Discernment through Experience

priest, ordination

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Discernment is a process that every serious Catholic man must commence at some point, during which he will petition and receive from the Almighty his vocational direction and calling for the rest of his life and for all eternity. Fittingly, discernment is one of the most difficult undertakings of a man’s life! I intend to share briefly some of my recent experiences as a teenager discerning between marriage and the Priesthood; but first, let’s define vocation.

Discerning Your Path

A young Catholic man typically has four paths of discernment open to him:

  • Consecrated Religious life,
  • Priesthood,
  • Holy Matrimony,
  • and the Generous Single life.

Good discernment should try to follow a progression down this list, which is written in descending order of “spiritual perfection”. This doesn’t mean that a Religious brother or friar is “better” than a Priest, or that the Priest is more “perfect” than a married couple, and certainly it does not mean that single men are losers! Spiritual perfection refers to the extent to which we on earth achieve union with the mystical Body of Christ through the Church, which is the spiritual bride of Christ (think mystically here). Therefore, the duty of any Catholic man is first to discern for a consecrated vocation. If he is not called to this state in life, then the next step is to discern for Priesthood, and so on down the list. However, many men (like me) are stuck somewhere in the middle, between Priesthood and Matrimony.

Discernment Difficulties

I have observed two primary challenges when praying about these vocational paths.

First, I have difficulty maintaining a balanced perspective. It is easy for me, a young Catholic man, to understand and invest in the idea of marriage because I have incredible role models: my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends. Even though not all the marriages to which I have been exposed have been exemplary or blissful, at least I am familiar with the concept and I could imagine meeting a young woman of character and having a happy family. Unfortunately, many of us young men do not have an analogous or approximate experience with Priesthood.

Sometime last year I landed in a place where I had been immersed in culture and social life for months on end. Of course, I still went to Mass and I loved serving at the Altar but my focus and intensity was elsewhere. I was nearly certain that I was called to the married life and even began researching potential careers and jobs that I could pursue after college. Like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, I was confident I was following God’s will; and as might be expected, I received the same treatment as Paul: God knocked me right off my horse! I had been spending so much time immersing myself in articles about marriage and relationships and my social life that my discernment had fallen off the horse long before and I had to walk back and find it again.

I started praying at home more using the Liturgy of the Hours. I found time each week to attend some daily Masses and started going to Eucharistic Adoration more often. I began a closer relationship with our Blessed Mother and asked her to instruct me about Priesthood. My family and I spent time with holy Priests, not just around Mass or Confession, but social time as well: meals at our home, going out to eat, playing games with them, and discussing books and movies. You cannot love something you do not know, and while I was already in love with the Sacrament of Marriage I began also to fall deeper in love with the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Discerning Peace

In order to maintain a balanced perspective and make a good discernment, a man should spend at least equal time considering and experiencing both marriage and Priesthood. I now felt like I possessed a better sense of both marriage and Priesthood, so I could compare and contrast them better and even feel an attraction to both; what I discovered was my second major challenge: anything I wanted to do had compromises and trade-offs; if I became A I could never have things that belonged to B. This deprived me of a lot of peace and even though I had a few paths that offered reasonable or even great success, I wasn’t happy with my situation and I didn’t know why or where I was going. My thoughts often ran like this:

I would make such a great dad and husband; I could raise God-fearing kids and I know just the sort of woman that I would want to spend the rest of my life with.

I have hopes, dreams, plans, and expectations that mesh with my Faith and with my abilities; surely I would have more freedom to pursue these things in marriage.

Priests are spiritual fathers, but doesn’t this world need more earthly fathers who can teach their sons how to be men?

