In 2001, I made the decision to enter seminary application for the Erie Diocese. God had called me with a divine “tap on the shoulder”, and I knew that I had to answer. I wanted to answer, too – I was willing. In the Spring of that year, I was at a large gathering of people for the “Divine Mercy TEC” retreat in Erie. Many of these people were my friends and acquaintances. I felt at home in their midst. But then, something funny started to happen. People started coming up to me, saying, “we’re glad that you are going to the seminary!” Uh oh, I thought; the word was out! I wasn’t ready for the word to be out. I wasn’t even accepted to go to the seminary yet. What if they turned me down? It was the first experience of being identified in church circles as “different”.
The call is a very definite thing. Everyone is called by God to do something. A small percentage of us are called to be celibates, priests, deacons, bishops, or consecrated religious. For those of us so called, and for those of us whom God is currently calling, it can be an isolating experience. We can feel alone, and none of us wants to feel alone. If we feel this way as priests, we are not exactly an attractive billboard for vocations. If we feel this way as seminarians, we might be tempted to leave the program. If we feel this way as aspiring discerners, we might turn in a different direction.
Should we make decisions based on fear? That is never good to do, especially in the most important question of vocations. We do need to fight through that fear of lonely isolation, but the greater fear for a discerning man may be the fear of being different from the rest. The discerner is different from the rest, in that he or she is focused on questions that are not relevant to others. Many people choose their life’s vocation simply by following their desires. Whatever will fulfill their desire is what will be chosen. Most do not desire the celibate/religious life in our secular culture. The discerner is therefore very different than the rest, as if he/she is living on a different planet.
The discernment process may even be seen as threatening by others. The discerning person may be “ruining” the hopes and plans of their family, who did not plan for a son or daughter to enter seminary or a religious order. While this may seem selfish to a young person, it is a real heartache for a parent who may have only one son or one daughter. In giving away their child to a vocation, it seems as if they are giving away their family’s future generations. The lifestyle of celibate chastity is viewed as a threat to many who live the “free love” lifestyle. Having someone around who is living by religious rules and expectations might prick their consciences too much for their liking. This may breed hostility towards the discerner. Certainly, in many places of the world where religious persecution is severe, discerning a vocation is like putting a mark on one’s head.
There are many reasons why a man or woman would be utterly scared to stand out from the crowd and respond to God’s calling. We must make it easier for them to respond by supporting them. They cannot do this alone. Nor are they alone. All throughout the Diocese, people are praying the Bishop’s prayer for Vocations. People have been praying for vocations for years. There are many priests who are eager to support a young man or woman in discerning a vocation. The Vocations Office of the Erie Diocese is exploring ways to bring discerners together for fellowship, prayer, and support. There is strength in numbers! As our numbers of priests and seminarians have dwindled significantly in recent years, we are susceptible to being isolated, discouraged, and drawn away from God’s real plan for us. How can we identify the people who are discerning a vocation, and let them know that it is ok to be different? It is ok for them to discern God’s calling in a world that is apathetic or hostile. How do we let them know that there are others out there whom God is calling, just like them?