By Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP.
When I read Simcha Fisher’s article in America Magazine When a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life, I began to weep. I cried for all the young women who had entered my community and left, their choice or the community’s, over my 53 years as a Daughter of St. Paul.
I remembered when I was a postulant (1967) and a novice coming to the refectory (dining room) for breakfast and noticing that someone was missing. Gone without a good-bye, at that time never to be heard of again. It was so confusing that someone who was so much part of my group, or the upcoming groups, or even professed in temporary vows, could be gone. Just like that. If we said anything, the formator would shush us or glare at the person asking. One co-postulant told me later that it was thought if we talked about our missing companion that it might make the rest of us go, too. I was still in our high school aspirancy myself, but that lack of logic just further confused me (we discontinued our high school in 1991.)
Yet as I read through the article, tears flowing at the corner of my eyes, I recalled three times that I was asked to either drive someone to the airport, take another young sister home, or accompany someone in their discernment and then drop them off at her new residence after she decided to leave the community. I was part of the forgotten ones in this process of separation from a community that was no “gentle or conscious uncoupling” so to speak. I was one of the last members of the community a sister leaving might ever see. To me, this was the most heartbreaking thing I was ever asked to do in my years of religious life. It was traumatic for me. No one ever asked how it made me feel to be part of a person’s departure from this very intense and passionate way of life that we call religious life.
I recalled another sister who was often asked to take aspirants, postulants and novices to the airport, spirited out at dawn’s early light before anyone would miss them. It was during grand silence, too, so we were not to speak until after grace at breakfast if we did see suitcases by the elevator. I will call her Sister Mary. Sister Mary was chosen, I think, because of her gentle nature that would have a calming effect on the young woman leaving. I went with Sister Mary once to drive a sister in temporary vows to the airport as she was returning home. I waited in the car (the days when we could do so), but I was able to say good-bye and promise prayers before Sister Mary accompanied her inside the terminal. The hard thing was that I was told by the superior not to talk about the young woman’s departure to anyone.
The next time I was told, not asked, to drive a young sister home from one of our branch houses. Her family lived within driving distance. Sister Anna, an older sister, came along, too. The superior, who was very old school and stern, told Sister Anna and I that we were not even to get out of the car. Just let the sister off in front of her house, let her unload her suitcases, and drive off. I was told not to even talk to her. I was only in temporary vows, too, and had known this young woman since she entered though she was not in my group (or band, as some communities call our formation groups.) As soon as we pulled up in front of her house at about 7am, her family came out. Then Sr Anna surprised me. She hit my arm and said, “Say good-bye.” So, I did. I turned and gave the young woman a hug over the seat. Then Sr. Anna got out of the car, against orders, and accompanied the young woman to the front door, to her family. She stayed and spoke with the family for a bit, then came back to the car. We were both crying. Sr. Anna, one of my favorite nuns ever, told me through her tears, “You don’t need to say anything. Charity comes first.” And I never did until now.
I will not say too much about the third sister because we remain very good friends today. But I know she suffered greatly as she discerned her way from religious life into a serene life “in the world” as we call it. I was the local superior when she was sent to the community for the purpose of discernment, at her request. As she met with a spiritual director, I was the community member she related to the most. It was a difficult separation for many reasons, and we both cried many times, not least of which was the day we went to buy her a new meager wardrobe at the mall and the final day I drove her to her new residential job after she was dispensed from her vows. This was like dying to her and to me, two different ways of dying. I had known her from before she entered and now, these many years later, I was there when she was leaving, following what she believed was God’s will for her. I did not disagree with her discernment, but her leaving was as if she was pulling off her skin to reveal a new identity that was still taking shape. It was so painful. She is one of the bravest people I know, and I love her for her courage, perseverance, and love for ministry that has never wavered.
I shared this blog post with Sister Mary and she commented:
I do regret in hindsight not having more of Sr. Anna’s wisdom of heart. Most of the time I drove very young ones to the airport or bus station. I was sent to be a kind presence and to assure that they made it to their gate safely. Some left singing and some left sorrowing, so as their last contact I had to keep things light and loving. As you say, we are in a better place now. The young ones are already women and the formation program is so much more mature, so we don’t have half the drama anymore. I always pray for those who are wavering even if I don’t know who they might be, and I send them on their way with love and blessings.
