Marriage, perhaps priesthood — what is God’s will?

The Year for Priests called for by Pope Benedict XVI begins June 19, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, and is dedicated in a special way to St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, 150 years after the saint's death. In light of this and the diaconate and priesthood ordinations that occurred in our diocese these past two weekends, I offer this second of a two-part series on vocations - with a particular focus on some of the challenges many face in discovering a priestly vocation.

It is a commonly held perception among vocation directors around the country that many Catholics are not devoting the time, prayer and attention that is necessary to properly discover their vocation in life. It seems that many are not acting upon the vocation promptings they sense with faithful trust or purposeful sincerity. If they are, many are highly susceptible to worldly allurements, misconceptions about discernment, and opposition (direct and indirect) from friends and family that seriously impede or even thwart this discovery.

As I mentioned in part one, Christ has called us all by name at our baptism to share His life and mission of salvation. Therefore we all have a vocation. We are all called in some way to play a role in salvation history for love of Christ and His people. All vocations are therefore rooted in love because they are rooted in Christ. This love is sacrificial and self-less - it is Christ-like and other-directed. A predominate, worldly, self-centered attitude of, "I want, I prefer, I think" is anything but Christ-like. "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me" (Jn 6:38). To lay down one's life for others as a true offering is the fertile, other-directed attitude that best enables a person to discover his or her true vocation. While our own personal desires are a part of the discovery, they are not the beginning or end of authentic discernment. As with Christ, this beginning and end are rooted in God the Father's desires, and in His plans. What does God want? Why did He create me? What mission does He call me to, and how does He want me to be an instrument of His grace for the salvation of others? These must be the initial and final questions that are asked and answered to properly discover any vocation. To know Christ is to know oneself and by extension to know one's vocation. Those who strive to make our Lord the first priority in their lives have a much easier time discovering their vocation. Worldly attractions and responsibilities can often crowd out the necessity of making time to pray, to talk to others about vocation promptings, or to act upon the outgrowth of these prayers and conversations. If work or school or the time devoted to sports or hobbies, or even family and friend,s prevent someone from praying and actively discerning his vocation, then they should never be surprised that it so frustrating for them to discover it. God truly wants to reveal His purpose for our life, and in order to do this, we must want Him to reveal His purpose.

Many will tell me that they do want to do God's will. The only problem is they do not know God's will. If He would only clearly communicate this to them, then they would do it. In other words, if God would only give them some obvious and extraordinary sign like He gave St. Paul or our Blessed Mother then everything would be fine.

My response to these commonly held thoughts is threefold. First, extraordinary signs from God are just that, extraordinary. They are not ordinary, nor are they ever to be expected, desired or presumed. Second, scripture tells us that it is a faithless generation that seeks a sign - what is needed is trust, fear is useless. Our Lord says, "Do not be afraid," and this applies especially to vocation discernment. "True love casts out all fear" (1 Jn 4:18). And third, if God were to tell us in a commanding way that we must enter this or that vocation rather than having us discover and freely respond to it, then the chance of us truly giving ourselves and loving the "other" completely in our vocation is extremely remote. God speaks to us in the ordinary events, persons and situations of our lives. This is how He normally reveals His vocation call - over time - provided we are willing and actively cooperating with the promptings, persons and situations.

Many men that I visit with often recall experiencing seemingly mixed promptings and situations that lead to great confusion and anxiety. They note a strong draw to pursue the vocation of marriage and the desire to date. On the other hand, they also sense promptings that God might be calling them to the priesthood. They are therefore hesitant to take the necessary steps to seriously pursue either vocation. My simple reply is that now they are stuck. Their legs are on diverging paths and they must pick up one leg and walk with both feet on one path if they are ever going to arrive at their vocation destination. It is also important to note that prior to getting married or becoming a priest they are still free to change paths. Still, some men attempt to walk several "vocation paths" simultaneously. They want to actively date while actively discerning the priesthood at the same time. Who would want to share a potential life together with someone who is only offering half his heart? Some men feel that it is too hard to "give-up" one path over the other. This is a very frustrating and erroneous attitude. An authentic pursuit of a vocation is never rooted in "giving up your life," but rather in "giving your life to."

