Winter 2019 Vol. 39 - No. 195  Formation in the Catholic Church in China

The Experience of Role Transition in the Lives of Former Diocesan Priests in Mainland China

Xiang Yuning


        “Transitionhas been defined in many ways, but the most frequently quoted definition of transition is from Schlossberg who defines a transition as any event, or non-event that results in changed relationships, routines, assumptions, and roles.”[1] Available literature views transition as a linear process consisting of three dynamic stages and each of them has been named by a number of theorists with different terms. Van Gennep considers the transition process as the rites of passages that contain (1) pre-liminal rites (separation from a social group), (2) liminal rites (a state in-between the old role and the new role), and (3) post-liminal rites (reincorporating the person into a society with a new identity).[2] Schlossberg refers to these three stages as (1) move in (entering into a new situation), (2) move through (learning in the new situation) and (3) move out (ending one transition and preparing for the next). More recently, Bridges has come up with another three terms which are (1) endings (disengaging from a previous role and relationship), (2) neutral zone (a gap between the old and the new life) and (3) new beginnings (engaging with new roles and relationships).[3]

        According to Ashforth, role transitions are fundamentally about crossing role boundaries and in so doing, taking off one persona and donning another involves two significant movements, that is, role exit (separating from an old role) and role entry (adapting to a new role).[4]

        Anderson, Goodman and Schlossberg claim that although transitions represent a natural and necessary aspect of adult development, they are viewed as the times that are most distressing and challenging, yet unique in the opportunities for growth and development.[5] Hudson stated that life transitions affect not just our physical and emotional well-being but all aspects of our life, including personal confidence, intimate bonds, family interactions, jobs/careers, and social commitments.[6] Other empirical studies have found that people tend to experience differing negative consequences of transitions including low self-esteem, loss, grief and depression, anxiety, insecurity and frustration, physical stress symptoms and lowered immune system.

        Previous research suggests that there are two primary explanations why transitions have negative consequences for well-being. One aspect of change is generally characterised by uncertainty and lack of information, including losses in terms of social network supports, familiarity and meaning, which heighten stress and anxiety.[7] Another aspect is that individuals are not likely to have mastered the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the new context.

        In the context of the Catholic Church, empirical studies have found that former priests encountered more challenges when they experienced transition from the ministerial priesthood to the lay state because this transition process is associated with stigma. Mascarenhas’s study on the transition experienced among resigned priests in the Philippines has generalised some significant findings of the transition experience such as (1) that transition experiences of resigned priests differ for diocesan and religious priests, for Filipinos and foreigners, and for the prepared and unprepared. (2) The transition of resigned priests is more difficult than the transition of career changes in the corporate world, due to stigma. The social stigma is a natural consequence and inevitable phenomenon of priestly resignation, but its intensity is culturally or ethnically based. Filipino priests experience more stigma than non-Filipino priests. (3) Transition becomes more difficult when the significant people with whom the resigned priest has had an emotional attachment remain connected immediately after resignation. (4) Most resigned priests tend to live a clandestine life. (5) Locating oneself in a supportive physical setting after the resignation can facilitate better adaptation to the new role. (6) The birth of a child brings about reconciliation among the parents and siblings of the resigned priests and with his in-laws as well. (7) The moment of official dispensation from the priesthood seems to be the moment of vindication that marks the end of a period of uncertainty.[8]

        Fernandez highlights that ministerial priesthood is a high status and it is bestowed with a lot of rewards and privileges which make the role of the ministerial priesthood unique compared with other occupational roles. In addition, becoming a priest entails undergoing a long and difficult preparation. An aspirant to the priesthood usually has to go through an average of 12 to 13 years of rigorous seminary training to qualify for ordination. Thus, when a priest leaves ministerial priesthood, he loses a lot, because he forfeits his previous investments in the ministerial priesthood as well as his present and future gains from those investments. On top of that, he incurs further costs on account of his having to start all over again in a new career and a new life.[9]

        There is no doubt that the transition from being a priest to becoming a lay person is very challenging, especially because the stigmatisation and negative reaction of people could detrimentally impact the psychological wellbeing of the former priests. In light of this, the researcher, as a mental health professional, would like to conduct research on the experience of transition of former priests in the context of China for several reasons: First of all, the researcher has observed that the lives of former priests have been significantly neglected by the Catholic Church in China and most of the former priests have been neglected by Church members and live a clandestine life. Secondly, the researcher, as a Catholic and a former seminarian, has noted that the majority of Church members in China hold negative perceptions toward former priests. Many of those people tend to condemn and discriminate against former priests by means of gossiping, judging and blaming.

