Discernment key in order to listen to God’s calling

Peace and joy.

That sounds like a line from a Christmas card, but it’s also a term frequently used in reference to vocation discernment. Those words incorporate the entire continuum of discerning your vocation — from initiation through making the final decision and everything in between. In regard to vocation discernment, you can feel peace and joy even while searching and being uncertain about the final answer. The critical point is that you are discovering God’s will for you, no matter which stage of discernment you’re in.

While each discernment process is different, there are some common elements in all of them.

“There are no two discernment processes which are alike,” said Father Luke Strand, vocation director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “Each man’s encounter with the Lord is different and unique. Nevertheless, it is so important that a man first encounter Christ, and trust in the ways that God is working in his life. Each candidate must be patient and courageous as he pursues his call, seeking peace in God.”

Pray and listen

The first, and perhaps most important, element of vocation discernment is prayer. It is while you are in private dialogue with God that you can most effectively discover evidence of your vocation. In the silent stirrings of your heart, God will speak about his desires for you. Without quiet attention to the Almighty, you can’t clearly hear his voice.

“Set aside quiet time each day to ask the Lord, ‘What do you want of me?’ and then listen to his reply,” said Sister Marie Therese Callea, vocations director for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Wichita, Kan. “‘Be patient, in his time’ people tell you. Use Scripture in prayer and let the living word of God speak directly to your heart. Whenever possible, visit the Blessed Sacrament. Go to Jesus; be with him; listen to him. Devotion to Our Lady, Our Mother, is also important. She is always pointing to Christ.”

A strong prayer life is one of the key qualities Deacon Dennis Dorner looks for in candidates discerning a vocation to the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Deacon Dorner is the archdiocese’s director of the Permanent Diaconate program.


“Discernment of this vocation is all about trying to understand, wrestle with and come to peace with God’s will in your life,” he said. “That can only be done in a spiritual setting; in other words, through an active prayer life. The candidate may not feel that his prayer life is perfect, and this is a common worry. After a while he will come to realize that no one has a perfect prayer life, and that spiritual formation is a lifetime process, and what is important is to be on the journey, to have good guys and to be open to God’s movement in his life.”

Because Jesus is present in his sacraments, you can encounter him there, also. Frequent confession and attendance at holy Mass and Eucharistic adoration will become channels of grace that will help you discern in truth and humility. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calls the Eucharist the “heart of vocations” on its vocations resource page, citing a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on Sept. 11, 2006.

“Eucharistic adoration is an essential way of being with the Lord,” Pope Benedict wrote. “There we can speak with him about everything. We can offer him our petitions, our concerns, our troubles, our joys, our gratitude, our disappointments, our needs and our aspirations. There we can also constantly ask him: ‘Lord send laborers into your harvest! Help me to be a good worker in your vineyard!’”

Relationship with Christ

When you speak and listen to the Lord, you are developing a relationship with him, and it is through that relationship you begin to fully understand his will for you. As with all relationships, it takes time and energy.

“I heard it best from a religious nun who explained the discernment process as dating Christ,” said Father Sergio Perez, West Coast director of vocations for the Oblates of St. Joseph. “If the discerner was living a lifestyle contrary to the teachings of Christ and the Church, or actively dating people of the opposite sex, then they are not focusing on their discernment with dedicating themselves solely to Christ.”

This relationship is so important, in fact, that Father Perez recommends to all men discerning a vocation with his community that they take a year off to concentrate on developing that relationship with Christ in light of their discernment.

Fruitful discernment cannot be done in a vacuum. In this respect, seeking the guidance of a spiritual director or other trusted role model in the faith can be an invaluable tool in your discernment process.

Often, others can see you in ways that you are unable to see yourself and help you to see things from a different and essential perspective. Additionally, talking things out with another person can be a valuable means for sorting out all of the impressions, desires and hopes that are churning around inside you.

“A man cannot discern on an island,” Father Strand said. “Discernment is not just between a man and Jesus. The Church plays an essential role, and the candidate must allow the Church to challenge and strengthen him as he pursues seminary.”

In the case of the diaconate, there are more people with whom you must consult in addition to a spiritual director. A deacon’s vocation to serve will directly affect his wife and children and indirectly his extended family, parish and even his employer (or employees). The man discerning the diaconate must have the full support of his family, especially his wife.

“A married deacon’s first vocation is his marriage, and that vocation must be strong and also growing,” Deacon Dorner said. “God doesn’t call man to a second vocation with the intent of damaging the first one. An authentic call to the diaconate will never result in actions that neglect a man’s marriage, children or the family unit.”

Patience (not too much)

Finally, proper vocation discernment requires keen and patient observation. It is necessary that you visit the ministry or community you are considering and talk in depth with its members so you can get a fair idea of what it’s like to live that vocation.

Click above to view a graphic of CARA's statistics from a vocations report CNS photo

That’s true for the priesthood, consecrated life and the diaconate. Unless you understand what’s required of that vocation, you won’t be able to decide whether you’re capable of fulfilling what God is asking of you.

“Visit different communities to see where your heart feels most at home, volunteer with the community and take advantage of discernment retreat opportunities with them,” said Sister Carolyn Martin, vocations director for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “Consider not only the apostolic work of the community, but also — and even more importantly — their community’s spiritual charism; let yourself drink deeply of its richness.”

