Discerning Priesthood

ByLuke Burgis
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How does a young man discern a vocation to the priesthood? Well, the same way that a young woman discerns a vocation to the married life or that an aspect of her unique, personal vocation is to homeschool her children. It starts with knowing personal vocation. Here we explain how adults can help others discern their vocations, but this article can also be read from the standpoint of one discerning to gain insights into how effective discern happens.

1. Teach Personal Vocation

Pause for a moment and ask yourself: How frequently have you encountered explicit teaching on the nature of personal vocation? To what extent do we help our kids seriously identify the special project God has assigned them to build up his kingdom? How often are they challenged in our Catholic schools and from our pulpits to discover and embrace a unique vocation? How often have you heard prayers for vocations ordered exclusively toward the priesthood or religious life? If you heard a couple’s excited declaration that their son “has a vocation,” what would you be expected to understand by that?

Although we have clear magisterial teaching on the fundamental priority of helping each of the baptized to recognize their unique personal vocation, insufficient attention is paid to it. The focus placed on vocations to the priesthood and religious life is in many ways an understandable one. These are beautiful, vital, and immensely important vocations in terms of states of life. However, we can and must speak often and insistently and seriously about personal vocation. This in no way detracts from the importance of one’s state of life but rather orients and lays the foundation for it.

Teaching Through Language

Language is of critical importance for shaping ideas and for shaping how we think about ourselves and other people. The language we use to articulate God’s love for his people in the gift of their calling is crucially significant. When we use the term “vocation” with exclusive reference to the priesthood or the religious life, the sad and direct implication is that those who are not priests or religious somehow do not have a vocation in its full sense. This is inconsistent with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and every pope since that council, and it is harmful.

Language helps us name reality. We will have an impoverished view of reality without the proper language to name it. The Eskimos, for example, have fifty words for snow. Their deep immersion in wintery climates gave birth to such nuanced vocabulary. Words are grounded in being. Language enables sight. The young Eskimo is able to see different forms of snow because he is given language for it. We see what we have words for.

Helping young people understand the very definition of personal vocation enables them to see it, grapple with it, and thus discern it better. Since chapter three is devoted to the meaning of personal vocation, I won’t expound upon it here. But I will emphasize two of its key aspects that I have found especially life-giving to young people concerned about their future.

First, many young people I work with gratefully share their appreciation for learning that personal vocation is now—not only something to be discerned for the future—and the great impact of this realization. God’s love, like his call, is in the present moment. Children come to realize that their personal vocation right now is to be a student, to be a daughter or son, to be free from the crush of adult responsibilities, to explore relationships, to make mistakes and learn from them, to explore and develop their own gifts, to grapple with all of the circumstances that teenage life presents. They realize that the time of youth is itself a calling that they should live to the full.

The effect of this awakening is twofold. First, it alleviates the anxiety that is endemic in our culture today. Young people worry about the future. They face all kinds of pressures to perform well now in preparation for some unknown life on the horizon. In addition to the drumbeat of “college preparation” sounded by high schools and grammar schools and their batteries of standardized testing, there are now exclusive kindergarten programs promising the best foundation for college success. Here six-year-old children face enrollment interviews and the heavy expectation that failure to perform well could harm their future. For young people gripped with anxiety about life down the road, there can be happy relief knowing that they are called by God to live in the present moment of their youth.

Second, they also experience the significance and beauty of living vocationally. When young people assume (and are taught) that they are merely preparing for a future “state in life” vocation, they tend to undervalue themselves and the time of youth. They are discerning—but not actually living out—a calling. Focusing on the present vocation of youth helps them be attentive to concrete challenges and opportunities that are, in themselves, solid preparation for discerning their future calling as it unfolds.

The question “Are You Called?”, so often seen on posters in the backs of churches, needs to be replaced by an imperative: “You are called. Let’s help you know it and live it to the full.”

2. Help Mentees Find Their Own Way of Discernment

There are common means that everyone must use in the spiritual life (prayer, sacrifice, sacraments, and others) in order to discover the Lord’s will and grow in holiness. But the primary key to discernment for each person is to find his own way of discernment. This way is especially linked to one’s unique motivational design because that design is the primordial seed of vocation—one’s unique way of being.