        Furthermore, this study explores what caused the Chinese diocesan priests to leave their ministerial priesthood, what they experienced at the time they were leaving ministerial priesthood and how they coped with the challenges that presented themselves during the process of adapting to a new role in life. It is hoped that this study will lead to better intervention and support structures for former Chinese priests, as well as for those who are struggling with their priestly vocations.

Motivations to become a priest

        The research revealed that the motivations for becoming a priest of each participant differed from one to another. A majority of participants were motivated by external factors. Some of the participants were motivated by only one single external factor while others were motivated by several factors. Several participants were motivated by mixed factors (intrinsic and extrinsic factors). A few of the participants were motivated by intrinsic factors alone.

        The ministerial priesthood has been regarded by Chinese Catholics as an honourable position bound with privileges. More than half of the participants claimed that they were attracted to the prestige, privileges and honours of the parish priest. Some participants became priests for the sake of fulfilling the expectations of others, for example, some were encouraged by parents and relatives, and some were invited by their parish priest or the bishop as a result of vocation promotion.

        Several participants were especially attracted to the high education of the parish priest. Education is a part of the formation process for every Catholic priest. A candidate usually has to study in the seminary for six to twelve years to gain the qualification for ordination. In addition, the seminaries in Mainland China do not request any payment from the seminarians’ family. In most cases, it is usually the bishop who pays for the education of his seminarians. Because this is the case, some participants reported that they became seminarians because they were interested in having the free education offered by the seminary, since their families were not able to afford their further studies. A few of the candidates were promised by their bishop that if they become priests, the bishop would send them to study either in a public university or in some noted university abroad. Aside from the higher education, positive personal characteristics of the parish priest (being holy, kindhearted and knowledgeable) were also attractive to some participants and led them to enter the seminary.

        A few of the participants were strongly attracted by the life style of the parish priest. While working as a priest in the Catholic Church does require a large amount of time and physical effort, it would be considered by many to be more enjoyable than working as a manual laborer in a factory. More surprisingly, two participants entered the seminary and became priests partially due to the fear of death caused by the prophecy of Nostradamus. A prediction by Nostradamus that the earth would be destroyed in 1997 led two men to think that studying in the seminary and becoming a priest could save their souls. On the other hand, a few participants were motivated by intrinsic factors including seeking the meaning of life in the seminary and living as a priest, having a desire to help the parish priest to serve the Church, or longing for a closer relationship with God.

        In general, the motivations of the participants are categorised into four groups: (1) those who were motivated by several extrinsic factors, (2) the few participants who were motivated by only one single extrinsic factor, (3) those who were motivated by mixed factors ( extrinsic and intrinsic factors); and (4) the few participants who were motivated by several intrinsic factors.

        The findings of this study suggests that the motivation for becoming a priest was primarily extrinsic, that is, an outer response based on such factors as image perception and privileges that come with the role of ministerial priesthood. It would seem that an interior sense of a call by God was absent in the majority of cases. One reason for this seems to be that parish priests recruit candidates for the priesthood without checking for interior motivation. For example there are instances where a priest or bishop would give a scholarship to poor families and a student felt obliged to become a priest, or there would be a promise of further university studies, or study abroad, etc. In addition, some of their family members and relatives had perceived the ministerial priesthood as an honourable position, and wished that their son would pursue such a privileged position. Thus, some of the participants became priests for the sake of fulfilling the expectations of others.

