Pray for vocations during this National Vocation Awareness Week!

This week, November 4-10, 2018, is National Vocation Awareness Week, with a special focus on discerning the call to priesthood, religious life and diaconate. In these difficult days for the Church, it can be especially hard for young people to discern whether God is calling them to dedicate themselves totally to building the kingdom of God. Please join this week in praying for the holy vocations that the Church and the world so desperately need.

If you are a young person discerning your vocation, check out Pope Francis’ Message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations here. I think these short paragraphs in particular offer much-needed encouragement and insight:

God continues to “come down” to save our human family and to make us sharers in his mission. The Lord continues to call others to live with him and to follow him in a relationship of particular closeness. He continues to call others to serve him directly. If he lets us realize that he is calling us to consecrate ourselves totally to his kingdom, then we should have no fear! It is beautiful – and a great grace – to be completely and forever consecrated to God and the service of our brothers and sisters.

Today the Lord continues to call others to follow him. We should not wait to be perfect in order to respond with our generous “yes”, nor be fearful of our limitations and sins, but instead open our hearts to the voice of the Lord. To listen to that voice, to discern our personal mission in the Church and the world, and at last to live it in the today that God gives us.

May Mary Most Holy, who as a young woman living in obscurity heard, accepted and experienced the Word of God made flesh, protect us and accompany us always on our journey.

– Pope Francis, 2018 Message for World Day of Prayer for Vocations

 

The National Religious Vocation Conference put together this five-minute video that offers insights into various communities of consecrated life and discernment:

If you need inspiration in praying for vocations, check out this collection of  vocation prayers hosted on the USCCB site. There are over 40 prayers—more than enough prayers here to choose a different prayer for every day this week!

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Vocation #Discernment: the Real Deal @ Chastity

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Lovely view from convent rooftop where I sometimes go to gain perspective

Some months ago, I received a question from a young woman that, after telling me her story, could be boiled down to her question at the end: How have you dealt with feelings of attraction after you decided consecrated life was best for you?  

This is a great question, and depending on where we are in our discernment (or if someone is still discerning), we can approach it from several perspectives. I’d like to note that this question can come up both when we’re initially discerning a celibate life, and again at some point when we’re living celibacy or consecrated life.

If we are discerning our vocation between priesthood/consecrated life and marriage… 

then these feelings are an opportunity to further discern our vocation. (Just a note here: feelings of attraction are a part of life, no matter our vocation or state in life. Being attracted to someone is no indication of a vocational calling.) For someone discerning marriage, a key question is how strong the attraction is, and what about this person attracts us? If it is simply a physical attraction, then we acknowledge it and let it go. We don’t need to give it additional thought or energy. If, however, it is a deeper attraction—for example, we are drawn to the person’s goodness, the way that they relate to us or to others, their vulnerability and strength—then we might want to think more about it and bring it to prayer. 

Discerning between marriage and a life consecrated to God means discerning how God is calling us to express our love. Especially if we are in the early stages of our vocational discernment, if we find someone with whom we want to explore spending the rest of our life, then it makes sense to choose to get to know that person and see how the relationship develops. On the other hand, if we have been discerning our vocation for a while and have been moving towards the possibility that God is calling us to consecrated or priestly life, then this could be a good opportunity to “test” out our call to celibate chastity. Can we simply put the attraction aside, choosing not to spend time or energy on it, and see how we are several weeks (or months) later? If we find our minds constantly returning to this person we are attracted to, regretting that we didn’t engage with that person, then it may be an indication that living celibate chastity might not be our call, or we may not be ready yet to embrace it.

If we have already made a commitment to priestly or consecrated life… 

then when feelings of attraction arise, we simply don’t give them attention or energy. (We guard our thoughts, hearts, and imaginations so that we are not dwelling on merely physical feelings.) If we have an obligation to the person—for example, we work together—we also may need to practice prudence in how we spend time together. Limiting the time we spend together, inviting others to join us, or not working at night together are some examples. Eventually, the feelings dwindle through lack of encouragement. 

