak the truth and how to proclaim the Word of God to the confreres.

[3] In the same line the Visitor also has the right to assign persons who are able to walk along that same path as true leaders and prophets.


Part IV: A Practical Guide for the Visitor (Part II, Article 8.3, 8.5, 8.6)

[1] Initial and on-going formation: the Visitor has the obligation

  • To study, together with the formators, the Ratio Formationis and then to prepare and put into practice a plan for the province.
  • Appoint and encourage a provincial formation commission
  • To reflect on the preparation and the formation of the formators
  • To favor and promote on-going formation and to offer the Missionaries the possibility and effective means for such formation, for example, professional courses organized formation days for the province, study weeks at different levels, the preparation of a provincial library to facilitate pastoral and Vincentian studies, acquiring magazines and promoting their reading.

[2] Experience show us that in general there are well-planned programs for initial and on-going formation in the provinces but, for distinct reasons or motives, these are not carried out and/or the Missionaries do not respond to the proposals that the Province makes. It is very important to be attentive to the selection of formators and the method of placing before the Missionaries certain means of formation.

[3] The Visitor ought to take interest in the elderly and infirm Missionaries. When speaking about this theme we are not simply referring to making available to the confreres a place where they can retire to if they become infirm or unable to minister. Rather we are speaking about the creation of an environment of formation for the elderly confreres who ought to be formed and helped to accept their situation and make themselves useful and present in the ministry and in the service of the province. The Missionaries ought to be formed in order to know how to accept and live their later years before they reach that age. In fact, we can say that we encounter three classes of elderly missionaries: a) those who have aged in spirit and are still relatively young [in age]; b) those who are unable to recognize that they are aging and want to be like the younger confreres … they do not know how to put aside in a timely manner their commitments; c) those confreres who are able to recognize their situation and evaluate their strength and have accepted responsibilities adapted to their mental and physical abilities.

[4] Article 8 speaks about the possibility of transferring from one province to another and this provides us with an opportunity to reflect on those possibilities in light of the good of the Congregation. We do not want to talk about those cases when a missionary will utilize this option to resolve some personal problem, rather we refer to those situations in which a missionary from one province transfers to another province in order to enhance the process of evangelization or some other service of the Congregation. This reminds us anew of the need to form the Missionaries with regard to their sense of belonging to the Congregation and therefore they should be willing to go wherever the Congregation needs their presence.


Translated: Charles Plock, CM