Back in April, I had the privilege of being part of a panel for the NRVC. We were talking about addressing parental concerns for those discerning. You can watch the whole video below.
The young man said that he had turned down a great job and the woman he loved to go to a monastery. On the one hand he felt a strong call from God, on the other he had some negative emotion around the things he was giving up. He asked Fr. Dave to give him some insight into what he might do and how he might move forward.
If he had asked you, what would you say? Would you answer one way if he was your son and another if he was a friend or the child of a friend? In the moment — when the question is posed unexpectedly — it can be difficult to know what to say.
The USSCB vocations page has a ‘Frequently Asked Questions‘ section which touches on this:
How should I react if my son or daughter talks to me about becoming a priest, nun, or brother?
If this hasn’t happened yet, maybe you ought to ask yourself how you or your spouse might react. Would it be shock? Concern? Skepticism? Would this be a dream come true for you or your worst nightmare? Knowing and understanding your own feelings and your reasons for them is an important step in knowing how to respond to your son or daughter. The vast majority of teens today feel that if they told their parents they were even “just thinking” about priesthood or religious life, their parents would be completely opposed to the idea, laugh at them, or in some other way not take them seriously.
What you say in that moment may have a long-lasting impact on other’s decisions. Yours may be the voice which confirms someone’s belief or increases their doubts. What is important is to recognize that when someone discusses discernment with you, they are sharing something they’ve probably been wrestling with for a while. They are taking a risk by being vulnerable and sharing their struggle. How you react will influence not only their decision, but also the future of the relationship between the two of you.
If your child says they want to pursue religious life, you may have legitimate questions and concerns. You might believe your child isn’t suited for the life or you may simply be overwhelmed with the unknown. The same can be said of just about any major decision your child makes. Perhaps they intend to marry someone you believe to be unsuitable. Or they might want to pursue a career for the money, while you feel that the job will frustrate and demoralize them. On the other hand, they might be turning down what you believe to be a great opportunity.
No matter what decision they make, they will remember how you made them feel. If you were condescending or dismissive, they’ll remember. If you’re open and attentive — even if you disagree with them — they’ll remember that too. No matter what your personal feelings, it’s best to be thoughtful in how you communicate. The rest of your life is a long time and it’s important to think about the kind of relationship you want to have with your child.
Obviously, Fr. Dave didn’t have to worry as much about the future of his relationship with the caller. Odds are, Fr. Dave and that young may will never speak again. However, Fr. Dave does a great job of modeling how to have a conversation around the topic of discernment. If you’re struggling with how to talk to your child about their vocation, take a few minutes and listen to how Fr. Dave handles it.
Some parents object when their son declares an interest in a vocation. There are lots of reasons given, but I suspect that the root of the problem is lack of understanding of the priesthood. For too many of us priests are remote, mysterious figures who occupy some other plane of existence. We don’t see them as human beings. Fortunately, it’s easy to get past that – just spend some time getting to know the priests in your life.
Last year we suggested taking a priest to dinner as a way to better understand your son’s vocational journey. That advice still stands, but it may not always be practical or possible. A few months ago I stumbled across a bit of light entertainment which gives a surprisingly good insight into priestly life.
I was poking through the used DVDs at a local music store and came across the British comedy series Bless Me, Father. A quick check on Wikipedia gave me reason to believe it was worth watching and the price was much lower than retail, so I snatched it up. Kit and I watched all 21 episodes over the summer and found them to be both charming and honest.
The story – which was written by a man who had been a priest – centers on a newly ordained priest assigned to a small parish in post-war London. It begins with his first time hearing confessions in the parish and traces his life through most of his first year. The parish pastor is a clever old Irishman by the name of Fr. Duddleswell. Together they deal with a neighbor who runs a nightclub and is a bookmaker on the side, the bookmaker’s black Labrador, the local Mother Superior who completely lacks sympathy and empathy, affairs of the heart, affairs of the parish, and Mrs. Pring the rectory housekeeper.
We were so taken with the series that I dug a bit and found out it was based on a series of books which had been published in the 1970s. Fortunately, they are available as e-books. The first two Bless Me, Father and A Father Before Christmas served as the direct inspiration for most of the episodes.
There are a couple of interesting takeaways from both the books and the series.
First of all, they are set in the 1950s, so they are steeped in the Catholic world prior to Vatican II. This becomes most obvious in the area of interfaith relations. Fr. Duddleswell talks about his Anglican counterpart as a “doubtfully baptized Anglican layman.” Yet, most of what goes on in the books could be taking place at any parish in any part of the world. Fr. Duddleswell and Fr. Boyd deal with all the same human fears and failings as every other priest – and they do so with a wonderfully pastoral approach. There is a particularly touching episode in which Fr. Duddleswell contrives to find a way to comfort a child who is fearful that his grandfather is damned to Hell. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but I will note that Fr. Duddleswell’s solution is clever, compassionate, and colors juuusst inside the lines.
