The word novice, which among the Romans meant a newly acquired slave, and which is now used to denote an inexperienced person, is the canonical Latin name of those who, having been regularly admitted into a religious order and ordinarily already confirmed in their higher vocation by a certain period of probation as postulants, are prepared by a series of exercises and tests for the religious profession. In Greek, the novice was called archarios, a beginner. The religious life, recommended by Jesus Christ, is encouraged by the Church and any person is allowed to become a novice who is not prevented by some positive legal impediment. No minimum or maximum age is fixed by canon law for admission into the novitiate. Those, however, who have not arrived at puberty cannot enter without the consent of their parents or guardians; and canon law ("Si quis", I; "De regularibus", III, 31) grants to parents one year to compel the return of a child who has entered without their consent. As the Council of Trent fixes at sixteen years the earliest age for the profession which follows the novitiate, we may conclude that the novice must have completed his fifteenth year if the religious order requires one year of novitiate; or, his fourteenth, if the two years be required, and this opinion is confirmed in respect to Regulars, properly so-called, by the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Religious dated 16 May, 1675, and for nuns by that of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars dated 28 May, 1689. According to the rules of procedure, published by the latter congregation, 28 June, 1901, no person may be admitted into a new congregation under the age of fifteen years without special permission of the Holy See. The constitution of Clement VIII, "Cum ad Regularem", of 19 March, 1603, requires the age of nineteen full years for the reception of lay-brothers, but this constitution has not been everywhere carried into effect. Canon law distinctly gives to clerics the right to enter religion (cf. Clerici, unic., c.XIX, i; Alienum, I eodem, q. 2; Benedict XIV, C. "Ex quo dilectus", 14 January, 1747; the reply of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars of 20 December, 1859; Nilles, "De libertate clericorum religionem ingrediendi"). Even those who have obtained a burse for study, or who have been maintained at the expense of the seminary retain this right, although it is admitted that the founder of a burse, or the donor of money for educational purposes may impose certain reasonable conditions for the use of his gifts, and may stipulate for instance that the cleric shall undertake to serve the diocese for a certain number of years, or not to enter into religion without the consent of the Holy See. Although the consent of the bishop is not canonically required, the cleric is recommended to inform him of his intention to enter a religious order, and a similar notification is required of any cleric or priest occupying any office or benefice. The bishop in fact must be in a position to fill the vacancy. For the entry into religion of a diocesan bishop nominated or confirmed by the Holy See, the consent of the pope is required. This does not apply to a bishop who has lawfully resigned his see, but some authors consider that it does apply to titular bishops.

However general may be the freedom to enter a religious order, no person is allowed to do this to the detriment of another's right. Thus a married man, at least after the consummation of marriage, cannot enter into religion, unless his wife has by her misconduct given him the right to refuse cohabitation forever, or unless she consents to his entrance, and agrees to make a vow of chastity or to enter into religion herself, in conformity with canonical rules. The liberty of a married woman is similarly limited ("Præterea", 1; "Cum sis:, 4; "Ad Apostolicam", 13; "Significavit", 18; "De conversione conjugatorum", III, 32). Parents may not enter into religion without making suitable provision for the education and future of their children; nor children who are under the obligation of maintaining their parents, if their religious profession would prevent them from aiding their parents in any grave necessity. Debtors also are forbidden, at least those who may be expected to be able to pay their debts within a reasonable time (this is a disputed point but we give the most commonly accepted opinion, which is that of St. Alphonsus, "Moral Theology", bk. IV, 5, n. 71). Moreover, a positive order of Sixtus V (Cum de omnibus, 1587), modified to a certain extent by Clement VIII (In Suprema, 1602), forbids the profession of persons involved in debts by their own fault. Canon law also excludes persons branded with infamy and those connected with any criminal proceeding, also those under an obligation to render accounts of a complicated nature. (C. Clement VIII, "In Suprema", 1602). An illegitimate child is not necessarily excluded, but he cannot be received into any order in which his father is professed (C. Gregory XIV, "Circumspecta", 15 March, 1591).

