The Choice Between Dating and Devotion

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Katharine Johnson, a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has two big decisions to make. The first is typical for a college student: Where to go to graduate school? The second is practically unheard of: Which convent to enter?

Johnson, a devout Catholic, is seriously considering becoming a nun. She plans to earn her masters degree in library and afterward possibly take up the veil.

"The joy and peace that sisters have is so amazing," Johnson says of her interest in religious life. "Certainly you can find that joy and peace by having a family, but not on a continual and everyday basis. These women receive so much happiness by giving up everything to follow Christ."

But religious life is about more than earthly bliss. For Johnson, 21, it is the ultimate commitment. As a nun, "you are very public about your beliefs," she says. "Every day you wake up and put on your habit and say to the world, 'I am standing for Christ.'"

The thought of becoming a nun is nothing new for Johnson, an attractive young woman who dresses like a typical college student. She started discerning religious life as a college freshman in 2004 and credits her discernment largely to the St. John's Catholic Newman Center, which is a student center and residence hall at the University of Illinois. "It's not unusual at Newman to talk about religious vocations at the lunch table or to find people sitting in the Chapel in their pajamas at 3 a.m.," says Johnson, who was raised Catholic. St. John's has a national reputation for turning out priests and nuns. Since 1997, it has sent 69 men and 14 women to the seminary or convent.

By the start of her sophomore year, Johnson was attending mass daily and receiving weekly counseling from a spiritual director at St. John's. She also went on her first Nun Run, a weekend field trip to a local convent. At that point, her parents realized Johnson's discernment was not just a passing phase. Her father, Len, took it the hardest. "I was initially very upset by Katharine's discernment," says Len, a manager at a power plant in Joliet, Ill. "I always had visions of her being a wife and a mother, but especially a mother because of how good she is with children."

After four months of prayer and reflection, Len accepted that his daughter could become a nun. "Like any father, I just want her to be happy," he says. "If becoming a nun will make Katharine happy, then I support her decision."

But even after three years of discernment, Johnson still hasn't made up her mind. "I want to know for sure that this is where I am called to be," she says. "I want to look as deep as I can into religious life to know that it is or is not for me."

For now, she continues to pray daily and meet with a spiritual director at the Newman Center each week. She also continues to date, although nothing serious has yet developed. And, like many graduating seniors, Johnson is experiencing an identity crisis made possible by the opportunities available to her. She actually looks forward to the possible rejection letters from the five graduate schools she is applying to. "I am totally excited to receive those rejections because it will be one less decision I have to make," Johnson says. "It's the same with each person I date and each community I visit — when I realize that it's not for me, it's one less thing to be concerned about."

If she does become a nun, Johnson would not be the first member of her family to devote her life to God. Her mother's brother, Daniel Deutsch, is a priest at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Batavia, Ill. At Sunday's mass, he spoke about Johnson's discernment. "Basically her stance is this: Lord I am going to do whatever you want me to do — it's up to you, I'm open," Deutsch told his congregation. "You want me to be a religious sister, I will do that because I have been discerning that. You want me to be married, I will do that because I have also been discerning a call to the married state. I will do whatever you want. I'm open.

"And she's happy because she's open," he continued. "And she's preparing and she's trying to do this according to the Lord's will, not her own — and that's always a pathway to joy."