Considerations on Discerning Consecrated Life

Christ with Martha and Maria by Henryk Siemiradzki, Public Domain

Christ with Martha and Maria by Henryk Siemiradzki, Public Domain

“In the unity of the Christian life, the various vocations are like so many rays of the one light of Christ…. It is the duty of the consecrated life to show that the Incarnate Son of God is the eschatological goal towards which all things tend, the splendor before which every other light pales, and the infinite beauty which alone can fully satisfy the human heart… By professing the evangelical counsels, consecrated persons not only make Christ the whole meaning of their lives but strive to reproduce in themselves, as far as possible, ‘that form of life which he, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world….’

“By embracing chastity, they [religious] make their own the pure love of Christ and proclaim to the world that he is the Only-Begotten Son who is one with the Father (cf. Jn 10:30, 14:11). By imitating Christ’s poverty, they profess that he is the Son who receives everything from the Father, and gives everything back to the Father in love (cf. Jn 17:7, 10). By accepting, through the sacrifice of their own freedom, the mystery of Christ’s filial obedience, they profess that he is infinitely beloved and loving, as the One who delights only in the will of the Father (cf. Jn 4:34), to whom he is perfectly united and on whom he depends for everything. By this profound ‘configuration’ to the mystery of Christ, the consecrated life…acknowledges with wonder the sublime beauty of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and bears joyful witness to his loving concern for every human being” — Vita Consecrata by Pope St. John Paul II, #16.

The Vocation to Consecrated Life

Consecrated life is a vocation in which the person commits themselves to Christ in a radical way—by vowing chastity, poverty, and obedience as a way of following Jesus more closely and more fully living their baptismal consecration. In Vita Consecrata #16, Pope St. John Paul describes religious life as “conforming one’s whole existence to Christ in an all-encompassing commitment.” For religious men and women, this total dedication of self to God through prayer and the service of others is lived together in community, sharing everything in common. Consecrated life also means that one’s love for God extends to God’s people: a religious must have the gifts of generosity and a universal heart, as the consecrated person is called to become a spiritual father or mother of many people.

To sum up: Consecrated life is a lifestyle of deep faith and a closer following of Christ, where one offers one’s whole self to God, serving others wholeheartedly without expectation of reward on this earth, living a poor, chaste, and obedient lifestyle which has its reward in heaven.

Diverse Forms of Consecrated Life

Consecrated life has many diverse forms, from cloistered religious nuns and monks, to active communities of religious men and women, to less familiar forms such as consecrated virgins and secular institutes. Some male religious communities are priests; others are a mix of  priests and brothers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church briefly describes each form of consecrated life, which I’ve referenced below according to paragraph numbers.  A more complete description of the different forms of consecrated life can be found in Pope St. John Paul II’s Vita Consecrata, paragraphs 6-12.

Secular institutes are lay people who live in and evangelize the world by living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, acting as “leaven of the Gospel” in the world. (See CCC #928-929)

Consecrated virgins and widows are called to serve the Church in a life of consecrated virginity or celibate chastity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. This was an ancient way of life in the Church that was recently restored. (See CCC #s 922-924)

Hermits may or may not live the evangelical counsels but strictly separate from the world in order to live in union with Christ. (See CCC #s920-921)

Religious life has a variety of forms but each has the following characteristics: religious make a public profession of the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, live community life together, and witness to the spousal union of Christ with his Church. (See CCC #s925-927)

The Vocation to Religious Life

Religious life is the more common and visible form of consecrated life. There are two basic kinds of religious life—although they are not always clearly divided. Cloistered nuns and monks live a monastic religious life, usually structured around praying the full Divine Office. Their main apostolate or mission is to pray for the world, but they often take on certain tasks or apostolates that they can carry out on the side, in order to evangelize and to support themselves while still giving priority to the liturgy. “Cloistered” means that they live a hidden life, separated from the world, in order to pray and offer their lives for the salvation of others.

Active religious life includes the communities of sisters, brothers, and priests who are more visible and active in serving the world and the Church. These communities usually structure their prayer and life in common around their mission. Communities that dedicate themselves to nursing, teaching, and social work are usually active communities.

Some communities—like my own, the Daughters of Saint Paul—seek to blend the contemplative aspects of monastic life with the active apostolate of the active communities. Their prayer lives are similar to those of a nun or monk, but their days are dedicated to apostolic service. It’s a particularly beautiful and demanding expression of religious life.

Discerning which congregation or community God calls us to is part of the discernment for religious life. People realize that they are called to religious life in different ways: some will recognize the call and then start to look for a community or congregation. Other people meet a congregation, and on the basis of their attraction to that community’s way of life, will begin to discern a vocation to religious life. Some people are attracted to a particular mission; others focus on a community’s spirituality. What’s important to recognize is that a vocation to religious life includes a call to a particular community. Discerning religious life includes discerning which community God calls us to. In a future post, we’ll look a bit further at some practical steps that can be taken to discern which community one is called to.

In the meantime, browse www.vocationnetwork.org to see the huge variety of religious life and of consecrated life.