My co-author, Luke, discovered this over several years discerning the priesthood. One of Luke’s core motivations is to realize as concretely as possible the concepts and values important to him. He is a man of action, creativity, and great initiative. Luke moves quickly to put ideas not just on paper but into direct physical practice. In doing so, the ideas are made real to him. Although he prayed and lived close to the sacraments like the other seminarians, whenever possible Luke was out and about in Rome interacting with people in cafes and homeless shelters, exploring the arts, and keeping alive his own creative writing. When Luke neglected these things and kept to the more academic and contemplative seminarian life, his prayer dried up and he became depressed. Luke came to understand that the best way for him to figure out if God was calling him to the priesthood was to align his discernment with his unique motivational pattern. Ultimately, Luke gained clarity that God was calling him not to be a priest but to help sanctify the world as an entrepreneur.

As a coach I have also learned the importance of orienting my clients to ways of discernment consistent with their unique motivational design. One student, Ava, is highly motivated to collaborate. She absolutely needs to have close engagement with groups of people whose values align with her own as well as strong relationships with mentors. Without such context she is like a fish out of water; she cannot see the contours of her calling. Bonnie, motivated to comprehend and express, learns God’s will by turning over the rock of every possible option, studying the pros and cons of each, and then articulating what she has learned. Robert needs to be grounded in a process made up of clear steps. For him vocational decision-making requires seeing obvious connection between his current trajectory of life and possible next steps. The framework of logical forward-movement is his basic mode of being and that is the context in which he effectively discerns.

Since one’s motivational design is not just a set of natural abilities but a basic orientation to be and act a certain way, its application goes beyond mere decision-making. Luke and each of the clients noted above approach prayer, consideration of the world’s needs, interaction with spiritual directors, and the other components of sound discernment according to their motivational design. For example, Ava, the collaborator, loves to pray through choral singing; contrast with Bonnie, the comprehender, whose prayer life is much more cerebral and meditative.

Grace perfecting nature is a principle that goes beyond the sacraments or the gift of theological virtues. When bride and groom pledge themselves to one another, the Holy Spirit infuses their natural covenant with the supernatural sacrament of matrimony. When men learn through rational argumentation that God exists and is one, they open their minds in preparation for the gift of faith. In these situations, grace builds on or perfects nature.

The same principle applies to how God works with us in the challenge of daily discernment. If God crafts a person with a certain pattern of motivation, God will work with and perfect her according to that pattern. The way of discernment itself needs to be consistent with how the Lord has already designed the person.

The implication that one’s way of discernment must be consistent with his unique motivational design is critical. For instance, a girl whose achievement stories are all about responding to needs does not require exposure to service to evoke a drive to self-gift. Her being is already oriented that way. But she might require close mentorship on how to exercise self-creative freedom and achieve the right balance between self-care and service to others. A young man whose core motivation is to bring control will be delighted to know that discerning personal vocation includes self-creative freedom, but he might balk at following other key aspects of discernment like obedience to all of God’s laws or guidance from mentors. He must learn that submission to God in all things brings freedom and that conformity to truth leads to self-control.

How do you help mentees find their own way of discernment? Go to their stories. Empathic inquiry and listening open them up to share stories of personal achievement, which sheds light on their motivational design. This is key to helping mentees know themselves. Facilitate deeper self-awareness of their motivational design, which orients them not only toward their personal vocation, but helps clarify their particular way of ongoing discernment.

3. Explore Connection between Talents and Motivational Design

A standard approach to vocational discernment is to figure out one’s talents and then identify places in the world where there is need for those talents. The question “What should I do?” is frequently met with the counter-questions: “What are you good at?” and “What are your gifts?”

