How does a man know if he is called to the priesthood? In the twenty-five years since I entered the seminary, I have heard a great deal of talk from bishops, priests, seminary formators, and seminarians themselves about a process called "discernment." This word is usually meant to signify a long, arduous, esoteric process of looking for signs of God's will in my life so that I can know whether or not I am called to the priesthood, and in the main, I have found that this entire approach to a priestly vocation, or anything else for that matter, is bunk.
When I first began to visit Father Peter Stravinskas to study the Faith, I told him at our second meeting that I felt called to the priesthood. I thought he would laugh at such foolishness from an inquirer, but instead he replied that if I had not mentioned it that week he would have brought it up the following week. Why? Because the desire was as clear on my face as a young man's love for his sweetheart. From Father Stravinskas I learned that discernment is not a matter of reading tea leaves, undergoing psychoanalysis, or examining the entrails of goats for signs of the divine pleasure; instead, genuine discernment (O, how I've grown to hate that word!) consists of answering four questions:
1. Do I desire to be priest?
2. Do I have the natural and supernatural gifts needed to be a priest?
3. Am I willing to sacrifice what must be sacrificed to be a priest?
4. Where do I want to serve as a priest?
Questions one and three can be answered only by the man himself. Either the desire is in the heart or it is not. No man needs to be told when he is in love; he either is or he is not. And once he knows that he's in love, then he must decide if he is willing to sacrifice what must be sacrificed to be with the one he loves. That part often requires a great deal of effort because we usually don't know our own hearts with clarity and aren't sure what we're prepared to sacrifice. But those are the two simple question the man himself must answer.
Question two can be answered only by the Church. From the moment a man offers himself for the priesthood, he will be evaluated for several years to determine if he does have the natural and supernatural gifts needed to be a priest. This process is imperfect, and like everything else in life, it is too often tainted with ideology and personal agendas. But in the main, now that the season of silliness in the Church is almost behind us, those responsible for making this determination take their responsibility seriously and their decisions are informed once again by the wisdom of the Church rather than by personal caprice.
Finally, question four can be simple or complex, depending upon the circumstances of the man's life. Most men who want to be diocesan priests grew up in one diocese, often in one parish, and they simply offer themselves to the service of that diocese. For those who, like me, come late to the party and far from home, there is usually no such clarity about place. And for those who are called to religious life rather than the secular priesthood, there is the added complexity of knowing which community to join. But answering that question is really just a variation on the theme of questions one and three.
This approach to knowing and answering a priestly vocation is, it seems to me, much closer than the tea leaf reading method to the divine calls about which we read in Sacred Scripture, and it relieves both the Church and the prospective priest of the impossible burden of trying to read the mind of God. As with all the sacraments, the grace of the priesthood is given in a way that corresponds to our nature, and answering the four questions above is truly more than enough for anyone to have moral certitude about his path in life and his place in the Church. Greater conceptual clarity about this could only serve to make it easier for young men to hear and answer the divine call to the altar.