The Ceremonies of Religious Profession
The ceremonies for religious profession are considered “sacramentals of persons,” under which heading the blessing of abbots and abbesses is also included. To consecrate something means to separate it from the world so that it becomes entirely dedicated to the service of God. It becomes wholly His own. Such is the case of the consecrated religious, and the ceremonies of the Church have been shaped over the centuries to not only express this separation from the world, but also to shroud the individual in the blessed habit and to specifically consecrate him or her to God in conformity with the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.
There are various ceremonies of religious profession according to the different religious orders and institutes and which reflect their particular customs. There is some variance especially between the ceremonies of the monastic orders and those which are non-monastic. Here we present first of all some of the historical aspects of the profession ceremonies, followed by the ceremonies of the Roman Pontifical, then a glimpse at the profession ceremonies used in some of the religious communities of Tradition.
The Profession of Monks
The ceremonies themselves are the result of the natural development in the religious life over the centuries, primarily in its monastic form. Specific ceremonies for the entrance into the monastic life were developed in tandem with the elaboration of monastic rules for cenobites, such as those of St. Pachomius and St. Benedict. Texts of these profession ceremonies are extant from Montecassino, Cluny, Farfa, and other important abbeys, and have been called Ordo ad faciendum monachum (Ordo for Creating a Monk). The historic parts of the ceremony consist in three parts. Firstly, there is the formal request of the postulant to enter the religious life, this request having two forms, with an oral promise publicly pronounced, and a formal petitio written by the postulant’s own hand which he ceremonially places upon the altar, and according to the prescription of St. Benedict (Regula, ch. 58), he sings the verse of Psalm 118, “Suscipe me, Domine, …ut vivam—Receive me, O Lord, ...that I may live,” with which he expresses the fullness of his mystical oblation. A text of the petitio used at Montecassino in AD 790 reads in part,
“In the name of the Lord. I promise before God and his holy Angels that I will remain now and forever in this monastery all the days of my life in all obedience. This my promise I have written with my own hand and attested to before witnesses.”
Secondly, there is the clothing in the religious habit, which is specifically blessed as a holy garment. Thirdly, there is the oratio benedictionis, a blessing conferred upon the new monk so that the Lord, receiving his oblation, will crown him with the necessary virtues for the state of perfection. The new monk exchanges the Pax with each member of his monastery and is led by the Abbot and Deacon to the place he will occupy in choir, as the psalm Ecce quam bonum is sung. The three principal parts of the rite (Petitio, Vestitio, Benedictio) are seen not only in the rite for monks (monastic life), but also for religious brothers (non-monastic).
The Profession of Nuns
For the profession of nuns in the monastic orders, we turn to the ceremony of the Roman Pontifical. The ceremony has historically been known as the Velatio Virginum (Veiling of Virgins), and in the present Pontifical, which was compiled in the twelfth century, the title given is De Benedictione et Consecratione Virginum (For the Blessing and Consecration of Virgins). Here we refer to religious profession per se, that is, the profession of vows at the conclusion of the novitiate. The rite is carried out as follows:
The novices are assisted throughout the rite by two professed sisters referred to by the Greek term paranymphae. After the presentation of the novices and the postulation, the bishop sings a call to them three times, echoing the Canticle of Canticles (“Veni, electa mea, etc.”): Venite! Venite! Venite! They in turn sing three responses, each more elaborate than the last, concluding with:
“And now we follow with our whole heart: we fear Thee, and we wish to see Thy countenance; Lord, confound us not, but do unto us according to Thy gentleness and according to the abundance of Thy mercies.”
This part of the rite entered into the Pontifical in the thirteenth century. The bishop interrogates them about their proposal, and receives their vows as they place their hands into his. After the Litany of the Saints, during which the novices lie prostrate, the bishop intones the Veni Creator and blesses their habits. When they return from vesting in the religious habit, they enter singing
“Regnum mundi et omnem ornatum saeculi contempsi, etc.—I have despised the kingdom of the world and all worldly adornment, etc.”
The bishop pronounces a long consecratory blessing over the novices, which since the tenth century has been sung in the preface tone, as at Ordinations. The blessing was composed by St. Leo the Great (†461), and it concludes with an epilogue added from the Gelasian Sacramentary of the eighth century. Afterwards, the bishop confers upon them the blessed veils, spousal rings, and floral crowns, while interspersed antiphons from the Office of St. Agnes are sung. As each one is veiled, the bishop says,
“Receive the sacred veil, by which it will be known that you have rejected the world, and have truly and humbly united yourself with your whole heart to Jesus Christ, and will be forever his docile spouse; may He defend you from all evil and lead you to eternal life.”
As the bishop places the ring on each novice’s finger, he says,
“I espouse thee to Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High Father, and may He preserve you unscathed. Receive the ring of faith, the sign of the Holy Ghost, so that you may be called the spouse of God, and if you serve Him faithfully, you shall be crowned in eternity.”
