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Postulancy is a preliminary stage to the novitiate existing from the institution of monasticism.
(1) In the East, the would-be monk had to submit to many rebuffs, and, while he continued to pray for admission, he was discouraged in various ways, the hardships of religious life being exaggerated to test the sincerity of his intentions and the reality of his vocation. From the East this custom passed into the West. Cassian recommends it in his "institutions" (IV, iii), and St. Benedict introduced it into his rule: "Let not the newly arrived candidate be admitted too easily, but let care be taken, as the Apostle St. John advises, to try the spirits if they be of God: therefore after the aspirant has repeated his request for admission, if for four or five days he seems to bear patiently the rebuffs given him, and the difficulties put in the way of his entrance, and still persists in his attempt, let the door be opened to him" (c.58). This period of trial used to last in the different orders from three to ten days. After this, in the older orders, followed the novitiate of one, two, or three years, which was formerly considered rather as a preparation for, than a first period of the religious life. Thus, after his reception, the candidate returned to the world with unlimited leave of absence and the liberty to re-enter when he thought fit. In the Customs of St. Victor, xxiv (see Martene, "De antiquis ecclesiae ritibus", Appendix, p. 265), this practice is mentioned as common to many monasteries; and, although it is not altogether condemned, it is shown to have had many disadvantages, for in this way it was made easy for undesirable persons to place themselves under the protection of the Church.
(2) This system of outside probation has long been abolished. In most orders, however, the candidate, when admitted to the religious life, is not allowed at once to mingle with the other novices, but receives separately a preliminary initiation, more or less prolonged as custom may require. The time occupied in this initiation is sometimes, but not always, reckoned as part of the novitiate.
(3) According to existing law, persons who aspire to the religious life, but have not yet been admitted into any particular order, may be called postulants in the wide sense of the word; such are pupils of an apostolic school, or persons who, having decided to enter the religious state, remain as guests in the monastery, while waiting for their admission. Postulants, in the strict sense of the word, are those who are taking their first steps in the religious life, without having yet received the habit. Common law forbade regulars to receive as postulants in the wider sense of the word young persons under twenty years of age (see the decree of Clement X dated 16 May, 1675), and postulant lay-brothers could not be received before the age of nineteen full years (see Clement VIII, "Cum ad regularem", 19 March, 1603; this constitution has not been everywhere carried into effect). No general law compelled religious to observe a period of candidature. However, by the recent decree of 1 Jan., 1911, in orders where lay brothers make solemn profession, the general may, in individual cases, allow provincials to receive candidates for the grade of lay brother, after they have competed their seventeenth year; moreover, for valid profession, lay brothers must have made a postulature of two years (or longer, if the Constitutions so require). The same Decree prescribes that postulants shall be placed under the direction of a virtuous and experienced father. Nuns under solemn vows (at least in Italy) are ordered by the decree of the Sacred Congregation to make a retreat of ten days before receiving the habit. The Regulations (Normae) of 1901 require that sisters shall remain as postulants for a period varying from six months to a year. The superior-general may extend the time fixed by the Congregation for not more than three months. The time of the postulant's probation is most conveniently passed in the novitiate house, but may be spent elsewhere.
For bibliography see NOVICE.