What is Discernment and how do we do it?
When Fr. Corel first talked to a vocation director about “becoming a priest” the vocation director said Fr. Corel had to go to a seminary for formation and discernment. At that time, Fr. Corel, had a vague, though wrong understanding of what a seminary was and did not know what formation or discernment meant. In part, he thought a seminary was a place men go to learn how to be a priest since they figured out they were supposed to be a priest. Wrong on two levels! First, a seminary is a place to go to find out if God is truly calling someone to priesthood. One does not decide to become a priest and then enter the seminary. That would be like saying, “I am going to work the midnight shift on the weekends in the emergency room at University Hospital, how do I apply for pre-med at the undergraduate level?” Rather, one says to the Lord that he is open to God calling him to priesthood, but more importantly, he is open to whatever God wants him to do with his life. The second reason it is wrong is because one can go to the seminary and discern that God is not calling the person to the priesthood. He can leave the seminary with full integrity with his head held high, He was a success story. The seminary did what it was supposed to do: it helped this man discover God was not calling him to the priesthood. While in the seminary, he learned an incredible amount about himself, God and the relationship between him and God. And, when we truly take to heart the first commandment, nothing is more important in this life.
Formation is set up so a person can learn who it is God created when he created this person. God created man to be a spiritual being. So, in seminary, there is spiritual formation: How exactly did God make this person to grow in holiness through prayer and through his relationship with God? While there is a plentitude of spiritual books, spiritual walks, and a host of ways to grow in relationship to God, unless one starts and learns the journey, a person will not learn how God created him to pray and grow in holiness. Spiritual formation helps the person learn. We are human beings. Man is not a soul trapped in an ugly sinful body. Quite the opposite! With all of the gifts, talents, and abilities given to a man by God, he is good! Human formation helps him to recognize his individual gifts, talents, and abilities. Then, how is he to apply these to living a holier life and help others to live a holier life? Wrapped up in this package of the human being is sinfulness, inordinate desires and vice. This has to be discovered so it can be worked on, gotten rid of, or learn tricks as to how it can have less of an impact on him and those he interacts with. Pastoral Formation is helping the individual learn how to best use his gifts and his spirituality to bring the face of Christ to others. How does the person who is being the face of Christ, get out of the way while using his own gifts and talents so that Christ can truly be present to the people. Finally, academic formation is what most colleges are about: educating the person. However, it is called formation because the seminarian who becomes priest has to be teach with integrity; the information the man receive has to be integrated into who the person is. It is easy to say there are three persons in one God. It is also easy to say that Jesus rose on the third day. However, when a priest is preparing a couple for marriage, the priest really has to believe cohabitating and contraception are unhealthy for a marriage and dangerous if the marriage is supposed to last a lifetime. It’s not merely the motto of the company.
Discernment is prayer put into action. That means one cannot pray and say he is discerning. He prays and then acts. If his actions are giving him consolation and peace, he continues in that direction. Only if he finds unrest and lack of peace IN PRAYER about his decisions should he continue to pray before changing course. Discovering a vocation is not a navel-gazing psychological exercise nor a puzzle to be worked out. It is about meeting and being in relationship with Christ. So, the first step is that one must encounter Christ. If one wants to encounter Christ, go to reconciliation and mass regularly. Begin a regular prayer life. Next, desire what God desires for you. It is not a matter of asking, “Do you want me to be a priest or not?” It is a matter of asking, “What do you want me to do? Give me the desire to do what it is you are calling me to do.” Jesus is always trying to convince his followers to trust in the goodness of the Lord. If there is peace in a future decision that needs to be made and that peace is there during days when prayer is happening, then that needs to be examined. When this same future decision gives us fright and worry on days when we are not praying, because we are too busy or other things get in the way so we cannot pray, it needs to be noted that these feelings are given when we are not in prayer. These feelings are not from God, but are from the one who tempts us away from God. The third step that is needed in discernment is to be able to trust God. In the story of Peter walking on the water, Jesus shows Peter that there is something Peter is about to do that is beyond his own capabilities. As long as Peter stays focused on trusting in the Lord, he is fine. As soon as Peter tries to figure it all out, treat it as a problem to be solved, a riddle to be undone or tries to control the situation in the least, he falls and begins to sink. Then, Jesus asks why Peter stopped trusting. Jesus will do the same with anyone. As long as a person keeps walking toward Jesus and not try to solve the puzzle, solve the mystery, control the relationship, he will be able to do more than he can ever imagine; when he tries to solve it, fear, doubt, confusion sink in and that is not from the Lord Jesus Christ.
It takes time to develop a relationship with Jesus, just as it takes time to develop any relationship. This is the reason that a person who enters the seminary is not ordained on his arrival date of seminary. The seminarian has to grow in relationship with Jesus Christ first. And, often the family members, especially the parents of the seminarian have to grow in their relationship to Jesus Christ. No seminarian on day one knows how to deliver a homily, how to visit a sick person who is dying or how to give a great penance to a penitent. That comes later; developing a deep relationship with Christ comes first. In like manner, after the apostles were drawn to follow Christ they had to be with him for three years before they were made leaders. For parents, it takes time to see their child happy serving the Lord as a seminarian. When they see he is happy, then they come to terms that the Lord is making their child so happy that biological grandchildren are not how God is going to abundantly bless the parents through this amazing child God has given them.
It is the hope of the vocation director that by this time next year, there are at least three discernment groups happening in our diocese. The discernment group would use a book that illustrates much more completely how to discern God’s will.