Hello, My Name Is Discernment!
Mujer Non-Grata: An Ongoing Series on Life in a Cult, Healing from Religious Trauma Syndrome, and Navigating Life after Religion
One of the hardest parts of recounting my days in a Catholic cult is explaining to people the strange ways our community was set up and how we functioned day to day. I have tried to describe some aspects of my life back then to friends post-cult (yes, we actually did sit around a large wooden Christmas tree type thing singing to a sacred piece of bread for hours and hours), but they usually just look at me like I'm making things up. I may as well tell them I lived with Xenu in the Hollywood Celebrity Center (a girl can dream!).
And I get it. Unless you have lived in a community like mine, none of what I am about to explain will make very much sense—but I will try to break it down.
As I have said before, the group I was in was called CSU (Catholic Student Union) at Florida State University. We were run by an order of brothers called the Brotherhood of Hope and it was/is centrally located at St. Thomas More, Tallahassee's Cathedral. This location also happens to be the epicenter of vocation recruitment for priests in the area. This means that from our one youth group, both the diocese and the Brotherhood were fishing for vocations. I say fishing because it was tactical recruitment, not just mentorship and guidance. Men were recruited and targeted based on how susceptible they would be to religious pressure.
Now, every diocese has vocation outreach and they are always looking for recruits. The Brotherhood is no different. They too are looking for men to grow their order. Where this becomes complicated is two-fold. This post will deal with one aspect (dangerous and inauthentic recruitment), the next post will deal with the other aspect (women as collateral damage to a vocation crisis).
As a student organization, CSU could not ban women from joining the group, but they were obstacles to the mission of both the diocese and the Brothers. They didn't need women. They needed men. But to cater to only men would have been a monumentally stupid recruitment move. College men are the horniest specimens on the planet and it would be really hard to sell an all-male youth group to 18-year-old men at one of the nation’s most notorious party schools.
Because vocations in Catholicism are down, as is general Catholic attendance and participation, this made for an interesting power dynamic between students and leadership. Visit any Church on a Sunday and you will see empty pews and greying priests. The situation is extremely dire, therefore creating an atmosphere where the need to recruit young men to the priesthood has become one of the strongest motivators for success in the Church.
As I became more and more involved in CSU, something odd caught my attention. We had an abnormally large percentage of men discerning the priesthood. When I say large, I mean over the top--it was ridiculous. It made me, as a single woman, want to yell, "NOT EVERY MAN THAT WALKS THROUGH OUR HALLS IS CALLED TO BE A PRIEST!
Or were they all called? Were we a special group chosen to represent the future of the Church? Were we the new American Moses?
I went through quite a bit of internal justification for the disproportionately large number of vocations at CSU, vacillating between God choosing our community as the new Salt Lake City to drunkenly wondering if men were being abducted. Maybe we were on some fault line that connected with the northern lights, creating a religious vocation miracle? It took me over a year to realize that the Cathedral and the Brotherhood were functioning as a vocation pyramid scheme. They had a product to sell and the means to do it. I had been slow on the uptake because I wasn't their prime target.
Similar to the way Amway sells their products by promising riches, wealth, and respect to their victims, our community was luring men in with empty promises and blatant lies. My favorite lie I heard is such a sad but simple one--some of the men were promised, when they expressed concern over how lonely the priestly life is, that they would not feel the loneliness of celibacy and rectory life because they would all live in central communal house like seminarbros in a frat movie (newsflash--this is not how diocesan life works). I had friends that clung to that lie for a long time before realizing it was a pipe dream.
I recently watched a video on how there is a certain profile to people who join cults. I discussed this in previous posts as well. When it came to the men that both the Brotherhood and diocese recruited, they all had very similar traits: father issues, financial instability, low self-esteem, internalized hatred from either misogyny or homophobia—they all lacked the ability to connect comfortably with the world around them and were searching for anything that would make them feel whole.
