It was December 24th, 2019, and I was on my way to Rochester, Minnesota to serve at the Christmas Vigil Mass at our co-Cathedral for my Bishop, John Quinn. I showed up early to get things set up, but I was distracted like a teenage boy trying to clean his room. My mind and heart were still mulling over the canonical diaconate retreat that I had just finished. I knew deep down something was unsettled. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was terrified of the possibility of what my experience of that retreat meant for my vocation. “I want to be a priest!” I thought. “And I really don’t want to start my life over… again…” I needed to talk to somebody, but that somebody couldn’t be the Bishop… not yet.
I had been in the seminary for eight years! I had left a music career, a girl, an avid outdoor lifestyle, and my family to do what I believed God was calling me to do. I was convinced that I would be serving as a priest in the diocese of Winona-Rochester for the rest of my life. Things were going well; I loved philosophy and theology, and I loved the people of my diocese dearly. I felt comfortable and confident in my call to celibacy, and though I longed for the lifelong companionship of a woman, like any normal man does, I was willing to sacrifice that for the sake of the Kingdom.
I was in this together with the men I was studying with, who had become my best friends and brothers, and the thought of leaving them on the front lines was unbearable.
Something Was Off…
Yet, something was off… this retreat felt different. By that point, I had completed eleven retreats: two lasting five days, eight lasting eight days, and one that lasted thirty days. felt that I knew enough about the real encounters with God and the evil one to know that this was something unique. It felt horrible, yet necessary.
I reached out to some close priest-friends, (as well as my mom, whose counsel to me had always been blessed) and began the process of unpacking what happened. In the meantime, I continued my hobby of making leather breviary and Bible covers, I received approval from the seminary faculty to be ordained as a transitional deacon, and… well, the world shut down and we were all evacuated from the seminary and sent home due to COVID-19.
That was a blessing in disguise. Being sent home gave me the time and space to really process what was going on in my heart. What happened? Where did I go wrong? And what was God trying to show me?
I Wasn’t Thriving In Seminary
I soon realized that the retreat had revealed to me that I wasn’t thriving in the seminary. I was dying, in a sense. And not the good kind of dying – dying to self – but the bad kind of dying: forgetting my identity. Oddly enough, even though I loved the life, something deep within me was shriveling up like a raisin. Insomnia was normal, and peace was something I assumed I would just never have, because it never seemed to come. But my life and ministry were bearing fruit for others, and that’s what kept me going.
I had a realization one day that maybe I needed my life and ministry to be fruitful for me too. This was a new thought. Upon honest reflection, I truly didn’t believe that that was possible within the priesthood. But after eight years, I couldn’t also believe that my “calling” had just been a lie or a dangling carrot, the whole time. I had to accept the possibility that God could actually do more with me outside of Holy Orders, but that he needed me to go through seminary formation to receive what I needed in order to serve him for my whole life. This was extremely liberating.
After about eight months of prayer, deliberation, and counsel (as well as a life-changing month with the JPII Healing Center) I decided that it would be best for me to step away from seminary formation for an “indeterminate” amount of time. I remember the tears welling up in my vocation director’s eyes when I told him. Leaving the diocese was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In August of 2020, I officially discontinued.
I had seen enough men leave seminary to know that there is a time of deep spiritual vulnerability immediately following this decision. I had seen men end up in relationships that devastated them, or turn to alcohol and secular living. I had seen men suffer deeply with depression and anxiety, or worse, after leaving, and there were even some who were very close to me who lost their faith completely.
I also knew men who had been attacked by mobs of single Catholic women after they left and barely made it out alive! (Slight exaggeration). I knew things were going to be rocky, probably for a while.
The one thing that I wish I knew when I left seminary is this: it’s not the wrong step, it’s the next step.
Leaving Seminary: It’s Not The Wrong Step, It’s The Next Step
When it comes to vocation, God doesn’t put us in a maze and punish us if we make a wrong turn. It can certainly feel like that when we’re discerning, simply because when we are considering consecrated life, we are learning how to operate within a specific rule of life, and that rule, just like anything that leads to freedom, has boundaries. Breaching those boundaries feels, to our worldly minds, punishable. It can feel like a maze, just like training for a new job does. When we leave formation, most people simply can’t sustain that rule of life. And therefore, a spiritual identity crisis occurs.
The reality is that discerning a vocation is not a maze at all. It’s not a puzzle to figure out. It’s not a rule of life, it’s life, and complicated to say the least. And it’s a relationship with God where there are two free wills at work that are trying to synchronize. This is not easy. Anyone with children knows this!
When I left the seminary, I found a great spiritual director right away because I knew the next few months, maybe years, were going to be crucial. And they were. God soon revealed to me, through Father Matt, that leaving wasn’t the wrong step, it was the next step. God wanted me in seminary when I was in seminary, and He wanted me out when I was out. In other words, God wanted me exactly where I was. In other words, God wanted me! God cares more about how we are than what we do. The wrong step mentality is for a god who cares more about what you do than how and who you are. But that is not our God.
The temptation when leaving formation is to say, “well, that’s over, I guess.” But that’s the wrong step mentality. If you went to seminary, or joined and left religious life, then every second that you were there, God was forming and preparing you for endless relationship with him. We must look at all of this with the eyes of faith; God’s mission is to get us to heaven alongside as many people as possible, and heaven is union with him.
God is not ashamed of us for leaving formation. But God is saddened when we regret our time information as if it was a mistake or a useless waste of time; it was time that He gave us to be close to Him. It was a gift, and it always will be a gift.
For me, the wrong step mentality would mean that I wasted my twenties, chucked my music career down the drain, and got a degree that’s only useful if I work for the Church or become a lawyer.
The next step mentality takes that same exact situation and looks at it like this: I was given eight years to focus on personal holiness, virtue, divine intimacy, authentic virtuous friendship, healthy, chaste sexuality, and administrative skills. I received a great education, a degree, and hundreds of friends and acquaintances whose lives are dedicated to truth and love in Jesus Christ. Just because I left formation, doesn’t mean God isn’t still asking me to give everything to Him.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that if God wants us to become priests or sisters or married men and women (married to women and men, respectively), He invites us and accompanies us. He doesn’t command us because, like a good parent, God knows that we must freely choose. Discernment too easily becomes, rather than an invitation, a test, where there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, and if you pick the wrong one… well, then you’re screwed.
If you have decided to leave formation, God wants you to look at it, not as the wrong step, but as the next step, because his love for you has not changed at all.
For many, that next step will eventually lead them back into the formation they stepped away from. For others, like myself, that next step will lead to something completely new. For me, it led me to my wife, whom I thank God for every day, to the founding of OréMoose Catholic Leatherwork and Enemy Love Records, our Catholic music initiative, and to full time evangelization with the Archdiocese of Brisbane in Australia.
Remain Open To Mission, Formation, And Vocation
No matter what happens, a person’s authentic openness to mission, to formation, and to vocation will bear fruit. We must first try our best to follow God and be humble and submissive to the truth that is Jesus Christ, but we also must live in the faith-reality that God is constantly at work, even when it feels like we’ve left the path.
When I finally got around to meeting with my Bishop, he told me to “carve my own swath”, which at first, I had no idea what that meant! But as the conversation unfolded, he told me that I need to take some time to see where God was leading me, but that my path was not ending here, but was, in a sense, just beginning.
If you’re discerning, or if you feel like you’ve discerned, just remember that God wants to be with you and accompany you always. He never wants that to end. If you’ve left seminary or formation, you’re still called to give everything. God’s love has not changed, only your surroundings have. So, keep on going!