It’s great to encourage young men and women to go away to a religious community or seminary to discern their vocations. And it’s equally important to receive them well when they hear God’s call to return!
It may not seem obvious, but giving a returning discerner a warm welcome is a simple way to encourage vocations. The reality is that a large percentage of men and women who leave to discern a vocation will come back - and this is not only “OK”, it is great! God may call someone to the seminary or religious life for a time in order to give him the opportunity for a top-notch Catholic formation and experience that he wouldn’t get elsewhere, and this will have a strong positive influence on the rest of his life! What a tremendous asset returning discerners can be for the Church!
To help understand how to respond to a returning discerner, let’s consider the perspective of Cassandra. She wanted to give her life to God, and after a diligent discernment, she and the Sisters of the Holy Apostolate determined that God was calling her to discern with them. She joined them as a candidate, then stayed on for a year of postulancy and two years of novitiate. She even professed temporary vows, and lived as Sister Caritas for two years, giving a total of five years of her life to God in discernment.
During this time, Sister was sure God wanted her to continue formation with the community - but she never had the complete peace that convinced her that she was called to commit herself perpetually to the religious life. Her attraction to having a family deepened, and eventually, in spiritual direction and with the assent of her superiors, she determined that God was calling her back into the world to discern marriage.
Cassandra has returned home after these five years, ready to do whatever God wanted her to do. However, she now finds herself in a difficult position. She is used to the convent life of prayer, study and work, but this is radically different from what she must do in the secular world. She has some college education (the Sisters sent her to college during her two years of temporary profession), but she must find out quickly what she will do to support herself, whether and where to continue her education, where she will live, and a myriad of other considerations. And this isn’t even the difficult part. Having left the close support of the community, she has to suddenly re-adapt to life on her own. Her spirituality, daily activities, everything, are changed drastically in an instant. This can be very difficult to cope with.
So what could you do to help Cassandra (or any man or woman in this situation)? Most importantly, realize that Cassandra needs both support and space, and this can be a delicate balance. Whatever you do, you will need to use the best of your prudence and judgement to help her reintegrate into the secular world. (Keep in mind that every situation is different, so it is imperative that one never jumps to conclusions!) Here are a few general tips as a guide:
Keep your expectations real. Before and during seminary or religious formation, don’t assume the outcome. These are God’s plans, not ours, and for many men and women, His plan is for them to get some great seminary or religious formation and then return to the secular world to put it to good use there.
Don’t ask “what happened.” It could be a painful subject, or it could be a totally mundane reason. Either way, if she wants to share with you the reason for leaving, it will happen when the time is right.
Be genial and kind. While it’s good to avoid going overboard (which could be taken as condescension) a little extra kindness may help make a warm welcome while she transitions back into secular and and parish life. Depending on the length of time away discerning, this may be more or less difficult. An extra smile won’t hurt.
Help her feel needed. Everyone needs to be given an opportunity to participate in parish activities and service, and maybe especially someone who has tried to do this in a more radical way, but ultimately was not called to. Don’t be pushy, but if there is an opportunity to ask for her assistance, or whether she’ll be coming to an event, take it. This could be especially appropriate and beneficial if the formation she received could be helpful in a specific way (e.g. helping teach religious ed.)
Job openings. Depending on the situation, if you can help connect this person with employment, this may be very helpful.
Gratitude. A sincere “thanks” for making the effort and sacrificing part of her life to discover God’s will can go a long way to helping her feel supported.
The key to all of this is balance! Be friendly and supportive without being nosy, pushy or condescending. Not only will you be helping a specific returning discerner, you will be helping other young men and women discern, knowing that they will receive a warm welcome should God call them to return rather than stay!
Thank you for helping promote vocations in the Diocese of Ogdensburg! Your work and prayers are greatly appreciated. ________
If you know a young man who is interested in the priesthood, please encourage him to contact us. Likewise, if you are aware of a young woman or man who is discerning religious life, please send them our way. We'll help connect them with respective religious communities. And of course, let us keep praying for each other and for all holy vocations in the Church.