Thursday, 24 March 2011

Vocational Discernment Should Start at Confirmation

I have just read another letter from yet another twenty-something girl who is being jerked around by her twenty-something boyfriend who doesn't know if he has a vocation to the priesthood or not. Despite them breaking up over it and getting back together again over and over again--not to mention all the snogging and whatever--the man thinks he might have a vocation to the priesthood.

One thing that young Catholics never seem to understand is that it is actually insulting for a man to tell his girlfriend that he is discerning a vocation to the priesthood. He may be discerning a vocation to the priesthood, but he's also saying, "I think I might spend the rest of my life without you." If I were the queen of the world, I would make it a law that every woman would have to dump her suddenly discerning-a-vocation-to-the-priesthood boyfriend and refuse to talk to him until he showed at her door crying and begging forgiveness.

I am happy to say that I know at least one woman who gave the guy she was seeing the old heave-ho as soon as he pulled that stunt. It was a very weird courtship, anyway, since he took her home to meet his parents almost immediately but wasn't that interested in huggin' and kissin'.

Normally it's a relief when a guy keeps his hands to himself, but after you've been dating for some time you begin to wonder why. Does he not find you attractive or does he have a super-strict confessor or is he secretly and self-loathingly gay? I can only imagine how awful it must be for a son of a pious Catholic family to discover he is gay, but wasting the time of innocent Catholic women is not the solution to anything.

Whatever his own issue, this guy announced that he was going abroad to determine his vocation, and the woman said, "Hmm. Shouldn't you consult this with me?" And the guy was surprised. Astonished. It hadn't even occured to him that his girlfriend should be consulted. It was all about him, him, HIM. Overwhelming self-absorption is not really a sign of the priestly charism, now, is it? Anyway, she dumped him and met an absolutely fabulous guy, a guy whose courtship was a lot more slow, cautious, selfless and meaningful. Best of all, perhaps, he had long since figured out that the priesthood was not for him.

Once upon a time there was this marvellous institution called the junior seminary. Maybe they still exist in some places; I know a priest in his 50s who was in one in Eastern Europe. The junior seminary was a special high school where teenage boys went to be educated and discern their possible vocation to the priesthood. This was deemed later to be bad for boys, but it was certainly great for girls, because it meant we did not have to deal with discerners all the darned time. And the priest I know attended junior seminary is a wonderful priest, very sweet and kind and even innocent. No doubt he hears all kinds of horrors in the confessional, but he has a quality of innocence all the same. He's a junior sem success story.

I am sure these letters will keep coming, but I have to say that nothing burns me up as much as the story of yet another college sweetheart breaking the bad news about his sudden need to discern the priesthood. Could he not have begun that when he was confirmed? It might not be his fault, of course; I cannot remember anyone talking to my confirmation class about discerning vocations to priesthood or religious life. But, really, if you only start talking to teens about this stuff when they are 19 and dating, isn't it too late?

At Confirmation, when you are about 14, you become an adult in the Church. And as an adult-in-the-Church you should start thinking about how you might best serve the Church when you are an adult for real. Don't put off contacting this religious order or that vocatons director after you're had your fun dating and kissing and telling this boy or that girl that you think you love him or her.

At this point, I discern several voices shrieking, "But, Seraphic, you always tells us that vocation can come at any age!" Yes, it can---and for the simple reason that vocation comes from God. God calls, and you answer. But you shouldn't wait until you're 19 to start listening for it, just as you shouldn't have zero clue what you want to do with your life as you muddle your way through junior year.

And call me crazy, but if you have a boyfriend you can't quit, or a girlfriend to whom you keep returning, it might just be a sign that you are not called to perpetual celibacy. By becoming a vocational tourist, you're holding the life and future of the person who might love you more than anyone else in the world hostage. Stop it. Forget about what you might be called to; ask yourself, just who do you think you are?

The Nashville Dominicans told me I was too old for them when I was 35. They were right; it was a shot in the dark and a waste of their vocation director's time. But at least I wasn't dating anyone when I asked. Nobody cried because I called them.

Do your fellow twenty-something Catholics a favour; work out how you feel about lifelong celibacy BEFORE you make out with them, okay?

P.S. Once you are out of the seminary/convent, and have spent a year acclimatizing yourself to the ordinary world, then go ahead and date. Go for it. Recovered ex-postulants and ex-seminarians can make marvellous spouses. But if you suddenly change your mind, mid-snog, and hare after the convent or seminary again you're a jerk. Sorry, but you are. I feel sorry for the heart you're stomping on, not you, drama queen.


