Do you have a vocation to the priesthood? Maybe. What I know for sure is that even if you do, the entirety of your vocation is something far more personal than a “state in life”, and it’s something that you can start living even now. This is the best way to discern any vocation.
The reality of personal vocation—the fundamental Catholic teaching that God calls each person into existence with a particular Word (in Greek, logos, or meaning) in mind, and gives them the graces necessary to express it during their time on earth—is something that comes before and after one chooses a state in life. It’s a secret key to discernment.
I was a Catholic seminarian for five years, two years in California studying philosophy (for my Pre-Theology program) at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, CA, and three years in Rome at the Pontifical North American College. I ultimately discerned that I was not called to be a priest, and it was through a deepening understanding of my personal vocation that I was able to do that. I sometimes used to wish that someone had helped me understand personal vocation five years earlier…but then I would’ve have been able to write these words.
Discerning the Priesthood Through Personal Vocation
Personal vocation is the way that one becomes a saint, the reason why a man becomes a priest, and the animating principle behind marriages—why every marriage looks and feels different.
Personal vocation is given at the moment of conception. It’s the unifying force that is present throughout an entire life, which gives form to all of these different aspects of vocation.
By living out his personal vocation, a man becomes a priest. And after he is a priest, his personal vocation means that he will be a particular priest, a priest with unique gifts and talents and personality, his own way of hearing confessions and celebrating the mass.
By living out their personal vocations, a man and woman are led to marriage—
with a particular kind of person. And after they are married, it’s the reason why a woman’s marriage looks differently than any other marriage, from the way she raises her kids to the traditions of the family kitchen. Personal vocation leaves no aspect of life untouched.
Discerning Your Personal Vocation IS Discerning the Priesthood
Personal vocation is at the root of all of the exterior manifestations of vocation. It’s at the level of being, not doing.
So discerning your personal vocation, which is at the level of being and endures throughout your life, gives shape to all of the pathways on which it may lead you—to the priesthood or to marriage or to religious life, or whatever “state” God has called you to. When you discern your personal vocation, it will naturally lead you to the seminary if that’s where God is calling you.
As my spiritual director in seminary formation once told me (I’m changing his name here to protect his privacy): “I’m just Michael Grabling. Becoming Father Michael Grabling was just the only way to fully be Michael Grabling.”
So here are a few things to reflect as you discern your personal vocation and, with it, whether or not you might be called to be a priest. These are practical tools. Of course, prayer and spiritual direction and living a sacramental life are critical, the foundation on which everything rests.
1. Reflect On Stories from Your Life of Deeply Joyful Action
Reflect on times in your life when you have taken some action which you’ve done well and which brought you deep joy and satisfaction. Is there a pattern in those stories? Do they all revolve around serving at the altar of God, or doing pastoral ministry, or impacting the spiritual lives of other people? If so, you don’t necessarily have a vocation to the priesthood, but your stories contain some seeds of your calling which has been present from the day you were born.
2. Picture Yourself Living Different Personal Vocations 10 Years from Now
Picture yourself as a married man with children. Be as vivid as possible. Imagine you’re taking your son his first baseball game, or whatever else you’d like to picture. Then imagine yourself in some of the most beautiful moments of priesthood, celebrating the mass and hearing confessions and being with people through all of the important moments of their lives. Does one or the other fill you with a lasting, abiding sense of joy? This is one of the ways that St. Ignatius kindled his love for God as he lay recovering in a hospital. He realized that when he thought of earthly feats of valor, he was happy—but only temporarily. When he thought of becoming a saint (and we are all called to become saints), he experienced a sweet, lasting attraction. We can discern our personal vocation by applying this kind of design thinking about our lives, while keeping in mind that we are a co-designer.
3. How Are You Called to Love?
Your personal vocation is about how you are called to love and serve others. Ask yourself: What is the one thing that you like to be doing all of the time? Personal vocation is the one thing that a person is always doing, whether they are at work or at play. For instance, the one thing that I am doing all of the time—that I feel a deep, personal connection to—is participating in the creativity of God to bring to life new things in the world. What about you? Is the one thing that you want to be doing all of the time your priestly role, which you have even now as a baptized Christian? Do you want to be offering all of creation back to the father? We are all called to do that, but this might be an indication that God has called you a particular and special way of doing that as an ordained priest of Jesus Christ.