Monday, 4 July 2011

Coping with Sulky Seminarians

In nostra aetate, more and more young women find themselves studying and working alongside seminarians, male religious and priests. This has its sorrows along with its joys, as I know personally from my stretch in Santa Theologia.

One of the more annoying sorrows, one that has happened to countless Nice Catholic Girls, is the sudden coldness that falls over a once-promising buddy-buddy friendship. One moment, Seminarian Bob or Brother Tony or Father Pat is laughing at your jokes, and then suddenly he's pretending that you're dead.

At first you think that you're the only one who's noticed, and you worry about it in silence, but then someone else notices and asks what's going on. At this you say, "I don't know! Ask him!" And then you take your own advice, gather up your courage, go to his desk or office and say, " What's going on? You haven't been your friendly self lately."

And, dollars to doughnuts, your brave attempt to clear the air will be met with feigned confusion, vague excuses or outright and entirely unfair blame. You retreat feeling unhappy, confused, betrayed and disappointed. You probably also examine the past two weeks minutely for faults of your own. Did you say something rude? Did you wear something immodest? Did you forget something important? What did you do?

The fact is, you probably didn't do anything, and now I will tell you my preferred assumption. It is the most charitable assumption, especially to you.

He has a crush on you.

Ah ha ha ha ha! Bless his little heart.

Even if he doesn't, because who knows what goes on in male heads half the time, I have simply found it a great relief just to assume that he does. Not only is this highly flattering to me, it enables me to feel a lot more charitable towards him. Instead of being angry at him, I can feel sorry for him and pray with all sincerity that he get over it soon.

If you leave him alone, but get on with your life, he probably will. Ponder how embarrassing it would be for him to have to admit that he has a crush on you. He'd probably rather go to the stake, and perhaps he feels that he has. Aw.

Meanwhile, if you continue to feel bad about it, and/or it is interfering with your work, away you go to a trusted priest adviser to tell him all about it. He will sit there with a straight face, but after he has ascertained that it is not you with the problem, you may see flickering behind his eyes, "He probably has a crush on you."


Ellie said...

Oh Seraphic, I think you wrote this post for me. But I was waiting, waiting for the end when you have the solution:)

My soon-to-be seminarian friend (he starts in a few weeks) and I have had a deep abiding friendship for six years. The attraction part has been very strong for the last two years. In my foolishness I left my heart unguarded, but he had been turned down twice before. But this final time he got accepted. I know he struggled with the attraction yet he still continued to court private time with me. Why the late night phone conversations, the weekly dinners? After his acceptance I suggested we would have to draw new boundries in our friendship, he gave your classic answer and got defensive..."but why, we are just friends!" Yeah friends that have been more intimate than any dating relationship I have been in.

Last week I had dinner with him and his mother. She gave me the biggest hug at the end of the night. She thinks that the seminary is not for him and I know she wishes that things would have turned out diffently. I should mention we are not ehmmm young, both of us in our 40's. I interact alot with seminarians and priests. When I see the young seminarians at events I just think that this will be much more difficult than he thinks. And whether it is a blessing or a cross I will continue to see him on a regular basis.

I have spoken to priests about this. One said just pray, another suggested to continue to be his friend that priest are still going to need close friends. Meanwhile I go to daily mass and pray and also see a Catholic therapist. Even though I had been preparing for this outcome, I am much more devastated than I thought I would be.

Seraphic said...

Blessing? Cross? Occasion for sin?

Ellie, I'm very sorry this happened to you. I know how hurtful it can be. You are devastated because you hoped he would marry you instead of choosing the seminary. But the only proof men want to marry us is rings on our fingers and their mothers calling us to discuss the wedding date.

Meanwhile, I am not sure what you are getting from this friendship. He gets all the fun, fuss and fellowship of the seminary, with a girlfriend (you) on the side, and you get--. What? He might treat you like a girlfriend, but you will never be able to call him your boyfriend.

Many seminarians and, unfortunately, priests think it is okay to have a "special female friend", but it is not. It is not a true embrace of celibacy, and it is exploitative. It prevents the NCG in question from being emotionally free to meet a real suitor.

One of my loudest pieces of advice to Single women and Single men with SSA is never to make a priest or seminarian the Most Important Man in Your Life. It is a recipe for hurt.

I have written about this many times. Please google "Discern This, Drama Boy!" for more of my thoughts.

Again, I'm very sorry you are in this situation. You can get out if you want to. Many other Catholic girls and women have.

margaret said...

I think you are pretty well spot on. The other two reasons are often he's frightened of giving the wrong idea or someone has had a word with him about perceived impropriety.

