If young people want to properly discern a vocation, they need an expert to help guide them.
In the Church of San Luigi Dei Francesi in Rome, there are the three famous paintings of the life of St. Matthew by the great Baroque artist Caravaggio. The most famous of the paintings is “The Call of St. Matthew.” Matthew, the tax collector, is sitting at the end of a crowded table counting his money. At the other end of the painting is Christ extending his hand like God in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” beckoning Matthew to follow him. But in front of Christ there stands the figure of St. Peter, almost sheepishly extending his hand in a similar gesture. What is the significance of Peter in this painting? Why is he calling along with Jesus? The answer to that question can be found in one of the most important (and most neglected) elements in vocational discernment—a call to priesthood or the consecrated life is never just between Jesus and the individual alone, it is normally mediated by the another. As a result, vocation has a communal or ecclesial dimension.
Several years ago, I had a discussion with a young man about his discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood. During our conversation, this young man confidently told me that he had already discerned that he was neither called to priesthood nor to celibacy. I asked him how exactly he discerned this; by what method or means had he arrived at this conclusion? He said he prayed about it for a while, made a weekend retreat, and after that he knew for certain that God wanted him to get married. I then asked him with whom he had been speaking in order to help him with the discernment process—a priest, religious, or trusted spiritual advisor? His answer was that there was no one. He had discerned this all by himself.
I know that this young man is not alone in his solitary vocational discernment. It’s something of which I have seen a fair amount over the years—young people coming to the conclusion about their vocation (or lack thereof) without having discussed it with anyone. While I admire the apparent willingness to discern a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life, honest and authentic discernment can never be done alone. Discernment must always have a communal and ecclesial dimension because no vocation in the Church is ever “private.” As in Caravaggio’s painting, both Christ and Peter call Matthew. When young people come to me and say they have discerned their vocation without any assistance or guidance, I tell them they need to go back to square one with their discernment. Quite possibly they have arrived at the proper conclusion, but the way in which they got there was faulty.
There are several reasons that discernment in isolation is not viable. First and foremost, there is a great temptation to read our own will into God’s will; it is very difficult to be objective in our discernment. We need the help of other good Christians who know us well because they may have insights that can better help us discern. Quite often, they can see things that we can’t or won’t see in ourselves. Second, particularly when it comes to discerning a vocation to celibacy, it is easy for us to deceive ourselves by convincing ourselves that God is not calling us to such a vocation. Fear often masks itself as devotion and it becomes a mechanism to escape having to face the possibility that Christ might be calling us to renounce marriage for the sake of the kingdom. Third, most people – especially the young—are not familiar with the proper guidelines for discernment. It’s like playing a sport without knowing any of the rules. If athletes want to succeed, they need to have a coach. If young people want to properly discern a vocation, they need an expert to help guide them. Finally, the Lord does not usually speak to us directly through apparitions or locutions. Instead he speaks through the movements of our hearts, anointed situations, and the words of others. Pope Benedict, writing as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in his book, God and the World, beautifully explains this: “God speaks quietly. But he gives us all kinds of signs. In retrospect, especially, we can see that he has given us a little nudge through a friend, through a book, or through what we see as a failure—even through “accidents.” Life is actually full of these silent indications. If I remain alert, then slowly they piece together a consistent whole, and I begin to feel how God is guiding me.” These quiet promptings can be difficult to hear and properly discern without adequate assistance.
The paradigm and scriptural foundation for this truth of discernment in communion is in the story of Samuel and Eli in the First book of Samuel.
