By Fr Mike Schmitz
I keep getting asked about discerning one’s vocation, so I decided to write a few snarky thoughts about how you can move forward.
Disclaimer: I am being sarcastic for humour and effect, not because I think that you, the reader, are ridiculous.
This blog post is primarily for guys, but it can also be applied to many women and their own discernment.
1. “I know I’m not called to be a priest; I really want to be married and have a family.” (This one is closely connected with: “I like girls too much.”)
This is one of the funniest things I have ever heard. It’s like saying that you must not be called to marry Jane because Jill is attractive, too.
If you think that you couldn’t possibly be called to the priesthood because you like girls, you are confusing “health” with “call.”
Every man who is healthy and loves Jesus will find both the vocation to marriage and the vocation to the priesthood attractive. The funny thing about this statement is the fact that people who claim this say it with such authority. Often without any serious discernment (more on that in a second), they “just know” that they couldn’t possibly be called to be a priest.
Now, if a man doesn’t really feel any impulse or draw to the priesthood, that is fine. I have some good friends who, when they considered the priesthood, never got a real sense that that was something God was calling them to investigate more deeply. That happens. But it isn’t the same thing as “I want X, therefore I am not called to Y.”
2. “I’ll just be a deacon.”
Stop. Right there. Just … stop.
I’m sorry. I’ll be serious for a second. But here’s my frustration: I will talk with young men all of the time who have a sense that God is calling them to the priesthood, but they “really want to get married,” so they will say something along these lines. What they are pretty much saying is, “I want to strike a compromise with God, so I’ll be a deacon.”
But the diaconate is actually another distinct call in the service of the Church. It isn’t something that a person “compromises” with God over. Most permanent deacons experience the invitation from God to pursue the diaconate as a “call within a call.” They first successfully discern marriage to one specific person, and then, in the context of that vocation, they discern another call to serve.
Let me reiterate: the diaconate is a particular call for some men; it is not where we negotiate with God to give him a “part” of our lives.
3. “I need to know my vocation by the end of the semester…”
Ah, my friend. There’s this super annoying concept called “God’s timing.” And it is a real thing. The sooner that we come to embrace it as a great gift, the sooner we will reach holiness. I prayed virtually every day for ten years for God to let me know what he wanted me to do in regard to his call. I was genuine in that prayer, and I thought that I was totally ready for him to tell me, but God knew (and still knows!) better than I do. In the meantime, I had to make life decisions and plans that were prudent. With every decision, I had some panic—(“God, you need to let me know my vocation soon! Prom tickets need to be bought, applications are due, deadlines are coming … I have to make my decision now!”)—but if I had needed to know, God would have made sure that I had known.
Here’s the deal: you can trust God to guide the timing of this entire process. Pray. Get good counsel. Make the wisest decisions you can for the time being, and in the meantime trust God.
4. “I’m discerning right now…”
Okay, I don’t mean to split hairs too much, but it is really important that we understand that “discernment” is more than “I’m thinking about…”
It is time that we get past the idea that a person is discerning based off of the simple fact that they are considering one vocation or another. “Considering” isn’t discernment; it’s pondering.
Don’t get me wrong, a large part of discernment includes thinking and pondering. But actual discernment involves action. It involves taking steps. It involves movement.
Now, that movement could be talking to a priest, visiting a seminary, seeking spiritual direction, or researching more about a religious community on the internet. You could even fast from dating for a season to free up time to visit seminaries without the time-commitment of a relationship (I’m not calling girls baggage … I’m just saying, puh-lease).
A side note for the young women who find themselves entangled with a guy who is “discerning.” Sisters, if he is not taking action toward discovering God’s will in his life but tells you he is “discerning,” he either doesn’t know what discernment is … or they be playin’: “I’m sorry ”’ I like you too, but I’m discerning God’s call right now …”
And brothers, if you are reading this, and you have said or thought those words, you don’t have to worry about being called to the priesthood right now. You need to step up and be a man—that is, be honest with yourself and with this girl—before you can even think about being manly enough for the priesthood.
In addition, you can only discern one vocation at a time. That means if you are dating, you are NOT discerning the priesthood/religious life. You are discerning marriage—not just the “vocation of marriage,” but marriage to THE particular person you are currently dating. Conversely, if you are in the seminary (or have the application underway), you are discerning a vocation to the priesthood.
Note: as soon as you decide to enter the seminary, you will meet girls who seem to come out of nowhere and one may appear to be the Girl Of Your Dreams. These girls will probably be awesome. And they may even be into you. This. Is. Going. To. Happen.
What does it mean, though???
I’m just telling you right now, as a man who kept meeting incredibly amazing women once I decided to enter seminary, it doesn’t mean anything. It just means that you are a good guy, and good women like good guys.
5. “I don’t think that being a priest will make me happy.”
I get that there are bits of truth in each of these statements that apparently bother me more than they should. I mean, I was there at one point as well. And I also got all excited when I heard people say stuff like, “You have to pay attention to your heart’s deepest desire because that will often be how God communicates his will.” (I agree with this, by the way. I believe that it is true.)
The unfortunate thing about this is that it is often misunderstood. We can think that this means your vocation is kind of a “you-fulfilment project.”
Your vocation is not about you becoming as fulfilled as you can possibly be.
As I acknowledged, the vocation to which God is calling you will match up with the deepest desires of your heart. Sure. Fine. But that is not the same thing as saying that your vocation is the ultimate self-expression and self-fulfilment. Jesus promised that all those who would come after him were called to “come and die.” We get things seriously wrong when we think that our vocation is about us.
Your vocation is about HIM (the one who calls us), and it is about THEM (those whom we are called to serve).
If God is calling you to follow him and to serve them, the question: “Will this make me happy?” is less irrelevant.
Now, because I am saying some of this in a dramatic fashion—some might say “melodramatic”—I do want to clarify something: there is nothing that brings a person more joy than doing God’s will. Though Jesus calls us to “come and die,” he does not mean that we just default to choosing the path we least desire (and think that must mean it is God’s will). God loves you. He wants your good. Because of that, his call for you will fit really well. And it will bring you joy and fulfilment.
But that anticipated fulfilment can’t be the criterion for discerning a vocation. The sole determining question in discernment is: “Does God want this?”
Bonus: A Couple Not-Ridiculous Things
God always speaks with clarity.
God wants you to know his will. He doesn’t make it a mystery novel that you have to solve. He will reveal himself and his will when the time is right. All you have to do is learn to listen to him in prayer, live a life consistent with a man who is actively pursuing Jesus, and stay close to the sacraments.
You are always called to be a man of virtue.
I remember being in spiritual direction with a man who had discerned priesthood by going to the seminary. He realised, while there, that it wasn’t where he was called. So, he left seminary and dated a couple of girls in an intentional way. All the while, he was trying to follow God’s call.
At one point, though he didn’t know where God was calling him ultimately, he knew what God was calling him to immediately—a life of virtue. And he set himself to work on that.
Eventually, he met and began dating the woman who is now his wife and the mother of his children.
And maybe—just maybe—he’ll be called to be a deacon!