Particular Graces & Strengths of Religious Life

The framework for consecrated life, especially religious life, is being dedicated to God for the sake of humanity, being an apostle of God’s love sent to serve all humanity in the particular spirit of one’s community. The service may be primarily that of prayer (for a cloistered contemplative) or a combination of prayer and action. To live a genuine religious life a universal heart is needed: that is, the desire and ability to generously embrace and serve all people—not restricted to one’s family or neighbor or parish. With the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, a religious is called to be a spiritual mother or spiritual father to everyone. This universal love is well-expressed in religious who become missionaries, who go wherever they are needed.

Through their vows, religious men and women live a closer following of Christ with a special intensity. Obedience is a “deep listening” to God together that frees religious from their own egos and wills and unites them to the will of God. (Obedience sometimes requires a deeper faith to see the will of God in the superior’s decisions.) The vow of poverty frees a religious from material goods so that he or she can depend entirely on God, putting all of his or her trust in God, and proclaiming with a poor and simple lifestyle that God is the greatest Treasure. With the vow of chastity, a religious offers his or her heart completely to God. God’s intimate love that the religious contemplates daily becomes the source and impetus for enthusiastic, loving service of others.

Religious live their intense radical following of Christ together, sharing everything in common. “Little” virtues that help life together blossom—such as humility, generosity, patience, and living in ongoing conversion—can make community life a tremendous support on the journey.

As a lifestyle on a human level, religious life seems to include many sacrifices and fewer satisfactions. But the joys of belonging to Christ completely, of knowing the love of God so fully, and sharing the love of God with others, overshadows the sacrifices. This special witness to joy is a frequent characteristic of authentic religious life, and it’s a reminder to all Christians—including the religious—that the joy of heaven is the only true lasting joy.

Some Reflections on Religious Life

“Poverty is the greatest wealth, chastity is the greatest love, obedience is the greatest freedom.” — Blessed James Alberione

“Religious life is a life of more vivid faith.” — Blessed James Alberione

“Religious life has its roots deep in the Gospel… The religious state, which is a perfecting of the Christian life and the integral practice of the Gospel, seems all the more a paradox: the sacrifice of one’s own life in order to save it, giving up everything in order to gain everything. And in culmination of this paradox, poverty becomes wealth; abasement leads to exaltation; virginity bears life; servitude becomes freedom; sacrifice, beatitude; service, apostolate; death, life. “I have been crucified with Christ, and if I am alive, it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” The mystic crucifixion of the religious is accomplished by the three nails of poverty, chastity and obedience. And this, after the Mass and martyrdom, is the greatest and most meritorious act.” — Blessed James Alberione

“Invited to leave everything to follow Christ, you, consecrated men and women, no longer define your life by family, by profession, or by earthly interests, and you choose the Lord as your only identifying mark. Thus you acquire a new family identity.” —St. Pope John Paul II, Homily at the Jubilee of Consecrated Life, February 2, 2000

“To have your heart, affections, interests and feelings centered on Jesus is the most important aspect of the gift that the Spirit works within you. He conforms you to the chaste, poor and obedient Jesus. And the evangelical counsels, far from being an impoverishing renunciation, are a choice that frees a person for a fuller realization of his potential.” —St. Pope John Paul II, Homily at the Jubilee of Consecrated Life, February 2, 2000

“The life of prayer and contemplation founded on the Eucharistic mystery is also at the heart of the vocation of consecrated people who have chosen the path of the “sequela Christi,” to give themselves to the Lord with an undivided heart in an ever more intimate relationship with him. By their unconditional attachment to Christ and to his Church, they have the special mission to reminding everyone of the universal vocation to holiness … Consecrated men and women proclaim that God alone can give fullness to human existence.” —Pope Benedict XVI, 2006 Address to Canadian Bishops

“Is Jesus really our first and only love, as we promised he would be when we professed our vows? Only if he is, will we be empowered to love, in truth and mercy, every person who crosses our path. For we will have learned from Jesus the meaning and practice of love. We will be able to love because we have his own heart.” —Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People for the Year of Consecrated Life

“Be men and women of communion! Have the courage to be present in the midst of conflict and tension, as a credible sign of the presence of the Spirit who inspires in human hearts a passion for all to be one (cf. Jn 17:21). Live the mysticism of encounter, which entails ‘the ability to hear, to listen to other people; the ability to seek together ways and means.’ Live in the light of the loving relationship of the three divine Persons (cf. 1 Jn 4:8), the model for all interpersonal relationships.” —Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People for the Year of Consecrated Life

“We are called to know and show that God is able to fill our hearts to the brim with happiness; that we need not seek our happiness elsewhere; that the authentic fraternity found in our communities increases our joy; and that our total self-giving in service to the Church, to families and young people, to the elderly and the poor, brings us life-long personal fulfillment.”—Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People for the Year of Consecrated Life

Scripture Passages To Pray With:

  • Genesis 12:1-9 Call of Abraham
  • Matthew 19:16-30 The Rich Young Man
  • Luke 1:26-56 The Annunciation
  • Luke 5:1-11 “Put out into the deep”
  • John 1:35-51 “Come and see”
  • John 15:1-17 “You did not choose me but I chose you”

Considerations on Discerning Priesthood

 A Saintly Priest: Father Damien of Molokai Photo credited to Sacred Hearts Archives, Rome - http://www.hawaiimagazine.com/images/content/Damien_Hawaii_Saint_Molokai_Kalaupapa_canonization/Damien%20p1.jpg, Public Domain

A Saintly Priest: Father Damien of Molokai
Photo credited to Sacred Hearts Archives, Rome – In Public Domain