Personally, I have worked with wonderful Catholic men in my media apostolate. Especially when I first started working in cable television, there were very few women in the field. I cannot say that I was not attracted to any of the men I worked with. Occasionally, the thought would even pop into my head, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be married to someone like him?” But because my heart already belonged to Someone Else—with whom I was in a vital relationship—I didn’t encourage or engage in thoughts or feelings that contradicted my vocation. 

As a woman religious, I identify closely with the description of my vocation as a spouse of Christ. So I delight in “keeping the romance going” in my relationship with Jesus. I sometimes write him poems; I love “candlelight praying” at night where my attention is focused on the spotlighted crucifix or tabernacle; I wear a ring to remind me every day that I belong entirely to him. Most importantly, however, I try to pay attention to him, and to his tender ways of showing me his love. (And there are so many, even in just this past week when I was on retreat!) I try to balance my life which, despite the intensity of our mission and lifestyle, also has moments of great joy and relaxation. Healthy friendships (both within and outside of community) provide tangible affection, companionship, and support for consecrated men and women, which offsets the occasional loneliness that we might feel in living consecrated chastity. 

All of us, no matter our vocation, are called to live chastely,

whatever feelings of attraction we may experience. If we are committed to living a chaste life, we stay attuned to our feelings and take them for what they are—no more and no less. In #2340, The Catechism of the Catholic Church encourages us to use these means to grow in the virtue of chastity: self-knowledge, self-discipline in daily life, obedience to God’s commandments, living the moral virtues (the four cardinal moral virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), and fidelity to prayer. 

(For more insights on living chastity as a young woman who is discerning her vocation, check out this book: He Speaks To You by Sister Helena Burns, FSP)

#Discerning Obedience: Path To Freedom

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“No one else can tell me what to do: I value my freedom too much.”

Obedience is not popular today, although everyone is called to practice this virtue. In terms of religious life, it’s probably the hardest vow to understand in our individualistic culture when resistance to or rebellion against authority is so often seen as a virtue. Mistrust of institutions and of authority, due to a heightened awareness of the abuse of power, makes it hard to see the value of promising to obey any superior. In addition, true freedom is often misunderstood, equated with no limitations.

Genuine freedom is not:

  • living without restrictions or constraints
  • the ability to cater to every personal whim
  • doing whatever we feel like doing whenever we feel like doing it.

Genuine freedom is the ability to make choices in accord with our deepest identity as God’s beloved one, no matter what our situation is. Real freedom is choosing to love, no matter what external constraints or inner pressures we face.

The Paradox of Obedience

The vowed obedience of priests and religious conforms us to Christ, who sought only to do the will of the Father. With this vow, we, like Christ, seek to live God’s will.

Ironically, the greatest limits to our freedom often come not from outside of us, but from within us. We are driven by self-serving needs and wants, often without knowing it. We say we’re doing something because “it’s what God wants,” or “it’s the right thing to do,” but actually most of what we do is at least partly self-serving. I may pray and work really hard to prepare a retreat or book that can change lives, and this is mostly a labor of love. But sometimes I find I also have a few motivations “on the side,” including a desire for appreciation. To want a little appreciation is a normal human desire. But when this desire is exaggerated so that we become driven by it to the  point that it shapes our choices, we have become enslaved by our need for the good opinions of others.  Our sinfulness, our pride, our weakness, our greed, the need to be right or useful or to dominate others often drive us to take certain actions. In reality, these interior forces are chains binding us, preventing us from living full freedom!

The paradox of obedience is that, in “giving up” our will, or seeking to align our will to God’s will, we become most fully free.

Obedience frees priests and religious from both external and internal constraints that would prevent us from fully living God’s will. With the vow of obedience, God’s will becomes ours.

JesusMasterCAIMG_20150128_115949266Conformity to Christ

Like the other vows, obedience is a journey, freeing the priest and religious to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly, to do God’s will completely, in every aspect of his or her life. In a most profound way, the vow of obedience enables the religious to live in union with God, completely offering their whole being—including their will—to God.   

