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Simcha FisherJune 26, 2020

Joe Heschmeyer was once so sure of his vocation to the priesthood that he forgot he was supposed to be discerning it.

Everyone around him thought he should be a priest. His mother, he discovered later, had offered him to the Lord as an infant the way Hannah did in the Old Testament. Mr. Heschmeyer wrote about his vocation frequently on his blog Shameless Popery, speaking of his ordination as if it were inevitable. Things were going so well, he lost track of the idea that he was in seminary to test and explore his vocation.

“Pretty soon after I entered [in 2011], I stopped asking God if this was what he wanted. I felt like the question had already been answered. My grades were good; I was well esteemed; everything internal to the seminary felt successful. That felt like enough validation. I forgot to ask, ‘Are we still on the same page?’” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

It was not until friends and family had already bought airplane tickets and reserved hotel rooms for his ordination to the diaconate that he began to feel some doubt. He tried to assign his misgivings to “last-minute jitters,” but a black cloud of unease hung over his head.

He described riding on a bus on the way back from a retreat.

“The archbishop has an open seat next to him. A sort of rotating spot, where you can share whatever's on your heart. It’s usually pretty short, out of respect—a 10-minute thing. I was there for half an hour, pouring out all these difficulties,” he said. The archbishop immediately reassured him that if he had any doubts, he should take more time before making a final commitment.

“It was a tremendous load that had been lifted off my shoulders. It was an illuminating and painful experience. I realized I was happy I wasn’t getting ordained. It wasn’t what I wanted to feel, or expected to feel,” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

He decided to take time off and then consider rejoining—a plan which, according to the Rev. Matt Mason, the vocations director for the diocese of Manchester, N.H., is not uncommon. But nine days into a 10-day retreat, Heschmeyer knew for sure he was not meant to be a priest after all.

Leaving the seminary or religious life can feel like freedom followed by disorientation, or like rejection followed by clarity. For many, the experience eventually bears fruits of self-knowledge and a more profound relationship with God. But first comes suffering.

For many, the experience eventually bears fruits of self-knowledge and a more profound relationship with God. But first comes suffering.

“Discerning out” is a widely and wildly misunderstood process, and many Catholics see it as a sign of failure, rather than what it is: a way to answer God's call to some other vocation. According to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, about 74 percent of the seminarians in the class of 2019 completed four years of college seminary, which means that 179 of the 695 men who began advanced theology study in 2015 did not continue their studies. According to Father Mason, most people who leave the seminary do so after two or three years. “Being in seminary is not the equivalent of being married to the church,” said Father Mason.” Leaving the seminary might be considered like a divorce, but you’re not really in that kind of relationship yet. It’s more akin to a dating relationship.”

And it is a relationship that either party is free to break off, he said.

Men training to be diocesan priests typically spend six to eight years in the seminary (then spend a “pastoral year” working in a parish as a deacon) before ordination, and women usually spend five to seven years (with some exceptions) living in a religious community before their final profession of vows. It is meant to be a time of formation and discernment, a time to learn about the life they may take on permanently, and, with spiritual guidance, to decide whether God wants them to stay for good or is calling them to something else instead.

Mr. Heschmeyer was embarrassed as he faced telling his family, friends and blog readers he was leaving seminary. “It probably looked like I was having a crisis of faith, even though it was doing what it seemed like what God was calling me to do. I was taking a step in faith that would not look like a step in faith. It would look like the opposite,” he said.

A Time of Transition

For Magdalene Visaggio, leaving the seminary was the first step to an even bigger transition. As a seminarian she identified as male; several years and difficult choices later, she now identifies as female. Ms. Visaggio, now a comic book writer with a television show that aired on the SyFy Channel in 2020, once fully intended to become a priest, or at least to find out if she should. Her time in the seminary was short; but leaving did not happen for lack of trying.

“I get people who act like I ditched the church as soon as it got hard. That’s not true. I did the work. I tried to stay. I couldn’t,” Ms. Visaggio said.

Her time in the seminary was short; but leaving did not happen for lack of trying.

She was speaking of her ultimate decision to leave the faith, but many men and women use similar words as they speak about their decision to leave religious life. It was agony to decide to leave; it brought both shame and relief; they were met with both support and condemnation; and even when they knew it was clearly the right thing to do, it wasn't clear what to do next.

“The last time I went to Mass was Easter 2017. The next day, Monday, I was walking home from work. It was a bright, shining day. I sat on the steps of Good Shepherd in Inwood [Manhattan] and had a breakup talk with God,” Ms. Visaggio said.

