The journey to a final decision to become a priest is a process of discernment. There are two sides to discernment, and the Holy Spirit is actively involved in both sides. On one side, there you are, reflecting in your mind, heart and soul, perhaps asking family and friends for advice, trying to decide “Should I or shouldn’t I be a priest?” The other side of the decision is the Catholic Church. The Church is the more objective side, the institutional side, which includes the diocesan Vocation Director, the Seminary and the Archbishop. Once you make the decision to test your discernment, to see for sure, you contact the Vocations Office. Once you do, the Church and you start moving down the road together. You have the ability to back away at any time, stopping the whole process. But so too does the Church. If the Vocation Director, the Seminary or the Archbishop feel you may not have what it takes to be a priest, it is their obligation to make that decision to stop the process.
It’s a judgment, but one done with much prayer and discussion. Your abilities and skills have to be assessed. The journey and ultimately the ministry of priesthood, require intelligence, wisdom, the ability to gain the necessary skills and emotional maturity. Like being the pilot of a commercial airliner, not just anyone gets into the cockpit. It takes the right skills, aptitude and years of training. With this understanding, some people leave the seminary for various reasons and do not become ordained. Therefore, it also takes determination and grace. In most cases, your discernment and training will go smoothly, but there may be times when you need to take some time away and re-evaluate before joining the process again. The Holy Spirit is the constant and encouraging Presence throughout this long and sometimes difficult, but very rewarding process, both in you and the institution, because we’re all the Church. When you reach the final steps, and are ready to make a commitment, the journey leads to the Archbishop laying hands on you and you becoming a priest.
What does “discernment” mean?
Discernment basically means “hearing the call” and trying to figure out where God might be calling you to serve Him. It is a life-long process of growth and listening to how God moves the heart in a new way of service.
Discernment takes place in a number of ways: first in prayer, the conversation with God. In prayer, we begin to listen with the ear of the heart as we feel that call to move deeper into a relationship with Christ. Our Lord, just like with His Apostles, makes the first move. The Call then, is the initial response to that wonderful invitation that Jesus gives: “Come after me, and I will make you Fishers of Men.”
Silence is also important. The example of Jesus himself points this out, as he so often takes time away from the demands of his ministry to stop and pray in a deserted place. Remember, he began his ministry with 40 days of silence in the desert! But in silence comes the ability to listen. Listening is critical as so often today, prayer is seen as only asking God for something. “Lord, help me pass this test! Lord, watch over my parents or grandparents who are sick. Lord, help me find a decent place to park!” What has to be kept in mind is that prayer is a two-way conversation; we must silence our hearts and minds and listen to where God wants to lead. If we believe that God created each of us in His image and likeness, while we were still in the womb, then we need to trust that He will not lead us astray especially when it comes to our vocation.
Obedience: in today’s world, this is a four letter word! Obedience is responding in trust to the path that God is leading you towards. Again, it goes back to the question: do we trust that God has what is best for us in mind?
Response: You probably are not going to be hit by lightning giving you a definite answer as to whether or not to pursue a priestly vocation. But no matter what Jesus has placed on our hearts, a vocation requires a response,no matter what the vocation is. The initial response is a deeper participation in the Eucharist, spending time before Christ especially in adoration. As the call becomes clearer (or to help it become clearer), attendance at discernment retreats and events is helpful. Visitations to the seminary can also be clarifying, and discussing your call with either your pastor or the vocation director also helps.
Finally, when you get right down to it, discernment is letting the Holy Spirit guide you. Do not be afraid to ask God for an indication of what He is asking you to do.