The draw to married life is a natural one that all men should have. It is not in contradiction to a call to the priesthood, but an important component of it. If men do not esteem married life, they will never become the priests God intends them to be. No one should ever "run from" a vocation in order to pursue another, but rather move toward his true calling in a positive manner. Years of indecision and reluctance may result in someone never actively pursuing his vocation. God is indeed patient, but the temptation of waiting "one more year" can turn into endless years leading to a vocation that is never realized. While we are all created for a specific vocation, which remains with us forever, we can never presume the grace to respond to our vocation will be offered by God indefinitely. A former Major League Soccer (MLS) player who recently entered Mount St. Mary's Seminary was strongly encouraged by many to finish his budding MLS career before entering the seminary. The echoing thought that motivated him to discern a priestly vocation sooner, rather than later: "Delayed obedience is disobedience."

Other men express the attitude of not being worthy or holy enough to be a priest. Here I would have to readily agree. Of course they're not. No one is holy enough or worthy enough to be a priest - or a husband and father, for that matter. Both vocations are gifts freely offered and freely received. God alone is the One who makes us holy and worthy. How true is the adage that "God does not call the qualified, but qualifies the call." He is not so much interested in ability, but willingness and availability.

Now we come to perhaps the greatest challenge in discovering a call to the priesthood - the opposition of friends and family, particularly parents. Of the 465 men who have been, or will be ordained to the priesthood this year in the United States, 45 percent said they had been discouraged from considering the priesthood. Of those, nearly 60 percent said a parent or family member was the source of this discouragement. This is a disturbing and unfortunately all too common trend. One of the most shocking aspects of being the vocation director here in the Diocese of Arlington is that many faithful Catholic parents, while not directly opposed to their son's consideration of the priesthood, stand in subtle opposition to it. This opposition goes something like this: "You need to go to a regular (non-seminary) college first"; or "You need to work a few years after college to gain real world experience"; or "You need to date more before entering a seminary"; or "If you want to serve others, join the military and try that first."

Several parents have told me that in offering this advice, they didn't tell their sons what to do. Well, in some sense they did because these young men rightfully trust, love and deeply respect the opinions of their parents.

All of this parental advice may well have been given in complete accord with the will of God. However, more often than not it seems that the will of God was not sought in prayer before offering this advice. Here is where the effects of this subtle opposition can be just as devastating and harmful as direct opposition. The essential question that needs to be prayerfully asked, prior to giving any advice is, "What is God's will?" Does God desire that their son discern his vocation in a college seminary after high school? Does He want their son to complete his undergraduate studies at his present institution or do so while discerning at a college seminary? Is it God's will that he work a few years after college? Date more? Enter military service - all prior to seriously considering a vocation to the priesthood? If so, these parents worked in harmony with the Divine plan. If not, they stood in opposition to it.

When vocation promptings come, parents (and really all of us) must faithfully and sincerely respect and support the full exploration of these promptings. There is a higher probability that most men are being called by God to embrace the vocation of marriage. Whatever the case may be, none of us should ever offer a disparaging or discouraging word that snuffs out even the smallest flicker of a vocation flame that could perhaps grow into a burning love for Christ to serve Him and His Church as a future priest.

While the need is still so great, we are extremely blessed in this diocese to have many affable, sacrificial and charitable young men who are seriously considering a call to the priesthood. Their sincerity is contagious and it will continue to be a source of insight and encouragement to others. These men were like so many others well on their way to becoming highly successful in the "eyes of the world," but they are willing to give their lives to a supernatural reality which points "beyond this world." Despite what their friends, family, classmates or co-workers might say, they are willing to seriously explore this road less traveled. Despite their normative questions and concerns, they are to be admired for their courage and faithful witness in taking serious note of the Lord's invitation to "Come follow me."

Anyone wishing to more actively discern his or her vocation and better understand his or her share in Christ's mission of salvation may visit arlingtondiocese.org/vocations.

Fr. Bashista is the director of the Office of Vocations. He can be reached at vocations@arlingtondiocese.org.

Also see:Part 1: Dating is to marriage as seminary is to priesthood

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009