It was going full force back in my seminary days, the 1970s into the 80s. Heaven knows why but we moved from deciding on a vocation to discerning the same. On the eve of their diaconate ordinations, a necessary ministry before ordination to the priesthood, most of the guys in my seminary were in the throes of panic. “Is that time already? Do I really want to promise celibacy for the rest of my life?” These young men seemed surprised that ordination was a possible conclusion to seminary life. How to calm them down?
One of our floor chaplains, a wise pastoral priest, told those dismayed men “What did you think was going to happen after three years here? Haven’t you been practicing celibacy already, I hope? Do you think there’ll be hundreds of young ladies lining the streets tomorrow crying and lamenting the loss of you as a potential mate? Get a grip!” It brought a lot of the “soon to be out of the gene pool” back to their senses. However, the base problem lingers for the potential priestly vocation–discernment.
To be clear, discernment is a good thing IF it leads to a decision. At some point, as many of the great spiritual mystics of the Church would say, you have to fish or cut bait. Let’s compare the vocation of matrimony. There is a time of discernment; it’s called “dating.” There is a point where a decision is made; let’s call that the “engagement.” Does dating always end in engagement? No. Does the engagement always end in marriage? No. The principle remains the same however, there is discernment, then there is a decision, then there is a wedding. Does this guarantee a successful marriage, certainly not, but there would be no marriage at all without the decision.
Priestly formation from my time to the present has emphasized discernment so much that a decision isn’t made until the young man is walking down the aisle of the cathedral waiting for the bishop to lay hands of ordination upon him. If you’re doubting your vocation, make a retreat to discern; if you’re feeling good about your future vocation, a few days of silent recollection to discern that it’s so; if you get a bad grade in Philosophy of Discernment, better make a thirty day retreat during the summer to discern. Thus there is only dating and the wedding, no engagement or decision.
The Blessed Virgin Mary’s life was a discernment of the power of the Holy Spirit. When the Angel appeared to her at the Annunciation Mary did not exclaim “Can you give me another month Gabe to pray over it with my spiritual director?” Her answer was “Let it be done…” a decision.
Perhaps if the seminarian focused less on himself and more of the needs of God’s people, the decision would become clearer? Instead of four retreats a year, one week to volunteer at a nursing home; a few days visiting shut-ins at the local parish; or, following around a hospital chaplain for a month? Maybe it’s not so much what you want as what the Lord wants you to do, and what He wills He strengthens you to do it. Decision without discernment is a potential disaster; discernment without decision is delay and decay.