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Hitting “The Wall”

A few years ago I was staying with the Carmelite Hermit Friars in Cristoval, Texas, for their celebration commemorating their incorporation into the Order. Among the guests was Abbot Phillip from Christ in the Desert Abbey in New Mexico. One morning we were both out walking, taking in the West-Texas scenery.

During the course of that walk I was lamenting that a number of our Carmelite students had just announced that they were going to leave our formation program and the Order. I told Abbot Phillip that these men were all doing the “internship” level of their formation.

This “internship” level is a (usually) two-year period following the novitiate when the seminarian works in one of our apostolates (i.e., a parish, high school, retreat house, or mission). During this period the seminarian is away from our formation houses in order to experience our life and our ministry directly. So in my lament to Abbot Phillip I put the blame for these departures on the internship, and that we needed to bolster this level of formation or, better yet, completely overhaul it. As we walked, Abbot Phillip asked, “and are these departures between the students’ third and fourth years of formation?” The answer is, “yes.” Abbot Phillip then said, “I doubt there is anything wrong with your formation program.”

He then proceeded to tell me about a theory he has that he terms “The Three Year Wall.” His observation with Benedictine students is that those who leave their formation program will leave between their third and fourth years—or sometimes shortly thereafter. Benedictine student formation, he then described, is rather different than Carmelite student formation in that their students are being trained to be monks. Their students, from their arrival, do the work of the other monks and stay at the monastery during every level of their formation. They, too, have been worried about departures and have tried to bolster their formation program, but despite their efforts their departure rate remains the same and the time of departures remains the same. Hence, the terms this the “Three Year Wall.”

Carmelite formation is very different in that every level is at a different priory. Our pre-novitiate (postulancy) is in Houston, Texas; novitiate is in Middletown, New York; and internship can be anywhere in the Province. This is so different from the Benedictine model where all formation is in one location. And yet, our retention rates are the same (of those who remain in formation compared to those who depart) and the time for these departures is the same. Yes, it seems like Abbot Phillip’s “Three Year Wall” holds water.

Since then, I’ve been inquiring among other religious communities and diocesan formation programs. There’s no statistical evidence yet— maybe we need to put the well-known sociologist Father Andrew Greeley on the case—but their figures, too, seem to support the “Three Year Wall.” Similarly, the Bureau of Vital Statistics reports that 60 per cent of first marriages, 76 per cent of second marriages, 87 per cent of third marriages, and 93 per cent of fourth marriages end in divorce within five years. Maybe the “Wall” is an across-the-board cultural and sociological phenomenon.

Well, then what is there to do? If the “Wall” is indeed a cultural phenomenon, I suppose we need to be aware of it, and our seminarians be aware of it. Similar to athletics, when a student “hits the wall” (in this case “The Three Year Wall”), if he is aware of it, he may be able to work past it. And lastly, even though our formation program can always be bolstered and our seminarians can always receive more support, we needn’t be overcritical of a program that does indeed work.