I am a Catholic.
As a Catholic in the 21st century I feel an extraordinary pressure to have a well-defined identity, an identity that is easy to label so I can tell my fellow Catholics exactly what sort of Catholic I am. I feel the burden of needing to know exactly where I stand on absolutely every issue before I go anywhere near a debate.
I also feel the need to explain who I am, to chart my journey to where I am today, and try to piece together why I am how I am. I feel the need to uncover my Catholic identity, to claim it as my unique personal experience of Catholicism, to own it. Not surprisingly, this is the purpose of almost all the writing I have done over the past decade.
On a bleak, blustery day in mid-November, 1999, I sat in the rector’s office at Saint John Vianney Seminary and told him that I would not be returning for the final semester of my senior year. It was a momentous decision for me, and it ended one phase of my young life and sent me tumbling into years of self-doubt and uncertainty; uncertainty not just about my vocation, but about everything I had thought was certain in my life, from my relationship with my family to my relationship with God and the Church.
Three years later, in the early months of our relationship, my wife was frequently frustrated by my unwillingness to talk about my seminary experience with people we would meet socially. She thought it was one of the most interesting things about me, and she wanted everyone to see how interesting I was. I, however, felt it like a painful wound that was not to be brought up in polite company. It was very difficult for me to explain this to her, however. How can I be simultaneously ashamed, proud, wounded, and edified by the same experience? This tangled contradiction was what I ran up against every time she tried to delve into it with me, however, and I did not know how to explain it to her, since I was not yet sure how to explain it even to myself. On the outside I was an entertaining and exciting individual full of amusing stories, while inside I was secretly broken — confused and shattered by the tempest of the past few years.
The journey forward from that has been a long, yet I have not — could not — have walked it alone. I was reminded of this yet again yesterday speaking with young man who is almost exactly the same place I was more than a decade ago: fresh “discerned out” of seminary, unsure where in the world his God will lead him next. It was good for me to be able to assure him that yes, I felt lost and confused as well at that stage. I could tell him it had been a long process, was still a long process for me, but it was not without hope. I pray that he, and I, and the many “seminary refugees” all around us, will all find our way to happy, healthy fulfillment in the Church we both love.