Around this time I had the privilege of attending a discernment retreat at the Benedictine college of Belmont Abbey, and here I met a Priest named Father Angel (pronounced AN-hel) who was able to answer my second difficulty. During his first presentation to the men that week, Fr. Angel told us the story of how he mapped out his life in brilliant fashion, of how he dated a beautiful girl for three years and was planning to get married and become a doctor…and was yet unhappy and without peace. This lack of peace didn’t make any sense to him because his plans were perfect; they honored God and offered great happiness. This piqued my interest because it sounded similar to my recent experiences. The part of the talk that truly pierced my understanding went something like this:

All these things, marriage, family, fatherhood, career, they are good things; they are good because the desire to be a righteous husband, to love and to be loved by a woman, or to have a successful and honest career is virtuous. These desires, or appetites, are natural and God-given impulses that indicate a rightly ordered man. But the thing about God is that sometimes he takes away goods from us in order to give us a greater good. Is giving up marriage hard? Of course it is hard, because the Sacrament of Marriage is a good. If God wants you to give up marriage and be a Priest, it does not mean that you would not be contented to an extent in marriage, but that you will be ultimately and uniquely and dynamically happy as a Priest, to an extent that you could never be in marriage. And vice versa.

For myself, the path to the Priesthood still seems tremendously challenging. There are many unknowns, many mountains to scale and many ravines to traverse. However, I have begun to understand the true nature of the vocations between which I have to decide, and also have I learned to understand that renouncing a great good at the request of the Lord will yield magnificent blessings. Already, at a point where many high schoolers struggle with “senioritis” and begin to panic over college choices, Christ has blessed me with an exceptional measure of peace. I still encounter typical teenage pitfalls and hormone shifts, but I never feel like my life is spiraling out of control. I encourage you to embrace this perplexing and arduous task of discernment, for doing so will force you to lean on the cross of Jesus Christ and the mantle of the Blessed Virgin Mary!

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16 thoughts on “Discernment through Experience”

  1. Agnes Goh: on Feeding-Tube :-D

    God bless you, Peter. He has lit the flame of priestly vocation in you. Be very careful not to let that flame go out through too much discernment. Vocations can often be discerned to death. Surround yourself with people who encourage your vocation. Don’t let naysayers blow the out flame. Don’t listen to demonic whispers that say you must first experience falling in love, etc, in order to know what you’re giving up. Priesthood is not about giving up marriage and women. It is about being married to the most amazing and beautiful bride, the Church. It is about being so closely identified with Jesus Christ that upon ordination you undergo an ontological change and you become conformed to Jesus. Go to the seminary. You’ll have many years of discernment before ordination. If it becomes clear later that you’re not called to the priesthood, your time in seminary would not have been wasted. And God will never allow himself to be outdone in generosity. I shall pray for you everyday. Go.

  2. Peter, I think you are on the right path. I am going to share your article with my kids. In the mean time, I will pray for you. Keep trusting God. He has great plans for you! God’s abundant blessings upon you!

  3. My elder brother thought about becoming a monk from the time he was about 10, and wanted to enter the monastery after high school. But our parents told him he was too young– pestered him go to college first & get a degree, so he did; there he met a nice girl and got married–the parents were delighted.

    After a few years there was an annullment, after which he went into a Benedictine monastery as he had wanted from the beginning. The parents DIDN”T know best. It’s good to try a vocation young to either see if it’s right, or else “get it out of your system” if it’s not authentic.

  4. To me, our vocation is “a Call”. All of us have “a Call” and, as we go along in our ‘spiritual journey’, we can respond by ignoring it…or respond to it. Prayer, talking to a spiritual advisor, and being open to the many vocational possibilities that lie ahead is exciting and rewarding. I feel I responded to “my call” many years ago and I have had a great life — bumps and all! I pray for you during your journey.

  5. Will pray for you. With the Church accepting married priests from other churches, as in Fr. Longenecker’s case, you may one day be redeciding to choose both from either place.

    1. Fr. Longenecker’s decision is no longer available to be duplicated. In the Ordinariate those priests already married in the Anglican Communion were ordained in Catholic Holy Orders, but those not yet married by the time they entered the Church must remain celibate. Through attrition the number of married priests in the Ordinariate will diminish until it reaches zero.