Ginger said...

These situations are heartbreaking, and ideally people would have their vocations worked out before dabbling in the alternatives. But I feel this a bit unrealistic. God sometimes surprises us with His expectations. I know men who DID go to Minor Seminaries in high school and still ended up having vocational trouble when it came time to start doing real decision-making.

A priest I know was engaged when he realized he was called to the priesthood.

It's horribly sad for the women involved, but none of our paths to heaven are the same. I like to believe that perhaps the seminarians who left girlfriends behind will make better priests because of that experience, and able to advise other young men in the future who are trying to discern.

Of course, young men who already think they may be called to the priesthood should swear off women until they're sure. But sometimes, I think, vocations can sneak up on you. Look at St. Paul-- he was literally knocked off his horse when he was called.

Or St. Peter and the rest of the apostles. I often wonder what became of their wives. I hope, though their hearts may have been broken, they were able to look on with pride at the good work their husbands left them to do.

Jen D said...

In college, I dated a guy who left me because he felt a call to the priesthood. To share his news, he made one-on-one meetings with all of his/our friends and sometimes brought me along too. It was all very dramatic and pathetic and ridiculous. He is currently engaged to be married (to someone else).

Ginger said...

Also, we're all selfish by nature. We all want to have our cake and eat it, too.

I know for a fact that it is very hard for some men to reconcile what they want and what their vocation is. The men who love their girlfriends, but feel called.

Of course, there are those discerners who are self absorbed and cruel. But many are just young and confused, a little tactless and maybe even a little dumb, lol. In short-- human. And more prone to err than to cruelty.

Seraphic said...

Oh dear. It's the old "I don't WANT to be a priest but I'm CALLED to be a priest" dichotomy.

I hope Father B chimes in because I do not buy it. I simply do not buy it.

Try these lines on for size: "I don't WANT to become a Benedictine nun, but I'm CALLED to become a Benedictine nun."

"I don't WANT to marry Charlie, but I'm CALLED to marry Charlie."

Still, I suppose if the girl was sleeping with Charlie and wanted to continue to sleep with Charlie, she really ought to marry poor Charlie.

What men might be struggling with is that they really do want to be priests but they also love their girlfriends. The best thing the girlfriends could do in that situation is dump them ASAP and at least feel that strange, unique consolation that at least no other girl is going get him. Supposedly.

What I really object to is that all Catholic women are supposed to flop on their faces and say "Amen" at the variest suggestion that their boyfriends--the guys whose hands they are constantly battling away from their bra straps--might have vocations to the priesthood.

I'd be a lot less cynical if more of these characters ever actually did get ordained.

Yes, we need priests. Yes, yes, yes. But Catholic men are NOT more important than Catholic women, and Catholic women's wish to marry and have children before they are too old is not some trivial thing. They, too, are discerning a vocation, and when their boyfriend reject them that's serious--as serious as the seminary turning Mr. Discerner down flat.

We should all hear "I think I might be called to the priesthood" as "I'm breaking up with you now"--with the exception of married women, who should say "No, you aren't. You can wait until I'm dead, buddy-boy."

Seraphic said...

By the way, I assume St. Peter's wife (who may have been deceased, incidentally) and any other wives were well cared for, for otherwise they would have starved to death or been driven to prostitution.

There is no good excuse for out-and-out abandoning a woman a man has made a commitment to, which is why all those nice new ex-Anglican monsignori have been allowed to continue living with their wives.

Breaking an engagement--well, I wouldn't brag about it, if I were the priest. Once upon a time he could have been sued for "Breach of Promise."

I do not think dating and breaking a girl's heart makes a man a better priest.

I'm sorry about the hearts I've broken. In fact, I'm darned well ashamed. I'm not sure dating and breaking hearts made me a better wife.

What is the solution, I wonder? Maybe less dating all around!

Fyrjefe said...

Interesting post. I'm not in any way trying to qualify some of the actions of us men, but I think it's probably a tact thing coupled with the fact that there can be pressure from dioceses all around to "have men discern the priesthood". Sometimes the tactics come across as an obligation to stop and think about it right now and where you are. I hope that makes sense. All in all, we need to learn to be reasonable and follow what corresponds to our hearts (the woman or the calling of holy orders)!

Emma said...

Amen! Preach it sister Seraphic!

Just another Catholic girl said...

