Back in April, we launched a survey that forms our contribution to the preparatory phase for the 2018 Synod on Youth, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.
We have been blessed to receive generous and thoughtful responses from many, many former religious, and former seminarians too, from across the United States, Australia, Canada and Europe.
Thank you for sharing your experiences!
We will continue to take responses until Thursday, June 1, 2017.
If you have been thinking about whether or not to respond, be assured that we receive responses with the greatest reverence for what you choose to share. The responses are anonymous, and each question on the survey is optional – you can answer as much or as little as you like.
Only Board Members can see the actual responses; general information about trends will be provided to the diocese of one of our Board Members for inclusion in the material given to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who will submit a national report for review in Rome.
By J.E. Sigler
If you are one of those women who feels that her departure from the religious life means that God has rejected her from “the heart of the Church” and relegated her to “second-class holiness” in the world, you need to keep reading.
For a graduate course in the philosophy and theology of work, vocation, and calling, I am reading a wonderful volume called The Disciples’ Call: Theologies of Vocation from Scripture to the Present Day, edited by Father Christopher Jamison, OSB. The book is a collection of essays compiled from a conference of vocation directors and religious formators in the UK several years ago. It is a strikingly modern look at issues of critical import in calling and vocation today, and it is refreshingly frank in its discussion of “the hard questions” the Church is currently dealing with in this area.
What I find particularly interesting about this book are the two completely different, conflicting even, views of vocation that are constantly emerging in it. On the one hand, there’s the Thomistic view; on the other, the Ignatian. What’s the difference?
First, let’s review what we already know: All Christians are called to holiness. By our baptisms, we are all consecrated to the Lord and required to live out some form of poverty, chastity (though not necessarily celibacy), and obedience (to God and, if married, to our spouse; if religious, to our superior and sisters; if ordained, to our bishop; etc.). On this point, all Catholics, even Saints Thomas and Ignatius, agree. The two views of vocation emerge when we ask: In addition to this first call to holiness that we all share, is there a second, additional call to a particular vocation?
St. Thomas says that there is not, and what logically follows from this is that the religious life is one response to the universal Christian call to holiness. It is a choice each individual makes, her personal response to the call God makes to everyone. But to St. Thomas, religious life is always the surer (i.e., the easier) path to perfect charity and salvation, and so, he argues, all who feel even slightly inclined to it ought to at least try it. St. Thomas believes that, basically, nearly everyone is capable of living the religious life, and since it is the most perfect (meaning, again, the easiest!) way to fulfill the original, and only, call to holiness shared by all Christians, we ought all to give it a go.
On this view, a lack of perseverance in the religious life is truly a failure to achieve “the better way,” and to return to the world is really to return to something “less than perfection.”
However, St. Ignatius says there is a second call to a particular vocation, in addition to the universal Christian call to holiness. And so, on his view, one ought to wait for this call before embarking upon any vowed state in life. St. Ignatius agrees with St. Thomas that the religious life is objectively a better path to holiness, in the sense that it makes the attainment of holiness easier, but subjectively, the religious life may not be the better path for a particular individual. And so he concludes that all Church-approved vocations ought to be given consideration by each person.
On this view, a lack of perseverance in the religious life is not necessarily a failure to achieve “the better way,” but more likely simply a sign that one was not “built” (by God) for that life (at least not permanently). And a return to the world is not a return to something “less than perfection,” but to one’s real (permanent, God-given) vocation.
As Father Joseph Bolin, in chapter four of The Disciples’ Call, points out, the Thomistic view is the traditional view of vocation and the one most often implied in historic recruitment materials to the religious life: “God is calling you, daring you to follow Him. Are you generous enough?” (p. 74). But this view places all the onus for perseverance on the individual’s will, and as Father Bolin sees it, this is a severe weakness of the Thomistic view: True, such an approach will increase vocations to religious life, and likely capture all, or at least most, of those “true” religious vocations, i.e., people who really are called to the religious life. But it also has the effect of capturing a lot of people who are not suited to the religious life by guilting or inspiring them to embark upon “the (objectively) surer path to perfect charity and salvation,” even if that path is not subjectively the surer one for them. The consequences of these “false positives” are potentially very dangerous, and well known to us.
“The Thomistic approach… will cause people who consider religious life, perhaps enter for a time, and then cease pursuing this vocation to have a negative self-image, perhaps to give up Christian life altogether, or at any rate to be satisfied with mediocrity in living the Christian vocation. For, if the will to embrace and follow the religious life as a way to love God is all that is necessary for a vocation, then leaving the religious life would seem to indicate a lack of love, an unreadiness to serve God without reservation. This lends itself to the practical conclusion that if one is not capable of attaining holiness in the easier and better way, there is really no hope of becoming holy in the lay state” (p. 80).
Of course, Father Bolin argues that this conclusion is patently false.
Many of us are familiar with these two views of vocation. But what, at least in my experience, many people do not realize is that we often conflate the two perspectives. And this, I believe, is where vocational distress begins.
Think about it: You probably felt that you had a second call to the religious life, an Ignatian assumption, as St. Thomas says there is only one call. But when you returned to the world, you may have felt, as many women do, that you somehow “failed” in or had been rejected from “the perfect way” and so are “less than,” a distinctly Thomistic assumption, as Ignatius does not hang the perseverance in religious life entirely on the individual’s will. On the one hand, you may have assumed that people are either built for the religious life, or they are not (Ignatian), and that those who are built for it love more, or are destined for more holiness (Thomistic).