The vocation discernment process can take anywhere from months to years, but it’s important to note that it can be counterproductive to allow it to go on indefinitely.

Granted, discerning your vocation can be daunting and even scary, which is perfectly natural, but at some point you must take action.

“Don’t wait for an email from God,” Sister Carolyn said. “Trust in where he’s leading you, and take positive steps toward the beautiful future that his heart desires for you.

“God wants you to be happy,” she added. “In fact, there’s nothing he wants more for you than your greatest, truest happiness.”

Desirable candidates

The discernment process completely depends on the individual, but there are some criteria used by vocations directors that will help both the vocation discerner and director weigh the suitability of the match. Ultimately, vocation discernment is a matter of listening to God’s call deep within your heart. Still, considering how you fit into the measurements vocations directors use to evaluate candidates will help assure you that the call you think you’re hearing is the right one.

The primary characteristic cited by vocations directors is a love of Jesus and his Church, which includes an encompassing desire to seek and fulfill God’s will. In order to foster such a love, you must have an ardent prayer life and receive the sacraments often.

“I believe that the No. 1 priority for those who are discerning is to make sure that the call is one they experience in prayer and not from outside influences,” said Father Perez of the Oblates of St. Joseph. “It is good to have others to support, encourage and recommend the priesthood or religious life, but a discerner should not feel forced or obligated to others.”

Vocations directors also look for individuals who are well-rounded, happy and healthy in body, mind and spirit. While perfect health is not a universal prerequisite, you must consider whether you will be capable of fulfilling the demands of the vocation you are considering.

Your overall well-being will affect your ability to live in a community, whether that be a community of diocesan priests, order priests, consecrated life or the brotherhood of the permanent diaconate. Even with a healthy body, mind and spirit, community life isn’t for everyone. Vocations directors look for individuals who will thrive in community life, even though at times it can be challenging for everyone.

“We look for young women who desire a deeper spiritual life and a longing for God and who wish to serve others,” said Sister Marie Therese of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. “The ideal candidate should be one who prays, frequents the sacraments when possible, has a generous heart, is faithful to the Church and can live fraternal life.”

Finally, vocations directors look at the history of and desire to serve. They’ll ask questions such as, “How active has he/she been in the parish?” and “What evidence is there of a true desire to serve?”

What Deacon Dorner of the Archdiocese of Atlanta said about candidates for the diaconate might apply to candidates for all ordained and consecrated vocations.

“With reception of holy orders, the deacon is more closely configured to Christ the Servant, literally the ‘Icon of Christ the Servant,’ but that doesn’t make the deacon holier than everyone else and an expert on everything in the Church, (or) God’s special chosen one to reform the parish, diocese or Church,” he said. “It simply makes him a servant.”

Wrong direction

Just as there are criteria for judging whether you’re going in the right direction, so, too, there are criteria for determining if you’re going in the wrong direction. Here, motivation is a key factor. You must be honest with yourself about what is motivating you to seek the priesthood, diaconate or consecrated life. Are you looking for an escape from your present life? Are you looking for recognition of some kind? These are questions you must ask yourself.

“Some warning signs a person is going in the wrong direction may be that she is wrongly motivated; for example, she desires to escape the responsibilities of marriage and family or life in general,” Sister Marie Therese said. “Another sign is that she lacks the desire to practice poverty, chastity and obedience. Third might be that she lacks the physical, mental, emotional and/or moral capability to live religious life.”

Although you must not gauge your entire discernment by the opinions of others, it is prudent to consider the reaction you get from family, friends and your spiritual director or role model. They know you best ­— and sometimes better than you know yourself.

“The lack of support from your pastor, complaints by your wife and children (or other family members, in the case of a celibate vocation), finding that time alone reading and studying is becoming more important to you than your family, all these are signs of something going wrong,” Deacon Dorner said. “Also, if a man begins to neglect his prayer life and make the excuse that he’s just doing so much at the Church already, then that is a bad sign.”

Additionally, an obsession with “church work” or any kind of charitable activity may signal that you are trying to avoid what’s really going on inside you. There must be a balance between activity and personal prayer; if there’s not, it could be a sign something is amiss.

If something does seem askew, you might want to take a break from vocation discernment. Father Perez recommends taking time off from discernment in order to clear your mind and heart and renew your energy for further discernment.

“I recommend to guys who have been seriously discerning with my community to consecrate a year to discernment,” he said. “If throughout that year they do not feel ready to make the next step, they can decide, along with the guidance of their spiritual directors, to take a break from discernment. I’ve known guys who have appreciated that year away from discernment and afterward met their future wives.”

Discerning your vocation should never make you feel angry, fearful, sad or unduly anxious. There will be times of confusion and nervousness, but those feelings should not overwhelm you.

“(God) does not want us to be miserable,” said Sister Carolyn of the Little Sisters of the Poor. “If the thought of religious life does not bring you joy and energize you, even if it feels a little daunting, which is natural, it may not be for you.”

The goal of vocation discernment is to discover God’s will for you, and then to proceed to fulfill that will. If your discernment is true and fruitful, you will be filled with peace and joy.

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.

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