The canonical regulations spoken of above, concern those religious orders in which solemn vows are taken. Religious congregations are governed generally by the natural law and their own approved constitutions. According to the "Normæ" (Regulations) of 1901, the Holy See imposes the following disabilities, and reserves to itself the right of dispensation: illegitimacy, not removed by legitimation; age, below fifteen and above thirty years; vows binding a person to another order; marriage; debts or liability to render accounts; and for nuns, widowhood. More recently, the decree "Ecclesia Christi" of 7 September, 1909, with which must be read the declarations of 4 January and 5 April, 1910, renders invalid, without the permission of the Holy See, the admission of any person who has been expelled from a college for immorality or other grave fault, or of a person who has been dismissed for any cause whatever from another religious order, a seminary, or any institution for the training of ecclesiastics or religious. A person who has obtained a dispensation from his vows cannot enter into any order but the one which he left. This decree applies both to religious orders, and to congregations with simple vows, at least to those which are not diocesan, and its effect has been extended by the order of 4 January, 1910, to religious communities of women. Only formal expulsion renders admission invalid, but the fact of leaving college or other institution under circumstances which would make it equivalent to expulsion makes it illicit, and the Holy See requires superiors to make such inquiries as are necessary to prevent the admission of undesirable persons. Another decree of 7 September, 1910, "In articulo", while not rendering the reception invalid, forbids the admission of a young man who presents himself in order to become a religious cleric, unless he has been through a course of a least four years of classical studies. (For these decrees and their explanation see "De religiosis et missionariis", vol. V).

Before the taking of the habit, exact information must be secured to make sure of the qualities and good intentions of the candidate. These precautions are happy substitutions for the rather rude test that had to be undergone in former times (see Postulant). Besides being dictated by the natural law, they have been sanctioned for the orders of men by a Constitution of Sixtus V, "Cum de omnibus", 1587, and by another constitution, "Cum ad regularem", promulgated by Clement VIII, March 1603, and confirmed by Urban VIII. (The ordinances of Clement VIII concern Italy and the adjacent islands only.) In the celebrated Decree, "Romani Pontifices" (25 January, 1848), Pius IX laid a strict injunction on all superiors of orders and congregations of men to admit no one to the habit without testimonial letters from the ordinary of the diocese in which the candidate was born and of the dioceses in which he has lived for more than a year from the age of fifteen. This year is explained in a later declaration to mean twelve successive months spent in the same diocese. In these letters, the ordinaries ought, in as far as they can, to bear witness to the candidate's birth, age, conduct, reputation, and all other qualities that affect his entry into religion. The obligation of exacting such letters is imposed under penalty of censure, but it does not entail nullity. Their receipt does not dispense superiors from making their own inquiries.


By the fact of his entrance into an approved congregation, the novice becomes an ecclesiastical person. If he is a novice in a religious order, he becomes a regular in the widest sense of the word; as such he is not bound by any vow, but he is protected by the ecclesiastical immunities, and shares in the indulgences and privileges of his order, gaining a plenary indulgence on the day of his admission, at least into an order properly so called. The prelate or superior may exercise in regard to his novices all his powers of absolution in reserved cases, and of dispensation from rules and precepts of the Church. Novices benefit also by any exemption attached to the order to which they belong. The jurisdiction communicated by the superior of the congregation suffices to absolve them. It follows apparently that a confessor approved only by the ordinary of the place could not give them valid absolution, though this point is disputed. According to the common law of regulars, the priest who is maser of novices is their only ordinary confessor. The novice is bound to obey the superior who has jurisdiction over him, and power as head of the house. He is bound by any private vows he may have taken, but these may be indirectly annulled by the superior in so far as they are contrary to the rules of the order or the exercises of the novitiate. The training of the novices is entrusted to an experienced religious, ordinarily distinct from the local superior. The latter, though obliged to respect the prerogatives of the novice-master, remains the real immediate superior of the novices, and outside that part of the house which is called the novitiate, the direction of the entire community belongs exclusively to him. By canon law, the novice retains full and entire liberty to leave his order and incurs no pecuniary responsibility by the mere fact of leaving it. Vows of devotion do not change the juridical condition of the novice, and they cease to bind if he is legally expelled. As soon as one has made up his mind to leave, it becomes his duty to inform the superior; and if he fails to do so, he becomes liable to reimburse the order for any unnecessary expense it may incur on his behalf after his decision. This is only natural justice. The order is obliged to restore to him his personal property and anything he may have brought with him. As the order is not bound to the novice by any contract, it may dismiss him. According to the regulations of 28 June, 1901, in new congregations governed by simple vows, the dismissal of a novice must be approved by the superior-general and his council. Dismissal without sufficient cause would be an offense against charity and equity, and a superior guilty of such an offense would fail in his duty to his order.