For Ms. Visaggio, joining the seminary was an attempt to be decisive after years of drifting. She had converted to Catholicism as a teenager. A self-described “autodidact” who was heavily involved in lay ministry when she still identified as male, Ms. Visaggio said more and more people suggested she explore the seminary. After 10 years of vacillating, Ms. Visaggio took the plunge.

Her semester-and-a-half at the seminary “started off very positive and increasingly slid into misery,” she said.

“The instruction [we] received was excellent. The liturgical life was robust. I loved doing the [Liturgy of the] Hours. I loved the morning and evening Masses. I loved Night Prayer and some of the sacraments. I loved adoration,” Ms. Visaggio said. But she was mercilessly bullied and felt intensely out of place, socially and spiritually. This sense of not belonging highlighted her growing need to grapple with her identity, and she knew she could not do that at the seminary.

One bright spot: The rector made it clear, early and often, that leaving was not failure. Seminary was something to try on, a time to discern; and many men did leave.

“There was never any shame or judgment in it,” Ms. Visaggio said.

When the Decision Is Not Yours

That is the ideal. But, just as in dating, when only one party wants to break things off, the process may be painful even when it is appropriate.

Jessica Packard, who now runs the group and youth programs at the Kansas City Zoo, was given no choice about her future when she was a novice. “Basically they sat me down and kicked me out. It was very much like a breakup, ‘it’s not us, it’s you’ conversation. I was completely blindsided,” she said.

Ms. Packard now sees that she did not belong with the order, and that she had probably joined them for the wrong reasons.

Ms. Packard now sees that she did not belong with the order, and that she had probably joined them for the wrong reasons. The oldest of seven children, she had spent her first year of college drinking and partying, and burned out spectacularly. She thinks her urge to join a convent was partially an overcorrection for her excesses and partially a desperate attempt to avoid responsibility.

Her impression of religious life was that “once you join, you're good for life. You’re given your work assignments. Just whether to wear a long-sleeved or a short-sleeved shirt was your biggest decision. In the end, I think I was running away from decision making,” Ms. Packard said.

At the start, her decision to join seemed pre-ordained. She kept noticing little connections to the order's founder in her daily life; they started to feel like irrefutable signs from God. Shortly before she sold her car and gave away her clothes, she texted the vocations director and joked that she felt like the founder was stalking her.

“I'll make this one big decision, and be done,” she told herself.

She lasted 61 days.

She loved many aspects of life in the convent, but frequently clashed with her superiors and questioned the written and unwritten rules of convent life. Unwilling to admit to herself how wretched she felt, Ms. Packard was shocked when sisters in leadership in her community told her she must leave. During rosary, they asked her to step into the laundry room, where important meetings happened, and told her their decision. She was not allowed to say goodbye to her friends. One of the sisters brought her a cup of soup to eat alone.

“That was at 5 pm. They said, ‘We're gonna wake you up at 6:00 and drive you to the airport,’” she said.

While Ms. Packard abhors the way the convent managed her departure, she believes they thought they were doing their best to avoid a scene. “I think they thought they were handling it well,” she said. “The church is holy, but it is made up of human beings, and so are religious orders.” This practice of abruptly escorting women out in secret is falling out of favor, but continues in some communities.

It was once common in seminaries, too, but many vocation directors now try to put more emphasis on freedom and transparency. “In previous times, it might have been the case that a man would disappear in the middle of the night, but today we’re very open about ‘this person has decided to leave; we wish them well, we keep them in prayer,’” Father Mason said.

“I'll make this one big decision, and be done,” she told herself.

Ms. Packard said she doesn’t regret her time at the convent, although she still harbors a grudge against the founder. “I kind of think of [my experience in religious life] like a really long retreat. I fell into praying, ‘Thy will be done.’ That’s been my mantra ever since. When I can’t think of words to pray, I still just pray, ‘Thy will be done,’” she said.

Ms. Packard’s transition back into secular life was painful. She made her way back to college and joined a sorority, which summarily kicked her out after three semesters.

“I’m just not meant to be around large groups of women,” she laughed.

Ms. Packard now sees herself as a kind of ambassador to other Catholics who do not fit into a mold of piety and decorum. “I don’t introduce myself, ‘Hi, I’m Jess. I got kicked out of a convent,’” she said. But she is willing to share her experience, especially with young people in discernment. Some of the girls who heard her testimony have joined convents themselves, and she is proud of that.

In Search of Support

A difficult transition to secular life is common for women who leave religious life, especially if they left the convent involuntarily and abruptly. “That experience of intense formation does leave a mark,” said Penny Renner, who manages the blog for Leonie’s Longing, a small but international organization founded to support people who have left religious life.

