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. 

What’s it like to be a third order Franciscan sister? A conversation with Sr. Agnes Therese Davis

I recently had a chat with Sr Agnes Thérèse Davis. Sr. Agnes is a 32-year-old sister who is a member of the Franciscan Sisters, TOR, a contemplative-active religious community that was founded in 1988. Her order values mendicancy and itinerancy, and I knew next to nothing about them or how one comes to join the order. It was a joyful, fascinating conversation, and I thought you’d like to hear it. My questions are in bold.

When did you first hear the call to become a sister?

For me, thinking about religious life only began when I started praying more intentionally as an adult. Growing up, we were Missouri Synod Lutherans. When I became Catholic, I started living a sacramental life, and in a lot of ways lost my personal prayer life. In high school, all my religious energy was diverted toward proving to my protestant friends that it was okay I was Catholic.

Did your whole family convert?

We trickled in. My mom entered some years before; my brother entered the same year as I did, but a few months before. Then several years later, my dad. We’re still waiting on my sister. For me, it was mostly an intellectual conversion. I already loved God. After my mom became Catholic, she knew that I was a voracious reader and if she left things around, I would read them. She left things around that spoke about the history of Christianity.

Looking at the teaching on the Eucharist, I don’t see how you can get anything but the true presence from John 6. I was convinced in my mind, but I was really nervous. I was very close to my grandmother, who was very desolate when my mom entered the Church.

I was confirmed in the Lutheran church when I was 13. I knew it was provisional.

I knew I had to pray, not just sit in the chapel and read holy books. I had to be silent, and I would only get myself go in with scriptures and a journal. I can’t just read the Bible; even that can be a distraction. Just forcing myself to be in silence. I remembered God is a person who loved me. Not a checklist I need to complete or a rulebook in the sky I needed to appease. Remembering God was a person who loved me and had a vested interest in my life. I realised I should be asking him what to do with my life. I was in college by this point, and I thought, “I can’t just do whatever falls in my lap. I need to ask God what He wants.”

Read the rest of this interview in The Catholic Weekly

Image: Detail of photo courtesy of Sr. Agnes Therese