So, in comes the vocation pyramid scheme. It starts simple. An invitation to a male only prayer night meant to build the men’s bonds with each other. Then there would be the suggestion of a spiritual director to guide them on their spiritual journey. Then, there were men-only activities drenched in toxic masculinity meant to enforce the male bond. These beginning tactics would draw the men in, giving them a sense of belonging to a tribe of brothers and a community. It also lay the groundwork for the contagious fever dream of being chosen to lead the Church. For vulnerable men, this is the perfect cocktail. Looking back, the homoerotic undertones of this recruitment are almost laughable--mostly because no one would have dared suggest it.
And so these manly men moved forward. If you accepted the idea of discerning (thinking about) the priesthood, more perks would come your way. You begin to climb the admiration ladder. Men who let the diocese know that they were open to discerning the priesthood suddenly had free housing. The diocese paid for a communal house located right next to both campus and the Church where any of the men who committed to this “thinking” period could live for free. Free housing for poor college kids? Where do I sign up?
Oh yea, vaginas not welcome--whomp whomp.
This housing came with chains, though. What if you want to leave? What if you want to take a break from discerning? What if you fell in love with someone? Where did you go? Every single climb up this vocation scheme ladder had a price. And that price was a good motivator to keep you on said ladder.
So, this is where my personal experience begins. Every CSU woman—whether they are still in the community, married into it (Hey boo! Glad we got out together), or have left the community will tell you that one of the first words they learned when they came to CSU was “discerning.” CSU men loved to remind all women in their proximity that they were "discerning" (you have to say this in a hushed whisper for it to sound right). You couldn’t say hi to a man without immediately being told about their vocation and how they were off the market for their one and only bae Jesus. True story: one of the first men I met at CSU, less than 3 hours after we met at our school cafeteria, felt the need to cautiously tell me that I should know he could not date me because he was discerning. First, I had no idea what he was talking about. Discerning say what? Also, had I hit on him or given him any indication that we were now in a Dugger style courtship? Was this like the grabbing rituals in My Big Gypsy Wedding? I would later learn that it didn’t have to make sense. Vocations, apparently, were so fragile that they needed to be announced at every turn and protected by everyone.
As I became more involved with the community, I realized that nearly every man I met was discerning the priesthood. At this time I was purposefully single, so I became friends with a few men who were discerning, never giving it a second thought in regards to whether or not that could eventually get complicated (oh! to be so naive again). I wasn’t concerned about their vocations. I didn't view myself or my friendship as a threat--though I would later learn that any woman was a threat to a vocation. I had always had male friends didn't see a reason to change.
As time passed, I started noticing that the rhetoric surrounding this discernment process was concerning, particularly when it came to the leadership guiding the men at CSU. At the time I was there, the formation director, Father Crawford, an imposing older man reminiscent of a bloated Jim Jones, had full control over the lives of “his formation boys.” They worshiped the ground he walked on, quoting him at every opportunity like lost boys with their Peter Pan. He had full control over their spiritual direction and psychological welfare. But he didn’t care about their welfare. He cared about the numbers. He cared about upping vocations, regardless of whether or not they were valid or in the best interest of the men. He was in it to win the glory that came from being such a successful vocations director.
Interestingly enough (or sinister, if you really think about it), he was a psychoanalyst by trade before becoming a priest—and it showed. He dug into the men of CSU, pressuring them and manipulating them in their spiritual direction, breaking them down in a way that only someone with his background could. I had one friend who, when he decided he did not want to discern the priesthood anymore, was told that if he did stay and he became a priest, he could atone for his father’s suicide (not even remotely true, theologically speaking). Think about that, though. Imagine taking a persons deepest loss, the loss of their father, and using it as leverage for your own agenda. It was heartless. Another friend was told he could atone for his sexual indiscretions if he was ordained. Another was mocked for being weak when he voiced a desire to leave formation and discern marriage with a woman from the community. There were also the men who came from impoverished backgrounds who were promised not only free housing, but free college tuition at seminary and lifelong financial stability. There were those who were uncomfortable with sex, coming from sex negative households, who felt empowered by the general disdain Father Crawford had for sex and (women's) bodies (my god did he like to go on and on about bodily fluids). And then there were also those who were gay or bi-sexual trying to hide in the most sacred closet they could find. As long as they didn't cause scandal, he didn’t care. They added to his numbers.