I agree Seraphic, with our vocations as women is just as important as a religious vocation. I once dated a young man who had been looking and focusing towards the priesthood, until he met me. I was even told by someone who knew him, in all seriousness WITHOUT a hint of joking with me, about how what a shame it was he changed his mind in regards to his vocation, and how it was pretty much all my fault. I had a very good laugh with my girlfriends over this comment, even though I was speechless at the time. The relationship did not work out however, we parted on good friendship terms, and he is still single enjoying a successful career, many years after our parting.

It's nice to hear/read someone say how important our vocations are too. Gives a girl a boost in moral! :)

Emma - a different one! said...

Thank you Seraphic for this view point on this touchy subject. It's wonderful to have it talked about with such forthrightness.

One of my dear friends is living through this type of situation right now and I have directed her to this blog and several specific posts from the archives. It has helped her - thank you!

And I must absolutely second your p.s. In my work I see the formation that takes place during Novitiate in striking ways and watch the young men grow and change and adjust to living life in a religious community. If they leave the adjustment time back into the world and living outside such a close community is at least a year.

p.s. to clarify, I work as a seamstress for a men's religious community's novitiate.

Lily said...

Hi Seraphic,

I agree with your views but can I just point out that Confirmation in Scotland is now done at the age of 9!! (It was 11 or 12 when I was making it). Unfortunately I think 9 is a little young for most kids to seriously consider their vocation (although I'm sure there must be some exceptions).


Jen said...

Luckily - probably because I didn't become a Catholic until my 30's - I've never experienced the mid-relationship-vocational-discernment-angst. But I recognize the family to which it belongs by the secular versions it resembles. Namely the 'I'm not sure we're right for each other, but I'm not sure we're not, either - maybe we could take a break/date others/etc. to figure that out? But but that doesn't mean we have to stop dating each other, of course' and 'I don't know if I love you - maybe I haven't dated enough people to know for sure. But...I hope we can still hang out and stuff.'

The few times this has happened to me, my response has been an indignant 'I am not your insurance policy against loneliness. We're done. Go forth and date other people.'

Nobody should expect someone else to be an insurance policy while they explore what the imagine to be greener pastures, whether those pastures are the seminary or other relationships. Having more dignity not less is the answer. Your advice is spot on, Seraphic.

FrB said...


I'm not sure what I can add. One wonders how a girl would react if her boyfriend told her that he was discerning a vocation to marry some other woman! Needless to say, he'd be dropped like a hot potato.

Athanasius lover said...

I spent my undergrad years in a Newman Center. It was a very good Newman Center, and there have been a number of real vocations to the priesthood coming from there. It was a great place to be.

On the other hand, it seemed like discerning the priesthood/religious life was almost obligatory, no matter what one might want or what kind of relationship one might be in. I can't count the number of relationships where one party broke off the relationship because he or she felt obligated to discern even though he or she did not feel a particular call to priesthood or religious life. Some of those people ended up getting back together and getting married. Other relationships didn't survive. In that situation, I felt bad for the discerners because it seemed that they felt obliged to break up in order to discern regardless of what their own hearts were telling them. I think that especially the men were terrified that they would miss their call. I think there was a good deal of worrying that if you want to marry someone it will blind you to something else God might want you to do, so you have to try as hard as possible to remove yourself from wanting to marry that person before you can be sure that you aren't called to a celibate life.

On the other hand, at least these people usually had the decency to break off the relationship instead of dragging their boyfriends or girlfriends through the discernment drama. Still, I think that the discernment culture there often did more harm than good.

Anonymous just this once said...

I had a friend in the seminary insist that if I told him I would date him, he would leave the seminary for me. He was aghast at my skepticism, saying that I was helping his vocational discernment and clarifying it! I subsequently told him he was cheating on God and that he and I shouldn't talk anymore. Men in the seminary are in a serious relationship with God and shouldn't be trying to do two things at once, IMO. A difficult loss of what I thought was a friendship, but hopefully a step in the right direction for him in his vocational discernment! :-}

Emma said...

Seraphic, the idea of "I don't want to be a priest but I'm called to be a priest" reminds of an article by John Zmirak, "Just Say No to Brimstone." You can read it here.

Christine said...

"I am not your insurance policy against loneliness. We're done. Go forth and date other people." --> Well said!