Secondly, Fr. Boyd is honest about his insecurities and fears in the books and it is clear that the author is writing from his own experience with only the smallest of embellishments. He meets up with old friends – including one who left the seminary to purse an outside life. He visits his family in the second book and we learn about his upbringing and vocation. We walk beside him as he struggles to understand his feelings for a pretty, young nurse when he is hospitalized for an extended period. By the end of the two books I had tremendous sympathy and respect for both of the priests.
The books are authentically Catholic throughout, fully faithful to the teachings of the Church and also authentically human, fully faithful to the characters. Reading them is about as close to spending a year with priests as you could get without actually moving into the rectory. If you want to better understand the priesthood, you’ll find your time well invested with this series.
The Catholic church has two-thousand years of history behind it. In that time we’ve developed a highly specialized language. Like all jargon it can be confusing — for those on the inside and the outside alike. (Spend ten minutes with your local IT or medical professional and you’ll know what I mean.)
Even simple things, like the designation of certain roles in the church, can be perplexing. Do you know the difference between a nun and a sister? What is a monk? Are all monks priests? Are all priests monks? What about Deacons?
In the spirit of simplification, let me share a way to think about the different roles of religious life in the church.
Broadly speaking, religious vocations in the Catholic church can be categorized as “contemplative” or “active”. Those who are called to a contemplative life live apart from society in a monastery or cloister. A recent Aleteia article explains it this way:
This usually involves living and working within a designated “enclosed” space, off-limits to all but priests, medical personnel and workmen, and leaving the enclosure only for medical issues or business involving the monastery. As with monks, a nun’s “work,” aside from what helps to materially support the house, is prayer, which is ongoing throughout the day and offered for the sake of the Church and the world.
In some cases, the cloister restrictions are not as strictly enforced. Some orders of nuns, while technically cloistered, conduct works of charity or education, interacting with the public. For example, the Visitation Sisters are technically cloistered nuns but teach school.
On the other hand, those with an active vocation are called to live in the world and provide direct service. Perhaps the most famous of these would be Mother Teres’a Missionaries of Charity.
As a general rule, if you see a woman wearing a habit or some other distinctive mark of religious life, you’re probably seeing a “sister”. The term “nun” is more often reserved for those living the contemplative life.
Similar rules hold true for monks, priests and friars with a couple of additional complications. Priests can be attached to the local diocese — these are called “secular” or “diocesan” priests. Or, they can be attached to a particular community or order — think “Franciscan”, “Jesuit”, or “Paulist”. Or they can be monastic — think “Benedictine”.
Aleteia summed it up this way:
Diocesan priests do not take vows of poverty and may possess and inherit property.
Priests vowed to a religious order (like the Franciscans, Dominicans, etc) or a monastic community (like the Benedictines or Cistercians) do make vows of poverty, surrendering any income they generate through their works to their superiors. So a Dominican writer earning profits from his books will turn those royalty checks over to the Order of Preachers. A Trappist writer will turn his earnings over to his abbot or prior, for the benefit of the whole community.
In an order or a monastery, some of the men may be ordained as priests which allows them to perform the sacraments, while others are brothers who have taken vows. The Aleteia article goes more into depth of the various shadings of meaning.
If you meet someone in religious life and are curious about the details of their particular calling, the best and simplest way to learn more is to ask them. The overwhelming majority of religious I’ve met are more than happy to tell you all about their vocation.
— Dad of Evan
Did you know that all seminarians are required to have a spiritual director?
Do you know what a spiritual director does?
I certainly didn’t when Evan started his journey of formation. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the role a spiritual director plays in formation and how everyone might benefit from having one.
Back then I summed it up by saying:
A spiritual director is a guide to interior growth and renewal, not counselor or therapist. The discussions center on the relationship between the directee and God.
You might still wonder what the personal experience is like. (Which brings me to the point of today’s brief post.)
On a recent Busted Halo broadcast, Fr. Dave Dwyer talked with producer (Brett) about the experience of interacting with a spiritual director. If you’re interested, it’s well worth your time to give it a listen.
— Dad (of Evan)
It must be hard to live your life and do your job while under a microscope. When every human failing is on display for others to comment and judge, you can lean toward one of 2 extremes: defensive, self righteous arrogance on one end and humility on the other. Humility is a virtue everyone needs to work on and some of us have to work harder than others. During seminary formation and ongoing spiritual direction, priests have to work on this just like everyone else.