“In the unity of the Christian life, the various vocations are like so many rays of the one light of Christ, whose radiance “brightens the countenance of the Church….’  Sacred ministers, for their part, are living images of Christ the Head and Shepherd who guides his people during this time of “already and not yet”, as they await his coming in glory.” (Vita Consecrata, #16)

“The priestly vocation is essentially a call to sanctity, in the form that derives from the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  Sanctity is intimacy with God; it is the imitation of Christ, poor, chaste and humble; it is unreserved love for souls and self-giving to their true good; it is love for the church which is holy and wants us to be holy, because such is the mission that Christ has entrusted to it.  Each one of you must be holy also in order to help your brothers pursue their vocation to sanctity.” — Pope St. John Paul II, Rome, Italy, Homily on October 9, 1984

“His calling is a declaration of love. Your response is commitment, friendship, and love manifested in the gift of your own life as a definitive following and as a permanent sharing in his mission and in his consecrations.  To make up your mind is to love him with all of your soul and all of your heart in such a way that this love becomes the standard and motive of all your actions.  From this moment on, live the Eucharist fully; be persons for whom the Holy Mass, Communion, and Eucharistic adoration are the center and summit of their whole life.  Offer Christ your heart in meditation and personal prayer which is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  —Pope St. John Paul II, Valencia, Spain, November 8, 1982

“The world looks to the priest, because it looks to Jesus!  No one can see Christ; but everyone sees the priest, and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord!  Immense is the grandeur of the Lord! Immense is the grandeur and dignity of the priest!” —Pope St. John Paul II, Rome, Italy, October 13, 1979

The Vocation of Priesthood

Priesthood is the vocation of men who are ordained and consecrated to serving the People of God in persona Christi, or “in the person of Christ” who is Teacher, Priest, and King. Priests share in Christ’s ministry, building up the People of God as the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Priests take the vow of celibacy, in order to be more closely configured to Christ and so that they can completely dedicate themselves to their priestly ministry. They also take a vow of obedience to their bishop (in whose priestly ministry they share). The primary areas of priestly ministry are teaching, governing and sanctifying the People of God. Key aspects of priestly ministry include:

  • administering the sacraments, especially celebrating the Eucharistic Sacrifice and absolving sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation
  • preaching the Word of God and explaining it
  • shepherding the People of God,  accompanying them on their journey

Because they are called to lead the People of God on the way of salvation, priests have a special obligation to a life of holiness. Their vocation to love is that of service, but rather than an exclusive service dedicated to their own family, priests are called to be fathers and shepherds to everyone. Their vocation can be summed up thus: A priest is called to be Christ for all whom he meets.

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Here is an excerpt from Vatican II’s document on the priesthood, Presbyterorum ordinis, describing the purpose of the priesthood:

The office of priests, since it is connected with the episcopal order, also, in its own degree, shares the authority by which Christ builds up, sanctifies and rules his Body…. Priests, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are signed with a special character and are conformed to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head…

The purpose, therefore, which priests pursue in their ministry and by their life is to procure the glory of God the Father in Christ. That glory consists in this—that men working freely and with a grateful spirit receive the work of God made perfect in Christ and then manifest it in their whole lives. Hence, priests, while engaging in prayer and adoration, or preaching the word, or offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice and administering the other sacraments, or performing other works of the ministry for men, devote all this energy to the increase of the glory of God and to man’s progress in the divine life. (#2)

To sum up, priests are called, ordained, and consecrated to God’s service, sharing in the very ministry of Christ himself, and continuing Christ’s presence in the world through celebrating the sacraments, proclaiming the Gospel, and shepherding the People of God throughout their lives. They are dedicated in a particular way to the service of the Church.

Particular Graces & Strengths of Priesthood

The framework for priesthood is a celibate life dedicated to ministry. Presbyterorum ordinis highlights several virtues or characteristics that are especially helpful for priestly ministry:  goodness of heart, sincerity, strength and constancy of mind, zealous pursuit of justice, and affability. In talking to priests, Pope Francis often highlights the importance of the priest’s relationship to Christ, the priest’s closeness to the people he serves, his dedication to service, and personal integrity and humility as key aspects of what it means to be a priest.

Pope Francis’s recent reflections on the priesthood are helpful in understanding how important human formation and the family, closeness to Christ and his flock, and the call to serve, are to the life and vocation of every priest. You may wish to bring his thoughts, as well as the Scripture passages below, to prayer.

A good priest, therefore, is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history, with its riches and its wounds, and who has learned to make peace with it, reaching an underlying serenity, that of a disciple of the Lord. Human formation is therefore a necessity for priests so that they learn not to be dominated by their limitations, but instead to build on their talents…

We priests are apostles of joy, we proclaim the Gospel, that is, the “good news” par excellence; it is certainly not we who give strength to the Gospel — some believe that —, but we can either help or hinder the encounter between the Gospel and people. Our humanity is the “earthen vessel” in which we safeguard the treasure of God, a vessel which we must take care of, in order to properly pass on its precious content.

A priest cannot lose his roots; he always remains a man of the people and of the culture that engendered him. Our roots help us to remember who we are and where Christ has called us.

