Catholics traditionally believe that God made each one of us to play an irreplaceable part in His Divine Plan. Since we live in a society that glorifies “the self-made man” and encourages us to assertively (re)invent ourselves, it can be easy to forget just how radical the Catholic understanding of vocation is. Vocation comes from God, not ourselves. It will inevitably involve sacrifice, but it is also the path to our deepest freedom and happiness in the long run. Naturally, Catholicism places a high premium on vocational discernment, but if we’re not careful, we can let discernment burden instead of liberate us.
I am a firm believer that God’s call for one’s life is not some great mystery. God is not trying to hide our vocation from us. On the contrary, it is we who sometimes hide from our vocation. To me, vocational discernment is nothing more than attuning our heart to the Lord’s voice by removing obstacles and distractions. The more we purify our intentions and desires, the more clearly we will hear God’s call.
My mother tells me that I first verbalized the desire to be a priest when I was three years old. The seed of a vocation needs to be nourished, and I was blessed to grow up in a spiritually healthy environment which included daily Mass. My family (both immediate and extended) always thought of me as a probable priestly prospect.
As such, it surprised many people that I did not enter college seminary after graduating high school. Discernment almost always involves the consideration of other paths, and as a senior in high school, I wanted to explore other options. A deeper reason also led me to put off seminary: I knew I still needed time to separate from my family and come into adulthood before I would be ready to take a vocational plunge. Had I entered seminary out of high school, I believe that I would have eventually needed to take time off from formation.
As a freshman in college, I explored all sorts of majors, from architecture to Irish. In the midst of the angst and directionless milieu of freshman year, I found that the more I pushed the idea of the priesthood to the back of my mind the more it would ricochet to the front.
By sophomore year, I switched my majors to philosophy, theology, and Italian while revisiting the priesthood on my own terms. As part of this process, I attended “come and see” retreats with a couple of religious orders, and met with members of several others. I also kept the diocesan priesthood in mind. Throughout college, I met monthly with a spiritual director who guided me through my discernment.
By the fall of my senior year, I made the decision to apply to diocesan seminary for my home diocese. Things did not immediately fall into place. My senior year financial aid turned out to be less than previous years, and I soon realized that my plan to graduate free of all non-deferrable college debt was not going to happen. If God wanted me to be a priest, why did He allow this impediment to unexpectedly obstruct my path?
I brought my frustration to my spiritual director. His response became a motto for the remainder of my senior year. “This is about freedom. God is making clear that He wants you to enter seminary on His terms, not on your terms.” My spiritual director advised me to continue applying to my diocese and to be open with them about my finances. He also advised me to apply for post-graduation jobs. “If God wants you to enter seminary next year,” he told me, “God will make that happen. Surrender your vocation to God’s hands.”
I followed the advice of my spiritual director. In early June, the very week in which I had to decide between job offers, an anonymous donor provided some financial assistance, thereby making it possible for me to enter seminary this year. I interpreted this sudden and unexpected change in circumstances as an act of Divine Providence, and I subsequently enrolled at the Saint Paul Seminary.
Discernment has hardly ended. Seminary formation continues to involve the removal of obstacles and distractions so as to better hear the Lord’s voice. My advice for anyone discerning is to remind oneself daily that all vocations are God’s doing, not ours. They are His free gift, not our own achievement.
Jonathan Gaworski graduated from Notre Dame last year. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.