25 June 2016

Vocation Discernment: Cautions, Advice, & Questions to Ask Yourself

Q: What basic questions should those discerning a religious vocation ask themselves?

A: I get a lot of questions from younger readers about vocation discernment. For the most part, they want to know how they know whether or not they have a religious vocation. I wish it were as easy as drawing blooding, testing it, and announcing the result. If horse had wings, etc. Here are three cautions and a few questions to ask yourself:

Three Cautions

Suspend any romantic or idealistic notions you might have about religious life. Religious orders are made up of sinful men and women. There is no perfect Order; no perfect monastery; no perfect charism. You WILL be disappointed at some point if you enter religious life. You are going to find folks in religious life who are angry, wounded, bitter, mean-spirited, disobedient, secretive, and just plain hateful. You will also find living saints.

Do your homework. There is no perfect Order, etc. but there is an Order out there that will best use your gifts, strengthen your weaknesses, and challenge you to grow in holiness. Learn everything you can about the Order or monastery you are considering. Use the internet, libraries, "people on the inside," and ask lots and lots of questions. Vocation directors are not salesmen. For the most part, they will not pressure you into a decision. They are looking at you as hard as you are looking them.

Be prepared to do some hard soul-searching. Before you apply to any Order or monastery, be ready to spend a great deal of time in prayer. You will have to go through interviews, psychological evaluations, physicals, credit checks, reference checks, transcript reviews, retreats, and just about anything else the vocations director can think of to make sure he/she knows as much about you as possible. Think of it as penance.

Practical Advice

If you are considering religious life right out of undergraduate school, consider again and again. Get a job. Spend two or three years doing some unpaid volunteer work for one of your favorite Orders. These help you to mature spiritually and will make you a better religious. Most communities these days need folks with practical life-skills like managing money, maintaining cars and equipment, etc.

If you have school loans, start paying them back ASAP! For men, this is not such a huge problem b/c most men's communities will assume loans on a case by case basis when you take solemn vows. For some reason, women's communities do not do this as much. Regardless, paying back your loans shows maturity. I was extremely fortunate and had my grad school loans cancelled after I was ordained! Long story. Don't ask.

Don't make any large, credit-based purchases before joining a community. Cars, houses, boats, etc. will have to be disposed of once you are in vows. Of course, if you are 22 and not thinking of joining an Order until you are 32, well, that's different story. But be aware that you cannot "take it with you" when you come into a community.

Tell family, friends, professors, employers that you thinking about religious life. It helps to hear from others what they think of you becoming a religious. Their perceptions cannot be dispositive, but they can be insightful.

Be very open and honest with anyone you may become involve with romantically that you are thinking of religious life. One of the saddest things I have ever seen was a young woman in my office suffering because her fiance broke off their three year engagement to become a monk. She had no idea he was even thinking about it. There is no alternative here: you must tell. Hedging your bet with a boyfriend or girlfriend on the odds that you might not join up is fraudulent and shows a deep immaturity.

Be prepared for denial, scorn, ridicule, and outright opposition from family and friends. I can't tell you how many young men and women I have counseled who have decided not to follow their religious vocations b/c family and friends thought it was a waste of their lives. It's sad to say, but families are often the primary source of opposition. The potential loss of grandchildren is a deep sorrow for many moms and dads. Be ready to hear about it.

Questions to ask yourself

What is it precisely that makes me think I have a religious vocation?

What gifts do I have that point me to this end?

Can I live continent chaste celibacy for the rest of my life?

Can I be completely dependent on this group of men/women for all my physical needs? For most, if not all, of my emotional and spiritual needs?

Am I willing to work in order to provide resources for my Order/community? Even if my work seems to be more difficult, demanding, time-consuming, etc. than any other member of the community?

Am I willing to surrender my plans for my life and rely on my religious superiors to use my gifts for the mission of the Order? In other words, can I be obedient. . .even and especially when I think my superiors are cracked?