Answering God’s call, you become a priest to serve your brothers and sisters. The images of Christ that we take as a reference for the ministry of priests are clear: He is the “High Priest”, close in the same way to God and to mankind; he is the “Servant”, who washes feet and who becomes a neighbor to the weakest; he is the “Good Shepherd”, who always has as his goal the care of the flock.

There are three images that we should look to when thinking about the ministry of priests: sent to serve men, to help them obtain the mercy of God, and to proclaim his Word of life. We are not priests for ourselves, and our sanctification is closely linked to that of our people, our unction for their unction; you are anointed for your people….The good that the priests can do is born mainly from their closeness and their tender love for people. They are neither philanthropists nor officials; priests are fathers and brothers. The fatherhood of a priest does so much good.

Closeness, the depths of mercy, a loving gaze: to experience the beauty of a life lived according to the Gospel and the love of God, which is also made concrete through his ministers. God never refuses. —Address of Pope Francis, Nov. 20, 2015

Resources for Prayer and Reflection About the Vocation to Priesthood

Here are a few Scripture passages to pray with, that could be helpful for someone  discerning his vocation to the priesthood.

  • Exodus 3:1-15 Call of Moses
  • Isaiah 42:1-7 “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations”
  • Matthew 9:35-38 “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”’
  • John 13:1-15 Jesus washes the feet of the disciples
  • 1 Peter 2:4-10 “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”
  • Hebrews 4:12-16 “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and favor”
  • Hebrews 5:1-10 “You are a priest forever”

If you are reading this blog but not discerning priesthood, join me in taking a few moments to  pray for future priests: those currently discerning, and those who have not yet received Jesus’ invitation to become a priest. 

Connecting Lent & Discernment: 2 Amazing Journeys

sand-768783_1280Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of an amazing six-week opportunity for a spiritual “makeover,” for deepening our relationship with God, for experiencing anew God’s great mercy.

So many connections between our discernment journey and our Lenten journey are immediately obvious. Any time that we focus on renewing, revitalizing, and deepening our relationship with God, our ability to discern is also going to grow. This Lent, in addition to making the 7 Qualities of Mercy online mini-retreat, I have decided to focus my Lent around listening. Listening is a wonderful quality that is a prerequisite for genuine communication—with God first of all, but also with self and with others.

Pope Francis talks about the importance of listening in our relationships in this year’s Message for the 50th World Communications Day:

Communicating means sharing, and sharing demands listening and acceptance. Listening is much more than simply hearing. Hearing is about receiving information, while listening is about communication, and calls for closeness. Listening allows us to get things right, and not simply to be passive onlookers, users or consumers. Listening also means being able to share questions and doubts, to journey side by side, to banish all claims to absolute power and to put our abilities and gifts at the service of the common good.

Listening is never easy. Many times it is easier to play deaf. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. It involves a sort of martyrdom or self-sacrifice, as we try to imitate Moses before the burning bush: we have to remove our sandals when standing on the “holy ground” of our encounter with the one who speaks to me (cf. Ex 3:5). Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.

You might have noticed that Pope Francis talks about listening as a form of self-emptying love, similar in a way to Jesus’ kenosis in taking on our human nature and in dying on the cross. Listening can be a sort of martyrdom. In truly listening, we can imitate Jesus’ self-giving, sacrificial love for us, by putting ourselves and our agendas aside and becoming deeply receptive to whomever we are listening to. Deep listening enables us to become aware of the sacredness of the other. Even if we are just having an ordinary, everyday conversation, deep listening takes us beyond the surface to glimpse the depth of someone else’s humanity and thus, how beloved they are by God.

Lent is a time to die to ourselves so that we can rise with Christ. Learning to listen better is a concrete way to die to self and to welcome the other in a genuine encounter of love and mercy. When we really hear one another, we are more likely to respond to them with compassion, gentleness, and mercy. As attentive listeners, we can discover God speaking to us—not just in prayer and in his Holy Word, or within ourselves in the depths of our own hearts—but especially in the words and unspoken longings and vulnerabilities of others with whom we relate.

Deep listening will enrich our discernment journey, eventually becoming more and more foundational to our prayer and our daily seeking the will of God.

* * *

Join me in making the 7 Qualities of Mercy Online Mini-Retreat.

7 QUALITIES FB

Vocational Discernment’s Big Question: What is the next step God is calling me to take?

Vocational discernment is like any other discernment, but it has a particular importance and urgency. In the next couple of posts, I want to highlight special considerations that might prove helpful to take into account for those discerning their vocations.

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Discerning the Next Best Step

Vocational discernment is not about foreseeing the future or committing to one’s vocation in one dramatic leap. Vocational discernment is about seeking to follow God’s will for us here and now. Is God calling me to consider religious life? marriage? priesthood? Discernment is about taking the next best step.

So, for example, if we are in our third year at college or university, and we start to seriously wonder whether God is calling us to priesthood, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we start planning to enter the seminary. Instead, it might mean that we take the first steps in discerning a call to priesthood, such as: talking about it with the diocesan vocation director, finding out more about the priesthood and the seminary, perhaps even visiting the seminary, and finding a spiritual director. Our constant prayer is twofold: To what vocation is God calling me? and How is Jesus calling me to follow him more closely here and now? If we struggle with the tension of this twofold prayer—for example, if we find ourselves worried about a particular future, then it is best to focus only on the second question: How is Jesus calling me to follow him more closely here and now? This question is enough to guide us in our vocational discernment.