In popular culture, a sister’s, brother’s, or priest’s obedience to God directly or through religious superiors is often portrayed as mindless. But mindless obedience is not genuine obedience, which is the submission of our whole being to God–mind, will, heart, and strength! However it is true, as any believer can attest, that God’s ways don’t always make sense to us. Human beings will always experience an element of mystery in God’s plan for creation. In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul wrestles with the question of why his fellow Jews rejected Christ, but he concludes his two chapters of anguish and attempts to understand with one of the most beautiful hymns of praise to God’s inscrutable wisdom.

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).

It’s also true that obeying God through human authority sometimes doesn’t seem to make much sense. I have to confess that, even after 25+ years of vowed obedience, my opinions and way of doing things almost always seem better to me. The vow of obedience of priests and religious often takes more faith to live, because many aspects of our lives are decided by superiors who speak with the authority of God.* More than once, my transfer or apostolic assignment made no sense to me until later. I’ve also  found that when I’ve obeyed in something that I’ve been asked to do, it may not have been easy, but I’ve learned more and been pushed to be more creative and industrious than I would have otherwise. And, I often see that it brings great spiritual fruit to others.

Finally, there are also the times when the faith and suffering that accompany obedience become a means God uses to bless others. We are the Mystical Body of Christ, and obedience to God is always blessed.

Obedience is still the hardest vow for me to live well. But it’s also the vow that gives me the greatest freedom. And I treasure this vow in a special way because of how directly it helps me to live in union with Christ who said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34).

*As I’ve covered elsewhere, if a superior tells a sister or priest to do something wrong or sinful, they are obviously not speaking with God’s authority.

How Do I Find the Community I’m Called To?

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(Here is the second in a three-part series of posts about discerning religious life. You can find the first post about discerning religious life here.)

People discover their call to religious life in different ways. Every vocational journey is unique, as we are each unique, and God’s relationship with us is unrepeatable.

Sometimes someone will realize that they are called to religious life and then they will start to look for a congregation. Other people encounter a congregation or order, and on the basis of their attraction to the community’s way of life will begin discerning a vocation to religious life.

Both ways are fine. However, what’s important to recognize is that discerning which congregation or order is part of one’s discernment of his or her vocation to religious life. It’s not that a person receives a generic vocation to religious life in the abstract. A vocation to religious life includes a call to a particular community.

* * *

If someone feels the call to religious life but doesn’t know any religious, or doesn’t think they have met the congregation they’re called to, how do they discern which congregation God is calling them to?

Prayer is essential as always, first and foremost. There are many ways to get to know various congregations. As a discerner browses websites and youtube videos, meets different communities, and starts to read up on them, it’s most important to keep bringing one’s experience to the Lord, always seeking the Lord’s direction.

Tips for Finding an Order or Congregation

* If there is a vocation fair in your area, go to it. Many dioceses have a vocation fair every year or every other year.

* Attend events in your diocese that will have religious men and women present.

* Contact the vocation director for the diocese, or the vicar for religious for the diocese, and ask them if there are any discernment groups meeting in the diocese.

* If there are no religious in your area, visit www.vocationnetwork.com, pick a couple of communities that you feel drawn to, and write, email, or call them.

* Browse the websites and available literature about different communities.

* Ask for and listen to recommendations of vocation directors, spiritual directors, and others who know various religious communities (and you) well.

* Look for priests, brothers, and sisters on social media, and contact them there.

* Once you have found a couple of communities you are drawn to, try to connect over the phone, letters, or email. If your interest persists, arrange for a visit.

How To Discern Between Communities

How does one approach looking for a religious congregation in a discerning way? You may wish to make a list of essential characteristics that you are looking for in a community, such as fidelity to the Church’s teaching, or a particular mission, or a specific way of praying.

