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Formation for lay adults

“The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it so as to fulfil one’s [life] mission.”

(Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, 1988)

Formation is a word that has been used for many years by religious communities when referring to the ‘education and training’ process that new members undergo (e.g. a novitiate), and also to the ongoing experiences offered to existing members to deepen and renew their faith.

The most easily understood element of formation is education. But ‘education’ can mean simply the acquiring of knowledge and skills, whereas growth in the spiritual life and growth in faith are somehow more than this, though they will often include this. Perhaps the word ‘education’, understood in a more holistic sense, is really an equivalent concept. What is somewhat new is the use of the word ‘formation’ in regard to lay folk. Lay adult faith formation is at the core of ‘being Church’, and increasing numbers of Church documents are highlighting the need for this. Formation (the growth and the shaping of faith) happens in a myriad of ways – some planned, many unplanned. It happens through life experiences (especially when aided to reflect on these), through courses, programmes, retreats, conversations, faith sharing and liturgy. It happens through reading and through the use of other audiovisual media. It happens most powerfully through relationships. It happens through social action, through work and play and creative expression, through religious experience, through prayer, through scripture. It especially happens by simply belonging to a faith community.

 Formation is a life-long process. We are always growing and developing, moving into new phases or stages and encountering new experiences. But our growth in faith will not happen as fully as it might unless we seek out opportunities to be formed – to allow the deepening of our understanding and our practice of faith, of our lives as spiritual beings. It is through this deepening and shaping of our faith that we will grasp the importance of our own call, our vocation, to participate in the mission of the Spirit.

Who is formation for?

(from ‘Conversation of Hearts: a vision for formation within the Edmund Rice Network Australia’, Peter Nicholson, 2004)

A reciprocal process for all. (nb, John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, 63 (1988))

Since every person is called by God to develop to his or her full potential and to exercise their unique mission in life, formation is not the preserve of a privileged few, but is the right of all. It also flows from the baptismal priesthood of all believers that there is no clear line between those who are designated to carry out the formation and those who are designated to be formed. As pilgrims together, all are ultimately responsible for their own formation, and all are called to play a part in the formation of those with whom they live, work and play. In this sense, it is not at root an hierarchical process, but one in which there is an equality, based on the dignity and God given vocation of each person.

Primarily for adults. In countries such as Australia, which have made Catholic schools the centrepiece of the Church's mission, a possible (but unintended) consequence is that the formation of adults is neglected. Church documents since Vatican II have placed great emphasis on adult formation, the 1971 General Directory for Catechesis calling the 'catechesis of adults' the 'chief form of catechesis' on the grounds that it is adults who are capable of mature faith (Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis (1971), 20) . The 1997 Directory developed the thinking further (General Directory for Catechesis (1997), 173). It is not so much a matter of replacing one group with another, but rather recognizing that focussing on adults serves youth as well as the adults. In fact, the needs of youth cannot be adequately addressed without addressing the needs of adults. Adults play an indispensable part in creating the environment and community which are necessary elements for the formation of the young.

Priority of formation of those who form others.  (nb. Christifideles, 63)

In order to ensure the effectiveness of formation, special emphasis needs be placed on the formation of those who are charged with the formation of others. An important principle is 'do not do to others what you do not do to yourself’. Whilst the best of human skills, techniques and professional expertise should be brought to bear on formation, it is the attitudes and faith stance of significant community members, including the 'formators', which is most powerfully formative.

For the support and shaping of ministering communities. As has been stated above, a key objective of formation is enabling the individual to live out one's mission. However, ministry is never exercised in one's own right, but always, in some sense, on behalf of a ministerial community. Within the complexity of today's world, the Church uses organizations such as schools, hospitals and welfare institutions as vehicles for its corporate ministry. Consequently, formation plays an important role in supporting and shaping ministry as a shared and organized endeavour. From this perspective, then, it can be said that there is an element of formation that is for the sake of the organization and its ministry.

(Peter Nicholson, ‘Conversation of Hearts: a vision for formation within the Edmund Rice Network Australia’, 2004, p7)
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