One day Eli was asleep in his usual place. His eyes had lately grown so weak that he could not see. The lamp of God was not yet extinguished, and Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the Lord where the ark of God was. The Lord called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.” He ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.” “I did not call you,” Eli answered. “Go back to sleep.” So he went back to sleep. Again the Lord called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli. “Here I am,” he said. “You called me.” But he answered, “I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” Samuel did not yet recognize the Lord, since the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, for the third time. Getting up and going to Eli, he said, “Here I am. You called me.” Then Eli understood that the Lord was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the Lord came and stood there, calling out as before: Samuel, Samuel! Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sm 3:2-10, NABRE)
Samuel heard the voice of the Lord calling him, but he did not know who was calling him. So he went to the priest, Eli, for guidance and discernment. It was only after this that Samuel was able to truly hear in order to respond properly to the Lord’s call. We must seek counsel from someone, normally a priest, who knows the proper methods of discerning a vocation if we are going to discern properly. von Balthasar explains in his book, Light of the World: “Young people do indeed hear a call, but are unsure and unable to interpret and explicate it properly. The Church, the priest, who can distinguish a genuine from a merely imagined call, enters the picture. Like Eli in the Old Testament, the priest must be able to discern whether it is really God who is calling and if it is, train people to listen the to the word perfectly, like a servant.”
In order to properly discern a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life, it is necessary to speak to a priest, or some other expert in the spiritual life, on a regular basis for spiritual direction and guidance. It is important that it be someone who knows the basic rules of discernment in order to be able to properly help you. If after a period of time, both you and your director discern that God is not calling you to the priesthood, then you can pursue marriage. If you discern that the signs are pointing to the priesthood or consecrated life, then it might be time to apply to enter the seminary or convent (or in the case of a consecrated virgin, to speak to your bishop). The only proper place to pursue a vocation is in the seminary, convent, or some other structured program of formation. There are too many distractions in the world to be able to attentively listen to God’s voice; only the seminary or convent provides the proper environment. It’s like trying to talk on the phone in the middle of a loud room; it’s better to go somewhere quiet where you can hear what the person on the other end of the line is saying.
Yet, it’s certain that people have always discerned in isolation either out of ignorance or fear. But it seems to me a greater temptation today is when faith has become “privatized.” Even among many Catholics, that idea that faith is really between “me and Jesus” has become tremendously popular. Of course the personal relationship with Jesus is foundational, but as Christians we also believe that there is always a communal dimension to our faith. As baptized Christians we are members of the Body of Christ. We receive our faith from others, particularly our families (the seeds of most vocations are planted in the family). We come together to worship as a community. We are called to live in a communion of love with each other. And many times, another person often mediates the call itself. This is the truth embodied in Caravaggio’s masterpiece: Peter mediates that call of Christ. Although the individual may feel the stirrings of a call in his inner being, there is often a priest encouraging the young man to consider the priesthood, or a sister encouraging the young woman (or even the little old ladies in the parish that talk to you after Mass and say that you’d make a good priest or nun). Sometimes the invitation to consider a vocation is the spark that lights the desire in the heart to follow Christ in a more radical way.
Discernment of a vocation should always have a communal and ecclesial dimension. Most people understand this even if they have not specifically thought about it. A man cannot decide by himself that he is called to marry a particular woman. She has to accept his proposal and often her parents must agree. A young woman cannot show up at the doors of a convent and tell the mother superior that she had discerned by herself that she is called to be in this specific religious order. First, the order must accept her as a postulant or a novice, and then she must go through years of formation and it is the order that ultimately must decide to accept her for final vows. The same goes with the priesthood. A young man cannot decide on his own that he should be ordained. That decision is up to the bishop upon the advice of the seminary faculty to ordain a man to the priesthood. In particular, the call to the priesthood illustrates not only the communal, but also the ecclesial dimension of this vocation. In the person of the bishop, the man is called by the Church, in order to serve the Church—Christ calls through Peter.
Finally, it is important to consider that a vocation is never for us alone. Whether it is a vocation to marriage, priesthood, or the consecrated life, everyone is called to be a witness to the Gospel to others in their particular state of life. By our words and deeds, by our very lives we are called to spread the love of Christ to others, and make disciples of all. A vocation is not meant for our own personal growth in holiness, but the spread of the Gospel and the sanctification of others. In this vocation we are still called to give of ourselves totally in the service of Christ and the Church.
In conclusion, a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life cannot be properly discerned in a vacuum. To hear the word (logos) of the call of Christ, one must be in dialogue (dia-logos) with Christ, with the Church, and with others. Only in this communion will one be able to properly hear and discern the voice of Lord that speaks to us—not out of the thunderhead, but in the whispers of the heart.