Why I Left the Catholic Priesthood
6 min read | Dec 2021
By:Ivan N
Millennial / Socialist / Attorney

Why I Left the Catholic Priesthood

I loved everything about being a Jesuit except being a Jesuit.

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Looking back, it is difficult to put into words what it was like to leave the Jesuit order after only a short stay. What I can tell you is that it was one of the most formative and influential times of my life. What I can also tell you is that when I left, I was certain that I had been there for the right reasons and certain that I still had a long way yet to grow. The lessons in patient trust that I learned there remain. I forget them from time to time, but the essence of what I was striving for—to live a life dedicated to improving the lives of others, to give voice to those unseen and unheard—remains deep, deep within.

I am certain that had I been born in another country, or under the auspices of another religious tradition, that I would have found my way to another way of giving back to my community. I came to the Jesuit tradition because I grew up Catholic—forced church outings with the family, stuffy starched shirts for holidays. I was by no means a religious person. If asked, I would say, “I was raised Catholic,” a clean way of signaling that I was forced by my family to do Catholic things, but I certainly never went to church on my own. We were not a terribly religious family, but we had a tradition, which provided a lens through which I could imagine trying to live a life for others. When my high school and college history studies inspired in me a deep concern for my community and filled me with a desire to find an outlet for helping others, I turned to this tradition.


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College Didn’t Offer the Education I Wanted

I had the great fortune of encountering fabulous and daring teachers in school, who wanted us to explore, read and gobble up every drop of knowledge we could find. Through this process, living in a world of privilege, excommunicated from reality by the manner in which I was raised, I discovered, rather naively, that the rest of the world did not live as I did and, even worse, would never be presented with the opportunities that I had. This angered me. I felt deeply that something had to be done, and done now.  

Everywhere I turned in college seemed dedicated to an idea of self-absorbed consumption. “How do I afford to live in fancy oblivion?” It was only the voice of a distant past in my life, a tradition long forgotten, that helped me find another path. Religion made it OK for me to walk away from material wealth and the desire for a job that gave me nothing but a paycheck. It filled me with the hope that I could one day actually help people who actually needed help. 

And so it was, in the most circuitous of ways, I found myself learning about Jesuits, an order within the Catholic machinery that sets itself—or seems to set itself—apart from the rest of the priesthood, dedicated to a proposition that a life worth living is a life in service to others. This tradition had been there, in the background of my existence, for a long time, but until then, I had mostly ignored it. Now, fueled by a desire for change in the world, I began to reach out. 

When college ended, and others were scrambling to find internships or jobs or pay their rent, I was packing my bags. Through contacts from my childhood and new Jesuit friends, I had made arrangements to live and work at a school in Quito, Ecuador. The school was dedicated to teaching the poor and ignored the needs of the wealthy. This, for me, was a dream: to turn the world upside down, to make genuine opportunity a practical and obtainable reality.

A man leaves school and enters the priesthood.

Service to Others Changed My Life

My time in Ecuador was short. My days were filled with the routines of teachers, the most underappreciated of professions. Herding children between classes, trying to teach, trying to grab a quick bite between classes. Every day was a mess, and every day was filled with laughter and hope.

Resolved to continue this tradition, I informed my very shocked family that not only was I feeling religious, but I was feeling religious enough to live the vows of a Jesuit priest. I set off for Middle America to live and work in what many would call a seminary, but the Jesuits call a novitiate.  

While I was there, the romance and grandeur of it all swept me away. I was a novice, working and living with other novices: Class during the day, meditation at night, mentorship from Jesuits who had been living this lifestyle for years, decades even. For a few months, everything seemed to just fit into place, and I found myself in a place of growth. But as I would discover, it is the law of all progress that one must pass through some stages of instability that may take a very long time.

Part of the Jesuit tradition includes prayer, or what I might call meditation. This daily “examen” calls upon the individual to focus on what worked today, to be grateful for that and to use that gratitude to focus on tomorrow. I was lucky enough to be in a place where I had the opportunity to meditate as a part of a daily routine. This was coupled with work for local nonprofits, classes and other volunteer opportunities. And through this process, I discovered a deeper passion within myself to be an unencumbered voice for others. It would lead me to walk away from the Jesuit order and the traditions I had found there.

One of the most deeply held values with the Jesuit priesthood is that of obedience. It is a vow to serve the pope of the Roman Catholic Church and, by extension, all the people of Earth. This promise requires patient trust that the machine of the church is moving in the correct direction. This is both a beautiful and intimidating promise. And as I meditated on this tradition, I began to learn the deep value that these traditions held for those close to me at the novitiate. Many of my now dearest fellow novices came to the Society of Jesus seeking this tradition and depended upon it as a bedrock for the work they would go on to do. I was not coming to the Jesuits from the same direction. My bedrock was a deep desire to help others, and through that desire, I had found a tradition that gave power to the voiceless. 

A priest joining a Black Lives Matter march, finding where priesthood and activism intersect.

I Realized That I Had a Different Path to Take

I discovered that my trajectory and the trajectory of so many of the lives of my fellow novices overlapped. I also discovered that if I remained, my impatience for immediate change, my impatience to be a voice right now, would create friction in my life that could eventually fester into a bitterness that would then sap my passion and leave nothing but a bitter husk, unable to articulate how or why I had wanted this life in the first place.

It was a beautiful—and, I’ll admit, terrifying—moment for me. I remember sobs shaking through my body. There was bitterness of the distant future I saw but gratitude to be lucky enough to spend time on myself, meditating and pondering the next deliberate steps of my life. When I reached out to my mentor and others, what I received was not only love and patience but an understanding that astounded me. It was as if they already knew and were only waiting for me to discover my path. They could see it before me but wanted me to see it first. 

As I sat among peers, friends and Jesuits, saying goodbye to a tradition and a lifestyle, there was a moment of happiness. Our lives had been brought together for a reason, maybe a reason we didn’t understand or comprehend. But that is how all growth is. It takes time. There will be stages of instability on the way to finding something unknown, something new, and that was happening to us before our eyes. It was a moment where all of us could accept the anxiety of feeling ourselves in suspense and incomplete but on our way, and it was beautiful. 

The Jesuits were gracious enough to offer me a path and allow me to walk alongside them for as long as my life’s work coincided. As it turns it out, my time did not last terribly long. But more than anything, when I did decide it was time to go, I was awed by their patient trust and happiness to see me on my way to whatever lay ahead.

“You are like a race car,” my mentor and dear friend told me. “Some fancy, awful red thing on a mountain pass, so excited to speed along your way. But you are stuck behind a truck filled with chickens in the truck bed, discarding feathers and odors into what you had planned.”

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