A Catholic Reject
“Basically they sat me down and kicked me out. It was very much like a breakup, ‘it’s not us, it’s you’ conversation. I was completely blindsided … One of the sisters brought me a cup of soup to eat alone ... That was at 5 pm. They said, ‘We're gonna wake you up at 6:00 and drive you to the airport.”
At the start, Jessica Packard says, her decision to become a nun seemed pre-ordained.
The oldest of seven children, she had spent her first year of college drinking and partying.
She thinks her urge to join a convent was partially an overcorrection for her excesses and partially a desperate attempt to avoid responsibility.
Her impression of religious life was that “once you join, you're good for life. You’re given your work assignments. Just whether to wear a long-sleeved or a short-sleeved shirt was your biggest decision. In the end, I think I was running away from decision making,” she says.
Shortly before she sold her car and gave away her clothes, she texted the vocations director and joked that she felt like the founder was stalking her.
“I'll make this one big decision, and be done,” she told herself.
She loved many aspects of life in the convent, but frequently clashed with her superiors and questioned the written and unwritten rules of convent life, which seemed to have little connection to the rules set down by the founder of the order.
But, she says, she was shocked when sisters in leadership in her community told her she must leave.
During rosary, they asked her to step into the laundry room, where important meetings took place. They told her their decision.
She was not allowed to say goodbye to her friends. One of the sisters brought her a cup of soup to eat alone.
“That was at 5 pm. They said, ‘We're gonna wake you up at 6:00 and drive you to the airport,’” she said.
While Ms. Packard abhors the way the convent managed her departure, she believes they thought they were doing their best to avoid a scene.
“I think they thought they were handling it well,” she said. “The church is holy, but it is made up of human beings, and so are religious orders.”
This practice of abruptly escorting women out in secret is falling out of favour but continues in some communities. It was once also common in seminaries. But today many vocation directors try to put more emphasis on freedom and transparency.
Ms. Packard said she doesn’t regret her time at the convent, although she still harbors a grudge against the founder.
“I kind of think of [my experience in religious life] like a really long retreat. I fell into praying, ‘Thy will be done.’ That’s been my mantra ever since. When I can’t think of words to pray, I still just pray, ‘Thy will be done,’” she said.
Ms. Packard’s transition back into secular life was painful.
“I’m just not meant to be around large groups of women,” she laughed.
Ms. Packard now sees herself as a kind of ambassador to other Catholics who do not fit into a mould of piety and decorum.
“I don’t introduce myself, ‘Hi, I’m Jess. I got kicked out of a convent,’” she said.
But she is willing to share her experience, especially with young people. Some of the girls who heard her testimony have since joined convents themselves, and she is proud of that.
Jessica Packard now runs group and youth programmes.
America. The Jesuit Review