Editor’s note: In this column, reporter Jenny Snarski shares several discernment stories, including her own. Snarski discerned a call to the consecrated life from 1996-2002 with the Regnum Christi community in Mexico and the U.S.
Vocations Director for the Diocese of Superior Fr. Thomas Thompson regretted having to admit that some people have told him they do not like praying the diocesan prayer for vocations, in particular the line, “Bless our families, bless our children – and choose from our homes those needed for your work.”
Their primary reasoning? A desire for grandchildren and a wish for their children to be happy.
For Erich Wallace of Merrill, parishioner and former staff member at St. Francis Xavier, it was in fact the witness of happiness he saw in a fellow college graduate who had given her life to Christ as a Missionary of the Word religious sister that helped fan his desire to discern a celibate vocation.
This encounter happened at a High School Discipleship weekend he helped chaperone this spring.
“She was still the same girl, but her heart was light, and you could tell she was in a deep, committed relationship with someone, the person of Jesus Christ,” Wallace shared in a post on the Superior Disciple website in July.
“Her and the other sisters’ relationship with Jesus were more palpable and real than any I had ever witnessed. He was not a distant spiritual figure whom they related to once in a while; it was as if he were truly there, in the flesh, in their lives,” he continued.
It was encounters like this and others – chaperoning a visit to Immaculate Heart of Mary College Seminary in Winona, Minnesota; a personal visit with Capuchins in Milwaukee; and his own relationship with pastor Fr. Chris Kemp and other diocesan priests – that have led Wallace into a period of formal discernment.
“These experiences,” he shares in the Superior Disciple post, “have shown me that celibacy for the Kingdom of God is not some sort of punishment that should be done away with … It is the response of people who have been called by God to make him and his Church their spouse, and to first and foremost be with him and have a deep relationship with him, so that through that relationship, they can love the world with abandon.”
It was after that post that I began to correspond with Wallace by email.
First off, I congratulated him on his generosity to openly discern. Second, I offered some of my own experience with discernment. An experience I have no – well, very few – regrets about, but that, in hindsight, has taught me much and moved me to share things that might have been helpful.
Wallace and I both admitted to the underlying immature understanding that showing our love for God meant choosing great sacrifices.
He summarized it well: “Whatever is the hardest thing is the right thing, because Jesus suffered and died on a cross, and that’s what my life needs to feel like.”
I appreciated the feedback on that flawed line of thinking. Wallace was grateful to a Capuchin who told him, “Straight up, that is piss-poor theology.”
God speaks broadly in Scripture and church teaching, he said. He speaks more specifically through the gifts and talents he has given us, the noble desires and holy passions in our hearts. He speaks through the providential, albeit at time mysterious, circumstances and experiences in life.
Yes, many saints and spiritual writers talk about the benefits and goodness of embracing the cross; however, the caveat is embracing the crosses God allows and sends, not one’s that we willingly seek.
St. Francis de Sales sums up the “three best and surest marks of lawful inspiration” in his Treatise on the Love of God.
He lays them out: “Perseverance in contrast to inconstancy and levity, peace and gentleness of heart in contrast to disquiet and solicitude, and humble obedience in contrast to obstinacy and extravagance.”
Sharing a quote from Howard Thurman, Wallace wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Similar concepts have come up in conversations with diocesan seminarian Dan Tracy.
He affirmed the role of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, in particular joy and peace. He said that these “will be emblazoned on Fr. (Andrew) Ricci’s tombstone” because he speaks of them so often.
“As former vocations director, he knows that the fruits of the Spirit are as solid an indicator of vocation as any,” Tracy added.
Along Tracy’s path, “Joy and peace are two that continue to be personally significant.” He shared that exactly what those have looked like has changed since his first years in seminary and through this past summer he spent at Creighton University in Omaha coursing the Institute for Priestly Formation summer program. The program focuses on spiritual formation as the integrating factor of all priestly formation.
Tracy admits that “absolute certainty” might always seem just out of reach, and angst doesn’t vanish the moment a man’s face hits the marble during his ordination, but that it doesn’t either for the man or woman at the altar exchanging their “I dos.”
The conclusion is that absolute certitude doesn’t leave room for faith.
Discerning in a context of sacramental grace and spiritual direction are paramount, in Tracy’s view. As soon as someone is open to the question of a vocation of consecration to God, “Satan and his minions are coming after you,” he said. Discernment is not something that can happen in a vacuum, isolated from being guided and growing in relationship with God.
And that is what is really at the heart of discernment – one’s relationship with God and how one views their life in relationship to him.
Wallace is currently in a nine-month discernment program called “Journey” being run by the Diocese of La Crosse.
