Catherine of Siena Institute’s eScribe
Discerning Priestly and Religious Calls Online (Not!)
by Fr. Michael Fones, O.P.
Awhile back I came across VocationsPlacement.org, self-described as "a Religious Careers Placement Service" with one mission: "to assist those who are investigating a call to religious life in the Roman Catholic Church." They schedule and facilitate "retreats for those in the discernment process, with diocesan and monastic" (perhaps they mean religious, I don't know) "vocational directors in the area of their choice." (All of the quotes in this article come from their website.)
Part of their service includes a free online Ministry Potential Discerner, consisting of a 39-question survey meant to help a man or woman get an idea of their potential as a priest or religious. The results are scored and you receive an e-mail with your score and an indication of whether you are a likely candidate for priesthood or religious life, or not.
According to their website, the Self-Assessment Survey "is designed to 'sow the seeds' of spiritual enlightenment for the future harvest of potential priestly and religious vocations as well as lay leadership within the Church. It can be used by dioceses, religious communities and other vocational organizations to help identify candidates who have an expressed interest in and aptitude for the priesthood, sisterhood or brotherhood....The MPD Self-Assessment Survey has been tested for its efficiency and reliability and is recognized as a powerful instrument of discernment among Church leaders throughout the United States. This discernment tool is not a psychological test. Rather it is a testing instrument based on the foundational principles of spiritual theology. The survey is primarily designed to be used as a mass testing instrument in schools, CCD programs and youth groups."
The survey was developed in the mid-1980's at Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo, N.D., and has been used by many vocation directors and religious communities (including the Western Dominican Province, to which I belong) since. It has been used in elementary and high schools, as well as at National Youth Conventions, where it was given to literally thousands of young people.
The Church in the U.S. has embraced this survey, including the vocation committee of the USCCB in its document Future Full of Hope. It is a simple tool to use by anyone with access to a computer.”The survey is administered online and is appropriate for students in junior high or high school, as well as those of college age or beyond, and can be completed in less than 20 minutes... individual and group results are tabulated and can be sent to vocational contacts. This allows vocation directors, youth ministers, pastors, pastoral associates or others to personally contact the students to extend an explicit invitation for the young person to seriously consider a vocation. Once identified as potential candidates for ministry, young men and women must be explicitly encouraged, invited and asked to consider a life dedicated to God.”
This is a laudable attempt to help individuals self-identify a potential cal to a lifestyle vocation, and, like the Catholic Spiritual Gifts Inventory, is not discernment itself, but intended as a first-step, perhaps a tool to raise an awareness of a potential suitability to a vowed life of ministry within the Church.
I gave the website to a young single man who went through a conversion about four years ago. Many people have asked him, "are you going to become a priest?" because he goes to daily Mass, prays daily, talks about God readily, reads the Scriptures and the catechism, doesn't swear, drink or smoke, and lives chastely. Before I give you his reaction to the survey, I'll admit I went and took it, to see what kinds of questions they were asking. I'll also admit I scored high enough that I received information and phone calls from a variety of vocations directors - but no Dominican Provinces! I do not want to encourage anyone to take the survey just to see the questions, and possibly lead vocations directors astray. Nor do I want to give away the survey, so I'll give you a sample of the statements. Respondents are asked to indicate whether they Strongly Agree, Agree, Weakly Agree, Weakly Disagree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree with each statement. Here are a few of the statements.
• I feel small coins, like pennies, nickels and dimes, are not worth much and sometime just throw them away.
• I believe its ok to take drugs or alcohol to get high.
• I have a special concern for people with sickness, handicaps, or problems.
• I am happy about coming from a family that cares about our Catholic faith and beliefs.
• I feel strongly that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and makes a big difference in the way I live.
• I do want to find out if God has given me special talents and gifts to be of service to others.
• My friends feel that I am generally a happy, positive person.
When the 37-year old fellow I mentioned above took the survey, he scored quite high. He's definitely an intentional disciple whose life has been changed by God's love and grace in a very powerful way, and against all odds. He has a high school diploma, and told me he read the first book (on saints) in his life after his conversion. He is not what you’d call “book smart.” While with God all things are possible, priesthood, with its academic demands, seems out of the question for him. He could possibly have a call to a religious community that could use his charisms (Evangelism, Voluntary Poverty, seem probable) and skills in carpentry and construction.
What I found stunning was his response to the survey. After taking it, he asked me, "Fr. Mike, how is this going to help me discern a call to priesthood or religious life. Shouldn't every disciple of Jesus score high on this survey?"
He may not have much education, but he has a Godly wisdom. I couldn't agree with him more.
It seems that we have a hard time distinguishing between ordinary discipleship and a call to a particular lifestyle vocation. It's as though we say, "Hmmm. You talk about God, go to church regularly, read the Bible, have high moral standards.... You're not like the rest of us. YOU must have a vocation to priesthood or religious life." Part of the problem with that is it maintains the sense that nominal, cultural Catholicism, rather than intentional discipleship, is normative.