If we continue to feel God’s invitation to consider priesthood, then we take further steps along our discernment: we make a discernment retreat; we follow the advice of the diocesan vocation director; eventually with the encouragement of the vocation director, we apply to enter the seminary, etc.

Entering a seminary or a convent is not the end of our vocational discernment, but a significant step along the way. Until a priest is ordained, a couple is married, or a religious professes perpetual vows, the vocational discernment continues.

After ordination, marriage, or profession, discernment continues but is no longer about discerning which vocation, but how to live our vocation. The fundamental question now becomes: How is God calling me to live as a…[priest, spouse, religious] today?

Discerning God’s Will…Our Mission in This World

We do not discern our vocation in a vacuum. We are born into our family, we grow up as part of any number of communities: our school, our neighborhood, our parish, our town, our country, and our world, in this time. When we discern how God is calling us to give our lives in love, it is important that we do so within our situation and our community, aware of the needs of our world today.

In our vocational discernment we specifically want to pray with the needs of the world, and take those into account as we discern, so that we can fulfill the mission God has entrusted to us. We need to bring our full selves to discerning the mission entrusted to us because God calls us—with our unique set of gifts, weaknesses, skills, experiences, and inclinations—to make a specific difference in the world.

At the same time, a big part of our vocational discernment is to “get out of the way,” putting Christ at the center of our lives and of our discernment. The more Christ becomes the center, the more we can take on an attitude of service, of attending to the needs of others. With a Christlike desire to serve, we are more easily able to discern how God wants us to respond to those needs with our lives.

Checklists for Discerning Our Vocation

Many of us discern our vocation informally through the years. When we enter more intentionally or deeply into vocational discernment, we need a few things already in place in our lives. If we aren’t currently trying to live these already, we will find them of immeasurable help in our discernment. But before I post my list, I want to share about another list, found in a book that I highly recommend:

GeekpriestCover

In his book, Geekpriest: Confessions of a New Media Pioneer, Father Roderick Vonhögen shares the story of his vocational discernment in chapter 2, “Spider-Man’s Day Job.” He compares discerning our vocation with the typical superhero story, and shares a checklist for what we can learn from superheroes in discerning our vocation. (How cool is that! I wish I’d had this checklist when I was discerning!)

Father Roderick’s “Superheroes Checklist” is insightful and a great deal of fun for those with geekish tendencies (like myself) who enjoy superhero stories, but it also makes discernment very accessible to anyone who has seen even one superhero film. Included in his checklist are: seek solitude, study and read, discover your strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses, be humble, listen to your friends, do not fear, and persevere.

Geekpriest is a great, fun read and I highly recommend it for young people, as it offers a fascinating and entertaining “inside look” at the life of a dedicated priest, as well as offering helpful ways for living as a Catholic amid our social-media-inundated world. If you are discerning a vocation to the priesthood, the whole book is a fun read that will also get you thinking and praying! (You can read my full review here.)

At a recent meeting with Father Roderick. (With me is Sr. Anne Flanagan aka @Nunblogger)

I was excited and thrilled this week to meet Father Roderick. (Sr. Anne Flanagan aka @Nunblogger is with us)

Below is my less-fun, not super-hero related list of essentials to put in place in your life as you begin or continue to discern your vocation. (Notice that my list intersects with Geekpriest’s SuperHeroes Checklist in more than one place!) This list also sums up a whole slew of my previous blog posts.

1. A dynamic prayer life and sacramental life. Have a real relationship with God that is living and growing. This means a regular prayer life, not just a “hit or miss” approach, or only praying “when I feel like it.” If you haven’t already, commit to daily prayer.

Becoming an “expert” in prayer is a lifelong journey, but having a genuine relationship with God when we are seeking his will is essential. How better to learn how to recognize God’s invitation in the big decisions we have to make, than to listen to God every day?

The sacraments are the privileged ways that the Church offers us an encounter with Christ. Frequently participating in Holy Mass (Sunday Mass is the minimum) and regular reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation are the ordinary means for growing in our relationship with God. They might seem “ordinary,” but both sacraments are really hidden miracles in our midst.

At Mass, we adore, thank, offer ourselves with, and receive Jesus himself, who delights in sharing himself with us and inviting us into his own relationship with the Father. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, all of the obstacles that we put between God and ourselves—our sins, woundedness, and flaws—are forgiven and healed in a sacred encounter with Jesus’ merciful love.

2. Strive to live a good moral life. All of us are called to holiness, to grow in union with God here on earth, a union that will be fulfilled in perfect communion with God in heaven. Every vocation is a call to profound holiness. Constantly living in a state of serious sin means we are putting obstacles between us and God. All sin is a roadblock for our discernment, because sin is turning away from God’s will and choosing our will over God’s. Instead, discernment is striving to know and live God’s will. We do not need to be sinless to discern because we are all sinners, but we want to be striving to be upright, sincere about our journey of growing in virtue.

3. Trust in God. We can grow in trust in God by pondering and praying with these truths:

  • God loves us
  • God knows us better than we know ourselves
  • God has a plan for us that will bring about our greatest happiness and in which we will help others in a way that no one else will.

4. Get to know ourselves. This includes not just getting to know our gifts and weaknesses, but also discovering our motivations, which helps us to know what is most important to us. Including a daily examination of conscience in our prayer helps us to discover any area in our life—an attachment to a particular sin, for example—that might prevent us from seeking God’s will. Why are we entering into this discernment? What is in our hearts, what are we seeking? How can we more singleheartedly seek God’s will?

