What is Discernment?

Vocational discernment is the diligent pursuit of knowing whether God is calling you to the priesthood, to consecrated life, or to marriage. The process of vocational discernment can be summarized in three steps:

  1. Learn the basics
  2. Take a step
  3. Follow God’s direction

Learn the basics

Vocational discernment precedes the choice of giving a definitive direction to your life – the fundamental way that you will follow Christ. As with all important decisions, it is essential in vocational discernment to have good information. There are three things to know:

  1. You are called to holiness
  2. The vocations of priesthood, consecrated life, and marriage are three ways of being holy
  3. Celibacy is a foretaste of heaven that Jesus wants to give some of His friends already on earth

1. You are called to holiness

Regarding God’s will, the one thing you do not have to discern is His desire for your holiness. “This is the will of God, your holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:3) 

Unfortunately, because holiness is a term that we use so often, there is a risk of being uninterested in this call. If we appreciated holiness for what it truly is, pursuing it would become the most urgent and important task every day of our lives.

The following passages from Scripture are helpful to begin appreciating the call to holiness:

  • “I came that they might have life and have it to the full.” – John 10:10
  • “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30
  • “He has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.” – 2 Peter 1:4

Holiness is nothing less than sharing in God’s life, becoming a “partaker of the divine nature.” He came in order that we might have His life “and have it to the full.” Until we heed His call, our hearts will remain restless, but when we take up our cross and follow Him, we find the “rest” that our hearts seek.

The glory of salvation is not merely freedom from sin; it is freedom for divine sonship. Salvation makes us sons and daughters of God – able to love as He loves and to know the joy that He knows.

  • “I have told you these things so that my joy might be in your and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment, love one another as I have loved you.” – John 15:11-12

Vocational discernment rests on the firm foundation of the call to holiness. By seeking holiness as you are right now, God will make known the particular way of holiness that He wants you to embrace in the future.

2. The vocations of priesthood, consecrated life, and marriage are three ways of being holy

“God is love,” (1 John 4:7) and because holiness is sharing in the life of God, heeding the call to holiness means embracing a life of love. Priests love in a particular way. Consecrated sisters love in a particular way. Married spouses love in a particular way. All three of these vocations are three ways of embracing a life of love. From all eternity, God has planned for you to embrace one of them, and vocational discernment seeks to know which one.

While merely seeking information about these three ways of being holy will not be enough to know how God is calling you to follow Him, good information is essential for vocational discernment. You can learn more about each of these vocations here:

Because most people do not take up the call to priesthood or consecrated life, it is common to think that marriage is the default vocation, which can cause us to think that there must be some kind of extraordinary evidence to consider the celibate vocations. But, in fact, the opposite is true.

3. Celibacy is a foretaste of heaven that Jesus wants to give some of His friends already on earth

When understood as the absence of a spouse and children, considering celibacy may leave you uninterested and perhaps even repulsed. But celibacy isn’t the absence of something. Think if we were to define marriage in that way – marriage would mean losing all of the women in the world, except one. On the day of her wedding, as the bride walks down the aisle, no one is thinking to themselves, “Well how sad, she is about to lose all of the men in the world, except him.”

Marriage isn’t the absence of something; it’s the presence of someone – the presence of a spouse. So, too, for celibacy. Celibacy isn’t the absence of something; it’s the presence of Someone – the presence of the Lord, our God. Given wholly to the Lord, the celibate person experiences a foretaste of heaven already on earth.

Heaven is, as the book of Revelation describes, the wedding feast of the Lamb. Jesus, the Bridegroom, gives Himself entirely to his Bride, the Church. It is for this reason that Jesus says in Luke 20:35, “those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Heaven is not the absence of something, it’s the presence of Someone, the presence of the Lord our God in a covenant of perfect communion that fully satisfies all our desires. 

Jesus desires to give some of His friends this joy already now on earth. He says in Matthew 19:12, “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

Because of these passages, as well as others in the Scriptures, the Church has described celibacy as a higher calling that marriage. Of course, this teaching does not mean that all celibate people are holier than all married people; it does mean that the celibate life is more like how we will live in Heaven. And for that reason, rather than treating marriage as the default vocation and only considering priesthood or religious life if there is some extraordinary sign, we ought to discern the celibate vocations first. Upon discerning that one is not called to priesthood or consecrated life, one can move with peace and joy towards marriage.

take a step

Having covered the basics, the next part of vocational discernment is taking a step. It is typical to wish that God would light up the whole path of our lives so that we would know exactly where to go, but He most often chooses to light up only the next step. Why the agony of waiting?

God is not content merely to inform us; He wants to transform us. By taking a step in faith, even when we do not know where the next one will lead, our hearts are stretched. And when the time comes for Him to inform us of our vocation, there is so much more of us to inform. Our hearts are transformed as we trust Him step by step so that when we embrace our vocation, we will be able to love as He loves. He wants us to settle for nothing less because He made our hearts for nothing less.

Depending on where you are in your vocational discernment journey, the following options may be appropriate steps for you to take:

Call your Vocation Director

  • Having started with the information provided on this website, your conversation with the vocation director will be even more fruitful. He will be able to listen to your story, answer question, and offer counsel that is specific to you.
    Click here to contact Fr. Greg.

Start / Join a Discernment Group

  • In addition to aiding your own discernment, starting a Discernment Group with your friends is a beautiful way to evangelize! Contact Fr. Greg for an easy way to share the good news of Jesus’ call to holiness and a helpful program to guide you on your path of vocational discernment.

Start Discernment 180

  • Discernment 180 is a six-month guide to help you discern the priesthood or consecrated life. Much like Exodus 90, Magnify 90, and other similar programs, it includes a rule of life, daily meditations for prayer, and facilitates good actions to take as you seek to know God’s will.
    Click here to learn more about Discernment 180.

Attend a Vocation Event

  • The best vocational discernment occurs with others on the same path. The Vocations Office offers events for men and women throughout the year to connect you with peers and guides who will support you along your path of following Christ.
    Click here to see upcoming vocation events.

follow god’s direction

You have mastered the basics and taken a step. It’s time, now, to follow God’s direction. Again, God typically does not light up the whole path of our lives; He lights up the next step. When we take that step, one of two things will happen: He will confirm that direction, or He will redirect us.

Perhaps the next step He is offering you is another one listed above. Perhaps you have peace and joy about moving towards marriage (in that case, check out this book and this podcast). Eventually, though, the next step for those continuing to discern celibate vocations is applying to seminary or a community.

Applying to seminary is not the final decision to become a priest; it is the recognition that in your vocational discernment, God has consistently confirmed the direction of the priesthood to you and that the only way to receive further confirmation in any direction is to go to seminary.