Experiences of seminary formation

        A seminary is a place where men discerning their vocation undertake discernment and formation. Once a man enters the seminary, the decision to be a priest is by no means final. The discernment process continues as he begins preparation for the priesthood, especially in the first few years. The seminary is the optimum environment for a man to grow deeper in his spirituality and earnestly ask God “Is this really what you are calling me to be?”

        The formation system in the seminaries in Mainland China varied from one seminary to another. No standardised formation program was implemented in every seminary; some seminaries had developed considerable formation and academic programs, whereas other seminaries were still underdeveloped in terms of a formation system. From the beginning of 1980s up to the end of 1990s, many seminaries did not have enough qualified formators. Some seminaries had a hard time inviting qualified guest professors. Under the circumstances, only a few participants had a positive experience with their academic formation. Despite the fact that many challenges existed in the seminary, a majority of the participants fostered within themselves a sense of purposeful determination. Their goal was very clear, to become a priest. In addition, a few of the participants developed personal skills aside from those studied in their major fields.

        In terms of their negative experiences, about half of the participants experienced unqualified formators, rigid rules, conservative regulations, unstandardised educational programs and even a formation environment that was out of date. Only a few participants reported that they struggled with their personal issues as they were discerning their priestly vocation. Their main personal issues were struggling with sexuality, longing for marital life, and confusion about their priestly vocation. Unfortunately, these issues were not properly addressed and solved during the formation process, due to a lack of spiritual guidance in the seminaries.

Experience in becoming and working as a priest

        Some participants claimed that they actually struggled with their confusion whether to be ordained or not. One made a decision to be ordained by casting lots. It is sad to know that some participants made a decision due to the pressure of family or people in the diocese who wished them to be a priest for a long time. It is a pity that after many years of training and discerning in the seminary, these participants still did not know whether they had a priestly vocation or not. It seemed that they had never been taught how to discern the priestly vocation and find the true call of God. Obviously, some of them should not have been ordained, since they were lacking proper assessment by the diocesan superior regarding their readiness to be ordained. These participants unfortunately rushed into ordination without discussing with their diocesan superior their personal struggles and doubts.

        The majority of the participants claimed that they initially enjoyed their ministerial priesthood. As a result of providing good service, they were highly respected and appreciated by their parishioners. A few of the participants had further studies after serving the parish for a few years. The findings of data reveal that some participants rushed into ministerial priesthood; they were ordained as a transitional deacon a day before being ordained into ministerial priesthood. Some of them had their ministry practicum for just a few weeks before their priestly ordination, which is not encouraged by the Catholic Church. According to the Code of Canon Law (# 1031), a seminarian should be ordained to the transitional deaconate at least for six months before being ordained to the priesthood. During the six months the deacon gains some practical experience of pastoral ministry under the guidance of a priest. In the light of this requirement, participants who rushed into the priesthood may not have been able to have a good preparation for ministerial priesthood.

        It is sad to note that some participants experienced indifference and neglect from their diocesan superiors, especially when they were in a critical situation where financial support, psychological care and spiritual encouragement were needed. Some participants struggled with their personal issues which were not properly solved in the seminary. Typical personal issues included feelings of loneliness, falling in love with a woman, constant longing for marital life, and physical health issues. These personal issues became prominent challenges for some participants to remain as a priest. In addition, some participants struggled with issues related to their pastoral ministry, such as feeling inadequate to carry out a pastoral ministry which was beyond their ability, feeling exhausted due to an overload of work, being unable to serve the diocese as a normal priest due to physical health issues, lacking financial support for necessary pastoral expenses and medical insurance from the diocesan superior.

The trigger event for leaving the ministerial priesthood

        Fernandez (2001) found that there are many factors that can cause a priest to leave the ministerial priesthood, including: (1) the bishop: a crucial person whose actions and words could either inspire a priest to remain or encourage them to leave; (2) hidden subconscious issues; these may cause a priest to leave if the issues are not properly dealt with and solved; (3) multiple roles (e.g., professor, lawyer, manager, etc.): especially those roles which are conflicting with the role of a priest; (4) women: most often they were not seen to be the causes of departures, but they often served as facilitators in the departure process.