Of course it is critical for young people to discern their talents. Mentors need to spend time cultivating that awareness. One of the reasons we have emphasized exploration of achievement stories is because they usually reveal specific abilities (whether actualized or in potential) along with core motivation. Consider, for example, the stories from Benton Parker and Rachel Michaud in chapter two. Benton, who loved crooning Elvis at age eight and has had wide-ranging success in vocal competitions, clearly has talent for singing. Rachel Michaud, always sensitive to group dynamics and mission, clearly has talent for cause-oriented relationship-building that is blossoming today in her work with FOCUS.
There is often an obvious overlap between unique motivational design and talents: the mechanic driven to make things work has a talent for fixing broken down Harley Davidsons, and the event planner whose core motivation is to organize delights in arranging the thousands of logistics for weddings. Here the connection between natural ability and motivation is quite clear.

Although motivation for certain kinds of action often indicates corresponding talent, they are not the same. The movie, Rudy, which gives an account of the real-life Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, is a clear example. Rudy had a powerful drive to overcome obstacles in his quest to play football for Notre Dame but he was relatively small and unathletic. After years of getting thrashed by larger and more athletic first-stringers in his role on the Notre Dame practice squad, Rudy was allowed at the end of his senior year to suit up for a real game. His drive to overcome the odds was fulfilled and he actually got on the field for his beloved Fighting Irish—once. Rudy was motivated to play Division I college football but had little real talent to perform at that level.

Although Rudy’s perseverance is notable, he exemplifies someone who has motivation for activity without corresponding talent for it. On several occasions I’ve worked with clients facing the opposite problem. They have talents for activities but not the motivation to cultivate or sustain those talents. One young man, who I will call “Pietro,” can do a lot of things well. He’s a math whiz, sings a round baritone in the choir, proficiently reads literature, creates complex computer games, and is a patient caregiver for his six younger siblings. He came to me trying to figure out what in the world he should major in at college. Engineering? Pre-Med? Communication Arts? It turns out that Pietro is fundamentally motivated to demonstrate new learning. The consistent theme of his achievement stories is gaining proficiency in a skill, showing he can do it well, and then moving on to a new subject. It is difficult for him to heed persistent calls to focus his studies because after gaining a degree of proficiency in one area he actually loses motivation to continue.

One solution for people like Pietro is to choose courses of study and then careers that have a built-in requirement for ongoing learning—computer programming, architecture, or multiple-subject high school teaching with coaching on the side.

Talents describe the “how” of effective activity. They are like tools in a toolbox. When there is a task that needs to be done, one can complete it well if she has talent for it. Without requisite talent, she likely cannot do it well. Core motivation gets at the “why” of activity or the underlying reason people engage in activity.

Some questioned Rudy’s decision to keep seeking game time for Notre Dame given his obvious lack of qualifying athletic ability. His motivational drive to overcome obstacles was the reason; his “why” was dominant although the “how” was weak. Pietro, on the other hand, has a lot of “how”—a diverse toolbox of talents he can use to do many things well. His issue is to make sure that his motivational “why” of demonstrating new learning can remain engaged as he develops and deploys his talents.
Although it is important for young people and their mentors to discern talents, it is even more important to unveil their underlying core motivation.

Here are a few reasons why:

1) Understanding the young person’s motivational design sheds light on those emerging or latent talents which particularly ought to be cultivated because of their close integration with the motivational design. For example, Pietro should develop skills enabling him to be an effective generalist, learning methods that can be applied to multiple applications.

2) Settling on a course of study or career simply because of talent and without an understanding of core motivation can lead to profound stress and heartache. If Pietro got stuck in a highly specialized discipline like brain surgery because he could do it well, he would be miserable.

3) A young person’s motivational design helps clarify the circumstances in which he will especially thrive and want to develop or exercise his talents. My son, David, is highly motivated to excel. He wants to win and his talents emerge in a competitive framework. David is not especially scholarly, but give him a debate tournament and he will spend hours reading academic journals and preparing briefs. Without competition he tends to lose interest and energy.

Frederick Buechner famously wrote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is different than stressing the connection between talent and the needs of others in discernment of personal vocation. “Deep gladness” expresses the joy of activity oriented by core motivation. The talents of young people can usually be clarified by exploring their motivational design, but the flipside is not the case. Providing young people with self-awareness of their abiding motivational design is more helpful as a key for ongoing discernment of personal vocation.