Priests are not the only ones under a microscope today. Police officers are under scrutiny on a daily basis. In some areas, there is suspicion and mistrust with or without provocation. How would you like to wear a body camera at work documenting everything you say and do which could easily end up on the 6 o’clock news? Since priests won’t be wearing body cameras any time soon, perception is reality for people. Many people find it necessary to voice their unsolicited opinion of their priest whether it is charitable or not. “Who am I to judge?” is not heard very often in our culture.
Whether you are a priest, police officer or politician, you have to accept the fact that you can’t please everyone and someone will always be less than satisfied. How can you be expected to hit the perfect balance in every interaction with every personality across the spectrum of human experience? You can’t; it is impossible.
So what do you do when everyone expects you to be “super” human? A good place to start is to find where your heart is on the continuum between defensive, self righteous arrogance and humility. Since this can be a moving target, we should make it a practice to check our location periodically. Having the humility to know who you are and what you are called to do goes a long way in dealing with this reality in the workplace, with your family or in a life spent serving others. Below is a post that describes this beautifully to give you a different perspective on this objection.
by Matthew Higgins
When I was a kid, I thought it was extremely odd that the priests at my parish took vacation time. I had no clue that they were allowed to do that. I did not see priesthood as a typical career, but something that took a great deal of sacrifice—including sacrificing any personal time for the service of the Church. For instance I knew that a priest could not get married and have children of his own. I knew that a priest lived simply and was at the service of the Church, mostly through the parish where he was assigned. To me, that meant he was at the service of the Church 24/7.
Now that I am older and understand a little bit more about the workings of the Church and parish as an institution as well as the Body of Christ, it makes perfect sense to me that priests are “allowed” to take time off. From my professional and personal relationships with priests, I know how important it is for priests to take time off—whether that means a day during the week or a
My childhood image of the priest and one that is shared by too many people is that these men are super human. The priest is not super human, but a human of faith. Not being super human does not mean he does not do super human things. In fact, through faith in God (who is very super human—not contained or restricted by human limitations), humans can do some super human things.
In the Gospel… we encounter something that is very super-human: faith and the consequences of faith known as miracles. What is important to look at in these readings is who displays their faith and who does not. First, Jairus comes in faith to Christ on behalf of his daughter. Jairus is looking for Christ to help. He has faith in Jesus’ power to heal and that faith has a consequence—healing for his daughter. Think for a second of the tremendous faith and courage it took for this man to leave his daughter’s side as she was at the point of death. With full knowledge that he may not be there with his daughter until the very last moment, he leaves and goes to Jesus. What selfless faith!
Second, the woman suffering from a hemorrhage has tremendous faith in Christ’s power. Her faith has a consequence—healing and salvation. Each act of faith draws people to Christ. Each act of faith results in a miracle. Sometimes, like in the case of this woman, it is our own faith that moves us to act, that moves us toward Jesus. Other times, like in the case of Jairus, it is the great faith of others that leads us closer to Him and allows Him to miraculously heal us in big and small ways.
When we look at this connection between faith and healing through the lens of the life of the priest, we can see how these men can sometimes be mistaken for being super human….
Every time a priest says Mass, a miracle takes place. Through the priest, Christ becomes present on the Altars of our Churches and through faith we draw nearer and nearer to Him.
Through the priest, Christ brings healing to those weighed down by sin in the Confessional and those sick and dying through the Sacrament of Anointing.
When a man, who is all things worldly and impure, through the constant prayers from his mother or grandmother, has an encounter with Jesus and repents…that’s a miracle. (When that man enters the seminary and becomes later becomes a priest…that’s a miracle too)
When society makes champions of sexual immodesty and immorality and then a priest, through His faith in Christ, makes a promise to and lives out a life of celibacy…that’s a miracle.
When society becomes more and more divided under a false flag of hateful relativism disguised as “equality” and “tolerance” making others feel discouraged or afraid to speak the truth and a priest stands up and preaches God’s love strengthening our faith…that’s a miracle.
When a loved one dies suddenly, and your priest is there to help you not only in celebrating the funeral Liturgy but also on a personal level, following up with you as the months go by when it seems like everyone else is going on with their lives…giving you hope and encouraging you in faith…that’s a miracle.
Yes, a priest is human—a human with sins, struggles, and brokenness. But he is also a human that recognizes he needs to go to Jesus in faith to heal his brokenness. He is a human that allows Christ to work in and through him in these various situations. He is a human that shows an example of faith, attracting others to the super human person of Christ, increasing our faith in the one, true God—God who performs miracles big and small in those who have faith in Him.