In one way I was a willing participant in the departures of these young women from religious life but in another way, I was unwilling because I knew that if I were suffering from a profound sadness, the young woman was probably suffering so much more. I have always tried to do everything asked of me, but some things were too hard and had to change, and thank God, they have.
What did I learn from these experiences? That charity comes first, always.
We do things differently now. If a young woman at any stage of religious life discerns to leave (or is invited to do so by the community), she may share this information with whomever she wishes – and we can stay in touch. She can say good-bye to the community in the dining room or make a more discreet departure – her choice. But the sister or young woman is encouraged to be more transparent about her discernment because the entire community is transitioning with her as she leaves.
Sister Rose Pacatte in August 1967, at the San Diego convent of the Daughters of Saint Paul, the night before flying to Boston to enter the convent.
As we slowly moved from a pre-Vatican Council II way of doing things in our congregation in the U.S. to being, well, normal, we had a provincial who did something wonderful. This was in the later 1980s. I was on our provincial council then. She thought it would be a good idea to send a Christmas card and note to each sister (novice or postulant) for whom we had contact information, and let them know we remembered them, ask how they were doing, and that we continued to pray for them. This resulted in more open communication, visits to the novitiate, reconnecting with old friends, and oftentimes, healing.
I wish there had been Leonie’s Longing all those years ago so young women could receive counseling and referrals and moral support, and I am glad this organization exists now. God willing, I will celebrate my golden jubilee of profession in 2022 (and my 55th of entrance). If you are reading this, know that I remember everyone, and I wish you love, happiness and the peace of Christ. I hope you will forgive any suffering I may have caused or contributed to at a very difficult time of your life. I ask for your prayers.
The thing is, those who become part of our inner world, as we do in religious life, are never gone. We remain sisters in the heart of God – always.
By Stephanie Q.
July 16th, 2016.
That’s the date my friend, E, gave me for her entrance to the novitiate. The wind let out of my sails a little. I was so excited for her discernment to continue with the sisters, but that date, well that was already my wedding day.
And so we adjusted the plans. No longer would she be at our nuptial Mass, but we would certainly include her in our Prayers of the Faithful. No longer would I be able to attend her entrance ceremony, but friendship is so much stronger than that. On July 16th, we would both be taking steps to fulfill our vocations, steps towards the life God had in store for us.
Preparations continued for both of us. E packed up and donated all of her clothes and belongings during a brief visit home between pre-postulancy and postulancy. I bought a wedding dress and picked out flowers and planned centerpieces.
Our lives were almost perfectly paralleled in prayerful preparation. There was little doubt in our friends or family that we were living our best lives, pursuing the vocation God created us for. And I had little doubt that E was supposed to be a sister. Watching her talk about her life in the convent, her eyes lit up in the same way I saw my fiance’s eyes light up when he talked about me.
When I finally said goodbye to E before postulancy started, it was hard, so hard. We had no idea when we would see each other again because novitiate + wedding day made the next logical time impossible. But we promised to write cards and letters and went on our way.
About three months into her postulancy, I received a surprise notification that E had sent me a Facebook message!
The elation soon turned to concern as I read the message. She had discerned out of the convent and didn’t know what her next steps would be.
In the moment, I said all the right things. “I’m proud of you for making the hard decision” (because I knew this broke her heart), “Jesus loves you no matter what” (because I know Satan loves self-doubt), and offered a trip for ice cream whenever she was ready to be social.
On the other side of the screen though, I was flabbergasted. Everything seemed perfectly ordered for her to become a sister. And if she could discern out, what did that mean for my discernment of marriage? All of sudden, certainty didn’t seem so certain and that really put me in a bit of a spiritual and mental pickle for a while. I would support E, but I was also very confused by the situation.
The whole thing was made more difficult because I saw how upset the decision made her. And she wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. So I was in this weird place where I had to be supportive without knowing the details. Responsive and prayerful without understanding the magnitude. There were many moments where I just asked the Holy Spirit to guide my words because I was at a loss for what to say or do. Walking with a friend who had their whole future changed in a moment is a true test of friendship and fortitude. I didn’t want to make things worse, and I couldn’t make anything better. I could just sit there in the uncertainty and the ick with her.
As she opened up over the next two months about the decision process, I understood better. Leaving a religious order is like breaking off an engagement. And sometimes a broken engagement takes you by surprise because on the outside, everything about the couple seemed perfect. But, it takes living in that reality every single day to really understand the nooks and crannies of the relationship. And as postulancy progressed, it was her observation that the relationship had to end.
