This is the height of the admissions season for most colleges and graduate schools. Just about all of the applications have been submitted, deadlines are past, and all that prospective students and their families can do is wait for decisions to be released in the coming weeks. Well actually: wait, submit regular updates, follow the social networking forums religiously, make the occasional phone call asking about the current application status, and pray for an acceptance. Rejection is a reality in any competitive application process. For U.S. medical schools, nationally about 50% of applicants will not be accepted to any medical school. With the average applicant applying to more than 10 medical schools, that adds up to a lot of rejection letters, even for those receiving acceptances.
Application to the religious life and the priesthood is also rigorous, although in different ways. The Program of Priestly Formation contains 27 paragraphs detailing admissions criteria. In most cases, there is no competition with other applicants for a limited number of seats. The “competition” is with oneself in the discernment process and one’s relationship with God. And the reality is that even as vocations and novitiate classes increase, there are people who are turned away before actually applying, people who are rejected after applying, and people who are accepted but later are asked to leave or voluntarily depart at all stages of formation. Based on what I have seen over the past eight years or so, this is not an insignificant number. Many have gone on to be happily married or have successfully entered another religious order or diocesan seminary, so the end result is positive, even though the rejection is a very real and painful experience. For those who voluntarily leave, there is some consolation. In his Instructions for Novices, Blessed Hyacinthe-Marie Cormier, O.P., notes that those in the novitiate who have discerned that the religious life is not for them can return to the world “without any qualms,” for they are returning a better person.
What is most surprising to me is that little has been written about vocational discernment to the religious life and the priesthood that addresses the aspect of rejection or dismissal. Vocations are commonly portrayed as heroic. Saint Agatha, whose feast we celebrate today, was brutally tortured and martyred rather than give up her spouse, Jesus Christ, to marry Quintian, a Roman nobleman. Saint Stanislas Kostka walked 450 miles from Vienna to Germany to enter the Society of Jesus only to be told that he would have to go to Rome to be admitted, so he continued his walking trip south across the Alps. The Lives of the Brethren, a collection of stories about the early years of the Dominicans, contains numerous examples of novices who are tempted to leave, but through some miraculous incident or fervent prayer of a friar, elect to stay and become holy, faithful friars. The few who do leave become worldly, often dying in a state of mortal sin – not a lot of comfort here for those who feel called strongly enough to apply and to enter postulancy and the novitiate, but end up not being admitted or are later asked to leave. The only person I have found to write on this challenging topic is William O’Malley, S.J., in The Fifth Week, which is written for men looking at the Society of Jesus. Calling the decision to apply an “act of faith,” Fr. O’Malley compares the application process to a marriage proposal:
Like any proposal, one’s request to enter the Society can be rejected or deferred. As with a marriage proposal, such a response doesn’t mean one is not a good man. It doesn’t even mean that the girl does not love him. It merely means that, for any or all of a thousand reasons, he is not the ‘right’ one. Still, no matter how levelheaded or tough a man is, there is no way that such a response is easy to take. But again, as with a marriage proposal, the only sensible response is to wipe away the tears, dust off your hands, and say ‘Well, that one’s settled,’ and go out looking for another girl.
As an “act of faith” the decision to apply to religious life or the priesthood, to continue in formation, to profess vows, to be ordained, or to leave (voluntarily or not), requires God. It is not just about me. That does not stop the pain, but it can help the healing process. It can be a chance to learn what the line “Thy will be done” really means concretely, on a personal level, and then to follow Christ more perfectly. We the faithful – religious, lay, seminarians, and priests – should also help. Just as we regularly pray for vocations, novices, and seminarians, we should remember in our prayers those who have left, have been asked to leave, were rejected, or were turned away.
Saint Agatha, pray for us.
Image: Unknown, St. Dominic Clothes St. Hyacinth in the Habit at Santa Sabina