Please know the authors of this blog pray daily for parents of discerning sons and daughters to find understanding and peace.
Are you suffering from the delusion that your adult children will come home for every holiday? Let’s have a little reality check on the “I will never see him on the holidays” objection. Compare the circumstances of a married son to a son who is a priest in your diocese. I cannot speak about a son or daughter in a religious order, so I will let the other contributing author provide insight into that situation.
Every year, you may have had the pleasant or not so pleasant discussion with your spouse on which set of in-laws to visit for which holiday. This conversation can start as early as summer and be revisited for months. Once grandchildren are in the picture, this only increases the stakes for all parties involved. Some couples try to keep everyone happy by eating 2 meals and running between both families. Some families take turns between Christmas and Thanksgiving, so you end up on the phone for at least one holiday each year. Others live too far away to even visit regularly. All this adds up to holiday stress.
“When my siblings have to divide their time with the in-laws at the holidays, it ends up being just me at home carving the turkey with Mom and Dad.”
Sure, he will be busy on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning and I doubt you will see him between Palm Sunday and Easter. But he will most likely be at your house for every holiday meal at some point. The reality is that you will most likely be able to spend far more holiday time with your son if he is a priest in your diocese than a married son.
I will be posting soon on a related the objection: I will be losing him to the Church or I will never see him.
Please know the authors of this blog pray daily for parents of discerning sons and daughters to find understanding & peace.
I will be posting a series on common objections parents have surrounding a son’s interest in discerning a vocation to priesthood or religious life. I will take one objection and go deeper on the topic. Some of these objections are things you may have already discussed with your son, while others may be too embarrassing or politically incorrect to say aloud or even admit to yourself.
I hope to pull back the curtain on these concerns and help parents reflect on why they may have these objections. Understanding the reality behind an objection with concrete and accurate information can help you gain some perspective on the concern.
In a critique of Fr. Brett Brannen’s book: A Priest in the Family, the reviewer acknowledges that the concerns of parents are legitimate:
…he [Fr. Brannen] explains priesthood, seminary, celibacy, and how a man discerns his vocation—all while keeping in mind parents’ legitimate concerns.
I found this very comforting when I read that. I am not being unreasonable or reactionary in my concerns. They are legitimate and deserve respect, information and time to address.
Every one of the objections below is addressed in either one of Fr. Brett Brannen’s books: To Save a Thousand Souls or A Priest in the Family. These books give good basic information along with stories of how seminarians and their families handled common objections. These books are introduced in the post HERE: 5 Myths and Facts about Discernment or Isn’t there a book about this somewhere?
I plan to blog on each of these objections over the next few weeks, but from a mother’s point of view. Some of these objections did come out of my mouth early on as I struggled to understand. I will own up to which ones I did say or at least think and how I dealt with them.
• How can you know what you are giving up when you haven’t even lived yet? You are so young, you don’t know what this means
• What if he is falsely accused? People will be suspicious of him. He will always be under a microscope. People are so critical of priests.
• It’s such a hard life
• He will be lonely
• He will be so overworked
• I just want him to be happy! Part 1: What is happy anyway?
• I just want him to be happy Part 2: Where do my objections come from? Why do I feel so strongly about this? Why am I so angry, frustrated, or emotional about this?
• How/Why did this happen in our family? We aren’t even that religious.
• How can this be real when it has happened so fast: See the post This is just a phase or I don’t want another trumpet in the attic HERE
• What will _____________ think or say?
• I will never see him, especially on holidays
• I will never have grandchildren
If you have an objection or concern that is not addressed here, just leave a comment and we will address it.
Please know that the authors of this blog pray daily of the parents of discerning sons and daughters to find peace and understanding.
Although this statement sounds pretty harsh, you may have heard this about your son’s interest in priesthood or religious life. Maybe you worry that you are going to hear it from a family member, a friend, a co-worker, your spouse or even yourself.
I heard variations on this comment a few times from acquaintances when they first heard the news that my son was going to college seminary right out of high school. Among the variations were:
Why would you let him throw his life away like that?
I would never let my son throw his life away!
Why does he want to throw his life away?
But he’ll never have a normal life with a wife and children!
At first I was shocked at how rude these comments were. Once the news was out, I had heard some negative and less than supportive comments, but this was the most severe response I heard. The first time I heard it, I was taken aback and managed to stammer, “Oh, no, we’re very happy with his decision and proud of him.” Then they would give me that ‘Are you crazy?’ look or just roll their eyes.