Ms. Renner, who herself left the convent at age 24, said that many women emerge with a wounded spiritual life. “The vocation of the religious is to be the spouse of Christ. It goes right to the core of the feminine nature. Women come to us wondering if they've failed God, or if God has rejected them. They ask, ‘Why did God call me to this and then send me away?’” Ms. Renner said.

They ask, ‘Why did God call me to this and then send me away?’”

The organization promotes the idea that women who leave the convent have not been rejected by God. It also offers more tangible help, including job training and financial guidance. A woman who has been in a convent for many years may not even know how to buy herself a phone when she comes out, Ms. Renner said.

“The problem with giving up everything [to join] is that you have to start with nothing [when you leave]. Our job is to help them expand their network,” Ms. Renner said. Vocations offices are oriented toward people who are entering, but there often is no formal program to accompany them if they leave, she added. “There's a slowly growing awareness that this is an area of need,” she said.

Leonie’s Longing mainly helps women, although it is open to supporting men. There does not appear to be a comparable organization focusing on ex-seminarians. Father Mason said that as vocations director, he makes an effort to follow up with men who have left and to stay in touch, if that is what they want.

“We’re not gonna just drop them and say ‘good luck,’” he said.

He also sees it as part of his mission to educate a seminarian’s fellow Catholics about what it means to discern a vocation, so there is less judgment and more support when someone leaves.

But it is hard to explain to someone who has never been in a seminary or a novitiate what it feels like to be out.

Ms. Renner said that men and women may both feel adrift after leaving, but in her experience, men seem more likely to manage their loss as a problem to be solved, whereas women perceive it as a judgment on themselves. They frequently withdraw for a time, especially if they had been cloistered. Many women become depressed, making it harder to build a new life.

It is hard to explain to someone who has never been in a seminary or a novitiate what it feels like to be out.

Leonie’s Longing helps connect women with mental health care, and if necessary, with local charities and a career counsellor. The women it serves sought out the organization because they struggle with re-entry into secular life. But some transitions are more streamlined.

Carrie Chuff, who was cloistered for five years, was, like Ms. Packard, without clothes, possessions or job prospects when she left the convent. They returned the $500 dowry she gave them when she entered and added another $500 to help her get on her feet; but she felt hopelessly behind her peers when she emerged. But while Ms. Chuff, like Ms. Packard, was hustled out in secrecy, Ms. Chuff's departure was very much her choice, and leaving felt like liberty, not rejection.

“I felt so free. We were driving...the sun was coming up, and I wanted to get out [of town] before the sunrise. It was like a golden sky, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I felt so free and at peace. It was glorious. It was a gift from God,” Ms. Chuff said.

She was 18 when she joined her religious order. Although she had some fears, she felt drawn to make her life a gift to God. “I wanted to offer my life as a sacrifice for the conversion of sinners. I wanted to be completely at God’s disposal. I truly fell in love with God in seventh grade, and wanted to give my life back to him. The best way to do that, maybe the only way to do that, was to become a religious,” Chuff remembers thinking.

But, astonishingly, no one had warned her that the sisters in the community she joined keep silence except on feast days. She was prepared for a life of obedience and rigor, but not for the misery that increasingly swallowed her.

She tried to adapt, thinking it was God’s will. “I tried to make myself very malleable. Looking back, things weren’t as they should have been. Maybe I was a bit too malleable,” Ms. Chuff said.

She was prepared for a life of obedience and rigor, but not for the misery that increasingly swallowed her.

She realized in the first year that she did not belong, but ignored red flags, pushing herself to keep changing, to “become more holy,” she said. “I was very afraid of letting people down. Letting my family parish down, afraid of what people would think. That fear made me stay a lot longer than I would have otherwise,” Ms. Chuff said.

Her superiors came to depend on the smart and competent novice, and made unusually generous accommodations for her, hoping that her doubts were a temptation.

“They were open to helping me, but it was more like helping me stay, as opposed to helping me discern whether I had an authentic religious vocation to begin with,” Ms. Chuff said.

Ms. Chuff’s depression finally became unbearable. Emaciated, quaking with fear, she told the mother superior she wanted to go home. She called her mother and was spirited out with no chance to say goodbye.

One of the sisters, sensing what was happening, pulled her into the hallway and demanded to know if she was leaving. Ms. Chuff admitted that she was. “She gave me a big hug and said, ‘You have the courage to do what I never did.’ That broke my heart. I will always remember that,” Ms. Chuff said.

Ms. Chuff is now happily married, with six children, and is friends with some of the other women who left the same convent. Despite the pain of those five years, Ms. Chuff does not think her time in the convent was wasted.

The order hosted regular retreats for the laity, and she quietly absorbed not only spiritual insights, but lessons about married and family life. “I know God worked through that. I don't ever feel like I’m a failure. I’m grateful for my time there. It shaped me into who I am,” Ms. Chuff said.