Recently Wallace shared, “There is a significance about intentional discernment in an atmosphere that is so focused on formation,” in particular spiritual formation. He said he has had his share of struggles and hasn’t discovered any absolute certitude about his specific vocation, but he has really noticed he is changing and growing spiritually, and his perspective is being shaped by the intentional discernment environment.
Wallace is echoing another comment made by Tracy – “When it comes to fear, that is not the business God is in” – only a person who has truly encountered God as a loving father, providential creator and desirous of our good can truly trust him enough to sincerely ask the question, “Are you calling me to give my entire life to you and your church?”
However, the constant from my personal experience is the foundational answer to that question – both as I was formally discerning my way into consecrated life, and as I discerned my way out of it – was, and continues to be, “Yes!”
“The ultimate goal is to get to heaven … We have to live with the end in mind, the universal call to holiness,” Tracy shared.
“We can be over-infatuated with the means,” he added.
This point was right in line with fallacies Wallace and I had discussed.
Good old American efficiency, the fear of making a mistake or disappointing someone’s expectation. The fear that admitting out loud the idea of a religious vocation means the person is committed for life. The sense of responsibility, knowing that time and money is invested in discernment, and not wanting people to feel like their resources were wasted if someone left the seminary or convent. The sense of failure on the part of the person discerning that they weren’t good enough or holy enough.
Fr. Thompson addressed this last concern, saying there is the fear that deciding to try the seminary means the man has “completely signed up to be a priest.”
“That is not so,” he clarified, saying that the seminary is “more like dating” the church.
“If the first person we ever dated was to become our spouse, we’d probably not have as many married people,” he added.
Over the four to eight years of discernment in seminary, if he is not called to the priesthood, a man can be thankful for the opportunity for formation and growth, but be at peace leaving and “finding where the Lord truly is calling you.”
In fact, discerning out of the seminary (or convent or other formal discernment program) is actually proof that formal discernment works.
Yes, someone can leave for reasons of their own fear or lack of commitment; just as someone might seek out and try to stay in religious life out of fear of intimate human relationships, or a misguided idea that religious life is a fulfilling career of service.
Both men, in their own words and experiences, have agreed that discernment doesn’t just happen on its own.
Fr. Thompson emphasizes that parents are “truly the first teachers of the faith to young people.
“How they lay that foundation and how they support the growth of their children in the faith most certainly would support (or not) that growth as they consider the possibility of religious life.”
Janelle Roe, Superior resident and mother of first-year college seminarian Noah, shared some of her experiences as a mother watching her son grow in faith and consider a vocation.
The Roes have been committed to practicing their faith – weekly Mass, participation in the sacraments, openly talking about faith. They have developed friendships with various priests over the years and encouraged Noah to attend Catholic youth events.
It was attending the March for Life with Noah as a high school freshman that Roe sees as a real turning point, “for him to see other Catholic youth … that have a faith life and a desire to do something greater than themselves.”
The seminarian’s mother said he had been open about feeling he might be called to be a priest off and on since second grade.
“My husband and I have always felt that if this what God is calling him to, that’s great,” Roe said, adding that they have family – including her father-in-law, who is a permanent deacon – supportive of Noah’s formal discernment, and others who question how they could let their only son consider the priesthood. She acknowledged the pressure from a culture that simply cannot comprehend celibacy or sexual abstinence.
“Since he’s been in seminary, it’s been amazing – he has new (Catholic) friends, and that was a missing link” for him growing up. Noah made connections through the diocesan youth events, but distance made it difficult as high schoolers to connect throughout the school year.
“Just the friendships he has already developed with fellow seminarians has been the best gift for Noah – they’re all discerning together in this brotherhood,” Roe said.
Her own friendship has deepened with another seminarian’s parent, Lynn Tracy, the mother of Dan Tracy, who is also from Superior.
While Roe doesn’t know that the future holds, she doesn’t need to. She is confident that Noah is where he is meant to be today, and whether or not Noah is called to be a priest, he has already answered a more important, more foundational question: Is God at the center of my life, and do I trust that wherever he leads is for my good and happiness?
God is not waiting on the sidelines of our lives with a big hook ready to nab anyone who lets the question of a religious vocation surface in their mind. He is waiting, however, to share his eternal life and joy with those who are open to sharing their earthly lives with him.
And that is an invitation to every person reading this.
No path is easy. Every vocation has its ups and downs. Peace and joy is God’s gift to each and every one who is willing to put him at the center and experience the fullness of a life lived in deep relationship with him, receive his graces and embrace the crosses he sends.
At that point, “Is God calling me to the priesthood or religious life?” is simply the concrete circumstances through which we live out the “yes” we have already given him – “Yes, I want to give you my entire life to know, love and serve you.”