Discerning out: What happens when a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life?

Joe Heschmeyer was once so sure of his vocation to the priesthood that he forgot he was supposed to be discerning it.

Everyone around him thought he should be a priest. His mother, he discovered later, had offered him to the Lord as an infant the way Hannah did in the Old Testament. Mr. Heschmeyer wrote about his vocation frequently on his blog Shameless Popery, speaking of his ordination as if it were inevitable. Things were going so well, he lost track of the idea that he was in seminary to test and explore his vocation.

“Pretty soon after I entered [in 2011], I stopped asking God if this was what he wanted. I felt like the question had already been answered. My grades were good; I was well esteemed; everything internal to the seminary felt successful. That felt like enough validation. I forgot to ask, ‘Are we still on the same page?’” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

It was not until friends and family had already bought airplane tickets and reserved hotel rooms for his ordination to the diaconate that he began to feel some doubt. He tried to assign his misgivings to “last-minute jitters,” but a black cloud of unease hung over his head.

He described riding on a bus on the way back from a retreat.

“The archbishop has an open seat next to him. A sort of rotating spot, where you can share whatever’s on your heart. It’s usually pretty short, out of respect—a 10-minute thing. I was there for half an hour, pouring out all these difficulties,” he said. The archbishop immediately reassured him that if he had any doubts, he should take more time before making a final commitment.

“It was a tremendous load that had been lifted off my shoulders. It was an illuminating and painful experience. I realized I was happy I wasn’t getting ordained. It wasn’t what I wanted to feel, or expected to feel,” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

He decided to take time off and then consider rejoining—a plan which, according to the Rev. Matt Mason, the vocations director for the diocese of Manchester, N.H., is not uncommon. But nine days into a 10-day retreat, Heschmeyer knew for sure he was not meant to be a priest after all.

Leaving the seminary or religious life can feel like freedom followed by disorientation, or like rejection followed by clarity. For many, the experience eventually bears fruits of self-knowledge and a more profound relationship with God. But first comes suffering.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine. This article is also in the July print edition. 

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22 thoughts on “Discerning out: What happens when a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life?”

  1. Hi Simcha, I really enjoy your posts and your unique perspective on things, and I appreciate that there is something good about hearing different types of stories. But I also worry that you are confusing many of your readers by seemingly agreeing that a man can become a woman, which goes against natural law as well as the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is not the truth, and therefore, it is not loving to pretend that is true.

    As difficult as it is, we need to speak truth with love, even if people reject us because of it.

  2. Simcha, I’m so sorry that these people are so triggered by your journalistic approach! Journalism is storytelling, not values-pushing. I assumed most Catholics are well-educated, I can see that I was horribly wrong to think that people can tell the difference between journalism and values-pushing.

    1. Hi Becky, yes, storytelling, but journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. I would hope a well-educated Catholic would point out when storytelling affirms lies

      1. Hi, Rose, The point of that passage was to illustrate that Visaggio’s decision to leave the seminary was as agonizing and earthshaking a decision as the decision to transition. There is nothing untrue about that, and it was a fascinating and compelling story that helped broaden my understanding of how difficult these choices are. What was I supposed to do, write, “P.S. I, the author, don’t approve of this?”

  3. This was a story-driven article that invites the reader to consider experiences you may not otherwise know anything about. I didn’t insert any of my opinions about trans issues into the article, because the article isn’t about my opinions. Nothing I wrote contradicts Catholic teaching. I’m disappointed that some of you read that nearly 4000-word article and this is the only part you want to talk about.

    1. Discerning out of a religious vocation is not particularly uncommon, but you have to really want to include trans issues to find that for this type of story; choices about whose stories to include *are choices* and ones that are made for reasons, not at random, hence the questions about your reasons. Also, some readers are familiar with rhetorical tactics. Like “talk about head-noddy kinds of things and then slide in that one thing to associate it with the ‘obvious agreement’ parts.” Or equivocation: discern out of religious life, discern what to do next, discern actual vocation, discern that you’re the opposite sex. (But one of those things is not like the others.) Or refusing to answer a fairly basic clarification question by complaining about it being asked at all.

      Really, I’d care less if I didn’t expect so much better here. But it’s been a lot lately. I know you know the problem with a “Jesus hates racism” sign, because you explained it in detail ages ago with “abortion” in place of “racism.” And you were right! I know you can write up good, neutral interviews because you do it for tons of articles (like the one linked here) and things like that two-part editor interview. But you insist you can’t see any difference in tone between those and the Abby Johnson one. And I know you’re not confused about appropriate discernment because you wrote the book on it with NFP! But here the decision to leave God and one’s own nature are put on a par with leaving the seminary. What gives?