That being said, if the ministry potential survey helps identify disciples, that would be a start in the right direction. My questions are, what kinds of qualities would help young men identify a possible call to priesthood? Our questions will say a lot about the kind of priests we are looking for. What kinds of questions would be suitable to help those for whom religious life is a possible call? I think these would be different questions, and require a separate discernment tool, as they are different vocations (even though many male religious are also priests).
Just for fun, I thought I would review Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds), Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal letter on the priesthood, to see if I could glean some statements that might be part of a discernment tool for those interested in exploring a call to priesthood. I gleaned a few quotes from the document, and then propose a statement for just such a discernment instrument. While there are many passages that could be used, I have chosen these as representative of attitudes that together might be at least somewhat distinctive from attitudes of a disciple of Jesus called to the lay state. On occasion I have worded the statement so that a “strongly disagree” response would be an indication of a possible priestly vocation. I trust those will be obvious! One thing that is clear from the quotes is this: the Church has very high expectations for those who seek ordination as priests. Pray that we might live up to them!
In a word, priests exist and act in order to proclaim the Gospel to the world and to build up the Church in the name and person of Christ the Head and Shepherd. This is the ordinary and proper way in which ordained ministers share in the one priesthood of Christ. (15) – I seldom or never talk about religion, because it is a private matter.
The ministry of the priest is entirely on behalf of the Church; it aims at promoting the exercise of the common priesthood of the entire people of God; (16) – Because the ordained are holier than ordinary Christians, they should be held in high esteem, and it is an honor to serve them.
The ordained ministry has a radical "communitarian form" and can only be carried out as "a collective work". The Council dealt extensively with this communal aspect of the nature of the priesthood, examining in succession the relationship of the priest with his own Bishop, with other priests and with the lay faithful. (17) – I enjoy working with others, and, often derive a greater satisfaction from a task accomplished as part of a group than one accomplished by myself.
Priests are there to serve the faith, hope and charity of the laity. They recognize and uphold, as brothers and friends, the dignity of the laity as children of God and help them to exercise fully their specific role in the overall context of the Church's mission. (17) – I believe lay people have an essential and important role as the Church inserted into the world.
The priest is first of all a minister of the Word of God … For this reason, the priest himself ought first of all to develop a great personal familiarity with the word of God… He needs to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart, so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him—"the mind of Christ" (26) ¬- I enjoy reading the Bible, and know that certain attitudes of mine have been challenged by what I encountered there.
The Synod would like to see celibacy presented and explained in the fullness of its biblical, theological and spiritual richness, as a precious gift given by God to his Church and as a sign of the Kingdom which is not of this world, a sign of God's love for this world and of the undivided love of the priest for God and for God's People, with the result that celibacy is seen as a positive enrichment of the priesthood (29) – I love the freedom that being unmarried gives me to relate to, befriend, and help a wide variety of people.
Future priests should therefore cultivate a series of human qualities, not only out of proper and due growth and realization of self, but also with a view to the ministry. These qualities are needed for them to be balanced people, strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities…Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others. (43) – I believe – and have been told by others - that I am a fair, well-balanced person and am able to relate to a variety of people.
The present situation is heavily marked by religious indifference, by a widespread mistrust regarding the real capacity of reason to reach objective and universal truth, and by fresh problems and questions brought up by scientific and technological discoveries. It strongly demands a high level of intellectual formation, such as will enable priests to proclaim, in a context like this, the changeless Gospel of Christ and to make it credible to the legitimate demands of human reason. (51) – I believe if you keep on proclaiming the faith as it has always been taught, those few who are meant to be saved will “get it.”
It is particularly important to prepare future priests for cooperation with the laity. The Council says, "they should be willing to listen to lay people, give brotherly consideration to their wishes and recognize their experience and competence in the different fields of human activity. In this way they will be able to recognize with them the signs of the times.” (59) – a priest is called “father” by his parishioners because he knows what is best for them and for the parish.
Above all it is necessary that he be able to teach and support the laity in their vocation to
be present in and to transform the world with the light of the Gospel, by recognizing this task of theirs and showing respect for it. (59) – If Catholics want to grow in holiness, they should spend more time at church and less in the corrupting influence of the world.
The intellectual dimension of formation likewise needs to be continually fostered through the priest's entire life, especially by a commitment to study and a serious and disciplined familiarity with modern culture. (72) – Study is not something that interests me. I learn better watching good programs on T.V.
Jesus often went off alone to pray (cf. Mt 14:23). The ability to handle a healthy solitude is indispensable for caring for one's interior life. Here we are speaking of a solitude filled with the presence of the Lord who puts us in contact with the Father, in the light of the Spirit. (74) – While I enjoy the company of people, there are times I crave quiet solitude to connect with God on my own.
By Baptism, which marks him with the dignity and freedom of the children of God in the only-begotten Son, the priest is a member of the one Body of Christ (cf. Eph 4:16). His consciousness of this communion leads to a need to awaken and deepen co-responsibility in the one common mission of salvation, with a prompt and heartfelt esteem for all the charisms and tasks which the Spirit gives believers for the building up of the Church (74) – I enjoy seeing the gifts God has given other, and it would be great if I could help them figure out how God might be calling them.
Fr. Michael Fones is the co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute, has been ordained for 17 years, and prior to working with the Institute, served for 12 years in campus ministry across the western U.S.
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