Vocations exist and they are diverse. But once one becomes aware of them, it is necessary to take the time to discern. It is a question of discovering the path on which I can advance and which will lead me to the Kingdom: marriage, particular ministries, religious consecration, or still others. Discernment is the cornerstone of community, ecclesial and personal discernment.
It is good to remember that « the subject of this discernment process is each individual and it must be repeated that no one can replace the personal conscience of each ». It would be a mistake to give up one’s responsibility and leave it entirely in the hands of a third party. Of course, discernment is aided and enlightened by the help of the community, one’s spiritual director, readings, and the Word of God; but it remains a free act that entails a personal commitment. The current reflection on abuses of power and authority within our Church sadly reminds us that we are not immune from improper behaviour. Freedom is the prerequisite of all discernment.
Discerning is a word that keeps coming back in our communities and in our spiritual life. It would be good to have a deeper grasp of this term in order to avoid any misunderstandings. « So the gift of discernment which the Holy Spirit offers us is aimed above all at a recognition of Jesus as Kyrios, Lord, as Son of God, the one who, by his life among us, made known the God whom no one has ever seen. It is only if and when there is this firm, humble, and obedient attachment to the Good News, Jesus Christ himself, that we can exercise the gift of discernment in daily life, in order to choose attitudes and a style of life correctly »
Each in his own way
Lumen Gentium #11 reminds us that all who believe in Christ, « all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect ». Picking up on this quote from the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation, « Gaudete et exsultate » elaborates: « The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them. We are all called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness. »
No, it is not true that from all eternity a particular path was set out for me. God has made each one of us and he desires that we keep our freedom intact. We can choose the path we take and we can give shape to it as we move forward. Our faith calls us to declare that Jesus Christ is the Way and there is no other in going to the Father. But we ourselves have our role to play. How? First and foremost, the witness of our lives. We can express the joy that is ours as a result of having followed in the footsteps of Christ. We can also show that in spite of the demands of the Kingdom, a way of growth and fulfilment has been given to us. Certainly there are falls and failings, but God is present at our side. There is a risk in committing oneself, but such a commitment is well worth the while in the light of the faithfulness God exercises on our behalf.
Criteria for discerning
Even if the primary subject of the discernment is the person himself, the vocation director and Congregational authorities are called to make their voices heard at certain determined moments: acceptance to postulancy and novitiate, first profession, etc. Therefore, there is a heavy responsibility in accompanying the young man so that he might make a decision fully informed of the choice he is making. It is essential to maintain as strictly as possible the difference between the internal forum and the external forum. The distinction helps to avoid confusion between what must be safeguarded as confidential and what can potentially be communicated. What relates to spiritual direction and touches upon the private life of the individual is of the order of the seal of confession. No one can betray the confidence of a person who has entrusted himself to a director. But it is possible to take a position in the external forum and encourage the one being directed, when one has a strong belief that he cannot follow Christ in religious life and that he should abandon this path.
Let me list some criteria that seem to me to be important to emphasize for a healthy exercise of discernment:
- A passion for the Gospel
- An ability to hear the call of the Church
- A desire to advance along the path
- An ability to give of oneself, a generosity of spirit.
To this list I would add two others that seem important to me for our times and our Institute:
- An ability to change, to make room for the unknown « If the journey, in effect, leaves no place for freedom, for the unexpected, as well as for being open to the surprise of meeting someone or something and to what is new, unfamiliar, along the way, is it really an authentic journey that is Spirit-led? » While I was preparing my master’s degree in theology, I took part in a seminar at the seminary directed by Xavier Thévenot, a Salesian moral theologian (long-time professor at the Institut catholique de Paris). I asked him a question about vocational direction in the actual French context in order to understand what quality was necessary today for entering religious life. Without missing a beat, Fr. Thévenot answered, « a capacity for change ». For him, religious life could no longer be built on a unique model that would never change throughout one’s lifetime. The evolution of our societies, marked as they are by rapid and multiple change, requires that a religious know how to adapt constantly. The days have disappeared when, upon entering the Assumption, one could imagine being a professor or a parish priest throughout one’s life.
- Openness to others « That a vocation is false can be sensed when one is not open to life and is closed off from others. Every vocation, even when it does not attract recognition and, even less, distinction, is genuine if it makes us more alive, more attentive to the beauty of creation and more open to others ». Since we are more and more called to live in a world that is diverse both in terms of culture and nation, it is important to avoid everything that favors ethnocentrism and cultural idolatry.
Assumptionists are men who love diversity and who do not set up either their culture or their traditions as absolute references. All these qualities must be lived out with common sense and the ability to make sound judgments.
Often, confronted with certain weaknesses, one finds it difficult to commit oneself. Here we are facing a delicate issue. What are the irreconcilable weaknesses, those which would make religious life out of the question? Our Ratio Institutionis gives some helpful indications. Quite obviously, psychological balance is required, good health is desirable, but also a well-integrated affective life in its various components. What is important is to identify the ability of undertaking a journey while avoiding a certain « Pelagianism », as Pope Francis has noted.
« When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything’, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. »
One often hears that that religious life could be therapeutic, that it has the capacity of healing in the face of certain handicaps. One must object to this assertion all the while avoiding the trap of elitism. Religious life is not made for supermen; it is meant for everyone. But sometimes obstacles are insurmountable. The sexual abuse crisis brought the question of pedophilia to the forefront and forcefully reminded us that we had often been imprudent and lax before certain deviances. But elitism is also a mistake. God calls those whom he wishes, but he does ask us to discern aptitudes. These aptitudes vary with different congregations. One doesn’t ask for the same requirements of a young man who wishes to be a missionary as of one who feels attracted to the cloistered life. But here once again it is discernment carried out seriously that should help a person and the one accompanying him to be able to see whether the way being considered can be pursued peacefully and joyfully.
Therefore it is critical that one be able to recognize his limitations, that is to say, to identify them, to name them, to understand them. How often have we not read in letters of request for vows or ordination this affirmation: « aware of my limitations », but without them being duly enumerated? « The lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgement of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth. » In effect, grace has a progressive and historical character.
Letter of the Superior General father Benoit GRIERE n° 8