But to collapse these two views is both wrong and harmful. Remember: St. Ignatius requires a second call, but he also strongly emphasizes the subjectiveness of the call to holiness, i.e., that there is a better path to holiness for each individual person, and this path is not necessarily the religious life. On Ignatius’ view, some people are built for religious life, and others are not, and both are best suited to attain holiness in the ways God made them for. St. Thomas, on the other hand, emphasizes the objective superiority of the religious life, for all or at least most, but his view also entails that the choice of religious life is just one way to respond to the universal Christian call to holiness that we all share. Whether a person responds to that call by committing to the evangelical counsels, marriage vows, or whatever else, she’s still got the same call everybody else does: “The difference between those entering consecrated life and those who do not is not a difference in the degree of their love, but a difference in the ways they choose to grow in love” (Frather Bolin, p. 81).
Personally, I am an Ignatian when it comes to discernment. Whatever you are, I hope that you can see how both views provide consolation for the woman who has returned to the world, provided you keep them straight: Either you have a second call to something other than religious life, and following that call is the best possible way for you to attain holiness. Or else you have the exact same call as religious sisters, and the degree of holiness you attain out here in the world will depend entirely upon how hard you work at it!
September 8th, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, was an important day for me in religious life. Not only was it the day that I had entered religious life, but it also became my personal feast day. Sisters discerned their feast days and I chose this one.
Reflecting on my time in religious life, I am struck by how Mary was interceding for me. I underwent a LOT of trials in the couple of years and especially the couple of months before entering religious life as well as during my time as a postulant and novice. WOW! I could focus on the cross or I could focus on how Jesus revealed His love for me more intimately during times of difficulty and how Mary became more of a mother to me.
When not “feelin’ much love” from one sister in particular whom I looked to for guidance and at times fearing that God would not love me in my many imperfections & weaknesses, Mother Mary at times gently stepped in to console me of God’s love for me, to remind me of the importance of prayer, and to stir into flame a desire more for motherhood, spiritual as well as perhaps physical. It was on two different Marian feast days that I had such a painful desire to have children. At the time I thought I was being asked to sacrifice this but now that I am no longer in religious life, perhaps my heart was really being prepared for something else: time will tell on that one! What I will speak to now is spiritual motherhood. This call grew in my heart while in religious life. I didn’t realize then that this is something all women are called to, not just religious sisters.
There is a quote about spiritual motherhood that I came across much later after leaving religious life. It’s from a book titled Discovering the Feminine Genius: Every Woman’s Journey by Katrina Zeno. The quote goes like this: “Spiritual motherhood…means nurturing the emotional, moral, cultural, and spiritual life in others. All women are called to give birth-physically and/or spiritually. All women are called to be Christ-bearers, to receive divine life in the womb of their souls and bear Christ to the world. All women are called to see in Mary’s spiritual motherhood a reflection of their own lives. If all women embraced the call to spiritual motherhood they would ignite a nuclear reaction that would spread the culture of life through the whole world. The feminine genius would set the world on fire!”
I felt the need to “just be” more after religious life and not get too involved with things. Slowly though through various life circumstances & even misunderstandings, I’ve found myself in different roles and involved in ministries where this call to spiritual motherhood could be further developed & lived out more. Keeping in mind that God could always re-open the door, I’ve shut the door to religious life and feel that I am in a sense “waiting”, perhaps waiting for my future spouse (while God is also still my Spouse!) while living life and allowing my heart to continue to heal & grow more. “God only knows” if one day I will give birth physically to children, but I have given birth to Mary more in my heart and she has helped me to give birth more to Christ in my own life & in the lives of others. This is all still very much a work in progress though!
There have been times when I’ve wondered if being in religious life for almost three years had any purpose. This may especially be true when I look back through the lens of all the personal sufferings I’ve experienced! However, I need to trust that a greater good came from suffering and that my time there bore fruit. Besides learning how to boil water and growing more in prayer, there was something that happened on my last day when taking a walk with the sisters in my “class” a couple of hours before leaving that struck me. Never had we seen anything like this before, but as we were walking (and it was a short walk in a residential area near the convent), we saw a set of little twins. We then walked a little further and saw another set of young twins. Near the end of our short walk, we came across three kids with their parents and one of my sisters stated that we should ask if two of them were twins. As it turns out, they were triplets! priest I shared this story with later seemed to think that this was God’s way of showing me that my time in religious life was not wasted. It gave life to others.
May we each give birth to Mary more in our hearts and ask for her intercession to help us carry Christ more & more inside of us and to bear Him to the world.
By Lucia Delgado
One of my favorite saints, St. Augustine of Hippo, said this: “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”
In my discernment process of becoming a Franciscan sister, I thought I was patient. However, as one friend would put it, I was “eloping.” My impatience was fueled by others who thought they knew I was meant to be a sister. I entered discernment with the thought of impressing others. I said to myself: Wouldn’t it be nice to be in a habit and change the West Coast? And influence others to go back to Church and promote a culture of life?
But I was fleeing from the marriage vocation.
Yes, I was running away. I thought would it be nice to be closer to Jesus in the convent. The atmosphere at the convent and retreat house was peaceful and beautiful. But my trembling soul was called to another vocation.
I kept in touch with the sisters after my abrupt departure last summer. They thought I was called to religious life. There were signs of a vocation but to different lifestyle.
Now, I am discerning the call to marriage; I feared that my relationship with Jesus would go sour if I took this route.
It was quite the opposite.
I am closer to the Lord and I get to share my love for Him with my Catholic boyfriend. I go to Bible studies at a nearby parish; I am able to sing in the choir and cantor the responsorial Psalms.
I will say that my discernment was a blessing. The experiences with the sisters made me a wiser Catholic: By singing in the choir, working in the retreat gift shop, and sharing knowledge with the sisters during community catechesis, I learned how to be courageous in sharing my Catholic faith in the world.
I am asking God for patience and wisdom during this next phase in my life. Remember that your experiences in the convent are not wasted but those experiences are full of pearls of wisdom.