Discerning in and discerning out: What happens when seminarians leave?

by Michelle McDaniel

Catholic News Agency

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CNA/wideonet via Shutterstock


Denver, Colo. (CNA) — Catholic journalists know that discernment stories are popular because they give readers hope. And they often follow a pattern: They usually include a “God moment” in which the subject, through a dramatic circumstance, hears the word of God and finds with sparkling clarity, the call to become a cleric or religious. They end with ordination or follow final vows.

Jacob Hubbard’s discernment story isn’t like that.

Hubbard had multiple “God moments,” and he entered seminary because of them. But in seminary Hubbard realized that ordination wasn’t his calling. In November 2018, he discerned out of seminary.

“By our Baptism, we're all called to be priests, prophets, and kings,” Hubbard told CNA. “So although I won't be an ordained priest, I'll be living out my calling by being the priest of my family — the bridge between them and God, offering them Christ as much as I possibly can and relying on His Strength to do so.”

It could be easy to see Hubbard’s discernment out of seminary as a failure. In fact, many seminarians who discern out of seminary face a kind of stigma from their friends and family, and even from themselves.

But that stigma is based on a misunderstanding of seminary’s purpose, Hubbard told CNA.

As Hubbard said, “The stigma today is that when people see seminarians, they don't see them as discerning individuals, they see them as mini-priests.”

Seminary is a “house of discernment,” he said, “not a house of mini-priests,” adding that if a man leaves seminary, it’s often a positive sign of his ongoing vocational discernment.

Fr. Phillip Brown, President-Rector of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, agreed.

“As a seminary faculty and as a rector, when a seminarian discerns out, and we're satisfied that it was an authentic, good discernment, we don't consider that a failure. We consider that a success,” Brown explained.

“What I say to the seminarians is that in the end, the objective here is not to become a priest, but to be what God has made you to be,” Fr. Brown said.

Discerning with openness to God’s call

Fr. James Wehner, rector of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, said leaving the seminary “is not a failure. We think it's a very healthy process of discernment where he and the Church recognize that he's not called to priesthood.”

“But we want to give the guys an opportunity to discern and to form, and if they're not called, they will leave here stronger, healthier Christian men because they were totally open to the formation experience, so it's a win-win situation.”

Even if a man leaves before ordination, Hubbard told CNA, “you can walk out a better man if you do seminary right. You could really figure out the areas you have believed lies your entire life. And then you can accept God's love there instead.”

The difficulties and the fruits of seminary life

There are many gifts that come with entering seminary, but they come alongside trials, Hubbard said.

When he entered Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas, Hubbard found himself face-to-face with a slew of challenges.

A strict schedule and constant obligations kept him busy, even without the additional work that a full-time student must face at the school next door, the University of Dallas.

“You need structure to build your life on, and that structure needs to include self-love, so doing things that you personally love, and then of course prayer where you receive love from God,” he said regarding structure.

The routine of seminary taught Hubbard that “it's impossible to earn God's love by your own measures. But the routine can open you up to being able to receive it more.”

Discerning into seminary

Hubbard said he had long considered the priesthood, with encouragement from his family, and reflected on it while journaling about his prayer life while in high school, and through retreats and mission trips.

After several invitations to visitation weekends at HTS, he attended one, and after a “God moment,” he chose to apply to the seminary, entering as a sophomore in college.

Discerning out of seminary

During Hubbard’s time in seminary, he worked hard to be engaged in the community and to take the opportunities presented to him.

The summer before his senior year, his pastoral assignment was as a counselor at The Pines Catholic Camp, a summer camp in East Texas. There, Hubbard worked closely with other counselors to teach and take care of children at the camp.

Hubbard told CNA that he was struck by some of the beautiful and inspiring marriages he saw the camp directors have, and the happiness he saw that came from their relationships with their wives and children.