And, yes, you are right about the special friend thing too. I do believe absolutely it is possible for true spiritual sibling love to exist but it's still something any unmarried (and wanting to be married) woman should utterly avoid. It's also a weird thing when Father becomes little brother or, worse, surrogate child and that's always a danger for women, even when we know that our lives blossomed the day (or thereabouts) we realised we did not want to get married, the mothering instinct is so hard-wired it never goes anywhere and cats are not the only substitute!

margaret said...

Ellie, please don't take this wrongly, I realise I don't know you from Eve and I'm a nun so prolly not too hot on the relationship advice thing, but beware the "priests need friends too" line. Yes, they do, but perhaps not you. I have two dear friends who are priests (one Orthodox, one Catholic). I bake them cakes, mend their vestments, remove spiders from their sinks (they are both wusses) and listen to them for hours but to me it is being part of the 'family' of religious which transcends ecclesiology. For you, on the other hand, with natural, womanly feelings which you haven't rechannelled (nor should you) a priest's need for a friend or sister could become a sink for your whole life. Please be very careful.
love in Christ, Margaret.

Seraphic said...

Yes, I meant to get back to that "friend" thing. The best female friends for priests are their kinswomen, happily married women and happy nuns, not single women their own age--particularly not ones who are in love with them and hoped to marry them. And unhappily married women and unhappy nuns have really got to watch out that they don't form an inordinate attachment to their priest-pal.

In short, a priest should never be the most important man in a woman's life.

FrB said...


I'm loath to offer advice to strangers over the internet, and so I offer the following with a grain of salt, but it sounds to me as though your friend may be somewhat oblivious to the situation. When he said that you didn't need to re-consider boundaries because you are 'just friends', it sounds as though he doesn't realise that it's precisely because you are friends that you need boundaries. Friendship is a relationship with boundaries. Romantic relationships and marriage have very different boundaries. Your friend doesn't sound very self-aware, if he doesn't understand that entering seminary means that you need to review these kind of friendships. (Men can, alas, sometimes be rather dense in these areas.)

Anyway, part of his seminary formation should be personal formation and that should lead him to a greater self-awareness and a better understanding of his own relationships. His formators should be the ones to help him with that.

The best advice that I can give you, without knowing you personally, of course, is simply to support his discernment. To do that, you may be the one who has to draw the boundary lines at first. I don't think this means ending the friendship, but it does mean changing how the friendship works. Be supportive, but if he's spending too much time with you, you may need to be the one to remind him that he needs to putting his seminary formation first. It may mean cutting some conversations short and telling him that he should really be discussing certain things with his spiritual director or his formators. That may well be tough for you, but it is necessary for both of you that the nature of your relationship change while in seminary.

My hope is that drawing these boundaries will help you step back from this relationship. It'll also support him in living his seminary life with an undivided heart. He needs to understand that if he is to prepare for a priestly celibate life, then he needs to have boundaries in his relationships with the opposite sex, and with you in particular. Only by doing that, can he properly discern his vocation.

If he finds that hard to accept or discern, you should explain to him that seminary is supposed to keep him busier and more focussed than life in the secular world and that whilst you want to be supportive, you do not want to be someone who keeps him from being fully participative in the programme of formation.

Seraphic is quite right to point out that he shouldn't be getting the best of both worlds while in seminary. That's a recipe for disaster for all concerned. It's a shame that it sounds as though you may have to be the one who has to lay down the markers in this situation, but I hope that you'll reach an understanding and an acceptance of why this is so necessary. It may be painful, but it's better than drifting along in a limbo of expectation for the next 5 or 6 years.

God bless you & be assured of my prayers.

Ellie said...

Seraphic, as usual you are right. I have overcome worse in my life and this will pass and God will provide in ways I cannot imagine now. I have cut contact with others for inappropriate behavior, I need to do the same here (although the others were in dating/pushing the boundaries scenario). This one snuck up as spiritual friendship and got out of control.

Margaret, thank you for your words of advice. I recognize the limits for friendships with priests and religious. Sometimes I meet such amazing people that I think I would like to know them better or be their friend, but the reality is that is not possible. Also working in Catholic broadcasting also creates a sense of familiarity that is not real either. I go to daily mass and just pray every day that I am doing what God wants me to do.
to do in a way that honors him.

Ellie said...

oops, should have edited the end of that last post better.

Fr. B, thank you for your prayers and wise words.

Seraphic said...

Thanks very much for the nun's and the priest's eye-views!

Kate said...