Having broken off a serious relationship of my own once before, I think in some ways I understood better than some how it feels to be adrift without a plan. A period in life where the things you had taken as fact, a future marriage or religious life, was all of a sudden ripped from its role in the future chapters of your life.
And so, time progressed. Our friendship back to normal, I realized that my wedding day was still going to happen, and I began to worry about celebrating the permanency of my own vocation on the day that was also supposed to have been E’s celebration as well.
So I did the only thing I could. I painstakingly crafted a new set of prayers for our wedding day. One to pray for our religious friends, since many priests and religious men and women came from our group of friends. One to pray for all the married couples in the room. And, finally, one to pray for those who were still discerning their way in life that God would give them the courage to say “yes” when He called.
Being there for a friend who has left the convent can be tricky, but it is similar to being there for a friend in any other difficult life situation. The trickiest part of it all is that what worked for my friendship, might not work for yours. And that’s true, but all friendships need those moments where it is enough to say, “I am here”. Encourage her. Validate her feelings. Believe in her. Be there for her. Give her space. And most importantly, pray for her.
I was sitting at a table happily conversing with a group of girlfriends when I saw her walk in. She had made some attempt to look put-together, though her puffy eyes and downcast demeanor implied otherwise. I knew she struggled emotionally and had a lot of marital drama, so I wasn’t surprised. I watched her walk past my table and choose a seat at a distance from everyone else. Apart from the bride-to-be, whose shower had brought us together that day, I’m pretty sure I was her only other friend in the room.
“Friend” was a challenging term to use here. Only a few years my senior, she had been my boss for three years. Our strong personalities often clashed. I felt stifled by her, and I think she felt threatened by me. Our rocky relationship eventually drove me to leave that job.
Both of us had become close with another coworker—a kind and deeply compassionate young woman who was preparing to marry the love of her life. This woman and I had spent a lot of time together, even outside of work, and our friend circles intertwined. I knew half of the people in the room that day, but I was well aware that my former boss, who normally feigned confidence, was like a fish out of water here. As I continued my comfortable conversations, I felt a nudge to go over and speak to the lonely one. I ignored it. I continued to catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye but continued to suppress the inspiration to do the kind and uncomfortable thing. In a little while, I thought. But before I ever had the courage to respond to a simple prompting, she had left the party.
Thankfully, I had a more pleasant encounter with her at the wedding a month later and some positive text exchanges in the weeks that followed. At that point, the three of us who had once worked together a part of a tight-knit (albeit dysfunctional) team had all moved on and were on the verge of new chapters in life. The former boss expressed in a group text one day how much she missed our team, and in a genuine gesture, I texted back suggesting that we meet for lunch soon at her favorite Italian restaurant. Maybe I could make up for my neglect of charity a few months earlier. She responded affirmatively.
But the shared meal of bread sticks and gnocchi soup never happened. Three days after that text conversation, she took her life. She left behind a husband and five children whom she decided would be better off without her.
As I tried to process the news, memories rolled through my head. I spent the first three years after leaving my community with this person, day in and day out. She hired me for my first-ever career-type job and allowed me to gain experience in a field that I came to love. We had more than our fair share of challenges, but we both made some attempt to bond over those things we had in common—like an appreciation of unique foods and a love for cinematic music. While the memories and tears flowed, one phrase echoed through my head: I wish I had loved her more.
I had planned to work that secular job for a year or so while I searched for a new ministry to pour myself into. What I had failed to realize was that God placed ministry opportunities right in front of me. He gave me people who needed to be loved. He gave me moments to sanctify and challenges to offer. I was no less called to be His disciple in this job than I was in my community or in any other full-time ministry. I shed some tears as I thought back over those years and recalled the day of the bridal shower. I prayed for God’s mercy on this woman’s soul and for her family. For myself, I asked that I not be so blind in the future. Sure, I may not have been able to change the course of this person’s life, but I know I could have made some small attempt to love her more.
Recently I was attending another bridal shower. As I walked back to my table after refilling my iced tea, I noticed a woman sitting alone, as everyone from her table was helping the bride-to-be with gifts. I felt a gentle prompting and walked over to her. I introduced myself and invited her to come sit at my table. She smiled and accepted the invitation. I recognized the God moment, and I praised Him in my heart for another chance to love.
