In traveling around the United States fairly intensively for the past dozen years and participating in events for Catholic churches, dioceses, colleges or universities, I have been surprised at and interested in the responses generated if I mention that I did think about being a priest or a religious, for a little while, growing up, and that I went away to something like "seminary camp" around 1980.
This "camp" was hosted by the Precious Blood community, who had a sizeable seminary not far from where I grew up in the state of Missouri. Discussing this frequently elicits memories from guys my age who let themselves wonder about "a vocation" (as we used to say, and as some still do say) and participated in events in the 1970s or '80s, in the time when the "spirit of Vatican II" was still more or less a governing spirit, and efforts were being made to inspire boys into "a vocation" in that spirit. I have discovered that there are a lot of men out there who are now in their 30s and 40s, who participated in the experiment of some of these recruiting efforts.
And it makes me wonder: where are they all now, all those guys who did not go into religious life or the priesthood, and do they make any conscious (or unconscious) connections now between those discernment weekends/weeks/camps and their adult life and work? (I focus on men here due to the particularity of this story.) I have never seen any studies about this, but it might prove an interesting way to get a "Catholic" conversation started amidst men who may or may not still be involved in church life.
I have some vivid memories of that time: the Precious Blood brothers and fathers had us follow a schedule of classes that included, as I recall, theology and French lessons. There was daily chapel time, presided over by a figure I've come to know and respect in religious life (although may now be retreating from the horizon?), the manly crucifix-wearing drill sergeant, who bellowed at us to sing louder than him so that he would not be able to hear how out of tune he was, and who threatened us, in language unprintable for this blog, in order to stop the typical late-night dorm hijinks. This kind of leadership was endearing, and had a certain "masculine" appeal to me and my friends (and which we remember fondly), but I also had the feeling that being in seminary was like a particular kind of male fraternity whose inner dynamic I simply couldn't understand. There was a well-liked cook among the religious who earned the admiration of many of us, and I remember my friend G summing up the experience in the car ride home: "The food was ultimately superior!"
When I think back now, I am struck by how comparatively young all the religious on the seminary staff seemed, compared to what one might find today. And of course I am struck that I remember the experience at all, and further that the contemplation of religious life or priesthood, and the subsequent moving on to other things, is a through-line that joins a generation of boys during whose lifetimes religious life and priesthood became pretty strongly redefined. I can see more clearly now that we were being invited to join in a venture whose vision was one of hope but whose outlines were even then being deeply rethought in ways we could not have understood.
This was in an era when I remember hearing many homilies on "vocations," and even a few taped messages from the local bishop played on a tape recorder in place of homilies at my church, St. Mark's, in Independence, Missouri, urging us to discernment. That said, there seemed to be a nearly total absence of social expectation that religious life or priesthood was something that normal people might choose. Many worlds were dying, and a few new ones were being born.
But obviously something about those vocational possibilities remains with me, and with many others who have not forgotten those vocation talks and retreats -- however much they now also seem to belong to a time of a certain willful and culpable wishfulness, when Catholicism in the United States had not yet so publicly revealed the myriad harms of abuse internally and externally.
Where now are all those boys who "discerned" for a while in the two decades after the Council? What remains of that discernment, and what do they make of the church and the faith, now, that sponsored it? Perhaps a study someday will be in order, if one does not already exist.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York