    2. What you’re saying though is that Rome would not fifty years from now or four years from now…would not take another married Anglican priest who desired to switch. Do you have an authoritative Vatican printed reference for that?

    1. That’s sort of a backhanded blessing, James. God spare us from bitter adults who wish to let young people know that every vocation is a cliff off of which to plunge. And I do wonder at what age you think young men should begin to take life discernment seriously.

    2. It sounds as if the author wishes to be thrust into the depths of one or the other
      vocation without having either a realistic notion of the complexity surrounding
      Courtship and coitus vs the fiinality of celibacy – quite the opposite destination.

    3. I didn’t read it that way… especially since he acknowledges the long road ahead. If he’s just beginning the journey, he’s got at least 8-10 years of discernment ahead of him, right? If his final calling is indeed priesthood. So the path of discernment is really just beginning and he seems to acknowledge that.

    4. Thank you for your comment, James. If I am too young to be discerning my vocation, when do you think I ought to commence? I’m graduating high school this spring. Should I wait until I’m finished with college? Should I even go to college, since, by definition, picking a college requires discernment? Or should I simply roll the dice with the next four years of my life? My point is, every single decision I will make from the present moment to the end of my life will either be a bad decision or a right one, and the only way to make a right decision is through discernment. Even the decision to respond to your comment was a discernment, and I hope it will bear fruit.

      God bless!

    5. Discernment : the ability to see and understand people, things, or situations clearly and
      intelligently. Webster’s definition.

      I think you are using this word too liberally. To see and understand requires time not immediate commencement. If you hold off college it will still be there in four years and you may have discerned in the interim that the vocation you chose later was not the one you would have initially. The person you will be in 10 years would not necessarily make the same decision you will make today … more so in 20 years.

      “ My point is, every single decision I will make from the present moment to the end of my life will either be a bad decision or a right one and the only way to make a right decision is through discernment.”

      “If we could be twice young and twice old we could correct all our mistakes.” Euripides

      So, you are afraid of making bad decisions but “ only experience will teach you to recognize a mistake once you make it again.” Franklin Jones

      If you want to discern Holy Orders remain celibate for five years and see if you like it. Since there is no discerning intimacy without … making a mistake, it is not possible to “ see and understand this situation clearly …” You cannot mix apples and oranges. Any person who desires intimacy automatically rules out celibacy as an option while anyone who would ponder celibacy should think very hard about an opposite they have no way of understanding without experience. I hope this helps.

    6. I’ll share with you some wise words from a priest friend of mine which he shared with me ten years ago. Several years earlier I had returned to the Church after an absence of many years, and had occasionally considered a priestly vocation which I had discussed with him a number of times. He had been quite encouraging of my consideration of the priesthood in those discussion.

      As it happened, I unexpectedly fell in love with a woman over the winter, and when I shared that fact with him over lunch early that spring I concluded by observing that this development pretty much put an end to consideration of the priesthood.

      He responded that this was not the case, necessarily. He pointed out that it was a good thing for a serious candidate for the priesthood to have previously experienced love and intimacy (chaste, of course) with a woman because one must have knowledge of what one is giving up for the priesthood, should that vocation come around again later if/when the romantic relationship had ended.

      He explained further that a man who chose the priesthood instead of marriage without having experiencing romantic love in relationship first could be vulnerable to the attentions of a woman later in his priesthood. It is most critical to preclude the possibility of saying later “I didn’t fully grasp what I was giving up!”

      Therefore, it is essential to know in one’s heart what is being sacrificed. Only in the heart can this be discerned, and that cannot be done outside experiencing romantic love. Additionally, there are plenty of lessons to be learned there which will prove useful to a priest counseling young people and married folks..

    7. James and Phil: thank you for your concern. However, I did not write this article as a biography, but as an exploration of some challenges that many men (and women!) will face in their discernment, and also as encouragement to my peers and those in a similar place. You have both made gratuitous assumptions about my personal life and about my discernment.

      God bless!

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