Open foot, insert mouth. Wait. I mean the other way around.
Fr. Michael Zimmerman here, assistant director at Vocations Boston. I’ve probably said a few items on this list myself, and I’ve been on the receiving end of far more, but how can we actually encourage discerning a vocation without sounding like an idiot – never mind not causing harm and confusion?
Essential to the question of vocation is freedom. We need interior freedom – freedom from undue influence from fears and attachments – in order to be able to say “yes” to God’s will. Our free will is what allows our “yes” to be an act of love and meritorious for our salvation. Without freedom, we cannot lay down our lives in love, to God or a spouse. So our general rule for things not to say is anything that will impinge upon somebody’s interior freedom.
How to Discern Your Vocation | Scivias with Fr. Michael Zimmerman
7 Things Not To Say To Someone Discerning A Religious Vocation
Since context matters, I’ll mention exactly who might be tempted to say the things they really shouldn’t be saying.
1. “But I want Grandkids!” – Parents to Son or Daughter Discerning.
Hope of Happiness | Scivias: Episode 5
One of the greatest obstacles to a religious vocation is often one’s own parents. Parents naturally want what’s best for their children and for them to be happy. But sometimes their vision of best is focused on material or natural gain in this world, and fails to recognize that “Father knows best” – that is, God the Father. Parents, don’t try live vicariously through your children, let them live their own lives. Which relates to our next item…
2. “I can’t do that, I’m not good or holy enough” – To oneself.
Are You Truly Free? | Scivias: Episode 3
God has a plan for your life: to be a happy and holy saint. All of us have this universal call to holiness, which is our fundamental vocation. Of course it’s beyond your ability, but that’s why we have a savior in Jesus Christ. So if you find yourself saying these words, “I can’t do it”, then recognize them as Satan’s attempt to try to make you lose faith in God.
To be sure, there are certain objective standards to become a priest or religious (just like there can be impediments to a valid marriage). For example, one needs to demonstrate at least two years of chaste living before they can be admitted to seminary. And at least two years of being a confirmed Catholic. And there are academic and several other types of qualifications, but the point is this: don’t try to disqualify yourself. Talk to a vocations director.
Just like marriage involves discernment from both parties, a religious vocation has to be recognized by both you and a competent authority in the Church. That’s why there’s a vocations director, an admission process, and annual assessments while in formation. Don’t tell yourself that you can’t, let the Church help you discern if you can.
3. “I’m discerning a vocation to religious life and I don’t care who knows it!” – Self to the Entire World.
Source of Love | Scivias: Episode 6 (photo credit: George Martell)
This one isn’t said to someone discerning, but it will certainly prompt comments. People’s observations about your vocation may help you discern, but don’t go telling the whole world, “I’m discerning!”. That’s like announcing, “I’m thinking of going on a date with somebody!”. That just makes it weird. Don’t be weird.
In telling everyone, you’ll get everyone’s advice, which really doesn’t matter and only makes it harder to recognize God’s voice. When starting off, keep it between yourself and God, with a spiritual director and the vocations director to help you hear His voice more clearly. If things progress, it’ll eventually become appropriate to tell family, friends, etc.
You may recognize the need to go on a dating fast to advance in your discernment and focus on your relationship with the Lord. Again, you don’t need to explain to people why you’re not open to dating, just say it’s not the right time for you as you sort all this out.
4. “Do you think you’ll go back?” – To someone leaving seminary or religious formation.
“An Ancient Path” Music Video | Scivias Theme Song
Nationally, about 50% of men “discern out” and leave the seminary at some stage of formation; and religious order numbers are probably similar. It’s a natural part of the discernment, but when your friend is leaving formation it’s hard not to wonder if they’re abandoning God’s plan. If they’re asking for your advice that’s one thing, but it’s probably not your place to weigh in.
Respect their freedom and competency and presume that this is the result of a diligent discernment. You might ask if they’re at peace with their decision, or if their time in formation was helpful to them. Promise to “pray for great things in God’s next step for you”. If they’re called back, that’s on God’s time and up to their response.
5. “When you become a priest/religious, then [insert-how-Church-will-be-saved-here]” – To anyone in formation.
Saint Peter’s Vocation | Scivias Pilot Episode
No. Just no. Wrong on so many levels. Most of the time this is someone simply imposing their particular ideology (“I know you’ll only have mass in Latin” or “you’ll allow for same-sex marriages”; etc.). Don’t tell someone how to be the priest or religious you want them to be, or what they have to do. Let them follow Jesus. You do God’s plan for you.
Related, is putting seminarians and novices up on a pedestal. Someone in formation is not automatically holier than anyone else. It’s good to treat someone in clerics or in a habit with respect, but they don’t stop being human.
For this reason I’m not a big fan of the line: “Thank you for your vocation”. I think that makes me an ogre. I know it comes from a good place, a desire to affirm and support and show appreciation for the gift of priesthood and religious life and this person’s courage and generosity, but a vocation comes from God, so first of all, thank Him.
Saying, “thank you for your ‘yes’”, is more appropriate, but I still have reservations because I fear there’s some substitution theology going on here. Jesus Christ did not suffer and die on a cross so that you would not have to lay down your life. He saved you from eternal death, but this does not replace your dying to yourself. Rather your death becomes a participation in Jesus’ death, so that you might share in His Resurrection and glory. A priest’s or religious’ “yes” is a beautiful thing, but it does not replace the importance of your own “yes” to whatever vocation God is calling you to, which if it’s marriage is harder anyways (cf. 1 Cor 7).
6. “Oh, but you’d make such a good husband and father (wife and mother)” – To someone entering (or in) formation.
Blessed Are Those Who Hunger | Scivias: Episode 1
Hopefully that’s true, as no one should become a priest or religious if they’re not capable of being a good spouse and father or mother. After all, grace builds on virtue. But we definitely don’t need priests who would have made bad fathers.
Even worse is when something is said about how the girls or boys will be upset by this great tragic loss in the dating pool. There are literally billions of other people on this planet not pursuing celibacy. I think in God’s providence, He’s going to find a way to take care of them.
7. “You should think about becoming a priest/religious” – To a random young person at daily mass.
Forgotten Dreams | Scivias Trailer
Now this is actually very important to say. But I think only once you’ve gotten to know them, and not just to someone who happens to be the only young person at daily mass.
Remember, responding to a vocation requires freedom, and springing things on people will likely just trigger their fears to discernment. Even if it coerces them to pursue a vocation, it does so with a lack of freedom. Observing a strong prayer life in somebody could be an indication of a religious vocation, but maybe invite them to coffee first and hear their hopes and dreams and fears before you drop this around willy-nilly. And then if and when you do say it, it will have much greater significance.
At the end of the day, if you say something you shouldn’t, don’t sweat it too much. God draws straight with crooked lines. But let’s do our best to listen to His voice for our lives and how He calls us to speak and support others in their discernment.
More Resources To Help You Discern Your Vocation
Scivias: Know the Ways of the Lord is a one-of-a-kind video series that serves as a vocational discernment guide for men considering the priesthood. The series is narrated by and features Fr. Michael Zimmerman from the Office of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Boston. Accessible via the Vocations Boston YouTube Channel and Facebook page beginning April 13, 2021, Scivias aims to help young men recognize how pursuing God’s plan for their lives will fulfill their greatest desires.
For access to all the videos for Scivias and download the accompanying guide, visit: https://vocationsboston.org/parish-vocation-resources#sciviasForm