The 35-year old lawyer asks himself, “Do I leave the job that I love, sell my condo, and give up the life that I have been living to enter the Seminary? After all, I have been thinking about the priesthood since grade school.”
The 21-year old college student at the local state university has been volunteering on the weekends with a group of religious sisters visiting the sick, the elderly and the homebound. Although she has been excited about a career as an accountant, she is now wondering if God is calling her to be a religious sister serving the poor and the sick.
The senior at the Catholic high school is asked by his friends which colleges he is applying to. “None,” he answers confidently. “I’ve been talking to my pastor and I think I’m going to apply to the Seminary for next Fall.”
Discernment is the prayerful consideration that one undertakes when confronted with an important life decision. It is not necessary, for example, to discern whether one goes for Italian or Chinese food tonight for dinner. You may do a Google Search to see which restaurant has the better rating or you may ask your spouse which one they prefer, but ultimately a decision is made. There is no need to invoke the Holy Spirit about your dining location of preference!
However, when considering important life decisions — whether and whom to marry; whether to accept a new job on the other side of the country; whether to buy a first home — these are decisions that should be accompanied by an appropriate time of discernment. Hopefully such decisions are not made hastily or under duress, seeing as they have important consequences, positive or negative, for one’s life.
So, too, when considering a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. This is what we call discerning one’s vocation. And the process of discernment should contain most of the following elements:
—Deep prayer, continually asking the Holy Spirit to provide you with clarity and peace.
—Trust in God that He will, in time, reveal His will for you.
—The desire to serve God and His Church for life in this specific vocation.
—Speaking to your parents, family and friends (as is appropriate, depending on your family circumstances).
—Educating and informing yourself about the life of the seminary or convent, about the apostolates and charisms of the diocese or religious order.
—Speaking to a diocesan vocation director or religious vocation director; attending relevant vocations events, including Come & See retreats and discernment groups.
—Being patient with God and with yourself as the discernment process runs its course, always docile the promptings of the Holy Spirit and to the decisions of the appropriate Ecclesiastical authorities, that is, of the diocese or particular religious order.
Your process of discernment should also contain the following questions:
—What is your motivation for embracing this vocation? Selfless service? Pride and vainglory?
—Is this vocation something that brings you feelings of joy, peace and fulfillment?
—Have you consulted trusted spiritual guides — a spiritual director, trusted priests and religious that you know, other members of the parish who know you well?
—Have you prayerfully considered if a life of chaste and celibate living, in addition to a simple lifestyle, is for you?
—Are you ready for a life of joyful sacrifice for the building up of God’s Kingdom as a priest or religious?
The need for constant discernment
This process of prayerful discernment does not end with one’s acceptance into the seminary or convent. While the content of the discernment will certainly change over time, the need for constant discernment does not change. Why?
For the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, as we have shared in previous articles in this series, the formation program in the seminary lasts from seven to nine years. Each seminarian must continue to discern his call to the priesthood throughout each phase of seminary formation. The 4 Pillars of Priestly Formation — Human, Intellectual, Spiritual and Pastoral — seek to integrate each of these essential areas of formation as the seminarian advances toward ordination.
Together with the guidance and support of his spiritual director and formation advisor, the seminarian ought to be growing and maturing in each of the 4 Pillars of Formation, while at the same time continuing to perceive the call of God within his heart that this indeed is still his true vocation.
It will happen at times that a seminarian will come to the prayerful conclusion, having consulted his spiritual director and formation advisor, that he is requesting a leave of absence (for a determined period of time) or withdrawal from seminary formation. Ideally this has been a well-discerned decision, taking into account both the objective and subject factors that have led the seminarian to this decision.
At the same time, each seminarian undergoes an Annual Review. The Annual Review process includes consultations and evaluations by the seminary faculty and peer reviews to determine his suitability for advancing to the next year of seminary formation.
It also happens at times that this Annual Review process, which includes the active participation of each individual seminarian in his own Annual Review, results in the seminary faculty’s determination that the seminarian should take a leave of absence or withdrawal from the seminary formation program. Such a decision is never the result of a sudden or reactive decision (except in the case of an egregious violation of seminary or archdiocesan policies). Rather, the seminarian will have been well aware of both his strengths and areas of growth.
Thus, significant areas of concern that have arisen in previous Annual Reviews and that have not be addressed satisfactorily may warrant such a dismissal from Seminary Formation. The Annual Review process takes place with transparency and in the fairest manner possible.
Thus, the process of discernment always takes places within in an Ecclesiastical context. Each person must prayerfully discern his own vocation and the signs that point to an authentic call from God. This decision must be made freely, without any outside pressure or duress.
At the same time, the Church also discerns — according to the precepts of Pastoris Dabo Vobis and the Program for Priestly Formation, 5th Edition — whether each candidate or seminarian ought to begin or continue in his seminary formation toward ordination as a priest.
And lest one think that discernment ends with one’s priestly ordination or perpetual vows as a religious, the process of discernment, constitutive as it is of the Christian life, continues throughout one’s life and ministry.
Diocesan priests make a promise of respect and obedience to their bishop. Religious sisters, brothers and priests make a vow of obedience to their religious superior. Just as the bishop or religious superior continually discerns God’s will for the welfare of their diocese or religious congregation, so too does each priest and religious continually discern how they will live out their ordination or religious vows faithfully, joyfully, and according to God’s will and for the building up of God’s Kingdom among them.
May the Holy Spirit continue to enlighten the hearts and minds for all men and women in discernment, each seminarian and religious in formation in the seminary or convent, and all priests and fully professed religious sisters, brothers, and priests as they serve God’s people in the Church.
May the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom they are all consecrated to in special way, guide and protect them always.
BY REV. STEVE DAVOREN & REV. SAM WARD
This is the fourth in an occasional series on the formation of seminarians and the promotion of priestly and religious vocations in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Father Steve Davoren is the director and Father Sam Ward the associate director for the archdiocesan Office of Vocations. They can be contacted at (213) 637-7248 or through www.LAVocations.org. Follow the Office on Twitter (LAVocations), Facebook (LAVocations) and YouTube Channel (LA Vocations).