@Athanasius - What you said about that pressure from the Newman community to discern, it makes sense. I feel like so many of the homilies I've heard (especially at Masses in college/for young adults) have been directed at potential discerners-of-the-priesthood, and had a somewhat threatening 'you'll live to regret it if you don't discern now' tone. Until the last couple of years, that's the only impression of religious discernment I had. Thank God that some retreats with the Sisters of Life have helped me to better understand that discernment to any vocation is a loving call that God will make in His time. Just imho.

Alisha said...

I really think the appropriate time of discerning to begin with is when you are living a single life. It is not the only time or way but it's the best - what are you moved towards when you are on your own? If a diocese or Newman Centre wants to encourage people looking into priesthood or religious life, they should "target" those who have no relationship commitments.

Anonymous said...

I am Protestant, mid 40s, dating a Catholic, early 40s, who is a discerner. We've been together 2 years; I'd like to marry, he isn't sure if he should go back to seminary - he left seminary after 4 years in his early 20s. I'm not Catholic, don't really understand all this, but he says I am selfish because I am not putting God first and seeking his will. But it seems to me HE is the one being selfish, stringing me along, which he insists he isn't doing.

Seraphic said...

Usually I don't post Anonymous comments, but I will this time because I feel terrible for you and cranky with your Catholic beau.

First of all, you're not selfish and putting God second and hiding from His will by wanting to get married and objecting to your boyfriend wanting to dump you by becoming a priest. (If he does. Sadly, there are seminarians who keep their girlfriends indefinitely and even--I'm ashamed to say--after ordination.)

It is perfectly natural to want to get married, especially to your boyfriend of two years.

Now I'd love to say the seminary is unlikely to take a man in his 40s, especially one who dropped out of the seminary in the 1990s. However, I'm not sure. The good news is, it's not free. And more good news is that priests aren't usually paid that well.

And I don't know what steps your boyfriend has taken towards returning to the seminary. Has he actually talked to a vocations director? Has he told his parents that's what he wants to do? Call me cynical, but unless a guy has told his mom, he's not really engaged, or he's not really serious about becoming a priest.

You have a choice. You can protect your heart by spending less and less time with this insulting man or flat out breaking up with him. Or you can encourage him in his "discernment" by talking to him about it, and reading up on all the wonderful seminaries he could go to, and knowing the name of the local bishop, etc., etc., until he gives up on the idea, which he probably will.

Either way, I think you should start seeing other people, so as to remind yourself that your chances of happiness in your mid-40s do not depend on this guy. I don't usually like dating websites, but in this case, I recommend them.

It all rather depends on you and how much you love this guy, this guy who is not acting like a proper boyfriend. If he pursued you in the first place, shame on him. If however the relationship was always your idea in the first place, shame on the feminist movement for telling women chasing men was an emotionally safe thing to do.

Miriam said...

I'm kind of the opposite of this...I'm a 22-year-old woman, raised Catholic, but with no serious focus on discernment, who's been thinking off-and-on about becoming a nun for the past three or four years. It wasn't until a few months ago, when I started dating someone for the first time in my life, that I seriously addressed it-I know I need to figure it out because it impacts his life too. When I told him I was thinking about it I said I'd understand if it was too much or he wanted to break up with me until I knew, but he's been wonderful and patient with me.

Miriam said...

Meant to add that I agree about vocational discernment starting with Confirmation, it would have been nice to know before meeting and dating this man and potentially causing us both heartbreak. But God works in his own way, and I know it will go according to his plan if I just trust and pray.

the girlfriend he can't quit! said...

"but if you have a boyfriend you can't quit, or a girlfriend to whom you keep returning, it might just be a sign that you are not called to perpetual celibacy. " AMEN!
My boyfriend and I dated in college and broke up so he could discern going back to seminary.
We started dating again 3 months ago, after 2 years of not dating each other. During the 2 years of singleness, I went on dates with other guys. He didn't do much of anything-- he was too hung up on me to date anyone else or discern priesthood. You'd think that would speak pretty clearly to him about where he is called, but whenever we experience typical relationship conflict, he starts questioning if he's actually called to priesthood. Poor man just needs to decide and commit to the struggles and sacrifice of vocation! PERIOD. All vocations are going to be beautiful and difficult!

Seraphic said...

What does "typical relationship conflict" mean in this context?

If he is using the priesthood as kin of an emotional blackmail--"Sure we can watch the chick flick, but maybe I really should go back to the seminary"--what on earth are you doing with him? It seems to me that he's not ready to be a husband and he certainly doesn't sound like good priest material. I recommend my post "Discern This, Drama Boy."