It may be helpful to look at the orders or congregations by dividing what you see or experience into three key elements: spirituality, mission, and lifestyle. Many religious congregations seem very similar on the surface, or share particular characteristics, but the Church has approved the rule of life of each order or congregation because it is unique.

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* Spirituality

A congregation’s spirituality is more than their practices of prayer; it’s their whole approach to God, to Christ, to the Blessed Mother and the saints; it’s how they approach the journey to holiness. You can usually get a strong sense of how a congregation’s spirituality is well-expressed by how the community prays together.

Every community approaches prayer a bit differently and emphasizes different mysteries of faith—for example, different mysteries or events in the life of Christ. A community usually fits in with a particular school of spirituality. If you are not familiar with various spiritualities—such as Franciscan, Jesuit, Benedictine, etc.—you may wish to become familiar with them, even trying out a few different prayer styles. You may wish to ask your spiritual director what “school” of spirituality might be a good fit for you. Or perhaps you already know that you are especially drawn to Eucharistic adoration, or to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, or to praying in nature. This affinity may guide your initial choice of visiting a community. (You can also find books and other resources on these different schools of spirituality. Sister Kathryn Hermes has written a wonderful book that I highly recommend.)

Although a community’s way of praying may be new or unfamiliar, if you are called to this community, you will most likely feel deeply drawn to it over time.

* Mission

Every congregation has a particular mission. To be fully engaged in mission is a dynamic sign of the health of a community. The mission of each community has a certain urgency, because the members are aware that no one else will fulfill the mission God has entrusted to them; God’s people need what the community offers, and are counting on them! Usually the mission will entail certain spiritual and corporal works of mercy, done in a particular way. Caring for spiritual needs by teaching, counseling, evangelizing, guiding, instructing, praying, etc., and/or caring for physical needs by providing health care, material sustenance or resources, visiting those who are on the margins—either physically, spiritually, socially, morally, or some combination.

Perhaps you have particular gifts or training that will help you to carry out this community’s mission. Or perhaps you share the urgency of the congregation to respond to the needs of the world in this particular way. Sometimes it helps if you can imagine yourself doing what you see the full members doing. Other times, it’s unimaginable but you still feel deeply drawn to the community.

A visit during which you share in the mission of the community can be invaluable for your discerning for this particular community.

* Lifestyle

The unique way that the community integrates their spirituality, prayer, vows, community life, and mission is a concrete expression of their charism—the gift of the Spirit that animates the community in its life and mission. A congregation’s “lifestyle” is hard to define, in part because it’s a combination of a lot of factors, but it can be the most powerful witness for a visitor discerning that community.

Some communities live a more formal, structured lifestyle. Other communities might have similar structure but more simplicity and expressions of individuality. Some communities could be characterized as having a “family spirit.” Some communities will focus on living poverty in a very strict way; other communities will focus more on hospitality or outreach. Some communities will have a more structured schedule; others will be structured more flexibly around the needs of individuals encountered in the mission.

Every congregation will have its own particular way of living the vows, prayer, and mission. A community’s unique way of life may draw you to feel particularly at home. If you have an experience of feeling that you are “coming home,” this is an important aspect of your discernment to bring to prayer.

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Questions To Reflect on When Visiting a Community

When preparing to visit a community, bring these questions with you, and make sure to take the time to reflect on them daily during your visit and overall afterwards.

  • How did your day go?
  • What happened today that impressed you?
  • What was your experience in prayer today?
  • How did you feel today?
  • What did you find challenging?

DISCERNMENT TIP: Don’t look for the “easy” fit, but for the “deep fit.” Remember to keep bringing your experiences to prayer. It’s not just that someone can picture themselves in this particular community, doing what the members of this community do. No, it’s in discovering or knowing that in this community or this congregation, God is calling us closer to himself.

Often, before someone enters a community, they will recognize certain things about religious life in the community that they know they’ll have a hard time with. But that cannot discourage us from following our vocation. Following God’s call means we are challenged on the deepest levels of our being. Another community may feel “comfortable,” or welcoming, but the community to which we are called should make us feel at home to give our all, to try our very utmost, and to be challenged in ways we never expected or dreamed of.

