VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Despite fewer vocations to consecrated life, those responsible for formation in religious institutes must know how to say no to unsuitable candidates, so as to avoid a “graver crisis of quality” down the road, said Pope Francis.

During an audience with about 1,300 novice directors and other formation ministers at the Vatican April 11, the pope said seeing consecrated people “in such great numbers” would give the impression “that there is no vocations crisis.”

“But in reality, there is an indubitable decrease in quantity, and this makes the work of formation — one that might truly form the heart of Jesus in the hearts of our young people — all the more urgent,” he said.

The formation staffs were in Rome for an international congress April 7-11, organized by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The congress was one of several events organized for the Year of Consecrated Life, which Pope Francis opened in November. Its aim was to reflect upon the main aspects of consecrated life and the demands placed on formation today.

The pope described consecrated life as “beautiful” and “one of the most precious treasures of the church.” He called it is “a privilege” to be in formation work and to “participate in the work of the Father, who forms the heart of the Son, in those whom the Spirit has called.”

Novice directors and others responsible for formation must have “a great heart for the young, so as to form in them great hearts, able to welcome everyone, rich in mercy, full of tenderness,” he said.

He also noted that initial formation is only the first step of a lifelong process.

Rejecting the idea that young people today are “mediocre and not generous,” he said they need to experience that it is “more blessed to give than to receive, that there is great liberty in an obedient life, great fruitfulness in a pure heart, and great richness in possessing nothing.”

He emphasized the need for formation staff members to be “lovingly attentive” to each candidate and “evangelically demanding” in every phase of formation, so that the “crisis of quantity might not produce a much graver crisis of quality,” he said, adding that “this is the danger.”

Underlining the importance of vocational discernment, the pope noted that psychologists and spiritual directors have said “young people, who unconsciously feel they have something of an imbalance … or a deviation, unconsciously seek solid structures that protect them, to protect themselves.”

“And here is the discernment: knowing how to say no,” the pope said.

Just as formation experts accompany candidates upon entry to their institutes, so too sometimes they must “accompany the exit, so that he or she will find a life path, with the necessary help,” he continued.

Those involved in formation also must imitate God in exercising the virtue of patience, the pope counselled.

“God knows how to wait. You, too, must learn this attitude of patience, which many times is a little martyrdom,” he said.

The pope noted the fine quality of many consecrated people. He said there is much to learn in particular from the faithful, years-long witness of missionary sisters and the wisdom among the aged. He said visiting elderly consecrated people would be good for young people, who seek wisdom and authenticity.

Thanking the formation staffs for their “humble and discreet service,” he urged them not to be “discouraged when the results do not correspond to the expectations” and to learn from these “failures” as part of their own formation.

“It is painful when a young man or young woman, after three or four years (of formation) comes and says, ‘This is no longer for me. I found another love that is not against God, but I cannot (continue) and I am leaving.’ This is difficult. But this is also your martyrdom,” he said.

The pope said some religious who work in formation may live their charge as a burden. “But this is a lie, a temptation,” he said.

When they feel their work is not appreciated, he said, they should “know that Jesus follows you with love and the entire Church is grateful.”

“Some say consecrated life is heaven on earth,” the pope said. “No. If anything it is purgatory! But go forward with joy.”

The pope also said he is “convinced” there is no vocations crisis where consecrated people witness to “the beauty of consecration.”

“If there is no witness, if there is no coherence, there will not be vocations,” he told the group. “This is the testimony to which you are called. This is your ministry, your mission. You are not only ‘teachers.’ You are above all witnesses to the discipleship of Jesus within your proper charism. And this can be done if every day you rediscover the joy of being disciples of Jesus.”