I’ve seen it too often. A young Catholic man or woman leaves the seminary or novitiate and then leaves the Church altogether. Why does this happen? The priesthood and religious life are noble vocations, but they are not the only vocations in the Church.
We likely do a great disservice in the way we sometimes allow ourselves to use the word “vocation” to refer to the specific vocation only some men and women have to the priesthood or religious life. Our vocation is to be members of the Body of Christ. And as St. Paul teaches us, the eye cannot do what the arm does, nor can the arm do what the leg does. And yet all are united in one Body. You may think you are a strong pair of legs to run like the wind. But perhaps you will find instead that you are an especially strong set of arms to lift heavy burdens. We are called to be what we were created to be, not to be something we’re not but wish we were. We should encourage men and women who feel called to the priesthood and religious life to explore that option, but we will do them and the Church a great disservice if we pack them off and treat them as though the call were definite, when it may only be the pious exuberance of youth.
I was privileged recently to hear a talk by Dr. Jennifer Muñoz, whose research at the Institute for Psychological Studies in Washington, DC—the only avowedly Catholic institute of psychology in the country—was on the sense of pain and loss young women experience when they leave the religious life before taking their final vows. Dr. Muñoz found that this is a problem almost no one has written about, even though the problem and the pain are very real. The closest one can come to describing it, suggests Dr. Muñoz, is by analogy with the pain and loss a person feels in a divorce. So much of one’s sense of self and the vision of one’s future is tied up with this relationship that, when it is over, there is a deep sense of emptiness. Some women will express a sense of sadness and loss, a feeling that God is no longer present to them, for years, sometimes decades, afterward. For some, the pain and confusion are so great, they will simply choose to shut the door altogether on the Church, perhaps even on God.
Many religious orders work hard to get vocations, especially in the modern world. Good religious orders direct their novices through a healthy period of discernment, guiding them step by step into a deeper connection to the order. But if religious superiors are not careful, novices can be convinced they must “give themselves totally” when they are not ready. And then, too often, when a young man or woman decides to leave the seminary or religious life, there is little or no attention given to what will happen to them emotionally and spiritually afterward. It’s as if the person leaving is no longer their concern.
Often the manner in which the person is separated from the community can be disturbing in its suddenness and mystery. When I was a tutor-in-residence for two years in a major diocesan seminary, one would come to lunch, realize someone was missing, and be told: “I saw him loading all his possessions into his car last night at 2 am. He’s gone. That’s all we know.” “Is this Communist Russia?” I thought. “Do people here simply disappear in the middle of the night, and no one is allowed to speak of it?” Whatever modern psychologists might have told seminary rectors during those years about “making a clean break,” not only did the practice not seem healthy, it had that suspicious “feel” about it that made you think the people responsible for it had lost touch with what it’s like to be human.
This idea of the “clean break” is something one finds in the corporate world as well—a world that increasingly includes colleges and universities. A security guard shows up at a person’s office, tells him or her, “Empty your desk,” and escorts him or her off the premises like a criminal. This is said to be “better for all.” I’ve never met an employee treated this way or any employees who have seen it happen who thought it was “better” for anyone.
Do seminaries and religious orders have a responsibility to the young men and women who have entrusted their spiritual lives and futures to them to take care of them spiritually if and when they decide to leave? Let’s presume for the moment that the humane, Christian answer to that question is yes. A good way to begin would be for seminaries and religious orders to get a copy of Dr. Muñoz’s research and begin reflecting on the changes they might need to make in the way they part company with those who leave.
And yet, the rest of us in the Church might also ask ourselves whether we are doing our part to help. To what extent when we say, “Do you think he has a vocation?” do we assume this means a vocation to the priesthood or religious life? Do we speak as though every other choice is a kind of “second best”—the alternative you choose when you can’t “hack it” in the religious life? This is simply not the right way to think about a vocation. A person who enters the seminary or a religious order is discerning a vocation, not choosing one. God is calling everyone to do his will, to love him and their neighbor as themselves, but he is certainly not calling everyone to that particular form of religious life. This is what “discernment” is about.
To what extent do Catholic schools and colleges add to the problem by imitating their secular counterparts, profiling in their official publications the lives of their “successful” alumni, by which they mean those with successful careers (with a special bow to those who are financially successful), and simply add to the list those alumni who have (praise God!) entered religious life. How often, by contrast, do we see similarly flattering profiles of a husband and wife who have cooperated with God to parent a horde of wonderfully obstreperous children and who spend most of their days doing simple acts of kindness for their neighbors? How often is the unassuming “holiness of everyday life” celebrated? How about a Catholic couple raising a child with Down syndrome? Since over 90 percent of children with Down syndrome are aborted, this especially heroic act might be worthy of notice.
We might also ask—without in any way wishing to diminish the legitimacy of the feelings these young men and women are experiencing when they leave religious life—whether these young men and women have really experienced a “divorce”? Women religious often use the terminology of becoming “the bride of Christ.” This is a beautiful image, but we can misuse it. Young people discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life are in a courtship; they’re not yet married. And like many courtships, this particular one might not be the right one.
Please don’t mistake my meaning: God is always the right one. But the Jesuits, Carmelites, or Franciscans may not be. This particular religious order may not be the right venue in which to spend one’s life with God, any more than this particular yellow house in Boston is necessarily the place you will spend your married life, or this particular job in Chicago the place where you will serve your neighbor.
It is not uncommon for young people to be convinced about a young love that “this one is the one God wants me to marry,” only to have the relationship break up. It can be heart-wrenching. It is also not uncommon for such young people to grow older, marry someone else, look back on that relationship, and realize, “That would have been so totally wrong.” And yet God can transform even our mistakes into a blessing. There probably was something you needed to learn in that relationship. So learn the lesson and, with God’s grace, move on.
If you leave the seminary or religious life, you don’t leave God, and he certainly doesn’t leave you. You haven’t “failed to measure up.” You’ve merely discerned that this particular way of serving God and neighbor isn’t the one God was calling you to. There is a world full of ways to love God and neighbor. Find the one God is really calling you to and embrace it wholeheartedly. God takes us by the path he takes us. He doesn’t always promise we’ll understand it. What he promises is that he will always remain faithful and never abandon us.