        According to the data, relationship issues appeared to be the main factor that directly caused a majority of the participants to leave the priesthood. However, issues related to their improper motivation, and personal struggles that were not addressed and resolved during their formation process to a great extent had predisposed them to the possibility of leaving the ministerial priesthood. Work-related challenges served as supplementary factors that led many participants to get involved in relationship issues which eventually caused them to leave the priesthood. In addition, work-related issues became a direct cause for only a few participants. They lost their passion and interest to maintain their ministerial priesthood.

        In general, the majority of participants in this study were involved in a romantic relationship before they decided to leave the priesthood. Among these participants, some of them claimed that their decision to leave the priesthood was mainly based on their romantic relationship, but others reported that, though they were involved in a romantic relationship, their decision to leave the priesthood was based on the breaking of their vow of celibacy. This unfaithfulness made them feel unworthy to occupy the role of a ministerial priest. In addition, one participant had a very strong desire for marital life which eventually caused him to decide to leave the priesthood and to get married. However, his decision to leave the priesthood was made after a period of discernment.

        On the other hand, a few participants who left the ministerial priesthood did so because of the direct impact of work-related issues including feeling inadequate to handle the challenges associated with pastoral ministry, burnout and losing interest in pastoral ministry. Among the rest of the participants, work-related issues served only as supplementary factors. These mainly include a lack of concern on the part of the diocesan superior. This was especially true when participants were in need of financial support or medical treatment, and the diocesan superiors were not able to provide either loving care or financial support.

        In brief, the findings of the data reveal that leaving the ministerial priesthood was not caused by one trigger event alone, but by a combination of various factors including their improper motivation to become a priest, the unstandardised formation they had in the seminary, the gravity of their personal issues, the level of the challenge associated with their pastoral ministry, the situation in the diocese and the influence of the diocesan superior.

Major experiences of transition from being a priest to becoming a lay person

        The life transition experienced by former priests is more challenging compared to other career transitions because this transition is associated with a stigma, despite the fact that there is a feeling of liberation and freedom (Mascarenhas, 2014). As the transition theories suggested, although transitions represent a natural and necessary aspect of adult development, they are viewed as the time that is most distressing and challenging, yet unique in the opportunities for growth and development (Anderson et al., 2012).

        Two types of experience are drawn from the data analysis, that is, positive experiences and negative experiences. First, regarding the positive experience, the study reveals that almost all participants experienced God’s care especially during difficult times. Some former priests even experienced a closer relationship with God after they became a lay person. In addition, a few of the participants experienced feelings of emancipation after they became a lay person. It seemed that the ministerial priesthood was a real cross for them. Some participants fortunately found a sense of belonging in their newly established family. Lastly, a few of the participants enjoyed developing an interesting career and establishing a successful business project.

        Second, the findings reveal that participants encountered many challenges after they left the ministerial priesthood. Major challenges and difficulties were as follows: (1) people in the Church expressed negative reactions toward the priests who were leaving, for example, through gossip, judging, condemning and even discriminating against them; (2) all respect and privileges bound up with the position of priesthood suddenly disappeared; (3) many of the former priests felt useless and inadequate to develop a new career because nothing they learned in the seminary was helpful for them to find a job; (4) some of them still felt guilty for breaking the commitment to God that they made at ordination; (5) in order to avoid embarrassment, many of them lived a clandestine life, especially during the first few years after leaving the priesthood; (6) some participants spent a great amount of time and effort adjusting to their partners due to differences in personalities, attitudes and mentalities; (7) some of the parents were very disappointed, because for a long time they had wished for their son to become honourable priests; (8) when the former priest stepped into society, he encountered a lot of unexpected changes including being fired by an employer, or being unqualified for a job or having a conflict with coworkers; (9) a few of the participants experienced identity confusion, especially when their former parishioners addressed them with different titles; (10) some participants claimed that many people in the Church expressed negative reactions towards their partners, because they believed that it was the partner who dragged them out of the priesthood; (11) a few of the participants experienced depression during the most difficult times such as when one person’s scandal was spread abroad everywhere, or when a person’s business project collapsed, or when breaking up with a girlfriend and so forth; (12) a few of the participants broke up their romantic relationships after they left the priesthood, which brought them a lot of sadness and negative emotions; (13) some participants have not received a dispensation from the Pope due to the complicated procedure, and therefore they have never received Holy Communion since the day they left; (14) one participant experienced discrimination from the Church members against his family members.

