The Discernment Process

The word discernment comes from a Latin word meaning “to sift apart”. When we discern, we try to “sift apart” different possibilities in the hopes of finding the one that is most positive and life giving. The discipline and practice of discernment can happen on a variety of levels and in different circumstances (i.e. trying to determine which college to attend, discerning between different job possibilities or possible areas to move to).

Tell me more about the discernment process.
For our purposes here we are focusing on discernment in terms of life vocation and specifically the possibility of a vocation to service within the Catholic Church as a priest, religious sister or brother, or a permanent deacon. In this context there are some specific things to keep in mind regarding discernment.

  • We don’t have to “go it alone.” We believe that God is involved in our lives and that God has a specific call for each and every one of us. God will not overwhelm our efforts to determine our call in life but neither is God distant and unconcerned about us and where we are in life. God is involved in our lives. If we are open God will help us. We just need to learn to listen to how God speaks in our lives and learn how to trust in His will for us.
  • God wants nothing but what is best for us. The God we profess as Christians is a God of love and mercy. God’s will leads to our fulfillment and ultimately to joy. Even if in the outset of discerning a possible life of service in the Church one can only see what is given up or hardship one needs to trust that where God is calling us is where we will find and know fulfillment – even if we cannot imagine that at the moment.
  • Joy is the surest indicator of the presence of God. We need to acknowledge and mark what brings us joy in life. Here it is helpful to distinguish joy from happiness. Happiness is more fleeting; it can rise and fall very easily. Joy is different. It is rooted in the deepest part of our being and therefore is more constant and sure. Joy can even be present in the midst of struggles and difficulties in life. In discerning a life vocation one should note where one finds joy. It is a good indicator for us.
  • Discernment is the willingness to take the next step. When Jesus originally called Peter he did not say “Oh and by the way, I will change your name, you will walk on water, you will deny me but then turn back in repentance and I will build my Church upon your faith.” Rather he said, “Follow me.” “Take the next step.” The next step may be reading this reflection, it may be making the decision to regularly attend a weekday Mass, or make a Holy Hour or go on a mission trip. It may mean making the decision to talk to your parish priest or a religious about this strange thought in your head. It may be deciding to contact the Vocation Office or even the decision to apply to the diocese. No one, at the moment, has it all figured out. Jesus does not ask this nor does he expect it. Discernment is the willingness to take the next step in order to see where it leads and to trust.
  • Discernment – in the Catholic Church – is a two-way street. There is no such thing as a “private” sacrament and this includes the sacrament of holy orders and also the witness of religious life and the permanent diaconate. Just as a person discerns a possible life of service in the Church so to does the “Church” (through her appointed representatives) discern if a particular man or woman has such a calling. This understanding of discernment calls for honesty, trust, prayerful attentiveness, a willingness to let go of self and respect among all who are involved.
  • If God calls you then God will sustain you. Discernment is a lifelong journey. Within the journey there are moments and experiences of profound joy and awe but also moments of struggle and discouragement as well as countless “ordinary” days. Discernment means learning to recognize the presence of God in all situations and seasons and trusting that God will see us through. It also means learning to be open to the way God chooses to sustain us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.
How do we develop the discipline of discernment in our lives?
Here are some tried and true aids to help in discernment.