None of these negative comments came from Catholics. I heard nothing but positive comments from the people in our parish and other Catholic friends and relatives. The phrases “wasting his life” and “throwing his life away” have given me a lot to think about. How is it that some people view the very idea of a young man considering becoming a priest as so terrible that they liken it to wasting his life? Are these people so materialistic and achievement focused that they view a life of service to others as a waste?
After I got past being judgmental, I began to have empathy for these people who have so little awareness or appreciation of the spiritual needs of others and serving these needs. Then it occurred to me that I should pray for them to come to an understanding of the value of spirituality in their own lives.
Other comments have not been as overtly negative, but have an undertone of disapproval or express a lack of value in my son’s choice. Over time, I began to see that the comments I received gave me an indication of the individual’s misunderstanding about the priesthood, religious life and seminary. I got to the point, that when I heard a comment, I was able to counter with a little bit of information to provide some reality to their false assumptions. Here are a few samples. Help yourself to any of these responses when you find yourself on the receiving end of a less than enthusiastic comment.
Comment: “What happened to computer science? He would have a great career if he stayed in computers.”
Response: “If he is called to be a priest, I’m sure he will have the opportunity to do many different things in his life.”
False Assumption: Only a career with a high income and career opportunities are valuable and worth pursing.
Comment: “I thought he went to the prom with Susan? She was gorgeous! What happened?”
Response: “They went to the prom as friends and still are friends.”
False Assumption: Going to seminary means you can’t have any contact with girls.
Comment: “Couldn’t he get into the state university?”
Response: “As a matter of fact, he was accepted into a computer science program at State, but he decided not to go. Actually, it was much harder to be accepted as a seminarian for the diocese and the college seminary than getting into State.”
False Assumption: Guys who go to seminary are those who can’t get into a regular college.
Comment: “You mean, no sex? Ever? And you’re okay with that?”
Response: Okay, you try explaining the gift of celibacy in 2 minutes or less. I tried. I think I went with “…if he does have a vocation to priesthood, he will be given the grace to be able to handle it…..” and “Yes, I am okay with that if he does become a priest. It’s part of the package.”
False Assumption: Living a celibate lifestyle is impossible.
Comment: “Is he gay?”
Response: “No, that has nothing to do with it. He is going to seminary to determine if God wants him to be a priest.”
False Assumption: A healthy male attitude toward girls cannot be compatible with going to seminary.
Comment: “Doesn’t he like girls?”
Response: “Of course he does. He has lots of friends that are girls.”
False Assumption: A healthy male attitude toward girls cannot be compatible with going to seminary.
Comment: “Don’t worry, he just hasn’t found the right girl yet.”
Response: “I’m not worried. He is just trying to figure out if God wants him to be a priest. If he doesn’t, I am sure the right girl will find him! If he does determine he is not called to be a priest, he will be a great catch!”
False Assumption: The “right” girl is an antidote to these thoughts of being a priest.
Please leave a comment if you have had any experiences like this and had a good response or if you did not know what to say! We will help you come up with a response.
Please know that the authors of this blog pray every day for parents of discerning sons and daughter to find peace and understanding.
Cathy and I stumbled into this accidentally a few months after Evan told us he was in discernment with the Paulists. Our pastor, Fr. Clarence, had invited Fr. James DiLuzio, CSP to come to the parish to present the Luke Live mission. A couple of weeks before the mission date, the parish office put out a call for people willing to feed Fr. DiLuzio a meal. If circumstances had been different, we might have glanced past the notice and hoped that somebody stepped up to help out.
As it was (and since Fr. DiLuzio is a Paulist) we jumped on the opportunity and scheduled a lunch and a dinner with him. The lunch was Saturday at noon, so Evan came down to join us. At lunch we talked about the seminary, the discernment process, and life as a priest. We continued the conversation over dinner a couple of nights later. It set our minds at ease on many of the questions we’d been asking.
Since then, we’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to dine with visiting priests. We’ve talked Star Trek with a geek priest, interfaith politics with a priest who worked at the Vatican for ten years, genealogy with a priest who has traced his family back to the Mayflower, life in the Holy Land with a Franciscan, formation with a man who attended minor seminary (high school seminary), travel with a retired priest from California and seminary with several. We’re learned about their backgrounds, how they were called to the priesthood and what their formation was like.
To a man, they’ve all been good company and we’ve enjoyed our time with them. Getting to know them has given us insight into Evan’s journey and let us see the human side of the priesthood. Those informal conversations have been a real blessing for us and I imagine they’d be a blessing for you as well.
So…next time you have a visiting priest in your parish, offer to take them to dinner. Oh, and don’t forget your pastor as well. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn from him.