Discernment: Listening with Our Hearts

Slide1Thank you for your patience with me while I’ve been “absent” online. Initially, I planned to take a three-week hiatus from blogging, but events conspired to keep me from getting back here for much longer—I haven’t really blogged since February. In addition to trying to complete a draft of the book, I’ve been focused on other things, such as leading a seven-day retreat, etc.

With the end of the Year of Consecrated Life and the almost-completion of the book’s content, I’m going to blog in a way that I can keep up with; I’ll start with a weekly post. I have a few more posts from the book to put up here, but I also want to simply update the blog with new insights, and respond to your discernment questions. (I have a few still to answer—thanks for the patience of those of you who have emailed me!)

Hopefully, starting this week, I can make my weekly posts fairly consistent. I am excited about “being back” online—I’ve missed blogging about discernment! I will be traveling over the next three weeks, but I will try to get a weekly post up.

* * *

Yesterday’s Gospel (for the 4th Sunday of Easter) is particularly relevant for those of us who seek to discern the Lord’s invitations in our lives:

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (John 10:27-30).

This past Sunday—Good Shepherd Sunday—was also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, during which Pope Francis offered a beautiful reflection on Sunday’s Gospel about listening with our hearts to the voice of the Good Shepherd, which you can find here. In it, the Pope offers perhaps the best definition of discernment: Listening to Jesus with our hearts.

Listening as a way of encountering the Lord and each other has been a strong theme in Pope Francis. In this year’s Message for World Communications Day (which is celebrated every year on the Sunday before Pentecost—this year falling on May 8), Pope Francis has beautiful words about how we are to listen to each other. But we can apply it also to how we listen to God:

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.     –    Message for 50th World Day of Communications

Yesterday, Pope Francis concluded his remarks with a special invitation to young people to consider if God is calling them to consecrate their lives to the Lord’s service, in the  priesthood or in consecrated life.

May God bless each of us in these days with a heart that is open, that attentively listens, that draws us close to the heart of the Divine Master.

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. 

The best vocation is…

Ruth Sharville [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ruth Sharville [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What is the best vocation?

That’s a trick question. Of course, the best vocation is the vocation God calls us to.

But is any vocation—objectively speaking—a higher or better calling than the others? This is a fascinating question that has been hotly debated through the ages. Especially in the Middle Ages, where people were preoccupied with order and hierarchy of importance even in spiritual matters, consecrated life was sometimes described as a higher calling. At least since the Council of Trent (and even in Saint Paul’s letters), various Church documents state that consecrated life should be considered a “higher” calling: living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience is the closest way to imitate Jesus during his life on earth. Living these evangelical counsels also prepares us to anticipate eternal life in heaven.

Personally, it seems to me that if any vocation could be considered a “higher” calling, it would be priesthood, because the priest celebrates the Eucharist every day. However, most comparisons are between religious life versus either married life or diocesan priesthood. Even recent documents refer to the “objective superiority” of the consecrated lifestyle that more clearly and closely reflects Christ’s way of life while here on earth. (You can check out St. John Paul II’s Consecrated Life, paragraph #32). In many ways, it’s helpful to highlight the beauty and importance of consecrated life because it is a more hidden vocation, and marriage is the vocation we are all inclined to. Even those called to religious life may sometimes not consider religious life unless they receive special encouragement.

However, all of this discussion about the “higher” calling is academic at best, and for some it can be deceptive. Idealistic young people might be tempted to search for the “best” vocation, and can make a superficial conclusion that they should follow the “highest” calling—consecrated life—simply out of a desire to be the best.