5. Active engagement with the Church. Our vocational state in life determines our role in the Church, as well as in life. Discernment doesn’t just involve God and us; it also involves the Church, the People of God within whom we will live and serve. In order to discern our role in the Church, we must already know the Church from the inside by being actively engaged with our parish or a church group. If we have not been involved with our parish, or other form of ministry, now is the time to get involved!

Especially for those discerning religious life or priesthood, or between one of these and marriage, it is essential to take part in the ministry and missionary life of the Church; otherwise we will not have the experience of sharing our gifts in ministry and the Church’s mission. Without this experience it’s hard to know what it would be like to share our gifts in this way as a lay person, sister, brother, or priest. We don’t always have to do this through our parish—there are other church groups that we can become involved in—but we need to find some way to get really involved in the Church’s ministry and mission.

6. Regular spiritual direction. [For more about spiritual direction—what it is, how to find a director, and what to expect for the first time, visit here and here.] A spiritual director may not be necessary as we begin discerning our vocation, but once we start to get serious, we should definitely start seeing a spiritual director regularly.

The first five areas are so important for discerning that they are, in a way, “prerequisites” to seriously discerning one’s vocation. If any of these are lacking, it might be a good idea to make that our “next step” in discerning our vocation.

Fundamental Stance in Discernment: Desiring God’s Will

tree-338211_1280The most important part in our vocational discernment is also the most important part in living our vocation: the loving desire to do God’s will. If our fundamental stance in our discernment is to do God’s will out of love, then God will bless us and lead us in our discernment. (When we offer ourselves to God so generously, God so delights in this kind of selfless love for him, that he cannot help himself by responding in kind.)

“Fundamental stance” doesn’t mean that we never sin or fail. Rather, it means that we are seeking to live and grow in an ongoing attitude of this loving desire to do God’s will in all things. We will fail sometimes in seeking God’s will, and we won’t always “feel” full of love. When, for whatever reason, we find ourselves holding back or acting in opposition to God’s loving will, we convert and return to this desire to lovingly live God’s will. Throughout our lives, we will need to repent and recommit over and over again.

Seeking to love God and do God’s will is a matter of our will, of what we choose. Loving God—just like our love for someone we care deeply about—doesn’t always feel good. The greatest acts of love usually involve sacrifice, which rarely feels good. Love of God is also not a matter of superficial feelings that make us feel good. We don’t always feel full of love for God. Rather, love is both the deep desire and lived-out choices of loving words and actions.

How can we grow in our love for God so that we will unswervingly seek God’s will—in our vocation discernment and in living out our vocation?

Build our relationship with God through prayer.

Prayer is our communication with God, whether we snatch moments through the day for short, intense prayers, pray the daily Liturgy of the Hours or the Rosary during our commute, make an hour of adoration or ten quiet minutes of meditation in the morning or evening. Whatever form our prayer takes, it is essential to build our relationship with God. It is essential to make sure, no matter how we pray, to leave time for listening. On occasion, putting aside some quality or “special” time for just us and God can bear immense fruit in our discernment, whether that means going away for a weekend retreat, or taking a long quiet walk.

Bring our relationship with God into our daily living.

Don’t keep God separate from the rest of our life. Our relationship with God is the most important relationship we have; our faith is one of the best ways to keep the joys and challenges of life in perspective.

God desires a deep union with us, and this is not an “on-and-off” union. By actively trying to bring God into our daily life, we deepen our union with God and open ourselves more fully to his grace. We can become channels of his grace for others with whom we interact.

While God never actually leaves us, we can try to “keep God out” of our daily lives when we ignore God’s presence, avoid prayer, or deliberately sin. When we prevent our union with God from growing and push God away from our awareness, we prevent the most important relationship in our life from having a direct influence on our daily choices. When we do turn to prayer, it can become harder, then, to experience God’s presence because we have ignored him all day. Inviting God into our day—especially the difficult times—gives us a strength and a joy we cannot imagine otherwise.

When we are able to become aware of God’s presence with us and around us in our daily life, then we are more open to hearing his invitations; we become more discerning in our daily life.

Although love is not a matter of feelings, it is helpful to stir up feelings of love for God so that it is easier to seek and do God’s will, especially when pleasure, fear, or something else inclines us in other directions. All prayer is good, but certain kinds of prayer are especially helpful in rekindling our daily fervor. Lectio divina, or making daily meditation (in the Christian sense of praying with the Word of God in such a way as to encounter God with our minds, wills, and hearts), is ideal for reminding us of God’s love for us and all the good reasons there are for our loving God in return. Praying with the Word of God in a way that personally engages us also helps us to know ourselves and to prepare us to live our day in union with God.

One of the Most Important Discernments We’ll Ever Make

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Whether we follow our vocation or not can have eternal consequences, both for ourselves and for others. And it definitely has profound consequences on our lives and happiness here and now. In other words, discerning our vocation is a big deal, and it’s something to take seriously!

On the other hand, we do not need to worry obsessively about mistakenly missing out on what our vocation is altogether.

