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.
There it is. That familiar sting that says “not you.” I sat down with my Magnificat book, my fiancé just across the room, for our daily time of prayer. I opened the Magnificat to the day’s readings, and there I saw the Gospel passage I’ve been battling with the Lord over for the past year and half since leaving the convent:
“‘We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?’ Jesus said to them… ‘And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.'”
And just like that, I feel the sting again. That all-too-familiar twinge that whispers, “You tried, but you failed. You could’ve been the one to give up everything, but now you’re not. You can’t get that hundredfold.” I sit there, angry and confused, ready to throw the book to the floor and end my prayer time right then and there. But I don’t. Instead, I find myself like the apostles, asking Jesus, “What will there be for me?” Perhaps you too, dear sister, have found yourself asking that question time and again, “What is there for me now?” And perhaps, if you’re anything like me, you too have been disappointed by God’s apparent silence, left wondering what the heck “God’s will” even means anymore or if you’ll ever move past the pain or be able to trust God again.
Well, back in my prayer corner, I found myself spiraling into that rabbit hole again. But then the Lord gently reminded me of the last time I had this battle with Him, and the words He spoke to me then, and continues to speak to my heart. You see, sister, the Lord sees that you and I, we gave up everything- our families, our homes, our friends, careers, etc.- when He asked it of us. He does not disregard that sacrifice just because we left the convent. He also recognizes that even though He has given some of those things back to us, we also sacrificed much in leaving. For me, that was leaving behind a community of sisters I deeply loved and cared for, giving up the life that I thought and dreamed I would live for the rest of my life, and then having to endure the many hardships that befell me in the months following my departure- an unsupportive pastor, the loss of friendships, and the unexpected loss of my job. I cannot tell you how many times I cried out in pain, “God, what now? There’s nothing left for me!” I thought of that pain, but then Jesus also reminded me of the good things He has given to me since I left.
I know that often it’s so hard to see the good things or see how certain Scripture passages still apply to us. But, sister, do not think that this Gospel passage no longer applies to you. In some ways, it might apply even more now in the “post-convent” reality. The Lord sees and understands the great sacrifices you made to follow Him into religious life, as well as the sacrifices made and sufferings endured in leaving the religious life. He sees those sacrifices, and holds them in His heart, and listens when you cry out to Him once again, “What is there for me?” Hold on to your hope, my dear sister, and don’t give up. That hundredfold is for us, too.
By Christina M. Sorrentino (re-printed with permission from her blog https://calledtoloveosb.blogspot.com.au)
During challenging times and hitting roadblocks on our journey towards a closer intimacy with the Lord it is important that we never lose hope or sight of God’s overall plan for us. We do not always know what the plan is that God has for us, but in trusting God we can find strength to help us through the difficult times in our lives. We all have our own vocation given to us as a gift from our Father, and sometimes it takes time for us to receive that gift. I am blessed that God has given me the gift of being called to religious life, and because of perseverance and love I know that one day I will be able to open that gift when I am able to say “Yes”, to Him as a beloved bride of Christ.
A solemn shadow stirs the soul
as the flute whistles a tone of midday dreary.
The crimson core weeps deeply,
around the shore of silence
with raindrops gliding down her cheeks
she sees the footprints in the sand.
The wind steadily howls
and dances across the dune
as the heart thunders loudly
with a flash of lightning
and a torrent deep and wide.
The seductive serpent crawls upon the ground
with an evil hiss and
a fiery, sharpened tongue.
He takes his refuge beneath the elder tree
lurking in the bushes
as the young lioness roars
underneath the warm rays of the sun
and a blue velvet sky.
The music of the ten-stringed lyre
and the soft melody of the harp
with a gentle voice calling out to her
grace sweeps her off her feet
and ignites a burning fire in her heart.
The fluttering of the quiet flame
and whispering truth
the swishing sword shatters the dark
as the stream of the Divine
with rushing water flows through.
A gaze in the mirror;
eyes upon the tainted glass,
the love of Christ revealed.
The Beloved beckons to her
as he heals the open wound,
he embraces the small, shepherd girl
with a holy kiss,
she knows this divine romance is true.
By Anna Lucia.
The clock approaches four o’clock and I walk into the chapel, happy to have a few minutes for prayer before I am off to my late afternoon class. I settle into the pew, look up at the crucifix, and I draw a blank. I am at a loss for words and decide to simply relax in the Lord’s presence. As I sit before the tabernacle, I feel restless and agitated. After what feels like an eternity, I look at my watch; only two minutes have passed.
Since returning to the world, prayer has proven difficult; very difficult. Have I forgotten how to pray? This seems to be a ridiculous notion, as I spent hours a day praying in the convent. I still remember the various prayers that comprise the rosary and the Divine Office. I manage to say a morning offering before my feet hit the floor at the beginning of the day and sing the Salve to our Lady before I close my eyes at night. The more I ponder this question, the more I realize that the problem is not forgetting how to pray. Rather, the problem at hand is one of trust.
In an ideal world, prayer would be the simplest part of our day, as it is spending time with the one we love. What happens, however, when the one we love breaks our heart? We might not want to spend time with that person and may have difficulty trusting that person again. That is what happened to me when I returned to the world. Prayer became difficult because prayer necessarily implies a relationship with the Lord. A relationship with the Lord implies trust. I had difficulty trusting the Lord because I gave Him my heart when I entered the convent and it felt as if He shattered it to pieces when I left. I was afraid that if I placed my trust in the Lord, then I would get my heart broken again. I knew in my head that the Lord is love and mercy itself, and that He would never lead me this far just to abandon me. However, I found it difficult to know that reality in my heart.
A wise friend recently told me that a lack of trust is simply forgetfulness. It is easy to remember the times our friends disappointed us and to hold a grudge. We get so caught up in our anger and disappointment that we quickly forget the times they have remained faithful. The same principle applies to our relationship with the Lord. While we may feel disappointed and hurt, we must recall all the times the Lord has remained faithful, throughout the day and throughout our lives.
Reflecting on God’s fidelity will help us realize that Our Lord is a good and trustworthy Father. As love itself (1 John 4:8), God could never hurt us or abandon us in our time of greatest need. It would be totally and completely against His nature to do so. Everything happens for a reason, even if we cannot yet see God’s reason behind these unknowns. For example, parents tell their children to eat their vegetables at dinner. A little girl does not know why her parents insist that she eat the spinach on her plate. Only her parents know that the spinach contains the nutrients necessary for the child’s growth and development. Similarly, we may not see why the Lord called us to enter religious life and return home. However, this apparent detour is all part of His divine plan for our lives. God has not abandoned us, but has been holding us by the hand, leading us every step of the way.