WHEN YOU LEAVE RELIGIOUS LIFE, WHAT THEN?
ACCOMPANYING PERSONS IN THE PROCESS OF DISCONTINUATION FROM RELIGIOUS FORMATION
Sr. Chinyeaka C. Ezeani, MSHR
Chinyeaka C. Ezeani, a Missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary, served as a formator in Nigeria for some time and was elected to serve on the Congregation’s leadership team. Chinyeaka thus lives currently in Dublin.
This article was published in Religious Life Review, Volume 55, Number 300, September/October 2016.
(Original in English)
Around the world, people have continued to seek admittance into seminaries and houses of religious formation. Usually, this is in response to what the individual has perceived as a call to embrace the priestly or Religious Life. Enthusiasm and proclamation of ideals about what religious vocation entails are often elements in the desire for this way of life. In recent years, in some parts of the world, the numbers seeking religious life have decreased considerably. As a result, greater investment and diverse kinds of creative endeavours have been launched with the aim of attracting and recruiting potential candidates. It appears a great deal has been written about the work of fostering and recruiting vocations, but I dare say, not enough seems to have been written about the accompaniment and preparation of persons for discontinuation during the course of the actual formation process. In other words, more discussion and reflection are needed on how to accompany persons humanely and creatively, who after they have entered formation, come to a point when indicators begin to surface as to the need to seek paths of the Christian journey other than the religious life or priesthood.
Normally, at the completion of the formation programme, beautiful liturgies and social celebrations are planned to ritualise and enjoy the day of profession of vows or ordination to the priesthood. The community, family of candidates, friends and well-wishers are brought together by this happy event. Nevertheless, it equally happens sometimes in the course of the formation programme that some candidates freely make a choice to discontinue. At other times, such decisions can come from the congregation through the formators who are directly involved with their personal accompaniment. The Gospel scene comes to mind of the young man who volunteered to follow Jesus wherever he went. Jesus, however wisely declined his offer: ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Lk 9: 57-58). There is equally no doubt that there is a struggle on the part of the ones ‘invited’ or ‘called’ as seen in the young man whom Jesus asked to follow him: ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’ ‘I will follow you, sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my people at home’ (Lk 9: 59; 61). A person who perceives a call to the religious life or the priesthood and is open to explore that, might discover or be helped along the way to see that it is not necessarily his or her calling. This can often be very difficult and emotionally taxing for all parties.
While this is a reality of the religious formation situation, it is nonetheless interesting that not much literature on this crucial aspect of religious formation seems readily available. Considering the importance of such a ‘pastoral issue’, it is uncertain how much attention seminary rectors, bishops, leaders of religious congregations and formators have accorded the issue of how persons leaving the seminary or houses of formation can be adequately prepared and accompanied to leave, living joyfully, and still continuing the practice of their faith. Arguably, the number of candidates who discontinue from a formation programme might appear generally smaller in comparison with the number who stay. Yet, the seemingly fewer numbers nonetheless, need to be well prepared and accompanied in every possible way in the often daunting process of readapting to the ‘world’ they had left behind to enter the seminary or convent. Since no one is an isolated entity, each one’s own unique journey of life has effects on the lives of numerous other people – family, friends, the Church and the wider society. The seminary or convent of which they had been part is not excluded from this network of interconnectedness.
The Focus of the Article
This article first points out the need for constant attentiveness to the Spirit in formation accompaniment and in the discernment process. It also explores possible reasons for persuading candidates to leave the formation programme and continue their Christian journey elsewhere. This can range from candidates in the initial stages of formation, to those who are already professed but still in temporary vows. It needs to be emphasised however, that because of the complexity of persons and situations, one can never grasp all the reasons. To help formation directors, attention will be paid to what they might expect when a person discontinues from their programme. Awareness of what to expect can be good anticipatory tactics to help them cope better. Finally, some strategies on how to accompany with sensitivity those in the process of leaving will be proposed. This no doubt cannot be exhaustive. They are simply indicators and suggestions. Formation directors will find out what might suit a particular individual and situation best, as each person is unique and identical to none.