All of us want to live the “best” vocation. We need to remember:

  • Objectively, a “higher” vocation is different from which vocation is subjectively the best for us. (There’s even a difference between the meaning of the words, “higher calling,” and “best calling,” but we won’t go into that here.)
  • While striving for excellence and greater closeness to Christ is praiseworthy, truly the “best” vocation for each of us is the vocation God calls us to. (Obedience to God is better than the biggest sacrifice. If you need convincing, read 1 Samuel 15:22.)
  • All vocations are beautiful; all vocations are calls to great holiness. Each vocation has different graces, challenges, and gifts.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly supports the approach that the best vocation for us is the one God calls us to. The Catechism (CCC) makes it clear that every vocation is not only important and necessary in God’s plan, but that every vocation has equal dignity. In addition, each vocation faithfully lived  supports the other vocations. (See The Catechism of the Catholic Church  (CCC), #s 871-873.) The Catechism specifically talks about all of the vocations as coming from God, who gives them meaning and gives us the grace to live whichever vocation he has called us to (CCC #1820). Here are a few highlights:

  • The priest is to make the presence of Christ visible and to serve the faithful, helping all believers to grow in the grace of their Baptism (CCC #s1536ff).
  • Religious life is a more intimate expression of the consecration of our Baptism (CCC #916).
  • Marriage is written in our nature as human beings, was created by God and raised to the dignity of a sacrament (CCC #s1601ff).

In our next few posts, we’ll explore some of the general graces, beauties, and challenges of the three vocations of marriage, priesthood, and religious life.  The Church offers a lot of resources to reflect on these three, and I’m hoping that highlighting some of the beauty and gifts of each vocation will be helpful for those who are either just beginning their vocational discernment, or are struggling to move forward.

At this point, I couldn’t possibly cover all the variations of vocations, so these are the three I’ll focus on for now.  Because the post for each vocation is quite lengthy, I might be posting a little less frequently. Later, or perhaps in my book, I hope to include reflections from individuals who are living each vocation. 

Partners in Our Discernment

By Photographes du National Geographic (http://natgeofound.tumblr.com/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Photographes du National Geographic http://natgeofound.tumblr.com/ Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We may begin our vocational discernments on our own. But at some point, hopefully early on in our discernment, we start discerning with our partners in our discernment.

Discerning with others who share our call is important because we do not have a right to any vocation: a vocation is a gift, a call from God, a gift. Those who share our calling discern with us if God is calling us to this particular vocation.

If we are discerning marriage, we can only discern on our own up to a certain point. Even if we are pretty sure that we are called to marriage, we cannot truly discern our vocation to marriage until we meet a possible future spouse, with whom we discern our marriage together. Marriage is a vocation undertaken together with our spouse, and that spouse has an equal voice in the discernment. The other person, too, needs to discern if God is calling him or her to marriage with this particular person. The Sacrament of Matrimony is a covenant made with a spouse before God and the Church. The spouse, therefore, has the duty and privilege to discern their call from God as well. And the Church has a responsibility to bless, confirm, and witness to that covenant, ensuring that both spouses are freely entering into this covenant with full understanding of what it means.

If we are discerning priesthood or religious life, the Church is our co-discerner, with equal say in our discernment. At first, this may surprise us. Aren’t we supposed to follow God’s call no matter what? Yes, but priesthood and consecrated life are calls from God to a specific ministry or mission within the Church. The Church helps us to discern if God is indeed truly calling us to this vocation, and entrusts this task to certain people: the bishop and director of the seminary in the case of diocesan priesthood, the superior and vocation director of the community in the case of consecrated life.

Priesthood and consecrated life are gifts, just as marriage is a gift. Having the Church as our partner or co-discerner is a great source of strength and support in our vocation. When the Church, through the vocation director, confirms our understanding of God’s call, this confirmation can help anchor us in God’s will during times of darkness, doubt, and struggle.

When we are concerned about “making a mistake” in our vocational discernment, our partners in discernment offer necessary reassurance. Our vocational discernment is something we are responsible for, and we need to take it seriously, but it’s not all up to us. Our vocation is a call from God, and God will give us every help in discovering and following our vocation, including the support of the Church—through our potential spouse, the bishop or superior, our vocation director, and our spiritual director.

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.