4. Expose Them to Need, Orient Them to Service

Although we ought to recognize the needs of human beings and our world on a daily basis—“the whole creation groans” (Rom 8:22)—it is easy for young people living comfortable lives to avoid seeing these needs. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes we steer kids away from direct exposure to the suffering of others, especially when it comes couched in danger. People living on the streets might be drunk or mentally ill. We like to keep them at a distance from our kids. We want what is best for our young people. Thus, we emphasize good education, three square meals, fun with friends, sports activities, and lots of leisure. We have service hours but these are often given and fulfilled as requirements for graduation. Kids get them done, check them off the list, and move on. At the same time, family size (about 1.5 kids per couple) and our generally urban, consumer-based lifestyle means children tend to grow up with what they need at their fingertips and without the experience of providing vital service for others.

Providing youth with deep experience meeting the needs of others is critical for cultivating their own callings. Mission trips can do this in a dramatic way. At Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I serve, hundreds of college students spend spring break doing works of radical service not just to the poor in other countries but to college youth partying on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida. Many of them return awakened to what God wants of them during the next stages of their lives. The challenge of the experience draws out their gifts and clarifies how they can be used to build God’s kingdom. They begin to find themselves and their callings in the radical offering of themselves.

In addition to mission trips where young people go outside of their own worlds, it is valuable for them to have experience inside their daily routines for self-gift: cleaning the home, cooking meals, doing laundry, taking care of siblings, tithing money from part-time jobs. Such chores provide the life-giving experience of making authentic contributions to others, a building block of personal vocation. At the same time, they can awaken gifts in the young person. Fine chefs often get their start in the family kitchen.

It is also important that young people directly link activities they are already motivated to do with regular acts of service. This is especially critical not primarily because they can serve (and maybe enjoy it) but because they need to understand the close integration between the fulfillment of self and fulfillment of others in God’s economy. They need to know that life ought not be bifurcated between purely “I” centered activities and “other” centered activities. They need to grasp that in God’s grand design, all members of his Body flourish when each one joyfully realizes his own purpose for the sake of the whole. As young people experience the connection between doing what is intrinsically motivating and what builds up others, they will experience the joy of giving of themselves in a full, whole-hearted way.

In all these things—traditional service activities like soup kitchen work, mundane chores, and intrinsically motivating activities—the young person’s daily orientation should be: There are needs at my school, in my home, and among my friends that I am called upon to meet. My contribution matters. My daily work is important for others. Life has meaning beyond the pursuit of pleasure.

As you orient them toward needs, especially those that directly correspond to their motivational design, you prepare them for such an orientation.

5. Help Them Secure Wise, Attentive Mentors

“Is this me? Am I wise? Am I truly attentive to the young people under my responsibility? Do I provide what they require to effectively discern their personal vocations?” These questions and the great need our young people have should bring we who are mentors to our knees.

The wisdom that mentoring requires is not primarily practical—nor primarily born of expertise in the subject matter of a discipline. Rather, it is the wisdom born from fear of God. It is wisdom born from wonder and awe that human persons under her responsibility are unique icons of Christ that she has the privilege of helping to become who they are created to be.

My comments here relate to mentors who want to be wise and attentive in their own interactions with youth and also help those youth effectively choose other mentors who will help them make their way through life. Some mentors (I use the term broadly) will be parents, pastors, youth ministers, spiritual directors, or life coaches who directly address issues of personal discernment. Other mentors, such as those related to sports or professions, will be more focused on developing skills. In all cases the best mentors help young persons become who they are created to be, orienting them toward fully living their personal vocations.

Marks of the Wise, Attentive Mentor

What are the characteristics of mentors most effective in helping young people embrace their own unique callings?