That summer he also participated in Trinity Core, “a two-week backpacking journey to discover your heart,” Hubbard explained. “To really find your manly heart and discover your masculinity, and it was awesome.”

“Coming back from that, I was really feeling like I had more grasp at my heart, and really had the question of discernment lodged in me from The Pines because I saw beautiful relationships there. That experience of The Pines mixed with deepening the discovery of my heart through Trinity Core began the questioning of my discernment,” Hubbard said.

He sought out counsel about his questions and, trusting his spiritual director to keep his best interests in mind, opened up to him about everything.

One of the biggest moments for Hubbard was when his spiritual director asked Hubbard to consider marriage.

His spiritual director asked Hubbard to imagine himself, in prayer, as a priest coming home from a good day of Confessions and Mass, and then to imagine, in prayer, being married and coming home to a wife and children.

“I felt so much more deeply my heart belonged with a family,” Hubbard explained. “There's no way to really articulate it, except that I just felt myself more present, more human there. Even just painting the picture almost brought me to tears.”

Hubbard left seminary in November of his senior year.

“And I have not regretted it since,” he said. “It's been a beautiful journey. Seminary was a necessary step, and so I know that God has just continued to lead me along a path which I hope one day, He will use to help heal those hurting around me. I want to still give of myself to those around me."

Does “discerning out” mean failure?

Although seminary was helpful for Hubbard in his discernment both for the priesthood and for the married life, he found that a lot of people misunderstood the reasons he had left, and some saw it as a failure on his part.

“I think that a lot of people have the misconception that when you step out of seminary, it's a failure of sorts. Their reactions are, ‘Oh, I'm sorry,’ or things like that. The negative stigma of discerning out needs to be eradicated so that seminarians who are torn don't have that fear that when they leave, their friends, their families, their priests back home will be disappointed.”

“The stigma holds seminarians back from being able to healthily discern. I think that's something pretty unaddressed in today's world: the very healthy and good option of discerning out. People see it as something entirely negative, and they shouldn't,” Hubbard continued.

After explaining his decision to his friends, they understood and supported him, he told CNA, but the initial uncomfortable or negative feelings still felt like a stigma, or at least a misunderstanding, about what he considered to be a healthy discernment.

“And I experienced that a bit with some of my friends and family, but I also had overwhelming support, especially from my father, and so it was okay,” he said. “I definitely felt supported in my decision.”

Discerning into seminary at 18, his father told Hubbard that he “was proud of Hubbard no matter what.” At the time, Hubbard wondered why his dad didn’t seem more enthused about his entrance to seminary.

“But that consistency was something that was actually beautiful in the long run, and that's what I think parents should strive for when their kids enter seminary,” he told CNA.

“That's the exact same thing he said to me when I discerned out of seminary, and I knew that he supported me on either side and trusted my judgment, so it was incredible. It really was,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard’s father, Brad, told CNA that his first and foremost step is to pray for his children, and said that he wanted to make sure his son was happy with the formation he was receiving while in seminary.

“For me, it's just the importance of leaving the discernment to God. As a parent, I'm there to support and especially pray, and then God's will be done in regard to that.”

Hubbard’s Future

Last May, Hubbard graduated from the University of Dallas with a degree in philosophy, and he now plans to attend the Augustine Institute for a graduate degree in theology.

He believes he has had many blessings throughout his time in seminary. He wants to have the opportunity to impact people through an occupation in ministry after he graduates.

Hubbard finds that despite the magnitude of the decision, he does not question his choice. He told CNA that his relationship with God has grown since his departure from seminary.

And in the pursuit of marriage, Hubbard has felt more confirmed in his choice.

“If everything else were to fall apart in my life, if I questioned every other piece of discernment, that is what I could hold onto and know for a fact that I made the right decision because I have so deeply encountered God's love incarnationally in a way that I could not have in seminary,” he said.

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Denver, Colo. (CNA) — Catholic journalists know that discernment stories are popular because they give readers hope. 

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