The overarching sign of a vocation will be an enduring attraction to the idea of the priesthood, accompanied by a deep sense of peace and joy in reflecting on this attraction. This does not mean the attraction will be without fears and anxieties. However, if the idea of the priesthood comes with a deep sense of panic, fear or anxiety (this is different from the natural humility and reluctance we feel) it may mean it is not right for us, and we would be much happier somewhere else! Usually, God gives us enough to go on – he does not play games with us. If we listen and look carefully, over a period of time, patiently, then usually a pattern will form, and things will become clearer. In this sense we do not need to ask for supernatural signs, visions, dreams… We should certainly pray for help and guidance, but usually God will guide us in these ordinary ways.
If these signs grow stronger and come together, then we should take the next step – talk to someone we trust. The first person with whom to speak is our parish priest. He may also invite you to contact the Vocations Director of the Diocese. When we do this, we move to a new stage in our discernment, which is trusting in the discernment of the Church. This is more objective and ‘public’ – it involves other people and ultimately the Bishop, who is the one with the final responsibility of calling people to the priesthood on behalf of Christ. It can be hard to take this step and approach the Church and involve others; but it will also give us great peace – because it is no longer just us trying to find what is right, we have the support and advice of others.
At the end of the day, we can trust the Church to help us discern. If the Vocations Director encourages us to apply to the Diocese; and then if the bishop accepts us, then this is the surest sign possible that the Lord is inviting us at least to take the next step into seminary. It still leaves between 5 to 9 years (depending at when you enter formation) more years to discern and become sure – but we can have the assurance that we are doing the right thing for the moment.
If the Vocations Director suggests we hold back for a bit, or if the Bishop decides not to accept us for priesthood at this point, this is not a rejection or a negative thing. In fact, it is very positive: it is the way that God is leading us to something else, something that is more right for us. Knowing where we are not called provides great peace of mind. It allows us to follow a different way of life where we can be holy and live out a different vocation--without looking back.
It may be that we come back to priesthood later; it may be that we become clearer about another direction. In all of this, it is essential to listen to the wisdom of the Church and not only our own subjective ‘signs’. The Church is not looking for volunteers to the priesthood – she is looking for those who are being called by God to this vocation and this needs to be discerned by both the candidate and by the Church.
This article is adapted from the CTS booklet “How to Discover your Vocation” by Fr Stephen Wang.