The Discernment of Vocations
The Angelus: Mother Mary Joseph, what are your connections with potential vocations?
Mother Mary Joseph: As the Mother Superior and acting Novice Mistress of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King, one of my duties is to assess the suitability of applicants to the religious life in our Community.
The Angelus: What are the ingredients necessary for a religious vocation?
Mother Mary Joseph: We begin with the broad requirements of canon law, namely, no canonical impediments, a right intention, and suitability to the way of life. The right intentions—desire to serve God in the best possible way, desire to sanctify oneself in order to give God greater glory—are not always easy to determine. We are creatures of mixed motives; natural and even base motives can be mixed with the supernatural. We hope that the higher motives predominate, through the grace of God. The right intention must be augmented by knowledge of the practices of religious life, and gaining this knowledge is one of the purposes of the postulancy and novitiate.
As for suitability, some temperaments and personalities find community life too challenging, and some people simply are not meant for it, in spite of their good intentions. The demands of the apostolate also must be taken into consideration. A certain measure of good physical health is needed as well as good mental health and a reasonable level of intelligence.
The Angelus: Is there a difference between the various orders?
Mother Mary Joseph: The call to the religious life is not generic. The call to the Franciscan life is not the call to the Carmelite life, for example. A candidate and the superiors must consider the prayer life and spirituality of the community, the common life as practiced in that community, and suitability to the apostolate.
Suitability to the apostolate of the community differs according to the various communities. Someone who does not want to work with children probably will not be considering teaching communities, for example, even if they are drawn by preference to a Franciscan prayer life.
The Angelus: What are the personal qualities, traits, and habits that contribute to the stability of a vocation to the religious life?
Mother Mary Joseph: A strong prayer life which includes devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the daily Rosary is a foundation for any vocation. Without a strong prayer life, the desire for vocation will eventually run out of steam; there will be nothing to sustain it. On the natural level, there should be a certain balance to the personality, solid common sense and good judgment. The ability to live in community is helped by flexibility on the natural level, and by the virtue of forbearance.
Willingness to learn the virtue of obedience also is essential to the religious life. One cannot live under the vow of obedience without first acquiring the virtue. This can be humbling for some personalities, but without obedience, there is no true religious life. Doubtless, this virtue is essential for the brotherhood and the priesthood as well.
The Angelus: No one vocation is the same, yet, there must be some common elements…
Mother Mary Joseph: Individuals often are drawn by grace through circumstances to consider the life of the counsels—circumstances such as type of home life, prayer life, spiritual reading, sermons, and advice received. Most candidates have some motives in common—these often include the desire to serve God, desire to save their own souls in the best way possible, and zeal for the souls of others.
The Angelus: Fr. Stafki, we turn to you for the more theological meaning of the calling. A vocation to a higher state of life is one of the many options for a young adult. What are the dispositions required for one before choosing any state in life?
Fr. Stafki: Let us remember that, if God calls us to a state of life, be it religious life or marriage, He inspires in us the desire to sacrifice ourselves through that state of life. When one chooses his state of life properly, he simply chooses his manner of crucifixion. That is, he chooses how to best lose sight of self and give his all to God! Directly, through religion, or indirectly, through a spouse and children. In either state, we are no longer our own. We must return love for love. Jesus Christ gave His all for us. Let us do the same for Him, whatever the state of life to which we are called.
The Angelus: How would you define the call of God to souls?
Fr. Stafki: I think it is a personal invitation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to repose in His Sacred Heart in a most intimate way. He offers a share in the treasures of His Heart. This Heart has been pierced and crowned with thorns, and so a vocation is a special call to sacrifice. This Heart is ablaze with the love of the Father and with the love of souls, and so one who is “called” is offered a special love of God and love of souls.
The Angelus: Is the call merely of the heart or is there an official call too?
Fr. Stafki: Every true vocation consists of a double call: a call that is within the individual (just described above) and a call that is exterior to the individual. The exterior call is the approval of the Catholic Church, i.e. an approval offered (or withheld) by one’s ecclesiastical superiors. Both the interior and exterior call are necessary for a true vocation. If one seems to have the first but not the other, this means that God has not called.
The Angelus: Can we give the name of religious to all such calls?