As he crowns each one with the floral crown, he says,
“Receive the crown of virginal distinction, so that, as you are crowned by our hands on earth, so may you merit to be crowned by Christ with glory and honor in heaven.”
Several blessings follow, including one possibly attributed to St. Matthew. Towards the conclusion of the rite, the bishop does something which is rarely seen in the liturgical books: he pronounces a long and detailed anathema upon anyone who should attempt to deter the newly-professed sisters from their holy life and anyone who should interfere with the sisters’ communal goods. According to the practice of some convents, he also ceremonially confers the Roman Breviary to the new sisters, and then leads them to the cloister entrance and commends them to their abbess.
There are some symbolic aspects of the ceremonies which shine through. One is that of death and rebirth, hence in some communities a black pall is placed over the prostrate religious, for example, and there is baptismal symbolism such as the burning candle and giving of a new name. Another is that of mystical marriage, as seen with spousal ring and the floral crown, which also has its place in ancient wedding rituals. For the Taking of the Habit, in some communities the postulant is presented dressed in the adornments of a bride, as she prepares herself for spiritual union with the Divine Bridegroom.
Thus far the ceremonies of the monastic orders. The ceremonies of the non-monastic orders and religious institutes retain the same basic structure within a less complex context. For religious brothers, the ceremonies of the Brothers of the Society of Saint Pius X are one example, and for religious sisters, two good examples are the ceremonies of the Sisters of the Society Saint Pius X and of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King. For each, there is a ceremony for the Taking of the Habit and one for the Profession of Vows, whether simple or perpetual.
The Profession of Brothers
For the Brothers of the Society of Saint Pius X, the ceremonies are carried out as follows: firstly, there is the Taking of the Habit, when postulants become novices. Before the Offertory, the Veni Creator is sung, then the candle-bearing postulants make their petition, which is followed by a short liturgical interrogation and an instruction. After being clothed in the blessed habit, the postulants pronounce their Oblation and are given their new names in religion. They are then given a crucifix and they receive a blessing. Secondly, there is the ceremony of religious profession, when novices become professed brothers. After the customary Veni Creator, the novices make their petition, followed by an interrogation and an admonition; they then make their Profession of Vows before the open tabernacle. After Mass, they are given the Medal of Saint Pius X, and they sign their act of oblation and profession.
The Profession of Sisters
For the Sisters of the Society Saint Pius X, the ceremonies are as follows: at the Taking of the Habit, the Veni Creator is sung before the Offertory, followed by a sermon. The postulants are called forward after the singing of Iesu Corona Virginum, the renowned hymn from the Common of Virgins:
“Jesus, Crown of Virgins, …Thou walkest among the lilies, surrounded by choirs of Virgins, a Bridegroom beautiful with glory and giving rewards to his brides.”
After the blessing of the habits and veils, each postulant is given the habit, the white veil, and a burning candle, then they all go to vest in the habit. Upon return, they pronounce their Oblation and are given their names in religion. The rite concludes with the blessing of the Rosary and the Medal of St. Pius X. At Religious Profession, the ceremony begins with the novices’ petitions and the interrogation, followed by the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Then there is the blessing of the black veils, the rings, and the crucifixes, followed by the Profession of Vows before the open tabernacle. The newly-professed sisters are each ceremonially given the items that were blessed, with the liturgical form for the veils and rings being almost identical to those given in the Roman Pontifical for the monastic ceremonies, after which the newly-professed sisters receive a special blessing.
The Seraphic Customs
For the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King, the ceremonies of the Taking of the Habit and that of Religious Profession are in close parallel and follow the Franciscan-Seraphic use. After the postulants and novices make their petition, there follow an instruction and interrogation, then a prayer for the Franciscan Order. The postulants arrived in choir wearing bridal veils and floral crowns; these items are now removed and the postulants are tonsured (a shearing of their hair), in imitation of the selfsame ceremony conducted for St. Clare by St. Francis. Each postulant repeats after the Celebrant,
“The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup; it is Thou that wilt restore my inheritance to me.”
They are given the blessed habit, cord, scapular, and white veil, after which they retire to vest. Returning, they are given the Franciscan Crown (Rosary), the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Rule, a burning candle, and a crucifix, and are given their name in religion, followed by a blessing. After receiving the crucifix, each novice proclaims,
“God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.”
For those professing vows, their entrance is accompanied by the antiphon Veni, electa mea. After a special prayer to the Holy Ghost is said, the sisters make their Profession of Vows and are clothed with the black veils and floral crowns, symbolizing the crown of eternal life, after which they exchange the Pax with each member of the convent, accompanied by the verses of the psalm Ecce quam bonum. After the celebrant has chanted a prayer for their perseverance, the Te Deum is sung and the newly-professed sisters are blessed.
This is just a brief glimpse at some profession ceremonies used in Tradition. It is a spiritual conquest in which these consecrated souls have a very privileged part. “Ecce lex sub qua militare vis—Behold the law under which thou desirest to fight” (Cf. Rule of St. Benedict, ch. 58).