And then there was the praise—the glory! Once you started discerning, you became a sort of celebrity at CSU. People paid for your food, women flocked to you because there was an attractiveness to “holy men” (this was a bullshit myth—most of us were just hiding from the few non-discerning creepy guys that circled the women of CSU like vultures), little old ladies brought you cookies and cakes, and you had a free summer vacation home to hang out with your “brothers” paid for by parishioners.
And so, suddenly everyone is discerning. Everyone was going to be a priest. Guys were breaking up with girlfriends left and right, only to keep them on the side, just in case.
But the thing that happens when you go fishing for vocations with such a wide net is: you forget that not all men are meant to be priests. You forget that vocations have to be authentic to be lived in a healthy way. You forget that there is no way you can game a system where the variable is a human life.
And you forget the human dignity of the men you are leading—the men trusting you with their lives. With no ethic of care for seminarians, particularly in the face of the vocation crisis, trauma and abuse was and is bound to happen. What I saw was that it was more important to get men into cassocks than it was to turn good men into shepherds.
I am talking mostly about the diocese recruitment and not the Brotherhood because a) the vocation fishing was one and the same—the pool of men all came from CSU and b) The Brotherhood could never compete with the bougie lifestyle offered to seminarians. It is important to note that diocesan priests do not take vows of poverty. I can’t count how many times I would hear a cartoonishly chubby and pretentious priest who helped with vocation recruitment boasting about his car, his Italian suits, his extravagant vacations, his love of expensive steaks and sausages...
But I saw carelessness in the Brothers as well. I saw one Brother push a man HARD into seminary because he (the Brother) had fallen for and was in an inappropriate relationship with one of the interns that said student was pursuing a relationship with. He didn't care about this young man, his life, or his vocation. He just needed to get him out of the way. And he did.
Most recruitment led to the ominous formation house mentioned above. So, what did the men do in the formation house exactly? Well, they woke up early every morning to say morning prayer together and then they went to 7 a.m. mass, alternating as altar servers. They provided free labor for the church as assistants to the main office. They ate dinner together every night, taking turns making food. Curfew would signal that it was time to do night prayer and then they would observe silence for the rest of the night.
But, these were college guys. And there was very little oversight over those living in the house. Most of the men had what we all referred to as “pseudo” girlfriends—women who they spent quite a bit of time with and were the defunct “plan b’s” (some had c's and d's as well, polygamy style). There was sneaking out, excessive drinking, women and men sleeping over. The formation house was pretty much everything you would expect from a house full of young men being asked to be celibate while in college. And while I will cover this aspect of our community (because there is a LOT to cover in regards to women as collateral damage to a community that only really needed men and the sexual oppression imbedded in our theology), in this post I want to solely focus on how callous the formation and recruitment program was and how these men were simply dehumanized numbers for a greedy formation director and program.
I mentioned that one of the most startling aspects of watching this all develop (how all of my guy friends were suddenly called to the priests) was how little care was given to their well-being. The following story is just one example of how toxic the formation program was. I can’t even bring myself to novelize it because it still makes me feel awful.
I remember meeting Andres* after Sunday mass. We were both Colombian and we bonded over our shared awesomeness as “parceros.” I don’t remember him moving into the formation house. I was never surprised when a male friend would tell me they were discerning the priesthood and moving into the formation house. It was strange to meet a guy that wasn’t discerning, to be honest. When he first moved into the house, he was perfectly normal—funny, incredibly smart, and charming. We had classes together and would occasionally grab lunch. He was ok.
And then something happened. He started acting very strange—almost dark. It was as if overnight his soul became heavy. His prayers were more urgent and he was constantly nervously fingering his rosary beads and whispering under his breath, even in class. He stopped hanging out with friends, spending much of his time meditating and sneaking away to adoration. He would take long walks deep into the night. We couldn’t get him to laugh or relax. He refused to talk about anything other than theology, and even that made him agitated. He began losing weight, wearing uncomfortable clothing to punish his body like the saints.
