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How do you discern a vocation to religious life?

September 17, 2020

Litany of Supplication at Father Mannara's, CSB priestly ordination

By Father Kevin Mannara, CSB

Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening. 1 Samuel 3:10

When I was a boy, I said to my grandmother that I thought I might want to be a priest. She told me not just anyone can be a priest: God needs to call someone to become a priest. My seven year-old mind took her literally, and after that every time the phone rang I hoped it was God calling me!

The Lord is speaking to you; He speaks to all of us. The key is to learn how to listen. This is part of an art called discernment.

The word “discernment” comes from the Latin discernere which means “to sort out, to separate.” When one is “discerning”, it means he is taking time apart in order to pray, think, reflect, and discover the unique plan God has for his life. He is “sorting out” or sorting through his talents, gifts, desires, interests, and passions. Not those he wishes he had, but those he possesses, even if not yet developed. Then he looks, with an open mind, where they are leading him in life. This means we have to be honest and realistic with ourselves.

Perhaps there is no easy answer to how one discerns a vocation to religious life, because the ways God calls are many. That said, there are a few common ways that a man can discern a vocation to religious life.

As always, the first place to start is in prayer, so a practical way to discern and to grow spiritually would be to commit to a certain amount of time each day to prayer. Be reasonable. Perhaps start with 15 minutes daily, and each week increase it by another five minutes until you reach forty-five minutes to an hour. Prayer can be devotions like the rosary, reflecting on scripture, meditation, or journaling. Frequent participation in Mass and regular confession are essential. It is also important to actively serve, perhaps through your parish or campus ministry.

Key to effective discernment is to have someone to journey with you: a spiritual director or mentor who can guide you. Consider inviting a trusted member of a religious community, or someone whose spiritual life you would like to emulate. This person can help you to “sort out” the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life. He or she can help you learn how to listen.

Find good materials to read and videos to watch. Remember just because it’s on the internet or published somewhere does not mean it’s a good source for you. Especially when starting out, it’s important to turn to materials that are appropriate for beginning to explore this dimension of your spiritual life. Discerning a vocation to religious life is not difficult, but it is serious work. What’s more serious, and meaningful, than learning to sort out God’s movement in your life?! Once you have a spiritual director or mentor, he or she will likely make recommendations for you.

The simple and most direct way to discern a vocation to religious life is to spend time with members of a religious community. A good place to start is with members of a community you are familiar with. Let them know you are interested and want to learn more about their way of life. Ask to visit with their members. Be practical, and ask yourself a simple question: do I want to go through a formation process that leads me to where they are?

Then take some time getting to know them. Contact the vocation director and he will help you to have experiences to get to know the community better. And then observe. See how they live, how they interact, how the serve the Church. Ask yourself: are these men joyful? Do they find meaning and peace in how they live? Am I attracted to their way of life and the ministries in which they serve? Is this a good fit for me?

We will never find our vocations by trying to figure out whether we are better or worse than others. We are good enough to do what we are called to do. Be yourself! Henri Nouwen

Father Nouwen’s quote is also applicable to looking at religious communities. Don’t judge them as better or worse than another or by judging its members; discern based on what fits for you. All communities serve the Church. Which one will develop and empower your gifts, which will both challenge you and also make you feel at home?

For example, some men may be a better fit for a smaller community like the Basilians Fathers because he likes to get to know the other community members, and can easily access member’s of the congregation’s leadership. Other men may prefer big communities with many members and apostolates.

Learn about the community’s founder (or in the case of the Basilian, our founders.) What in the charism attracts you? Can you imagine yourself in their apostolates, the work they do?

Looking through their websites is a good place to start, but nothing compares with actually spending time within a community. Again, not to judge it, but to ask might I be called to its way of life?

Speak Lord, for your servant is listening!


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