1) The wise mentor is prayerful. His eyes are aloft and his heart is open. He has a close relationship with Christ—not only a “practice” of participating in Mass or religious services and obeying the Ten Commandments but a living, personal relationship.
2) The wise mentor listens and inquires with empathy. This is so critical that we devoted an entire chapter to it. Here I simply add that the effective mentor listens for potential in the young person that she might not recognize in herself and looks for ways to draw it out.
3) The wise mentor grapples with the daily call of his own personal vocation and faithfully responds to it.
4) The wise mentor is self-aware and has a deep interior life. He exercises self-possession. He can name his own unique behavioral drives, and he knows how they can blossom into gift or be used for sin.
5) The wise mentor reflects what he sees in the young person so she can recognize herself and what she needs for authentic growth.
6) The wise mentor asks questions that prompt reflection and deepen self-awareness in the youth. He advises only when necessary and with great care so that the young person remains authentic to her personal calling and way of discernment.
7) The wise mentor has been down the road of discernment before and has lots of practical, hands-on experience to pass on while avoiding the mistake of thinking that his experience is normative. The best mentors don’t simply “tell it like it is” but offer insight contextualized by awareness of the mentee’s personal uniqueness.
8) The wise mentor focuses on helping young persons become who they are rather than swaying them to his own agenda or allowing them to walk along a self-destructive path without the challenge of tough love.

Finding Strong Mentors

One thing we can do to help our young people secure wise, attentive mentors is to gently challenge them to explore why they might be attracted to certain potential mentors over others. In our age of celebrity worship where so much value is placed on quantitative social impact—Facebook “likes” or followers on Twitter and Instagram—-young people are sometimes drawn to those who are charismatic in large group contexts, occupy high level positions, or are well-known and popular. They might very well be effective mentors, but not necessarily. Quiet souls not in the public gaze and who prefer one-on-one encounters often make the best mentors.

In my role at Franciscan University’s Center for Leadership, I serve as a personal vocation coach for a small cadre of students. Within a four-year period they have multiple internships and summer jobs alongside a variety of curricular and co-curricular activities. They often meet potential mentors in these various spheres of development. In order to help them secure strong mentors, I encourage them to reflect on their potential mentors and the mentoring relationship with questions like these:

1) To what extent are these potential mentors grounded in a relationship with Christ?
2) To what extent do they articulate and embrace their own personal vocations?
3) What kind of listening is best for you to receive from mentors? Do these potential mentors truly listen to you?
4) What sorts of questions help you to deeply reflect? Do they ask these questions?
5) To what extent do they promote their own agenda and interests?
6) To what extent do they concentrate on your development for its own sake?
7) What draws you to the mentor?
8) What is the connection between your own personal vocation (as far as you understand it) and this potential mentoring relationship?
9) What kind of chemistry do you need to have with those who are mentoring you? Are you experiencing that kind of chemistry?
10) To what extent is their advice helpful?
11) Do they help you recognize your potential to identify sins to root out?
12) To what extent do they strive to understand you?

Some students are sufficiently self-aware to answer such questions directly and reflectively. Others are not. That’s okay. The questions themselves stimulate recognition of the issues at stake in effective mentorship. Gentle questioning can prompt young people to dig further, to raise their awareness about what is involved in mentorship and approach potential mentoring relationships with the degree of seriousness it warrants.

6. Cultivate Prayerful Silence And Listening

Of all the keys to effective discernment we have discussed in this chapter, prayerful silence and listening are perhaps the most important. It is absolutely critical for mentors to be grounded in these habits. We cannot pass on what we do not have. And mentees cannot hope to hear God’s call without quieting and opening their own interior world. Silence is essential for receiving the Lord’s voice, accepting wise counsel from others, and listening to the longing of their own hearts.
Silence is becoming more and more difficult. Modernity has for centuries emphasized the tangible over the intangible, the body over the soul. This basic cultural orientation already undermines a disposition of prayerful attentiveness, a spiritual reality.

Today’s young people are faced with far greater challenges than those of the industrial revolution who confronted factory noise and automobiles. Contemporary youth find themselves not just surrounded by machines but plugged into them in every sphere of activity. Education, entertainment, communication, and relationship building are mediated through technology.