        1. You’re right, that’s how that came across. I’m sorry.

          Re: this article, my question is the same as Cordelia’s. And why you made the decision to work trans issues into this particular article.

          1. I have a lot of thoughts about trans issues, too many to put here. I will tell you how I decided to include MV’s story, though.

            When I pitched the story to my editor, the first two out of three people I asked to interview declined. Then I suddenly remembered I had been talking to Visaggio a while ago and she mentioned that she had been in the seminary. I thought, “ooh, I bet SHE has an interesting story to tell. And she did. It was very different to from Heschmeyer’s, and not just because of trans issues. It made a counterbalance, which is how, In an article, you indicate “there is a very wide range of experiences in the situation I’m writing about.”

            And that’s my whole agenda, right there: I was looking for interesting stories that would make people want to read what I knew would be a longish article. As I continued, several more people volunteered to be interviewed. I ended up narrowing it down to four people with very different experiences, so I could, as I previously mentioned, invite readers to think about experiences that may never have even thought about people having. In Visaggios experience, the seminarians were incredibly nasty but many of the superiors were gracious and helpful, and didn’t reject Visaggio as a human being. That’s what happened. It’s interesting, it’s true, and it provides insight into how discernment happens. Therefore it belonged in my article.

            1. I suspect you won’t believe me, and will think I’m coyly refusing to acknowledge my unspoken but obvious desire to … something. But that’s how it happened. Putting articles with many interviews together is a strange process. It’s more like foraging in the woods and deciding what to make once you get home, than like going to market with a list of exactly what you want.

              1. Hey, thanks for the kind and open description of your thought process. That helps me to understand better. I originally asked my question because it felt a little…propaganda-pushy? And because I was distressed to think that someone I respect and have had my opinion shaped by had just accepted that a man can switch to being a woman. Thanks for your openness in replying. It gets really discouraging when sincere questions get snarky answers!

              2. Geesh, am I usually that much of a jerk in your combox? Of course I believe you. I still strongly disagree with the decision, but I believe you about why you made that decision. Thanks for answering.

      1. And no, I don’t know the problem with the “Jesus hates racism” sign, and I don’t recall explaining anything about a “Jesus hates abortion” sign. I don’t know what you’re referring to.

        1. No, I don’t think there was an exact replica of the sign. You’ve just written extensively (mostly about graphic signs) about what makes a sign counter-productive, as well as about the trouble with certain strident types in the pro-life movement, which is why I was surprised to see the “God hates you and that’s why you should join my side” approach being used in this context. Maybe I’m just confused about the purpose, but it didn’t seem like something calculated to make anyone think differently from what they already thought.

          1. The purpose of that particular sign was to make a statement for onlookers that we were there protesting racism *because* we are Christian. It was one of several explicitly Christian/Catholic signs we made for the rally we attended. After Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were killed, several Black Catholic friends said they were really stung to see that none of their fellow Catholics seemed to be standing up for them, and they noticed that Catholics were always happy to protest abortion, but not the killing of the born. So I decided that we would make a point of doing just that.

            I would also note that it said “Jesus hates racism,” not “Jesus hates racist.” Jesus hates no one, obviously. I went into a long tedious theological argument with someone over whether Jesus hates any intangible things, but it didn’t really go anywhere, because the medium of protest signs is inherently colloquial, and that’s how I was using the word hate, so I’m not losing any sleep over that.

            No sign at a rally is going to hit every viewer exactly right, and it’s doubtful that a sign will change anyone’s mind, so no, that was never my goal. I am wary of holding signs that offend and repel people, but I’m hard pressed to think that someone who thinks of himself as racist would look at my sign and think, “Wait, I’M racist and God doesn’t like that? Oh no!”

  4. Um, “ultimately the right thing to do” can certainly describe leaving seminary or religious life, but the description of Visaggio’s other decisions equivocates between leaving seminary and leaving the faith/natural law behind.

  5. Hi Simcha! I’ve been enjoying your work for years, but rarely comment. I was wondering if you believe that a man can change ontologically to a woman, which is what I think a section of your article is implying? I really respect your intelligence, experience, and insight, and have to admit that I was pretty taken aback by this, and am just trying to make sure I am understanding/interpreting you correctly. Thanks for your time!

    1. Yes. The real question is, how does one function when one is so massively, psychotically obsessed with the Jews?

    2. Paul said, “I am indeed a Jew”. (Acts 21:39). But then you can’t trust those tricky Jews, can you?

      How long have you suffered from your weird anti-semitic crazy that blinds you to the teaching of the Church?

      1. Simcha, Shea,

        Sometimes I pretend my own little nosey-nose is an actual cupcake, and it’s all I can do not to take a nibble!

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