by Dick van Veen
On the 28th of august of last year there was a Congo-day in Oosterbeek: a social gathering of Mill Hill fathers and brothers, associates and volunteers who at some time in the past have worked in Congo.
As a former Mill-Hill missionary who in the remote past (1966 – 1974 ) worked in Congo I was pleasantly surprised that not only I, but also my wife was invited.
As we are equally kindly invited to other social meetings in Oosterbeek and to the periodic welcome party for a new Regional Superior.
This isn't as obvious as one might think. I know a thing or two about this because in the past years – as one of the editors of ''Geroepen”, a quarterly magazine of the Dutch association of married priests – I have interviewed dozens of former priests, brothers and religious sisters.
It still happens that the former priest is invited but is told that his wife is not welcome. Or that the former nun is invited but not her husband.
A former nun told us that she was seen out at the backdoor of the convent, in the dark and with just a little money and some clothing. She was also told that from that moment on all contacts with the convent and with her fellow- sisters had ended once and for all. The remaining sisters then withdrew to the chapel to pray for the salvation of the soul of the departed sister.
The above-mentioned gives me reason to emphasize how kind and attentive Mill-Hill is to its former members.
We do not hear much about former priests, brothers and religious. You'll find but few publications and books about the subject. That's the reason why I want to share with you what the men and women I interviewed told me and add my personal experiences.
There is in us a – often unspoken – feeling of guilt. At some moment in life we have taken a perpetual vow or oath. We promised to be obedient, chaste and – in the case of religious – poor. And that is a life-long commitment.
That vow we have broken. We have let down our nearest colleagues, and the people entrusted to our care – in the parish, the school, the mission, the hospital, or wherever. In many cases we caused great pain and sorrow to our parents, our family and our friends.
And there is personal grief too. Seminaries and convents were not places where, certainly in the past, you learned to easily express your deepest feelings. Nuns especially were strictly forbidden to discuss their problems with their fellow-sisters. Discussions with outsiders were even more severely forbidden.
Congo-day 2015. Fltr Piet Korse, Miel van der Hart, Ben Jorna, Dick van Veen, Corry van Veen
That's why the process priests, brothers and religious who abandon their vocation go through, often is a lonely struggle that can last for years and not seldom leads to a deep existential crisis.
Many of us, by abandoning our earlier chosen vocation, were forced to leave our ministry or were discharged from our job. By far not everyone was successful in finding a new job that offered satisfaction and did justice to their personal experience and qualities. A good number of us got into serious spiritual distress and/or knew periods of lack of sufficient income.
That's why it is all too easy to set former priests, brothers and religious aside as weaklings.
But there is much gratitude too. Too much and too often looking back would have made our new life impossible. But we treasure many dear memories of our lives within the congregation, the order or the convent, that are of great service to us in 'that other life'.
Our future in that other world could not be built by angrily putting aside our past. Or by thinking that our new life outside the convent, the order or congregation would only bring us happiness and no pain, difficulties and worries.
Some of us were so disillusioned by the policies of the official Church, so disorientated and broken that they thought that God had totally disappeared from their life.
But most of us kept a strong belief in God.
Generosity, idealism and love of God, prophetic fire and love for people inspired us in the past to become priests, brothers or religious. That same love has led us to embrace a friend or partner, marriage and children and makes of us happy and blessed persons.
And we know moments when we experience that God is near us, has forgiven us, leaving his trail in our hearts and giving direction to the roads on which we travel.
I once again would like to thank Mill-Hill for the invitations to my wife and me for social meetings, festivities and Congo-days. And when you, my readers, may not know whom to pray for, please say a little prayer for the former members of Mill-Hill!
Dick van Veen