Discerning our vocation presupposes a couple of assumptions about God and his relationship with us. Without these assumptions, it doesn’t make sense for us to discern, nor is it possible for us to discern well. Discerning is based on the beliefs that:

1. God has a plan for us

2. God’s will is the best for us (because God is almighty, omniscient, all-loving and merciful)

3. God will communicate his will to us, at least as far as the next step he invites us to take

Discerning God’s will for us is putting our lives, our future, all we have, are, and want to be, into God’s hands. When we discern well, the process of vocational discernment brings us to a free, complete surrender to God’s will for us. Discerning our vocation is an immense act of trust in God’s loving goodness. This is one reason why it’s so important to nurture a personal relationship with God throughout our lives, and to be already living a dynamic relationship with God when we begin to discern our vocation. True discernment requires this immense trust in one’s real, personal relationship with God. A superficial relationship with God that we haven’t taken time to develop may not have the depth to sustain the generous surrender that discernment requires.

For those who worry about making a mistake

in their vocational discernment: If someone mistakenly chooses a vocational state different from what is God’s will for them, God will work with that person to bring them to live his or her personal vocation as fully as possible, inasmuch as the person seeks to collaborate with God’s action in their lives. On the other hand, if someone discerns God’s will but deliberately—out of neglect or self-will or omission—follows his or her own will instead of God’s plan, it’s harder for God to work with this person, because they aren’t truly seeking God’s will. That is why the key to discernment truly is the motivation to do God’s will. God can (and does) work with our mistakes, perhaps eventually bringing us to living the fullness of his plan for us. God will not, however, force us to choose his will if we choose another path. God always leaves us free.

If we are sincerely seeking God’s will, and we do our best to come to know and then to follow God’s will for us, then God will guide us, because God loves us, knows us better than anyone else ever could, and wants us to experience the fullness of happiness.

What is vocational discernment?

LoveisHumanVocationFor the next few posts, we’ll be focusing on one of the most important discernments that we can ever make: our vocational discernment.

In his apostolic exhortation, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, St. John Paul II wrote, “Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (no.11).  Every person has a unique, unrepeatable vocation to love. Discerning one’s vocation means discerning how God is calling us to love, how God is calling us to bring life into the world.

Several understandings of the word “vocation” have arisen even in Catholic circles, which could cause a bit of confusion.


Possible meanings a Catholic would give to “vocation”:

1) a person’s call to priesthood or religious life

2) how God is calling a person to live their call to love throughout their entire life

3) how God calls a person to live their call to love through a specific state in life


Let’s look closer at these three meanings:

1) Using the word “vocation” only to mean a person’s call to priesthood or religious life is too restricted a meaning. Every human being has the vocation to love. The vocation to marriage is just as important as the call to priesthood or religious life.

2) The concept of “personal vocation” is important and still developing. Our personal vocation includes—but is more comprehensive than—our vocation to a specific state in life. Our personal vocation animates how we live in every aspect of our lives. Every human being has a vocation to love, which is strengthened and specified when we receive the sacrament of Baptism.

Father Herbert Alphonso, in his small but powerful book Discovering Your Personal Vocation: The Search for Meaning Through the Spiritual Exercises, talks about our personal vocation as the unique God-given meaning of our lives, and as God’s call to us to reveal through our lives a particular aspect of the face of God. In an article in “America” magazine, author Russell Shaw describes personal vocation as “an unrepeatable call from God to play a particular role in his redemptive plan and the mission of the Church.”

(If you are interested in exploring the concept of personal vocation further, I highly encourage you to read Father Herbert Alphonso’s book, Discovering Your Personal Vocation: The Search for Meaning Through the Spiritual Exercises, and Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name by Germaine Grisez and Russell Shaw.)

3) The most common understanding of “vocation” in its Catholic sense, is how God calls a person to live their call to love through a specific state in life. “Discerning one’s vocation” traditionally refers to discerning whether one is called to Holy Orders, consecrated life, marriage or the single state. This is how I have been and will continue to use the word, “vocation.”

Discerning one’s vocation, understood as discerning one’s state in life, is potentially the most important discernment one can make, because this one choice “sets the course” of our entire lives to be most in accord with God’s plan for us. Living God’s will as closely as we can is the surest way to finding deep happiness and fulfillment. Living according to God’s plan for us means that we are seeking to fulfill the unique mission God has given us—and others’ happiness could easily depend on whether and how we fulfill our specific mission.

Discerner Q&A: How do age (and other) requirements for entering religious life fit with God’s will?

Human requirements and limitation can be like fences that direct us to our specific path

Requirements and human limitations can be like a fence directing us toward our specific path

Over the past few months, I’ve received a number of questions or areas of interest that mid-lifers or those with more life experience have asked with regard to discerning religious life. One of the most frequently raised is the question of the requirements that most religious communities have, especially age limit and good health. Nowadays, many communities have shifted their age requirements. Vision Vocation Network has done a good job of gathering a helpful list of communities that accept candidates who are are older. (In general, contemplative communities are often more flexible about age requirements.) The same webpage also offers a few suggestions for people who have disabilities who feel called to religious life.

Actually, all vocations have requirements, especially when it comes to specifics. Potential spouses have certain requirements for marriage to each other. Diocesan seminaries are governed by Church law. What’s important to remember is that our vocation is a gift that comes from God. No one has a “right” to a particular vocation—because it is God who grants us our vocation as pure and gratuitous gift.