Although the reception of a novice should be gratuitous, the Council of Trent (c. 16, Sess. 25, "De regularibus") permits the order to stipulate for the payment of his expenses while in the novitiate. In order to ensure the complete liberty of the novice, the same council forbids him to make any renunciation of his property or any important gift, and annuls such renunciation if made. Parents also, to whose property the novice had a right of succession, are debarred from making any considerable donation. By common law, however, a novice may legally renounce his property within the two months immediately preceding his profession, and this renunciation should also be authorized by the bishop or his vicar-general. This formality of authorization is not always insisted upon in practice. The renunciation may extend to property of which he is already possessed, or to such as must necessarily descend to him by right of inheritance; but not seemingly to such as he has only an expectation of receiving. He is free to make over his property to his family, his order, or any pious work, or even to provide for services and Masses after his death. Although the renunciation takes effect only from the date of his profession, and becomes null and void if that profession does not take place, it is not revocable at the pleasure of the novice before his profession, unless he has reserved to himself the right to change the disposition of his property. If no renunciation has been made at the time of solemn profession, canon law assigns the property either to the monastery or to the natural heirs of the religious. Common law requires that the solemn profession shall be preceded by a period of simple vows; before making these vows, the novice is bound to declare to whom he commits the administration of his patrimony, and how he wishes the income to be employed, and the consent of the Holy See is generally required for any change in this arrangement. The religious is entitled to provide for the administration of any additional property which may come to him after his simple profession, and for the disposal of the income of such property. The law of the Council of Trent does not concern congregations which are governed by simple vows; but in these the power of a novice to alienate or retain his property is provided for by their constitutions. Generally speaking, the novice is bound, before taking his vows, to declare how he wishes his property to be administered, and the income expended. According to the Regulations of 1901, he may, even after making his vows, be authorized by the superior-general to modify these dispositions. The renunciation of property, though not made null and void, is forbidden to the novice. The Holy See does not approve that any obligation should be imposed upon the novice to give even the income of his property to his order; he remains free to apply it to any reasonable purpose. Solemn profession vacates all ecclesiastical benefices of which the novice was possessed; the perpetual vows of congregations governed by simple vows vacate residential benefices; that is to say, benefices which require residence are vacated by the simple profession, which prepares the way for solemn profession, or by the temporary vows which precede perpetual vows.


Except in the case of some special privilege of the religious order (as with the Society of Jesus) or some unavoidable obstacle, the novice should wear a religious habit, though not necessarily the special habit of novices. It is the duty of the novice, under the guidance of the novice-master, to form himself spiritually, to learn the rules and customs of his order, and to try himself in the difficulties of the religious life. The rule ordinarily prescribes that at the outset of his religious career he shall pass some days in spiritual exercises, and make a general confession of the sins of his whole life. By the Constitution "Cum ad regularem" of 19 March, 1603, renewed under Urban VIII in the Decree "Sacra Congregatio" of 1624, Clement VIII laid down, for novitiates approved by the Holy See, some very wise rules in which he directed that there should be a certain amount of recreation, both in the house and out of doors; and he insisted on the separation of the novices from older religious. For a long time, studies, properly so called, were forbidden, at least during the first year of novitiate; but a recent decree dated 27 August, 1910, while maintaining the principle that one year of the novitiate should be devoted especially to the formation of the religious character, recommends certain studies to exercise the mental faculties of the novices, and enable their superiors to form an opinion of their talents and capacities without involving any excessive application, such as the study of the mother-tongue, Latin and Greek, repetition of work previously done, reading the works of the Fathers, etc., in short, studies appropriate to the purpose of the order. Novices, therefore, are bound to give up one hour regularly to private study on all except feast-days, and also to receive lessons limited to one hour each, not oftener than three times a week. The manner in which the novices apply themselves to these studies is to be taken into account when the question arises of their being admitted to profession (see the decree annotated in Vermeersch, "Periodica de religiosis et missionariis", vol. V, 1910, n. 442, pp. 195, 197). According to the practice of the older orders the novice receives a religious name, differing from his baptismal name.


