What Became of All Those Boys Who Thought About Religious Life or Priesthood?

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.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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8 years 8 months ago
I thought about it for a while, as did my younger brother.  My first objection, which I no longer have, was that I did not want to be the repository of confessional secrets, not that I would spill them, but that I did not want to hear them.  Of course, I would not worry about that now and would consider it a priviledge.  The second objection was to celibacy for myself.  My family would say that my vocation really is as a husband and especially as a father and I think they are correct.  Currently, I object to celibacy as a whole, due to its historic antecedents in the belief in contenance, that sex somehow renders one impure for celebrating or even participating in the Eucharist.  This is an attitude that is anti-sexual and should be considered heresy - and the discipline of celibacy should likey be ended to reinforce this. My third objection - and the one that probably kept me out (as I am sure if I prayed to deal with the celibacy issues, they would be dealt with) was that I know that I would have spent my time in the priesthood seeking to become a bishop, cardinal, etc.  I had at least enough wisdom to know that this would not make me a very good Priest.  Sadly, there are many who actually went into the priesthood without such wisdom and we are currently suffering the effects of this as a Church.  Looking at my recent writings, I gather I would probably had problems with the promise of obedience, since I am too much of a free thinker to ever conform to some of the nonsense that comes out of the hierarchy. My hope is that the Church will abandon medievalism as an organizing principle, with the control of the money and property of the Church transferred to the laity and the clergy embracing poverty and abandoning celibacy.  Under such conditions, I might put myself forward as a permanent deacon parish administator or even a priest, provided that they removed the promise of later celibacy and ordained women as well.
I am likely not the only one with these views.
8 years 8 months ago
It's my understanding that Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Maryland does have summer programs for older teenage boys and young adult men in their early 20's to discern vocations to the priesthood. I agree with the posting by Michael Bindner, I, too, hope and pray that the Church will depart from its reliance on the medieval way of doing things and embrace an inclusive ministry where the whole People of God will have opportunities to discern the possibilities of serving God in ALL areas of Church ministry work.
8 years 8 months ago
It seems to me that Catholic colleges and universities could step in and provide this kind of opportunity to middle- and high-school aged young men.  For obvious reasons, a true "camp" arrangement would no longer fly, but there could easily be discussion groups, presentations, and interactive programs to give students a chance to spend a few days on campus with priests, religious, and theologians. This would do a lot to take away some of the more daunting aspects of exploring the vocation-especially if governed by a low-key, no sales-pressure philosophy.
8 years 8 months ago
[size= 7.5pt; color: black; font-family: "Verdana","sans-serif"; mso-fareast-font-family: 'Times New Roman']Tom,[/size]
[size= 7.5pt; color: black; font-family: "Verdana","sans-serif"; mso-fareast-font-family: 'Times New Roman']A thoughtful question and a good article! I'd love to know the answer to the question: where have all those men gone who once seriously considered the priesthood? My gut feeling is that the number one turn-off was celibacy.[/size]
[size= 7.5pt; color: black; font-family: "Verdana","sans-serif"; mso-fareast-font-family: 'Times New Roman']But to a lesser extent I believe that vocation directors and seminary faculties in the 1970's and 80's turned away many possible candidates because they weren't, in the minds of these folks, sufficiently in tune with "the spirit of Vatican II." Without trying to sound like a disgruntled traditionalist, I know for a fact that the imprecise, and open to whimsical interpretation, evaluation of someone as being "open to the spirit of Vatican II," was used by vocation directors and faculties to weed out conservatives and traditionalists, as well as to exact personal grudges, or used as a smokescreen issue for some other unstated reason. The group-think at institutions like that would have made it hard for any faculty member to challenge such an accusation by a colleague about another student. Of course, it was an easier decision to make back then when priest numbers were still high, and you were convinced that future "small Christian communities" would be led by ordained married men and women, but not in that order![/size]
[size= 7.5pt; color: black; font-family: "Verdana","sans-serif"; mso-fareast-font-family: 'Times New Roman']How many did the priesthood lose due to this? I don't know. Perhaps enough to set the declining numbers back two decades? Probably. I wonder if all those former VD's and faculty members who are now near-retirement-age pastors wish they had at least another priest to help carry the parish load? Are the results of the philosophical purity they sought back then worth it to them now?[/size]
[size= 7.5pt; color: black; font-family: "Verdana","sans-serif"; mso-fareast-font-family: 'Times New Roman']Now that the ideological pendulum has swung in the other direction I hope the current powers that be don't make the same superficial mistake when deciding on the suitability of a candidate. [/size]
8 years 8 months ago
Maybe the Church could abandon the "mediaeval" notions about celibacy and go back to the apostolic and patristic notions, which is where celibacy arose. .
Am I so wrong in hearing a Calvinistic undertone in "The people of God"? "We the elect". "We the self chosen".
8 years 8 months ago
Never went to camp. Did try a day away in high school. Entered Seminary after college and start of a career in 1976 ''just for a year to get it out of my system. Was ordained 1981. Surprise. Still at it. Still love the vocation.
8 years 7 months ago
The Medieval notion of church governance, with bishoprics as benefice, is quite different from the apostolic notions of church governance.  The word 'patristic" does seem to say it all as far as "Patriarchy" is concerned - with mysogynistic connotations retained.  Mysogyny is also responsible for the cramped sexuality which infects the western church, which also came about in the patristic era where Continence was taught in the West and condemned in the East.
I expect the Church will grow out of such notions as certain conervatives age out of leadership.


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