— Dad (Evan)
We took the Franciscan — in full habit — to a lovely restaurant with outdoor seating. The habit got all of the looks. In Utah (where the LDS church makes up the majority of the population) you just don’t see men in habits that often.
I don’t know how many times I have heard the word “discern ” or “discernment” in the last 2 years. Even so, this word still has a vaguely mysterious quality. It seems that it requires a certain amount of openness and getting comfortable with some level of uncertainty. As a parent, I don’t like uncertainty. I get it, but I don’t like it. You may be thinking, “When will he know for sure? How long is this going to take?”
How long…. is a relative question. Discerning a vocation is not like deciding between going to one college vs another. That kind of decision weighs pros and cons and evaluates data like student/faculty ratios and graduation rates. Discernment is completely different. It is not a once and done decision. I was surprised to learn that the individual discerns one year at a time in collaboration with his Spiritual Director and Vocation Director. Discernment is taken one step at a time with input from experienced mentors who want your son to make the decision which is right for him.
Michael Bollinger is a college seminarian at St Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. Below is a portion of a blog post on the seminary website on the reality of a “timetable” for discernment..
Easily the most misunderstood thing about seminarians is why we are at the seminary. More times than not, when a Catholic comes up and talks to me, knowing that I’m a seminarian, he or she speaks as if I’m undoubtedly going to be a priest.
However, the reality is that guys go into the seminary precisely because they don’t know if God wants them to be a priest or not. They’re at the seminary to figure that out. I first learned that the hard way when I first entered seminary this past fall.
It was a Friday night, and I went out to dinner with four or five older guys (seniors in the college seminary) and as the conversation got going, I asked each of them if they “knew” that God was calling them to the priesthood (expecting a resounding “yes”). To my surprise and embarrassment, as they went around the table answering the question, the answers were a repeated “no”.
The fact is, I had the perception of most people—I figured guys that had been in the seminary for two, three, or four years had a fairly firm understanding of God calling them to be priests. But that’s just not the case.
Click here to continue reading the full article St Charles Seminary blog: Wait, We’re Discerning?
It is understandable for a parent to want some kind of assurance or timetable on their son’s discernment path. Whatever your age, it seems the older you get, the faster time goes. We may see time passing quickly. Is the time in seminary going to be wasted?
Consider this: your son will probably live well into his 90’s or longer without any serious illness or injury. Taking a few years in seminary to determine if he has a religious vocation is not a long time considering it will provide an opportunity to develop virtue, self-discipline, a deeper knowledge of the faith and a strong prayer life. Which one of these things do you not want for your son? These are all benefits for men who have spent time in seminary and discerned out to discover their true vocation.
Please know that the contributing authors of this blog pray for parents of discerning sons and daughters to find understanding and peace.
When my son first told me he thought God was calling him to be a priest, I had no real understanding of the discernment process. Being a cradle catholic, I was surprised to realize that all of my questions and concerns were based on misunderstandings, false information or myths. Within 2 weeks of my son’s announcement, I found a book that answered all my questions and some I had not thought of yet: “To Save a Thousand Souls” by Fr. Brett Brannen. Although the book is written for the young man discerning, I found it gave me accurate information, interesting anecdotes and a better understanding of the discernment process. Here is how Amazon.com describes it:
In what has been hailed as “a groundbreaking work” Fr. Brett Brannen compiles all the wisdom of a master Vocation Director into one volume. Using powerful and entertaining stories, the book explains in down-to-earth language how to discern a vocation to diocesan priesthood.
The book has received universal praise from bishops and vocation directors: “Fr. Brannen’s book is tremendous—inspirational, imminently practical, and amazingly comprehensive. It is a clearly written ‘how to’ manual filled with solid advice for men discerning the priesthood. A marvelous work of immense value.” – Fr. Len Plazewski, President, National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors
Fr. Brannen has since published another very good book to specifically address the concerns and questions of parents, “A Priest in the Family”. Here is a description:
“A Priest in the Family is a comprehensive resource for the parents …. thoughtfully addressing common questions and concerns about seminary, celibacy, and the life of a priest. Whether you’re uneasy or elated about your son’s interest in the priesthood, this book is for you.”
Like his previous book, To Save a Thousand Souls, Fr. Brannen’s new book for parents is filled with humor, anecdotes, and dramatic stories from his own life as a priest. In twelve short, easy-to-read chapters, he explains priesthood, seminary, celibacy, and how a man discerns his vocation—all while keeping in mind parents’ legitimate concerns.