Fr. Stafki: Often we speak of someone who receives a vocation as a “religious.” What this expresses, at least in part, is that the virtue of the “one called” is the virtue of religion. This is the virtue that inclines us to offer to God the worship that is due to Him as our Creator—for a religious this offertory is to be made at every moment of every day. The vocation is not a feeling, but rather a God-given determination to burn all of one’s life like the sanctuary lamp, ever in the presence of God, rendering Him the supreme honor that He deserves.
The Angelus: But many will say that they are not perfect. So, how could they have a vocation?
Fr. Stafki: Many think that they are not called because they are not perfect or their charity is not ardent or their prayers are difficult and distracted. On the contrary, pursuing a vocation is a means of perfection. It takes time to develop a deep spiritual life and to “grow into one’s vocation.” How does one become “more religious”? By filling one’s days with acts of religion. Model religious today were once clumsy beginners like you!
The Angelus: What is the exact role and duty of the priest or advisor over young adults regarding a vocation?
Fr. Stafki: The priest has an important role to play in helping individuals determine whether God might be calling them. Having heard the call themselves and having been invested with the grace to guide souls, they are able more easily to discern the signs of a vocation. Therefore, young people should be ready and willing to pour out the secrets of their soul to the priest. The priest is never too busy for that!
The Angelus: Speaking of the priestly task, what is the difference between discernment and decision?
Fr. Stafki: As St. Peter Julian Eymard says, it is the role of the spiritual director to stand at the door of the heart and to help the individual know what to keep and what to rid oneself of…but only God is to enter therein. We must always remember that the voice one hears calling must be the voice of God, not the voice of a priest, a parent or a friend. After all, it is the call of God. Often enough it seems that young people would be happy if the priest would just “decide for them.” We must tell them: “I will listen to you, as you listen to God in the depths of your soul. I will help you discern truth from error, reality from dreams, inspiration from fantasy, empty fears from real obstacles. I will offer advice and show you your legitimate options, but you must decide. You will have to live the life you choose, not me. You will be judged by God according to how you lived your life. You must decide. Trust in God. He loves you and wants your good and your true happiness. He will inspire you to desire and to choose what is best, as long as you have taken the means at your disposal for finding His Will.”
The Angelus: Mother Mary Joseph, is the confessor and spiritual director in a better position if he has access to the internal forum?
Mother Mary Joseph: It is true that advice given by the priest in the internal forum can be crucial for the candidate considering a vocation. I ask the candidate if she has spoken to her confessor about the possibility of a vocation and whether or not he has encouraged her to pursue one. If she has not spoken to the priest in the confessional, she is advised to do so. One test of a vocation is the willingness of the candidate to follow such advice. If the priest advises a candidate in the confessional not to pursue a religious vocation, the superior must assume that he has good reason to give such advice. On the other hand, if he advises the candidate to try, this is no guarantee that the young lady has a vocation!
Because most young women want to confide in someone they trust, it is not uncommon for candidates, by their own choice, to be quite open with superiors, which does help the superior to make necessary judgments. If this does not occur, the question of whether or not the priest encourages the vocation becomes a key element in the judgment of the superior.
The Angelus: Mother Mary Joseph, how have you personally been able to help youngsters make a decision in life?
Mother Mary Joseph: No one really knows all the many influences that go toward a decision of this nature. Certainly, speaking with our visitors over the years, and seeing some of them return to the novitiate and eventually take vows makes one hope that there has been some good accomplished, but after all, they may have joined for any number of reasons. In any case, it is a matter of God’s grace in the end, and He has millions of means of influencing a vocation.
The Angelus: Mother Mary Joseph, any interesting anecdotes you wish to mention?
Mother Mary Joseph: When our community was just beginning, a former Marine captain came to visit our farmhouse convent in Oregon. She saw a tiny ninety-year-old Sister lying on a couch, dividing her time between praying and instructing a couple of postulants and a novice. She saw an aging priest with a bad back still serving as pastor of two traditional chapels in spite of strokes, cancer, and severe arthritis, giving conferences and guiding our little group. The sight of these two old people carrying the banner for the Faith inspired her with zeal. The situation looked hopeless; it had to be the work of God. She felt compelled to join. She had already left a career in the Marines in order to take up the life of true Catholic womanhood. She gave up the life of a Catholic laywoman in order to take up the higher calling of a religious.
The Angelus: Mother Mary Joseph, any last word?
Mother Mary Joseph: God has not stopped calling women to the religious life, but some allow the static of the world to interfere. If they would only stop to listen, girls would find, as I have found, that the happiest peals of laughter come from behind convent walls. It is the laughter of joy.