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,
- 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.
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.
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!