Readers have praised A Priest in the Family as an entertaining read that manages to allay parents’ fears and show them how to support their son, while offering a few laughs and a dose of inspiration along the way.
If you are struggling to understand what is going on with your son or have some questions that are just too embarrassing to ask, I urge you to open up a new window in your browser and go to vianneyvocations.com and order one or both of these books today. Until you can read these books for yourself, here is a brief summary of what I learned:
5 Things I Learned about the Discernment Process:
Once you enter seminary, you are pretty sure that you will become a priest.
Discernment is a long, gradual process that is ongoing. Many people are involved with helping an individual during the discernment process: spiritual director, vocation director, seminary faculty and others.
Once you enter seminary, you are expected to go all the way through to ordination. Leaving seminary is a failure, shameful and humiliating. Everyone will be disappointed if you leave.
“Discerning out” of seminary is actually a good thing. A few rough weeks in seminary is not a reason to discern out. The decision to “discern out” is made in conjunction with the Spiritual Director, Vocation Director and others involved in his discernment process. It means the man has determined that priesthood is not his true vocation. For the rest of his life, he will not need to wonder if he should have been a priest. This is not considered a failure or an embarrassment. Others at the seminary are actually happy for the man to be able to pursue his true vocation. Guys do not sneak out in the middle of the night. The seminary community, faculty and peers wish him well. The time spent in seminary is not wasted. The growth and maturity in his faith can only be a benefit to a young man as a future husband or single man.
You are too young to go into college seminary right out of high school.
The Father calls men at many different ages and at different times in their life. If your son feels called, he should take the time to discern if this is his vocation. There are significant advantages in going to college seminary right out of high school that are outlined in the book for parents by Fr Brannen. A post on this website also addresses this: Advantages of Going to Seminary
You need to go to college, date more and live in the “real world” before you go to seminary.
If your son is feeling called now, it is best to discern now rather than try to put it on the back burner or push it away. Going to seminary is not leaving the “real world.” Seminarians do have a more structured, healthy environment than a typical college. This environment allows more opportunity to focus on courses, strengthen their prayer life, increase knowledge of the faith and self-discipline. These are all good things for any young man to learn. Seminarians still hang out with friends, go to movies and parties, work summer jobs, drink beer and play sports. Finding the” right girl” is not a “remedy” for discerning a priestly vocation.
You should go to college and get a degree first. Then you can go to seminary if you still want to. If this priest thing doesn’t work out, you’ll have something to fall back on.
Priesthood is a vocation that God has designed for the individual where he will find the most happiness in his life. It is not something that “works out.” He will find he either has a priestly vocation or he doesn’t. You can’t put discernment on hold for 4 years just so he can have something to “fall back on”.
Although this post is all about getting factual information, please do not let gathering data be your only method of understanding. As a parent, you will never be able to understand this with only your head. You must take your concerns and questions of the heart to prayer consistently until you find some peace which the Father will give you. Please know that the contributing authors of this blog pray for all parents of discerning sons and daughters to find understanding and peace.
Mundelein Seminary in Chicago has posted a video on the academic steps to become a priest: from College Seminary or Pre-Theology to Major Seminary to Transitional Diaconate to Ordination. This is a very clear explanation of the process.
Being an Educator for 25 years, I was very interested in reviewing the coursework my son would take as part of the intellectual formation in seminary.
After reviewing the curriculum, I was struck by how well educated our priests are through this process. I always knew priests had a graduate (Masters) degree, but the course work seems longer and more in depth than most Master’s degrees. Most full time graduate programs such as an MBA, MHA, MSW, MSN are only 2 years beyond a bachelor’s degree.
Typically, a priest graduates with a Masters in Divinity degree. Some students also take course work to earn an additional graduate degree in Theology. It is not uncommon for a priest to be sent for further education to earn a degree in Canon Law or a doctorate by his bishop.
When learning about the academic road to priesthood, some people have commented that it seems like a long time to go to school “just to be a priest.” Others have expressed dismay that it would take so long with an air of “is it really worth it?” In my experience, these people identify as Protestant or Evangelical where bible college, mission trips and service projects may be the extent of the formation process.
Other well respected career options can take as long or longer than priestly formation. The road to become a doctor is 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school and then at least 2 years or more to complete a clinical Residency. A Surgical Residency is at least 6 years! That’s a total of at least 14 years without further specialization. Lawyers spend 4 years in college and 3 years in law school. No one seems to mind how long it takes to be a doctor or a lawyer. Scientists, college professors and others spend many more years doing research to earn a PhD. The length of academic preparation for these careers is respected for its perseverance and advanced knowledge. These careers are attained through mainly intellectual “formation” and skill application.
