The novitiate, also called the noviciate, is the period of training and preparation that a Christian novice (or prospective) monastic, apostolic, or member of a religious order undergoes prior to taking vows in order to discern whether he or she is called to vowed religious life. It often includes times of intense study, prayer, living in community, studying the vowed life, deepening one's relationship with God, and deepening one's self-awareness. It is a time of creating a new way of being in the world. The novitiate stage in most communities is a two-year period of formation. These years are "Sabbath time" to deepen one's relationship with God, to intensify the living out of the community's mission and charism, and to foster human growth. The novitiate experience for many communities includes a concentrated program of prayer, study, reflection and limited ministerial engagement.
Novices are not admitted to vows until they have successfully completed the prescribed period of training and proving, called the novitiate. In the Middle Ages novices typically would have dormitories in separate areas within a monastery; an early Cistercian monastery, Royal Monastery of Our Lady of the Wheel, founded in 1202, has this chamber clearly visible today.
Earlier, different orders followed their own rules governing the length and conditions of the novitiate. At the time of the Reformation, the Council of Trent legislated the length and conditions by which anyone aspiring to become a monk is obliged to be a novice; the usual period is at least one year, depending on the aptitude of the candidate.
The novitiate, through which life in an institute is begun, is arranged so that the novices better understand their divine vocation, and indeed one which is proper to the institute, experience the manner of living of the institute, and form their mind and heart in its spirit, and so that their intention and suitability are tested.
- —Canon Law 646
Conscious of their own responsibility, the Novices are to collaborate actively with their Director in such a way that they faithfully respond to the grace of a divine vocation.
- —Canon Law 652.3
Members of the institute are to take care that they cooperate for their part in the work of formation of the Novices through example of life and prayer
- —Canon Law 652.3
Novices are to be led to cultivate human and Christian virtues; through prayer and self denial they are to be introduced to a fuller way of perfection; they are to be taught to contemplate the mystery of salvation and to read and meditate on the sacred scriptures; they are to be prepared to cultivate the worship of God in the sacred liturgy; they are to learn a manner of leading a life consecrated to God and humanity in Christ through the evangelical counsels; they are to be instructed regarding the character and spirit, the purpose and discipline, the history and life of the institute; and they are to be imbued with love for the Church.
- —Canon Law 652
A novice is free to quit the novitiate at any time, and the Novice Director, Formation Director, or Superior is free to dismiss him or her with or without cause in most communities.
Often, in novicating, the vows are continuous through training.
In some novitiate communities, mostly monastic, the novice often wears clothing that is distinct from secular dress but is not the full habit worn by professed members of the community. The novice's day normally encompasses participation in the full canonical hours, manual labor, and classes designed to instruct novices in the religious life he is preparing to embrace. Spiritual exercises and tests of humility are common features of a novitiate. Some Roman Catholic communities encourage frequent confession and reception of Holy Communion by their novices.
A Superior will often appoint an experienced member of the community to oversee the training of novices. This may be a Finally Professed Member, novice master or mistress who is responsible for the training of all novices.
Different religious communities will have varying requirements for the duration of the novitiate. Often one must complete a postulancy before officially entering the novitiate. In many apostolic religious communities in the United States, postulancy or candidacy is one to three years. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the novitiate is officially set at three years before one may be tonsured a monk or nun, though this requirement may be waived.