How to know what God wants

Russell Shaw

When the pot is boiling, turn down the heat. That could well have been part of the reasoning behind Pope Francis’ decision to choose “Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment” as the topic of the next world Synod of Bishops.

For months, speculation out of Rome had focused on the possibility that the pope would tell the 2018 synod to debate ordaining married men as priests in countries with an acute clergy shortage. Francis himself was said to be interested in that.

If so, it’s not unreasonable to think that topic may have been set aside in view of the contentious synods on marriage in 2014 and 2015 as well as the ongoing debate on how to understand Pope Francis’ followup document, Amoris Laetitia. That’s enough excitement for now, someone might reason.

But the theme chosen should not be dismissed as an option in favor of blandness. When 250 or so prominent bishops from around the world gather at the Vatican two years from now, they’ll have an opportunity to make a much needed course correction in thinking about vocations.

The key to it is “vocational discernment.” As matters stand, there are two common ways of understanding vocational discernment — and neither is quite right.

One is to suppose that the big decisions young people face are only about things like choosing a college major and prepping for a career, and that the relevant question is: How can I make the most money and have a comfortable life? Much bigger issues are at stake, and a question of far greater importance comes first: What does God want?

The other mistake is to think vocational discernment is mostly or exclusively for people who think that God may be calling them to the priesthood or religious life. Discernment certainly is essential for this group. But not only for them.

Discernment is necessary for everybody, including those called to be lay Christians in the world. “Every life is a vocation,” Pope Paul VI once said.

Vocational discernment is a lifelong task. We have to examine our life situations constantly to see what God asks of us here and now. But, as the synod theme suggests, it’s especially important in the formative years when young people are weighing large choices that will shape the rest of their lives.

Good programs to help them exist in some places, but elsewhere the old, narrow thinking about vocations prevails. The Synod of Bishops could help change that and remedy the shortage of priests. As more people practice vocational discernment, more will hear God’s call to be priests and religious — as well as committed lay Catholics.

Russell Shaw is the author of “American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.”