I was good friends with a man for a few years before he decided to enter the seminary. It came as a bit of a shock, as I assumed - as did many of our friends - that we would probably get married. I congratulated him, had a BBQ before he left, went home and cried....and haven't spoken to him since. It might seem a little drastic, but I was devastated and I couldn't think of another way to distance myself from him. We have mutual friends, so we do hear about each other. Maybe I'll attend his ordination - but only if I'm happily married and pregnant.

Seraphic said...

My dear Kate, it sounds as though you handled the situation with grace and have done exactly the right thing. And, no, you don't have to go to his ordination. Meanwhile, the best--well, not revenge--the best coping strategy is living well.

Sophia said...

Dear Seraphic,

As a woman who deals on a frequent basis with seminarians, I think you nailed the "crush" problem on the head. It applies not only to the seminarians but also to priests. I am considered an attractive female and I've noticed a great deal of immaturity in both seminarians and priests with respect to establishing boundaries. Some hardly dare look at a woman, much less talk with her, and others are way too friendly.

Your post is written for the benefit of the NCG who is startled by the odd behavior of her friend. Presumably, however, the seminarian is a NCB, and needs to learn how to deal with his singleness in a healthy, non scrupulous manner and have good boundaries. I am not satisfied that our seminaries actually teach boundary setting to our seminarians. Frankly, if a young man cannot handle social interactions with an attractive (modest and not available) female, then he is not ready to be a priest. Diocesan priests need to be available to 50% of the population of God's people - women - and a good percentage of that population are beautiful inside and out. Since women civilize society, how do you suggest single women civilize the seminarian/priest who are rude to them because they have a crush on them? Or who ignore them? It's easy enough to squash their hopes when they are overly friendly, but it's hard to help when they are overly scrupulous.

Seraphic said...

Dear Sophia,

You are absolutely right, and I recommend calling a seminarian or a priest on verbal rudeness right away. "It's not appropriate to speak to women/people/me like that" is a handy and informative sentence.

In the case of something more subtle, if an attempt to clear the air doesn't work, then the person to talk to is the seminarian's or priest's immediate superior.

When speaking to the superior it is absolutely crucial to be calm and friendly about the situation because if the superior smells the slightest hint of a lawsuit or any threat, he may shut right down. Discussion over.

This is the sad situation we are in right now--so many millions of dollars and pounds have been lost on complaints both real and false--that women who have a workplace issue with a priest or seminarian have really got to be calm, friendly and business-like about it. State the exact problem and what you have done to solve the situation and why you feel uncomfortable.

As for civilizing seminarians and priests, that is not our job but the job of their parents, the seminary and their superiors. I believe women must take some responsibility for their own blood kinsmen--upbraiding them when necessary--but those are the men who are most likely to listen to us. Male pals might, but workmates? Seminarians? Forget it.

All you can do is stand up for yourself when necessary, trust the seminary to do its job and remember that all seminarians and priests are men and therefore both human beings and somewhat clueless about women.

Fifty years ago we would not be having this discussion because fifty years ago there is no way you'd be working or socializing with seminarians and priests. Our current situation is a new one, and it is definitely a work in progress. Don't expect a young priest to be as savvy as an old priest or the average woman about women.

Seraphic said...

By the way, I should mention that in a social situation--a non-professional, non-pastoral situation--no seminarian or priest has to give a woman the time of day just because he's a seminarian or a priest.

He is entitled to a private life, and if he doesn't want her in his private life, she doesn't belong in it.

Some men are shy and retiring, and that's just the way they are. A priest who doesn't like cocktail party chatter might be a positive Cure D'Ars in the confessional.

So although in a workplace setting a seminarian or priest is expected to be amiable to colleagues, I don't expect a seminarian or priest to go out of his way at school to be buddy-buddy with anyone he doesn't feel the impulse to be friends with.

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

Wow, amazing discussion in the comments - glad I dropped by and didn't stick with my usual RSS read on this one.

I was wondering if perhaps in this situation the hypothetical seminarian hadn't distanced himself because someone'd warned him off? I mean, I have 3 brothers, and I'd talk to any of them if I thought they weren't acting appropriately (whether with a girlfriend, or in language, or in being too friendly with a girl while in the seminary - good for neither his vocation nor her heart; and in or out, not straddling).

I remember a conversation between my mother and her spiritual director (during a visit, not direction!) about that. She had been a bit scandalised when she heard that a formator told a seminarian to ask a woman out whom he was attracted to. Her director, generally quite traditional and conservative, didn't have a problem with it - something about testing the vocation? (It was quite a while ago when I was a kid.) My mom didn't press it but I doubt she agreed. Looking back, it doesn't seem fair to me - why should she be set up for heartbreak when he's got the seminary to go back to?