For seminarians, intellectual formation is only one of the four pillars of formation. The road to priesthood also requires the development of personal maturity, knowledge and skills in the spiritual, pastoral and human pillars of formation. Progress in these 3 pillars tends to develop slowly as behavior, judgement and skills become integrated into one’s personality. The 6 – 8 years required for priestly formation is a growth process that is far more than learning an advanced level of content and skill application. It is a highly structured program of comprehensive development of the entire person. The bar is set high for our future priests which is no less than what the people of God deserve.
I will post Part 2 soon on how an average high school student adapted to the rigors of academic life in the seminary.
It strikes me as funny that we Americans often take a “do it yourself” attitude to spiritual development. By contrast, we are willing to pay vast sums of money to small armies of consultants, advisors, and coaches.
When Cathy and I remodeled our home, we hired professionals to hang the cabinets, update the wiring and connect the plumbing. (Safety pro tip: Never – EVER – enter a building where I have personally done any of the wiring or plumbing.)
When we remodeled, we were concentrating on the interior of our house — taking what we already had and improving it. We wanted a more functional space and a more comfortable life. I guess you could say that we wanted our house to be more of what we knew it could be.
It would be a mistake to reduce the work of a spiritual director to a mere remodeling of the soul, but there are some useful similarities. As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “You wouldn’t think of building a good house to live in here on earth without an architect. How can you ever hope, without a director, to build the castle of your sanctification in order to live forever in heaven?”
William A. Barry, SJ, clarifies a bit in his book The Practice of Spiritual Direction when he notes that spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”
The work of a spiritual director is done in a series of private meetings between the individual seeking direction (sometimes called a “directee”) and the the director. An article on the OSV website explains the process this way:
Since the goal of spiritual direction is to deepen your connection and commitment to Our Lord, sessions are always deeply personal. In general, you will meet with your spiritual director on a regular basis, be it weekly or monthly, but not less frequently than every two months. In your session, you will talk about your desires and struggles in the spiritual life — not confessing sin per se, unless your spiritual director also happens to be your confessor — and trends and tendencies in such areas as prayer and self-control. Your director will make suggestions for reading or devotional exercises, and help you find answers to your spiritual questions. Often you will end the session by praying together.
A spiritual director is a guide to interior growth and renewal, not counselor or therapist. The discussions center on the relationship between the directee and God. The Ignatian Spirituality website lays out four key points about spiritual direction:
Spiritual direction focuses on religious experience. It is concerned with a person’s actual experience of a relationship with God.
Spiritual direction is about a relationship. The religious experience is not isolated, nor does it consist of extraordinary events. It is what happens in an ongoing relationship between the person and God. Most often this is a relationship that is experienced in prayer.
Spiritual direction is a relationship that is going somewhere. God is leading the person to deeper faith and more generous service. The spiritual director asks not just “what is happening?” but “what is moving forward?””
The real spiritual director is God. God touches the human heart directly. The human spiritual director does not “direct” in the sense of giving advice and solving problems. Rather, the director helps a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship.
All seminarians — in fact all religious — are required to have a spiritual director. All of the Paulist Novices and Students have one. As do all sisters, brothers, priests and deacons. Interestingly, while all religious are obliged to have a spiritual director, spiritual directors themselves are not obliged to be religious. In fact, Saint Pope John Paul II’s first spiritual director was a tailor by the name of Jan Tyranowski.
More importantly, anyone can have a spiritual director. Anyone who is seeking to improve their relationship with God, to better carry out the mission of their Baptismal call, or to deepen their spirituality can engage the assistance of a spiritual director. Fr. John C. McCloskey reminds us:
During his pontificate, Benedict XVI several times urged faithful Catholics who desired to pursue holiness and grow closer to God to make use of a spiritual director: “We always need a guide, dialogue, to go to the Lord. . . .We cannot do it with our reflections alone. And this is also the meaning of the ecclesiality of our faith, of finding this guide.” By this means, he explained, we can avoid being limited by our own subjectivist interpretations of God and what he might be calling us to do, as well as benefiting from our guide’s “own supply of knowledge and experiences in following Jesus.”
If you are interested in finding a spiritual director, a good place to start is with your parish priest. Not that he would necessarily become your director, but he probably knows you well enough to steer you in the right director and he should be familiar with the resources available in your parish and your diocese. Once you’ve identified a director, you’ll begin to meet with them to pray and discuss. You may have a defined “trial” period to see if the relationship is a good fit for both of you. You will certainly be introduced to new readings and (possibly) new devotions.
Along the way — if you are open — God will be speaking to you and helping you grow to become more of what He knew you could be.