        In general, the findings of the data indicate that former Chinese priests experienced various ups and downs associated with their role transition. Leaving the priesthood therefore is not as simple as people would like to believe. It is a painful process that requires a large amount of effort, time and good coping strategies from each individual in order to be able to survive in a new environment.

Coping with challenges and adapting to a new role in life

        Transitions often involve significant life events that require coping with what is perceived to be a crisis situation. Innate growth and potential may be realised through addressing and coping with these significant life events (Brown & Lent, 2008).[10] Two major themes emerged from the data related to the participants’ coping with challenges and adapting to a new role in life. The first major theme refers to the external resources that participants sought and used for coping with challenges after leaving the ministerial priesthood. The second major theme refers to the internal coping tools that each participant had and used to cope with challenges associated with the process of role transition.

        Almost all participants reported that God was significant and helpful to them. They relied on God and shared their pain with God, which, to a great extent, helped them to cope better with the transition process. Participants reported that God helped them through different ways such as touching people’s hearts to help them to accept the former priest’s decision to leave the priesthood, helping participants to find a decent job, and in taking care of one’s partner when she delivered a baby and so forth.

        Aside from God, participants also sought help and support from other resources including their family members, partners, Catholic friends, non-Catholic friends, in-laws as well as former priests. Types of support sought and given varied from one case to another. The major types of support were financial assistance, spiritual encouragement, advice for career development and psychological support. Some significant statements from the participants were as follows:

I am very thankful that God touched the hearts of the faithful to accept and respect my decision to leave the ministerial priesthood…”

Nobody would hire me without a civil degree. However, I talked to God about my concerns. Surprisingly, God had already taken care of what I was worrying about.”

Aside from the support of my wife, my own birth family members, including my sisters and brothers, helped me financially and emotionally.”

Some of the priests kept in contact with me and gave me spiritual encouragement.”

        Aside from the external resources, participants also used their internal coping tools to deal with challenges during the process of the role transition. Internal resources mainly included religious faith, good personal characteristics, a positive attitude and a healthy personality. Firstly, eleven participants out of the twelve claimed that their leaving the ministerial priesthood had nothing to do with their faith. A common experience among these participants is that although they left the priesthood, they still kept communicating with God through personal prayers and daily sacrifices. Secondly, they exhibited good personal characteristics including being responsible for their lives, their loved ones and the duties entrusted to them by employers. They were flexible when they were in difficult situations where they had to make a critical decision, such as changing a career or adopting a baby. Furthermore, they showed a willingness to learn, that was very significant and helpful in guiding them to acquire new skills and knowledge needed for their new job.

        The findings of this study revealed that a positive attitude was helpful in guiding most of the participants to cope better with their role transition. A positive attitude helped the people to grow and develop greater convictions and beliefs that strengthened their ability to handle stress, to cope with challenges and difficulties in life (Fritz, 1998).[11] The positive attitude possessed by participants included being persevering in developing a career, being confident in handling challenges, having a positive view of one’s failures, being able to encourage oneself, being forgiving toward those who had prejudices against them, and so forth.

        Lastly, a healthy personality also played a significant role in helping the participants to cope with challenges. A healthy personality included being patient with others, being humble especially in dealing with partners as well as employers, striving to reconcile with their former parishioners who were hurt by their leaving, having an outlet for self-expression and so forth. In brief, internal coping tools were very helpful for participants to improve their sense of identity, confidence, self-esteem, and well-being, while eliminating their negative emotions and unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. Some significant statements from the participants are as follows:

        I tried to do something in my daily life as my repentance, and I also kept communicating with God through my personal prayers.