Every religious community or institute has a number of requirements contained in its rule of life—a rule approved by the Church. For example, most communities require good health because they have a demanding lifestyle and mission that require it. But other qualities are just as important in discerning whether someone might be happy in a particular community; however, these are less obvious and take more time to discern. These qualities might include: the desire and ability to grow spiritually; a character that is open, generous, sincere, willing to learn, and flexible; the ability to collaborate with others; a desire to serve; sociability; the desire and ability to live as a member of a community; sufficient maturity and self-awareness. There are many good reasons for setting specific requirements for a particular community—the unique way that the institute carries out its mission and life together requires certain qualities for the individual to be happy and for the community to thrive. A religious community usually knows best what a new member needs in order to be able to fully live and happily embrace their new life and mission. Most religious communities keep their requirements to the minimum—the absolutely necessary—because they are eager to share their life and charism with new members.

Requirements don’t always seem fair, and in rare instances where a candidate lacks one requirement and both the individual feels deeply called and the community sees extraordinary potential for a good “fit” with their community, vocation directors and superiors will consider, consult, and pray if an individual’s situation or case could justify making an exception. (In some cases, such an exception can be granted only by the Holy See.)

But ordinarily if a person lacks something that is seen as necessary by the community for new members, this is usually a genuine indication of God’s will—that God is calling the person elsewhere. Discovering that God isn’t calling us in a particular way may be disappointing at first, but in truth it’s a step forward in our discernment. As various paths are eliminated, God’s path for us becomes clear. God uses human limitations—even something that seems arbitrary—to direct us towards his will for us: what is best for us, where we will thrive.

Discerning God’s will in the concrete circumstances and limitations of our lives is not easy. It requires a deep spirit of faith and prayer. Opening ourselves to seeking God’s will makes us vulnerable to hurt and disappointment. But no matter where our discernment leads us, no matter how hurt, disappointed, or confused we become, we want to cling to God through the ups and downs of our discernment journey; to allow the “bumps in the road” that we experience to purify and free our hearts so that our desire to do God’s will grows ever greater in us.

Discernment: A Call within a Call

silhouette-691522_1280Many women saints—like Jane Frances de Chantal, Elizabeth of Hungary,  Rita of Cascia, and today’s saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton—were wives and mothers who, after the death of their husbands, entered religious life. They did so after a period of grieving, discernment, and taking care of their children.  Their midlife discernment of God’s call to enter religious life was dramatic.

Whether or not we face such dramatic change in our life circumstances, we may still receive a new call from God that transforms our lives into something new: “a call within a call.”

“A Call within a Call”

Born the youngest child of her parents, she lost her father when she was eight years old. By the time she was twelve, she felt the call to become a missionary. When she turned 18, she left behind her beloved family and traveled to a foreign country to join a missionary community of teaching sisters. A year later she was sent as a missionary to another country, professed her vows, became a teacher and eventually principal of the school where she taught. Loved by her students, she experienced great joy as a religious sister and was respected by her community for her profound spirit of prayer, generosity, and compassion.

When she was thirty-six, on her way to making her annual retreat, she received another inspiration from God, what she called “a call within a call.” During her retreat and afterwards during her prayer, she became urgently convinced that Jesus was calling her to radiate his love in a new mission to those in the slums. She shared her inspiration with her spiritual director and her superior. Although eager to begin, she waited obediently for two long years for the Church to confirm her inspiration and new mission. Finally, she began her new mission all alone, choosing to wear the native dress of the local women rather than a traditional religious habit. She had to learn by trial and error how to best help the people in the slums, always seeking to discover Jesus in the unwanted, the unloved, and the uncared for.

Perhaps by now you recognize that this missionary sister was Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, soon to be canonized. (The second miracle attributed through her intercession has been recognized as truly miraculous.)

The new film, The Letters, beautifully shows the story of Blessed Mother Teresa’s discernment. It’s not unheard of for a sister to begin a new congregation, but it’s very difficult and almost always very painful. Note that Mother didn’t change her vocation, but discovered that God was calling her in another direction within her calling, even though she was a perpetually professed sister in the Sisters of Our Lady of Loretto.

All of Mother Teresa’s life is inspiring, but this particular aspect of her story can give courage to us who—because of or despite our already-existing commitments—feel God’s invitation to “something more,” or “something new,” especially when we’re not sure how to go forward.

Those with the benefit of some years of life experience have some advantages in discernment that younger people don’t have:

* We know ourselves well, and so we may be able to discern more easily between the voice of self-deception and God’s voice. With greater self-knowledge, it might be easier to discern how God is calling us. With greater experience, we can respond to God’s invitation with insight and perhaps greater resolution. Already knowing what it means to make a commitment, it’s less likely we will be  easily discouraged.

* We already have mentors who know us well and can offer us their advice and wisdom from the years that they have known us

* We have a lived history of our relationship with God, and so we can more easily perceive continuity between how God has called us in the past and how God is calling us now. (For example, Mother Teresa always felt called to be a missionary. Beginning the work of the Missionaries of Charity wasn’t really a change from her fundamental vocation of being a religious missionary, but extended that call further.) This continuity in how God works in our lives is another sign to look for that can help affirm that the call we are receiving is truly from God.

* * *

If you didn’t catch The Letters in U.S. theaters this December, keep an eye out for its release to DVD. I’ll try to post when it comes available again.

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