Constant digitized engagement distracts us profoundly and damages our capacity for attentive silence. Many of us have felt this damage—we find it difficult now after years of interaction with computer screens to hold lengthy conversations or read books for long stretches of time. These concerns are now well documented. Books like The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicolas Carr, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology & Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, and You Are Not a Gadget by Jerald Lanier are showing indisputable linkage between massive internet use and lack of capacity for deep thought, emotional blindness, inability to relate face-to-face with other human persons, along with skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety.

Nicolas Carr details the connection between digitized distraction and functional damage to our capacity for silence. The brain, he explains, is an organ that can literally morph at the neurological level over time depending upon the kind of input it receives. We problem solve and make decisions via the pre-frontal cortex. Given the need for fast decision making while gaming or surfing the web, it makes sense that the pre-frontal cortex with its functional working memory would actually be strengthened through internet use. This has been experimentally proven. But those parts of the brain associated with long-term memory correspondingly weaken. This is because long-term memory requires slow and steady input from working memory. If working memory becomes blitzed with data, information transfer into long-term memory is impeded. This is precisely what happens when the pre-frontal cortex is hyper-activated in today’s fast speed digital environment; it literally weakens that part of the brain connected to long-term memory.

This is an alarming problem since long-term memory is where the brain holds its overarching conceptual schema of the world. It’s where we hold together various parts of the world with an understanding of how they relate to others parts, and thus it’s the place where we hold a sense of our life’s meaning. It is long-term memory to which Romano Guardini refers when he says that “memory is the power with which man summons his interior world for inspection, thus for the first time really possessing himself of it.” Without long-term memory we flit about from one sensual engagement with the world to another without interior depth.

There are several major effects this lack of silence has upon a young person’s ability to effectively discern personal vocation. If prayer is silent conversation with God, who guides in the depths of one’s interior in a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12), then I cannot hope to hear His voice and gain His guidance unless I step away from the noise and gain capacity for silent prayer. Sensitivity to the voice of God—awareness of His calling—is born from habits of interaction with Him. Just as I cannot learn the ways of another human person without rich, ample time for fellowship, so I cannot learn God’s ways in my life unless I spend time with him listening to Him and engaging Him. This depends on habits of silent prayer.

God uses other people to express His calling. If I cannot be silently attentive, I cannot receive what they have to offer or understand what they really need from me. I cannot learn from them or draw from their experience. Without interior depth I cannot receive them into myself or adequately recognize when they have, through their own listening, brought me into themselves. If I am habituated to superficial and emotionally stunted communication and lack the capacity to deeply listen to them or my experiences with them, I cannot adequately discern my own calling.

At the same time, lack of interior depth also stunts my ability to listen to my own heart, which is so often the organ of God’s call. I need to understand the longings of my heart, including my distinct pattern of motivation and the day-to-day desires that orient me. I need also to grasp what it means to have peace of heart which, as so many spiritual masters have indicated, is critical to understanding the Lord’s will.

What can mentors do to help the young people under their care gain capacity for prayerful silence and listening? In the first place, we must model it and provide our mentees with the experience of encountering them according to it. Gazing upon the young person with empathic love, asking questions that demand reflection, and listening with depth of interior life will give youth a living encounter with silence. That loving gaze declares to the young person: “You have great dignity within yourself.”
Create times and places for silent prayer without fearing that the experience will be boring or not “relevant.” Silent retreats where cell phones are dropped in a box at the start are a powerful mode of facilitating attentive listening in the heart of the young person. A former student from Franciscan University recently came back from mission in Russia compelled to “preach the poustinia” to his peers. The poustinia, which originates in Eastern Christian spirituality, is a form of prayer where one goes in silence to a single cabin or room that consists only of a bed, a table and chair, a cross and a Bible.

Reclaim conversation. Press for one-on-one and small group discussion oriented to questions that invite reflective depth. Classes where young people sit face-to-face often powerfully facilitate good conversation. One exercise I have found consistently helpful in generating rich dialogue is to have youth share achievement stories in pairs of two, where each has a turn to take on the role of question-asker and story-teller. In this context they reveal themselves in authentic action to one another. Besides basic sharing, I also ask them to reflect on what they saw in one another as they express their stories, which leads to moments of mutual empathy. The whole room is typically animated with a buzz of joyful engagement and smiling faces.