  • Prayer — In order to hear God’s call we need to take time to listen. Prayer is essential to any life of faith. Below are some prayer disciplines that are essential in discernment.
  • Holy Hour – Learn to spend time with our Lord in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament whether it is weekly or daily. In a Holy Hour we are like the beloved disciple resting on the chest of Christ – our hearts are inclined toward him and his Sacred Heart is inclined toward us.
  • Scripture – Sacred Scripture is the inspired word of God when we meditate on it reflectively we encounter Christ the Risen Lord. Specifically spend time reflecting on the call scenes found throughout Scripture in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Watch how God calls different people and even note how they respond.
  • Liturgy of the Hours (Morning and Evening Prayer) – Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is a responsibility of the priest, deacon and religious but it is encouraged of all members of the Church. It is good to bracket the day in prayer. Learning the Liturgy of the Hours on ones own can be confusing and daunting at first – you may need assistance. A good “first step” into the Liturgy of the Hours is to first make use of a resource like the monthly periodical “Magnificat” or something similar.
  • Daily Examen – This is a great prayer tradition of the Church. St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuit tradition is a great resource here. Take some time at the end of each day to reflect on how God has been present and how you have responded or not responded to that presence.
  • Rosary – Spend time reflecting with Mary, the Mother of God, on the salvific events in the life of her son.
  • Eucharist – The Mass is the “source and summit” of the Christian life. Try to develop (as your schedule allows) the discipline of daily Mass attendance and enter prayerfully into the celebration.
  • Confession – We are all sinners and one of the most corrosive aspects of sin is to lead us into doubt and despair. The sacrament of reconciliation is needed medicine for our souls that strengthens our ability to trust in the call of Christ.
  • Community – Be involved in your local Church community whether that be a parish, University Newman Center, or Catholic High School. We believe that the Church is the Body of Christ; the Holy Spirit is present in the life of the Christian community so get involved. Vocations come forth from the Body of Christ and not separated from it. Also, priests, religious and deacons are called to be ministers of community.
  • Mary and the Saints – One of the most beautiful aspects of the Catholic Faith is our very real communion with the saints. Read and learn about the saints (their lives are a source of great instruction and encouragement) but also develop a relationship with the saints, especially Mary. The saints are our friends and they yearn for us to know the fullness of joy that they experience.
  • Service to the Poor – When the Son of God came into this world he was born in a poor manger. Christ continues to be “born” in the presence of the poor of our world. If we are faithful in our service of our poor brothers and sisters we will see the face of Christ and he will speak to the needs of our hearts.
  • Fast – Fasting is not just for Lent anymore. Develop the discipline of fasting in your life whether it be from food, entertainment, even the internet and social media. When we fast we open up a space for God to enter.
  • Discernment Group – It is good to know that we are not alone in considering the thought of a life as a priest, religious or deacon. This is the value of the diocesan Discernment program for men as well as visits to religious communities and seminaries. There are others who are asking the same questions and wrestling with the same possibilities in their life. Knowing this is an aid in our own discernment.
  • Spiritual direction – Seek out a spiritual director – a priest, religious, deacon or trained lay person. A good spiritual director will walk with us, help us discern and provide us with objective input. Normally, a person meets with a spiritual director once a month.

Discernment is an aspect of any true life of faith. Through discernment we come to know the amazing truth that God is indeed involved in our lives and that God wants nothing but the best for us.

Discernment program for men
The Diocesan Discernment Program is an opportunity for men who are open to the possibility of discerning the vocation of Catholic priesthood to gather on a monthly basis for discussion, prayer and reflection. The program is for men who are in college, young adult and older men, and also juniors and seniors in high school. The monthly Discernment Days of Reflection take place on a Saturday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) in the Knoxville area. The program normally runs on an academic year schedule (beginning around August and concluding around May).

In addition to the monthly gatherings, men in the program are encouraged to

  • develop the habit of daily prayer (through resources provided by the program) and daily Mass attendance
  • be involved in their parish community and also in some form of service in their parish and/or local community
  • meet monthly with a priest spiritual director.

During the course of the program, participants also have opportunities to visit seminaries and experience seminary life to help in their continuing discernment.

Below are the topics discussed at the monthly Discernment Group gatherings:

  • Vocation, Prayer, and Discernment
  • Living the Christian Moral Life
  • Celibacy and Chastity
  • The Life of a Diocesan Priest
  • The Promise of Obedience
  • Community and the Church
  • The Call to Discipleship

A weekend diocesan discernment retreat is also held every year.

Participants in the discernment program are encouraged to take part in the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. (The discernment group joins with other groups from our diocese to attend the march.)