What Happens First?
Often when a person thinks about a vocation to priesthood some of the first practical questions they ask is: How long will it take me to become a priest? What is the application procedure? Where will I have to study? etc. In the past there may have been straightforward answers to these questions as most lads coming forward for priesthood came straight from secondary school after doing the leaving cert. They were equal in age and had generally all reached at least a pass in leaving cert. It was pretty much certain that they would spend six years in a seminary studying philosophy and theology and also carrying out different pastoral works around the diocese gaining pastoral experience. However nowadays lads present for priesthood at different ages (18-50) with different life and work experience and so it is difficult to say on a general basis how long formation might take.
I suppose the best way of answering this question of how long the formation process is is simply that Archbishop Diarmuid wants anyone who comes to the stage of ordination to be as well equipped and as prepared as possible so that when they go out to minister in a parish or faith community that they will not just exist but will live a full, joyful and happy life as a priest.
The first step on the road to formally discerning (understanding whether you are being called to priesthood) is an initial meeting with the Vocations Director. This is a relaxed meeting where the Vocations director gets an idea of the life so far for the person thinking about priesthood. Are there indications in the life of the person that a vocation to priesthood exists?
If after this initial meeting the Vocations Director and the person himself is happy to mover forward then this begins a series of meetings with the Vocations Director. These meetings are an opportunity firstly for the person to grow in his understanding of what it means to be called by God to priesthood and secondly an opportunity for the Vocations Director to get to know him well so that he can advise him whether or not to make a formal application to become a seminarian. How long this takes and how many meetings depends on the person themselves and his own specific needs.
This period of discernment is a very hallowed time. Mostly through prayer the person grows in their understanding of God’s unique call for them and grows in confidence to make an application to the Archbishop to formally apply to become a seminarian.
What is Discernment?
God has a plan for you and your life. As He had a plan for the great people in the scriptures eg. Jememiah, Samuel or Mary, so he has a plan for you! In order to be able to understand where and what that call holds for you it is important to give some time and space to discerning His call. Discernment is a process by means of which I seek to recognise what God is asking of me, either in a particular situation, or in choosing the direction of my life. It is a decision between all the possibilities that life holds for us and ultimately deciding on the one that will bring fulfilment and peace. A fulfilment and peace not just for me but for the community too… the call to priesthood is a call to generosity and service of the community.
Discernment is about interpreting God’s word in events and situations; reading the signs of the times. It involves a felt-knowledge; i.e. it has to do with the emotions, and not just with the intellect.
On the surface we are often aware of conflicting feelings, and we feel pulled in different directions. Discernment is about getting beneath the surface, to become aware of our deepest heart wishes. God doesn’t play games with us. If I am genuinely open to what God wants, then my deepest heart wishes will be in keeping with his plan.
One priest put it well when he said, ‘discernment was about uncovering a calling from God that was there all the time. I needed to give space and time to unpack it or uncover it’.
The Core Principle
There is a basic principle which lies at the heart of Christian living, no matter what our particular vocation is. It is clearly stated by St. Ignatius Loyola at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises. He says:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.
When we see this written down, it may seem fairly obvious, but it is amazing how easily, without even being aware of it, we can lose the focus on praising, serving, and reverencing God, as our first priority.
Six Steps in Every Discernment
Although they may not always seem to be clearly defined in practice, there are six steps in the process of discernment.
- Praying to understand God’s will for your life. It means that I leave my own agenda to one side; I desire only the will of God, whatever it is. Even when we are committed to doing what God wants, we can still have an experience of struggling with our own counter-preferences. This is why the discernment must always take place in a context of prayer (Pray deeply for an understanding of what God’s will is for your life).
- Make a decision in the imagination of the heart, in favour of the particular option (e.g., priesthood). Live as if this were your final decision, keeping a journal. Note both the positive feelings, and the negative feelings that arise consistently, over a period of time. As St. Paul tells us:
What the Spirit brings is very different: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So if I am genuinely open to the guidance of the Spirit, and if this particular option gives rise to feelings of joy, peace, etc., this can be taken as an indication that this option is in keeping with God’s plan for me.
- Make a similar decision in the heart, this time against the particular option (e.g., priesthood). Once again, live each day’s routine as if this were your final decision, and note once again the positive and negative feelings which arise. It is always worth working through step no.3, even if step no.2 already points to a clear conclusion, because this simply adds to the confidence that the discernment has been well made.
- Prayer for light; to recognise what has emerged. Which imagined decision led to the most positive / least negative responses in yourself?
- Knowledge is not of itself a decision. The next stage is prayer for the grace to actually choose, taking account only of what God wills.
- Seek confirmation. Often this confirmation comes over time, in the decisions made by others, and in the way things actually work out.
Three On-Going Components of Discernment
As I have mentioned, discernment is a process; it is on-going. Throughout the process, there are three elements which must be present:
- Prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance and wisdom.
- Gathering factual information about the various choices being considered, because the discernment doesn’t take place in a vacuum.
- A continuing effort to seek confirmation from outside myself.
Making a decision!
At some stage or other you will have to make a decision. Some people put this off time and again due to fear, uncertainty, busyness or whatever. Some never decide and live their lives with the feeling of ‘if only’. Don’t let this happen to you. If you are being called to the priesthood know that the Church needs YOU! God needs YOU! He has chosen YOU for a specific purpose and task. One which only you can achieve. Make a decision! Make a difference! You may never reach 100% surety that priesthood is for you. In the end it will take a leap of faith trusting that God’s will will be done.
Talk to someone
It helps to talk. Talking with someone about what is going on for you will help you to make sense of what is happening. The Vocations Director, a friend, a local priest, someone you trust can definitely help. As the priest is called to serve the community, so too the community has a responsibility to help a person understand their calling. Why not get in touch with the Vocations Director? He is there to listen, to advise, to encourage but not to pressurise or force. He wants you to be in the right place. If you are meant to be a priest he will help in whatever way to make that happen. He will be happy too if after discernment you decide this is not for you… Priesthood is not for everyone… but it could be for YOU!