For all religious orders, the Council of Trent prescribes a full year in the novitiate, under penalty of nullity of profession. In those orders which have a distinctive habit, the novitiate commences with the assumption of the habit; in those which have no habit, it commences from the time when the novice is received into the house lawfully assigned for the purpose by competent authority. This year must be continuous without interruption. It is interrupted whenever the bond between the order and the novice is broken by voluntary departure or legal dismissal; and also when, independently of the wish of either superior or novice, the latter is compelled to live for any considerable time in the world. A dismissal is considered to take effect when once the novice has crossed the threshold of the house; in case of a voluntary departure, a novice who has left the house, but has kept his religious habit and who returns after one or two days' absence, is considered as having given way to a temporary desire for change, not sufficient to cause him to lose the benefit of the time already spent in the novitiate. An interruption makes it necessary that the novitiate should begin afresh as if nothing had previously been done, and it differs in this respect from suspension, which is, so to speak, an interval between two effective periods of novitiate. The time which passes during the suspension does not count, only the time passed before the suspension being added to that which follows. The novitiate is suspended when a novice is withdrawn for a certain time from the superior's direction, but without changing his condition. This would happen in the case of a temporary mental aberration, or an expulsion for some reason shown afterwards to be unfounded, and therefore annulled. It is generally held that if a novice quits his order after having finished his novitiate, and is subsequently readmitted, he has not to begin his novitiate afresh, unless it appears that there has been some serious damage in his dispositions. The law of the Council of Trent does not strictly apply to congregations governed by simple vows, but the constitutions of these congregations ordinarily require a year of novitiate at least, and the "Normæ" (Regulations) of 1901 make a complete and continuous year of the novitiate one of the conditions of a valid profession.

The practice of the Holy See has been of late years to interpret this continuity much more strictly than was formerly the case. Some persons consider that one whole day passed outside the novitiate, even for some good reason, and with the permission of superior, is sufficient to render ineffective the whole of the previous probation, but this is too rigorous an interpretation of the rule. To avoid all danger of offending against canon law, superiors will do wisely not to grant permission to pass the night out of the novitiate, except for a very good reason and for a very short time. By the Constitutions of Clement VIII, "Regularis disciplinæ" of 12 March, 1596, and of Innocent XII, "Sanctissimus" of 20 June, 1699, the novitiate house must be approved by the Holy See, and the novitiate cannot be validly passed elsewhere. These directions refer to Italy and the adjacent islands, and do not apply to all religious orders. Nevertheless some authors consider them to be of universal application. The rules of congregations governed by simple vows approved by the Holy See ordinarily reserve to the Holy See the approbation of the novitiate house. Pius IX, in an Encyclical letter of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars dated 22 April, 1851, required that in all novitiates there should be a common life; pocket-money and the separate use of chattels of whatever kind (peculium) was forbidden. One part of the novitiate house should be reserved for the novices, and strictly separated from the rest of the dwelling. The novitiate cannot validly be commenced except in the house lawfully set apart for the purpose. Some authors strictly require that the novices shall never be lodged elsewhere; but, although in the orders whose novitiate is bound to be approved by the Holy See, residence in this house is rigorously insisted upon, it does not seem possible that a few days' absence should lessen the value of the probation.