I remember mentioning that I thought he was acting strange to a mutual friend, Isla. She agreed that something seemed off. He had apparently asked her to drive him to the beach earlier that week and he had seemed disconnected—almost manic. When I asked one of his formation brother’s if they thought something was wrong, he laughed it off, saying, “This is what holiness does to someone, Marci. He is an example of the type of spiritual life I wish I had!” Because we were close (and I was a blind idiot), I trusted his assessment on Andres and dropped it. I wondered if maybe I didn’t know what holiness looked like and was being judgemental.
Andres became a walking idol at CSU, a golden calf. Father Crawford worshipped him—hailed him as a future pope. Their relationship had become oddly close, both of them always disappearing to talk and have another spiritual direction meeting.
And then things became even stranger. Andres informed his formation brothers that he could not bring himself to sleep in a bedroom anymore. He wanted to suffer like Christ and reject the luxuries of this world. Unknown to anyone but his formation brothers, he moved into a storage closet in the garage—a room so small he could not stand up in it. He abandoned all worldly possessions except for a dingy pillow, a sheet, and a large liturgical candle. Apparently, his roommates thought he was growing in holiness. They kept telling themselves that Andres was not only fine, but great! Anyone with common sense or any compassion should have seen that he was unraveling, showing clear signs of a mental break down. But his brothers stayed silent as Andres crouched in a closet, tormented by his "holiness."
The following week, Andres went to campus and handed one of our professors a written-out scroll of biblical prophecies he had come up with. Then, dressed as Neo from the Matrix, he walked into another one of his classes, liturgical candle in hand, and held his own sad procession, proclaiming he was there to tell all of his classmates that they were going to spend eternity in hell if they did not repent for their sins and embrace the gospel. Andres was removed from campus while trying to explain that he was on a mission from God.
Isla called me, filling me in on what had happened, begging me to talk to Andres’s mother. She thought my being Colombian would help in calming her down on the phone. I spoke to a sobbing and confused woman for a few minutes, but I honestly didn’t have anything to say. What could I say? Her words have haunted me for years.
“How did this happen?”
“Why didn’t anyone call us?”
“How could they see him like this and not help him?”
"I thought they were his friends.."
Her questions have ricocheted in my head for years. How could the men in that house have let their friend fall so far? How could his spiritual director—his hero—have not seen the signs? He was a medical professional. He knew psychosis. How could they all have been so callous to his suffering? How delusional was our community about religiosity that we could not differentiate a mental break from holiness? The man was sleeping in a closet, muttering to himself for weeks in what was clearly a manic state.
I wonder, "How toxic was the environment in that house that no one wanted to raise a red flag until scandal forced their hand?"
While not all of the men that were a part of the formation program ended up as broken as Andres (a small few are happy men with fulfilling vocations), many came out covered in scars from the mental manipulation and toxic religious formation they were a part of.
Many of these men have left the priesthood, struggling to find jobs with their limited skill set, only able to become religious education teachers or youth ministers (also known as Catholic welfare).
Some have left for love—but not without unimaginable vitriol from the “brothers” they left behind. Any leaving by a priest brother is considered the ultimate betrayal. This loss of community is a devastating blow for someone who is already leaving with very little support. It is also traumatizing for the woman who is inevitably blamed for the leaving.
Some have sought “fame”, channeling their need for approval into pathetic online personalities gunning for attention from higher up Catholic leadership and online fans (yes, there is a market for buffed up priests online), not even hiding their ego-driven desire to become celebrities or eventually Pope. They live for the high of a twitter or YouTube like.
Some live closeted lives, choking on their internalized shame and hatred, condemning from the pulpit those who are just like them while living a double life in the shadows.
Some stupidly drunk dial old girlfriends, the loneliness of celibacy blurring their decision-making skills (I see you, my friend).
Some go in and out of seminary and religious orders, never able to move forward with their lives—the guilt of perceived failure a yoke they cannot take off.
Some live double lives, with full time relationships with men and women as their coping drug of choice. For others, they find solace in the bottle.
And while I think a lot about these men, especially the ones I cared for and those I loved, it is Andres that haunts me the most now. It is Andres, now a joke and cautionary tale whispered about in new generations of CSUers and seminarians, that I can't shake.
He was the inconsequential collateral damage of a formation director that would recruit vocations at any cost—even a human cost. And we watched Andres break. We all did.
And we did nothing…
*all individuals names have been change, not organizations.