Despite the pain of those five years, Ms. Chuff does not think her time in the convent was wasted.

For Mr. Heschmeyer, too, the formation he got in seminary was invaluable, even though it took him in an unexpected direction. “It’s O.K. if continuing to follow God's voice doesn’t mean you end up where you think you’re going to end up. He needs saints more than he needs priests,” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

Father Mason, too, said that vocations do not simply consist of one decision or one moment in time. “God never stops calling us, even within our vocations,” Father Mason said.

A Calling Within a Calling

The direction of that calling can be surprising.

“I had to move back into my parents’ house. It wasn’t where I expected to be at age 30,” Mr. Heschmeyer said. He quickly accepted a job with School of Faith, where his career allows him to evangelize like a priest, without the headaches of administrative duties.

And immediately after he left the seminary, he flew to Phoenix to pay a surprise visit to a female friend with whom he had cut off contact when he was trying to discern the priesthood. When he turned up at her door asking to date, she did not even know he had left the seminary.

“There were a lot of surprises rolled into one, there,” Mr. Heschmeyer said. “Fortunately, she said yes, or it could have been an extremely awkward trip.” The two dated for three months and then married. They now have a child.

He knows that his relationship raised some eyebrows, and some people might suspect he left the seminary for a woman. That is not so, Mr. Heschmeyer said. “It wasn't like if Anna said no, I was gonna go back in [to the seminary]. It was that I think I’m called to be married, and if that’s true, I know whose door to knock on,” he said.

Mr. Heschmeyer, like Ms. Chuff, said the things he learned while discerning religious life ended up helping him in his married life. Mr. Heschmeyer said his wife calls seminary “charm school for men,” where he learned etiquette and tact, and also gained some psychological maturity.

Mr. Heschmeyer said the things he learned while discerning religious life ended up helping him in his married life.

“I learned about taking the emotional life seriously. You have to go into those scary, uncomfortable places and be fully human, and not be a head on stilts. Seminary made me confront it and treat it in an adult way,” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

That process of self-scrutiny begins before a man even enters the seminary. The application process takes many months, and not everyone is invited to apply. “We don’t just accept people out of the blue,” said Father Mason. His diocese is usually familiar with a candidate long before he applies, he said; and the application process itself is long and intense.

For religious orders, such as the Jesuits, the application process is even more gruelling.

Philip Florio, S.J., vocations director for the Jesuits’ two East Coast provinces, said that men submit to a many-layered, sometimes yearlong assessment before they are even invited to apply. They work with a spiritual director, vocations director and vocations mentor. They pray with a community, go on retreats and clean toilets.

Six months in, a would-be seminarian writes a 12- to 15-page spiritual autobiography and undergoes a five-hour interview to review family and personal history, personal, spiritual and psychosexual development, the prospect's relationship with the church and his understanding of the priesthood. Then begins the four-month formal application process, culminating in interviews with three Jesuits and a lay female colleague.

“We insist it be a woman because 50 percent of the church is female. If you can’t talk to a woman, we’re not interested,” Father Florio said.

Even if a candidate is accepted and enters, nothing is conclusive. “Guys still get in and leave,” Father Florio said. Their freedom to do so is paramount.

“The Holy Spirit works in freedom, and we honor that freedom.”

“The Holy Spirit works in freedom, and we honor that freedom,” he said.

The order hopes that if men leave it will be on friendly terms, with greater clarity about their own lives.

Magdalene Visaggio experienced such clarity when she left her seminary. Although she eventually came to reject the way the church evaluates moral acts, she said the time she spent in seminary was ultimately psychologically clarifying.

“I think I needed to go through that process to force me to really take seriously, for the first time, the s**t going on in my head. Even though I made some bad decisions after I left, I at least made decisions. I was living with my future ex-wife less than a year after leaving. I would start grad school and get married within two and a half years. These were all huge mistakes, but it is huge that I was able to make them,” Ms. Visaggio said.

Ms. Visaggio particularly remembers the care one priest offered her after she came out as trans. “He just let me talk about it, and asked how I was feeling. He didn’t start from a position of criticism, but of pastoral care. I’m still in touch with him. A marvelous man,” she said.

Leonie’s Longing was founded precisely to offer this uncritical listening ear, and many women contact the group simply to express gratitude that such a community exists. “They say, ‘This is the first time I’ve felt understood,’” Ms. Renner said.

“For me, the most healing thing about being part of a community [is that] I can see they are generous, gifted, lovely women,” Ms. Renner said. “I can look at them and I can’t think, ‘These are the women God has rejected.’ And if I can’t think that about them, then I can’t think it about myself either.”

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