When Luke, my 8-year-old grandson, called, I expected an inning-by-inning report of his Little League baseball game. Not this time. This time, he asked me why I left the priesthood.
I had told him last fall when he made his first reconciliation that I was once a priest. It seemed a natural thing to say since many priests were there to hear confessions. Luke went on to make his first Communion this spring and was studying holy orders and matrimony when he phoned.
"So, Paw-Paw, why did you become a priest and then not want to be a priest anymore?"
"Well," I said in too many words, "I wanted to be a priest to help people. That's the way people in our family and neighborhood did it in those days. So I went to school a long time and became one. I'm glad I did. But after seven years I didn't think being a priest was the best way for me to do all that and be happy anymore, so I asked the pope if I could leave and the pope said yes. And I met Na-Maw and we fell in love and I was happy and your Daddy was born and ..."
"That's OK, Paw-Paw! Thanks. I gotta go."
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That very morning, I had gone to the funeral of a friend who was also an ex-priest and there were at least seven more ex-priests, most of them with their ex-nun wives, grieving his death and honoring his life. Two weeks earlier, Fran and I had driven to Knoxville, Tenn., for the funeral Mass of her sister Betty, who like her was an ex-nun.
Now don't get mad at me -- I am using the term "ex" for convenience. I know there are many ways priests and nuns who are no longer recognized as formal church ministers choose to identify themselves. Married priests. Inactive priests. Former nuns. It's all good.
No one knows the number of exes in this country, but there will never be another generation of so many of us. There will be no nephew or niece in 50 years who will ask the question Luke asked. And soon no one will ever know the enormous contribution the Ex Generation has made to the church and to humanity.
After the Knoxville funeral, about 15 of us gathered on a colleague's deck to honor Betty's remarkable life and legacy. The group included three ex-nuns and two former priests.
We were a microcosm of the thousands of others who had left official clerical or religious ministry. Betty herself was the legendary founder and dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee. Among the five of us, there were teachers, counselors, spiritual directors, authors, and founders of a nonprofit related to mental illness and suicide.
Tom, Betty's brother, got up from a wicker chair and raised a toast: "To Betty, who she was and what she did for others and for the legacy she leaves behind!"
The spirit of that toast wafted on the wind through the hills of Tennessee, and continued to breeze through homes, churches, schools, workplaces and civic organizations throughout the country in honor of the exes everywhere, for their character, seeking, service and commitment to spiritual living. If you listen closely, you may hear it in your heart as well.
We exes have our unique stories and spiritual journeys, but we share a similar history that quickly connects us. We all love and revere our classmates who persevered and did wonders of unheralded good. We all have a common lived experience in seminaries, novitiates, rectories and convents.
The strict rules, the monastic lifestyle, the dramatic clashes over the changes in the church in the 1960s and '70s, living with people who were models of religious life and living with those who were troubled, the prayer life that would someday open our eyes to see, the Great Silence that taught us how to hear, the remarkable opportunity for women in those days to get a professional education, and the friends -- the friends -- made and kept during those times are points of contact that invite unforgettable soul-sharing.
Remember the old country song that insists you can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy? It so fits the Ex Generation, boys and girls alike.
Sure, there were unreasonable restrictions, crazy conflicts, and multiple good reasons to leave the priesthood or the convent but those who experienced it could not un-experience it or want to. The remnants of that life remain embedded in our souls.
We are who we are because we were who we were. Somewhere along my journey, I learned to look at the past but not stare. It isn't the past that wounds us or elates us, it is how we interpret and perceive that past.
Our challenge is to forgive the hurts, acknowledge the disappointments, accept the decisions, face the regrets, confess our sins, and absorb the ongoing transformation inherent in all our life experiences.
We also highlight the bright times, relish the loves, nurture the aha moments, remember the presence of God, recall the peace-filled days and rejoice in all the sunrises that gather the best of the past in a single moment and ushers in a hopeful tomorrow. We cannot find God outside our personal story because God lives within it.
For me, and thousands of others, that experience includes priesthood and ex-priesthood. I ultimately discovered that my vocation was to lay ministry, not priesthood, and I still live that calling today. Priesthood prepared me for lay ministry both in the church and in the world.
I hope that when Luke calls again, it's not always about baseball.
[Tom Smith is the author of eight books, most recently Church Chat: Snapshots of a Changing Catholic Church. All Soul Seeing columns can be found at NCRonline.org/blogs/soul-seeing.]
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