        After leaving the priesthood, I have to work for a living and I have to take responsibility for my beloved wife and children. I have to keep looking for a better job and take responsibility for my work.

        I have gone through many difficult situations and the worst situation was having no money for my family, especially when my business collapsed and I felt depressed. Nevertheless, I kept telling myself that “I should not give up so easily and I have to make an effort to live a better life.”

         did not have any professional skill that could be used for employment… I learned a small business would be more practical for me in dealing with my financial problems. Operating a small business would not require a college degree.

        In general, the study reveals that the transition from being a priest to becoming a lay person may provide opportunities for both psychological growth and dangers of psychological decline. The result depends on the unique reactions or coping strategies of the individual participant. With more supportive external resources and good internal coping tools, participants could better cope with the challenges associated with the role transition.

Recommendations to seminaries in Mainland China

        The findings suggest that seminaries in Mainland China must offer a comprehensive formation program to help seminarians better discern their priestly vocation. Seminarians must be provided with a tailored formation training program that matches the requirement of ministerial priesthood. Any such program must be composed of four major aspects: (1) human/personal formation, (2) spiritual formation, (3) theological formation and (4) pastoral formation. In addition, qualified professors and formators must be invited to teach in the seminary. They should form seminarians as integrated persons with good moral character and mature personality. Proper spiritual guidance and other necessary formation such as psycho-spiritual formation must be given, so that seminarians will become knowledgeable and insightful about how they ought to handle different types of ministry in any situation. In particular, formators need to be equipped to teach seminarians the skills of handling crises in ministry, so that these seminarians can deal with the challenges and difficulties they will meet in ministry.

Recommendations to the diocesan leaders in China

        The findings of this study suggest that diocesan leaders must provide proper vocation promotion programs for young people; by which, candidates must be made aware of what is the real meaning of a priestly vocation and the call of God. Any such program must avoid showing only the bright side of the ministerial priesthood. The challenges and difficulties that priests are facing must be honestly discussed. Diocesan leaders, especially the Bishop and the diocesan administrator, must be aware of their responsibilities to take care of their seminarians and fellow priests. This may include providing them with pastoral counseling, spiritual guidance, retreats, mental health care and medical insurance.

Recommendations to the Chinese Seminarians

        Seminarians are advised to develop a deeper spiritual relationship with God through prayer and to build a solid spiritual foundation. They must be prudent in discerning their priestly vocation and comprehending the meaning of the call to ministerial priesthood. They should avoid being motivated by external factors. They should keep in mind that their decision to be ordained is not a matter for other people, but their own vocation,”that is, a calling from God. Unless they feel that they are being called by God deep inside their heart, they should not make a decision to receive ordination to the priesthood.

Endnote :

  1. Schlossberg, N. K. et al., Counseling Adults in Transition:?Linking Practice With Theory (2nd ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1995.
  2. Van Gennep, A., The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
  3. Bridges, W., Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd Ed.). Boston: De Capo Press, 2004.
  4. Ashforth, B. E.,?Role Transitions in Organizational Life: An Identity-based Perspective. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  5. Anderson, M. L., Goodman, J., and Schlossberg, N. K.,?Counseling Adults in Transition: Linking Schlossberg’s Theory with Practice in a Diverse World. New York: Springer Pub, 2012.
  6. Hudson, F. M., The Adult Years: Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 1991.
  7. Meleis, A. I.,?Transitions Theory: Middle Range and Situation Specific Theories in Nursing Research and Practice. New York: Springer Publisher, 2010.
  8. Mascarenhas, J., Transitions in the life experiences of resigned priests (Unpublished Master’s Thesis). Manila: De La Salle University, 2014.
  9. Fernandez E. R., Leaving the Priesthood: A Close Reading of Priestly Departures. Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 2001.
  10. Brown, S., & Lent, R., Handbook of Counseling Psychology (4th Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008.
  11. Fritz, R., One Step Ahead: The Unused Keys to Success. California [?]: Sage Creek Press, 1998.

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