7. Awaken Them to Self-Creative Freedom

“It’s pretty easy, really,” a priest once told me with regard to discerning God’s will.
“Easy?” I asked.

“Yes. You pray for God’s will. You consider possible choices. Then you make a decision and go for it.”
I didn’t argue about how ‘possible choices’ can trip us up. I got the basic point and was struck both by its refreshing simplicity and emphasis on the power we have, by God’s grace, in our own action. It reminded me of St. Augustine’s famous saying: “Love God and do what you will.”

Young people who want to understand the Lord’s will can be anxious about the future as they stare into a myriad of possible life courses. Having various options is one reason for concern, but the deeper reason stems from failure to embrace a critical aspect of their own nature. Young people are often not aware that they image God through their own freedom, which means that doing God’s will involves taking initiative, making decisions and acting on them.

Youth sometimes assume that the Lord wants them to discern in passivity, that authentic spirituality is waiting for God to tell them what to do. They can grow agitated when they hear nothing. Of course sometimes God overtly directs and at all times he wants us to rely upon him in prayer. But it is also true that he desires us to exercise our own freedom and to co-create our personal vocations with him.
John Paul II’s Letter to the Youth of the World serves as a kind of re-capitulation of key principles we have discussed in this chapter while highlighting the profound role of self-creative freedom in discernment. I quote the following passage at length because of its importance:

Hence during youth a person puts the question, “What must I do?” not only to himself and to other people from whom he can expect an answer, especially his parents and teachers, but he puts it also to God, as his Creator and Father. He puts it in the context of this particular interior sphere in which he has learned to be in a close relationship with God, above all in prayer. He therefore asks God: “What must I do?, what is your plan for my life? Your creative, fatherly plan? What is your will? I wish to do it.”

In this context the “plan” takes on the meaning of a “life vocation,” as something which is entrusted by God to an individual as a task. Young people, entering into themselves and at the same time entering into conversation with Christ in prayer, desire as it were to read the eternal thought which God the Creator and Father has in their regard. They then become convinced that the task assigned to them by God is left completely to their own freedom, and at the same time is determined by various circumstances of an interior and exterior nature. Examining these circumstances, the young person, boy or girl, constructs his or her plan of life and at the same time recognizes this plan as the vocation to which God is calling him or her.

Young people in the throes of vocational discernment often read this passage in wonder and amazement. They recognize themselves in those searching questions, “‘What must I do? What is your plan for my life?’” The pope is not speaking here of broad cultural issues or theological principles but comes alongside their own journey. He enters into it and they enter into his good counsel. As they dwell with it they recognize in themselves the disconnect between intrinsic striving for action and an opinion that doing God’s will involves waiting for Him to direct. That God wants them to construct their life plan and actually makes it His own will serves to lift the burden of that false opinion and give flight to the young person’s drive for action.

Cultivating effective discernment involves awakening mentees to the reality that they can literally co-create their own personal vocation. Effective mentors can draw on the teaching presented in St. John Paul II’s Letter to the Youth of the World and others like it to catalyze this kind of enlightenment. Of course this teaching must be balanced by other key principles of discernment also addressed in the passage.

One’s vocation is an individual life task, not simply a basic state in life or a general call to holiness. God has something for each one to do uniquely. To discover it, young people must be in close relationship with God and seek His desires through attentive prayer. They are free in proportion to their reliance on Him and conformity to His commandments. They seek good counsel from parents and teachers and other mentors. They explore “exterior circumstances” which especially include the needs of others and the historical and social contexts in which they find themselves. They examine “interior circumstances,” the energetic striving of their unique patterns of motivation and the talents that flow from them. And then, while continuing in prayer, they decide on a plan of action and, in the words of my priest friend, they “go for it.”

When all of these keys to effective discernment have been taken into account and there is still some uncertainty on the part of the mentee (there will always be, for most people), then one can heed the advice of Joan of Arc: “Act, and God will act.”

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