Twenty-five years ago, I stood at the cloister door of the Poor Clares, knocked, and asked to be admitted to their community. I was young, confident, and excited to begin my new life that I just knew was going to be permanent. During the first weeks, I thrived, so much so that I was allowed to move from Candidate to Postulant in four and a half weeks rather than the usual six.
By the end of the year, I had made a complete turnaround. Beset by chronic ear infections, the loneliness that came with the lack of my family’s support, and the regular adjustments to religious life, I felt I had no more to give. However, by the time I had reached home, I regretted my decision. Those days were filled with so many tears and headaches from the stress! Over the next few weeks, though, the pain subsided, and I began to pick up where I had left off. Five years later, I would be walking down the wedding aisle, content and at peace with my decision.
My time in the cloister was invaluable to me as a wife and mother. I had learned to submit myself to someone else, a certain amount of detachment, and the importance of obedience. Six children later, I was pleased with my little family, but even in this state of satisfaction, the truth was that deep inside, I still grappled with what I saw as the loss of my vocation. Regular dreams visited me in which I was released to enter religious life, only to realize that I belonged with my husband and children and return to the world. Over and over, God needed to show me the holiness of family life in these little dreams until I learned the lesson.
Then an accident resulted in the loss of my two boys. A daughter should have joined them in their heavenly abode, but by miraculous intervention, she was spared. The bigger miracle, however, was a complete healing of the disappointment of my youth. From that moment on, I added those virtues which are so loved in good mothers: patience, long-suffering and cheerfulness.
Since that time, I have learned that God gives two separate and distinct graces in religious life: one to enter religious life and the other to persevere in it. God often gives the first without giving the second. He has things to teach which are best learned in an atmosphere of retreat that may last anywhere from a few days to a few years before sending us out into the world. Religious life not only is the seed bed for those who will live there until death, but it also cultivates the life of virtue of those who will become the mothers and fathers that God desires.
A few days ago, my oldest daughter stood at the cloister door, knocked, and asked to be admitted to her new community. She is young, confident, and excited to begin her new life. So now we have come ‘round full circle. The end of my vocation story means the beginning of hers.
By Lucia Delgado.
Around this time 3 years ago, I made a decision to end discernment to religious life. It seems that I was doing the call for a priest who believed that I was called to this vocation. Deep down inside, I knew God was calling me to a different lifestyle.
Fast forward to 3 years later, I’m engaged to be married. My fiancé and I await the day when we start marriage preparation.
While there are people who are excited for us, there are those who don’t believe we should be married at all. Some people believe that I am still called to religious life especially a couple of priests.
Confusion and doubts settle in my heart. With help from the Holy Spirit, I was guided to read this Sunday’s readings for Mass.
From the prophet Jeremiah:
“All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
‘Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,
and take our vengeance on him.’
But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion:
my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.
In their failure they will be put to utter shame,
to lasting, unforgettable confusion.”
Throughout his life, Jeremiah learned how to trust in the Lord in spite of persecution from others. His vocation journey was full of twists and turns; he eventually accepted God’s call to speak the truth…to be a prophet in a world of darkness.
I knew I had no decision but to trust in the Lord. My fiancé and I pray often, especially during our courtship. We also went to adoration to ask for His will for us. We both asked the Lord to give us fortitude, peace, and trust. We freely made a decision to marry; we believed that God called my fiancé and I to marriage no matter what the world thinks.
All of us are called to holiness. God asks each of us to use our gifts and talents that He gives us to use for His glory. The marriage vocation is a chance for a man and a woman to lead each other to the Lord. Also, they reach out to their offspring and lead them to the Lord. The Father drew me to this vocation because He knew that I have a heart to lead others to His Son. My fiancé and I look forward to serving together as a couple in the Catholic Church. We will assist at Mass by being Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion or read one of the readings of the day. We both love to pray, especially before the end of the day. We encourage one another to be more Christlike. Whether one is in religious life, single life or married life, we are called to be holy and encouraging others to follow Jesus. All vocations are pleasing to the Lord. He invites us to share, encourage, pray, and love one another.
If you are at a crossroads of making a decision about your vocation, talk to the Lord. A friend of mine told me to go to adoration to listen to God’s voice. She told me not listen to the voices of friends, priests, and others; only listen to God’s voice.
Going to adoration has helped me to listen to God’s voice especially when I was discerning with the religious community. I continue to go as a lay Catholic; I learn how to trust in the Lord’s will for my life.