The institution of a time of probation, in order to prepare the candidate who has already been admitted to the religious life for his profession, goes back to very ancient times. According to Mgr Ladeuze (Le cénobitisme Pachomien, p. 282), in spite of the testimony of the MS. Life of St. Pachomius (MS. 381, "Patrologia", IV, Paris), the novitiate did not exist in the monastery of St. Pachomius as a general institution; but from the fifth century at least it has been the rule for the Coptic monks to pass through a novitiate of three years. (See the "Coptic Ordinal" in the Bodleian Library of Oxford; Evetts in "Revue de l'Orient chrétien", II, 1906, pp. 65, 140.) This term of three years was required also in Persia in the sixth century (Labouret, "Le Christianisme en Perse", p. 80). Justinian, in approving this, says that he borrowed it from the rules of the saints, "Sancimus ergo, sacras sequentes regulas" (Novella V, "de monachis", c. 2, preface and sect. I). Many Western orders, notably that of St. Benedict, were content with one year. St. Gregory the Great in his letter to Fortunatus, Bishop of Naples, (bk. X, Letter 24, in Migne, "P.L.", LXXVII, col. 1082-7) required two years. Many orders of canons left the time to the discretion of he abbot. Common law did not prescribe any term of novitiate and this omission led to the frequent shortening, and occasionally to the entire abolition of the preparatory probation. Innocent III ["C. Apostolicum", 16, "de regularibus" (III, 31)] directs that the novitiate shall be dispensed with only in exceptional circumstances, and forbids the Mendicant Orders to make their profession within one year. Finally the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV, c. XV, "de regularibus") makes a year's novitiate an indispensable condition of valid profession. In the East, since the fourth or fifth century, the novices of Palestine, Egypt, and Tabenna have been accustomed to give up their secular dress, and put on the habit given them by the community. This habit is distinguished from that of the professed by the absence of the cuculla or cowl. Those of St. Basil kept their habits. This practice, sanctioned by Justinian (Novella, V, c. 2), was also that of St. Benedict and the Benedictines, but the contrary use has for a long time past prevailed. (See Profession; Postulant; Nuns.)

Classical authors: St. Thomas, Summa theologica, II-II, Q. clxxx, a. 2-7 and Q. clxxxix; Passerini, De hominum statibus, III, commenting on St. Thomas, l.c.; Suarez, De Religione, tract. VII, bk. IV-VI; Laymann, Theologia moralis, De statu religioso, c. vi; Schmalzgrueber in bk. III Decr., XXXI, XXXII; in bk. IV, t. VI, n. 38-42; Schmier, Jurisprudentia canonico-civilis, bk. III, t. I, pt. I, c. iii, s. 2; Pellizarius, Manuale Regularium, tr. 2; Rotarius, Theol. mor. Regularium, t. I, bk. I, II; Martène, De antiquis monachorum ritibus; Idem, Commentarius in reg. S. Benedicti; Thomasini, Vetus et Nova Ecclesiæ disciplina, t. I, bk. III, etc.

More recent writers: Angelus a SS. Corde, Manuale juris communis regularium et specialis Carmelitorum discalceatorum, t. I (Ghent, 1899); Bachofen, Compendium juris regularium (New York, 1903); Bouix, De iure regularium, t. I (Paris, 1857); Battandier, Guide canonique pour les constitutions des instituts à voeux simples (4th ed., Paris, 1908); Bastien, Directoire canonique à l'usage des congrégations à voeux simples (2nd ed., Maredsous, 1911); Heimbucher, Die Orden und Congregationem der katholischen Kirche (Paderborn, 1907); Ladeuze, Etude sur le cénobitisme Pakhomien pendant le IVe siècle et la première moitié du Ve (Louvain, 1898); Nilles, De libertate clericorum religionem ingrediendi (Innsbruck, 1886); Piat, Proelectiones iuris regularis, t. I (Tournai, 1898); Schiewietz, Vorgesch. des Mönchtums oder das Ascetentum der die ersten christlichen Jahrhunderten; Das egyptische Mönchtum im vierten Jahrhundert in Archiv für Kirchenrecht (Mainz), LXXVIII, sq. (separately published, 1904); Taunton, The Law of the Church (London, 1906); Vermeersch, De religiosis institutis et personis I (2nd ed., Bruges, 1907); Idem, Supplementa et Monumenta, II (4th ed., Bruges, 1910); Idem in Periodica de Religiosis et Missionariis (Bruges, 1905); Wernz, Jus decretalium, III (Roma, 1901).

A. Vermeersch.

Copyright ©1999-2023 Wildfire Fellowship, Inc all rights reserved