Am I willing to go where I am needed? Anywhere in the world?

Can I listen to those who disagree with me in the community and still live in fraternity? (A hard one!)

Am I willing join the Order/community and learn what I need to learn to be a good friar, monk, or nun? Or, do I see my admission as an opportunity to "straighten these guys out"?

How do I understand "failure" in religious life? I mean, how do I see and cope with brothers/sisters who do not seem to be doing what they vowed to do as religious?

What would count as success for me as a religious? Failure?

How patient am I with others as they grow in holiness? With myself?

I can personally attest to having "failed" to answer just about every single one of these before I became a Dominican. I was extremely fortunate to fall in with a community that has a high tolerance for friars who need to fumble around and start over. In the four years before I took solemn vows, there were three times when I had decided to leave the Order and a few more times when the prospects of becoming an "OP" didn't look too good. I hung on. They hung on. And here I am. For better or worse. Here I am.

2016 Add: Many religious congregations and diocesan presbyterates are experiencing serious generational conflicts between their Baby Boom age priests and younger priests. The principal conflict seems to be over how to read and implement VC2 in the parish. Baby Boomer priests tend to be more "pastoral" and less interested in "following the rules" in theology and liturgy. They see the younger guys as rigid, institutional, and too focused on "being right." The younger priests tend to be more interested in thinking with the long-tradition of the Church and usually work hard to celebrate the sacraments according to the rubrics. They see the Baby Boomer priests as Protestant wanna-be's. These are all unhelpful stereotypes, but they persist. 

If you are thinking about the priesthood and religious life, be prepared to run into some deeply divided communities and presbyterates. Don't let these divisions dissuade you from answering God's call. This is nothing new in the Church. It's just part of being human.


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20 June 2016

12th Sunday OT: Audio Link

Audio Link for my homily, "You are who you say He is."

Preached at Our Lady of the Rosary in NOLA June 19, 2016.

N.B. If you listen to this homily, please leave me some feedback on my delivery, i.e., pacing, pronunciation, etc. This felt weird while I was preaching it (?).

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19 June 2016

You are who you say he is. . .(AUDIO LINK added)

Audio Link

12th Sunday OT 2016
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow Christ. If you will save your life for heaven, you will lose your life for Christ on earth. But if you seek to spare yourself suffering, trial, and persecution while you're alive, you'll just end up losing your eternal life. The choice couldn't be any clearer, or any more depressing. To follow Christ, it seems, is to live a life of self-sacrifice and self-denial; grimly determined to slog through this valley of tears, hoping and praying that our lives after this one will be better. The most we can hope for while trapped in this mortal coil is that we'll be given the chance to die a martyr's death and escape a long sentence in purgatory. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. And follow Christ to your execution in the Valley of Skulls. Of course, what this dreary picture leaves out is the daily reward of following Christ: the peace that comes from detaching ourselves from the weight of impermanent things; the joy that comes from forgiving and being forgiven; the knowledge that our love for others is perfecting God's love in us. It leaves out the part where self-sacrifice and self-denial are our ways of offering God praise, of giving Him thanks. It forgets to ask, “Who do you say that you are?”

Paul starts us on the way to an answer. Addressing the Galatians, he writes, “Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Who do we say that we are? Let's change Paul's declaration up a bit: “Through faith we are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of us who were baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ.” Who do we say that we are? Children of God in Christ. Dead, buried, and raised with Christ in baptism. We have put on Christ, been clothed with Christ. We belong to Christ. So, when we deny ourselves, we only give away that which is no longer ours to keep. When we take up a cross, it is Christ's cross that we lift up. When we follow after him, it is not our lives that we are spending but his. What is truly dreary, truly dismal is living a life ordered toward the things of this world, the things that will pass away, that will inevitably abandon us. What's truly depressing is spending your life staring at an end where nothing begins, where your only hope is that after you die someone might remember you. Is that who you are? Who you will be? A memory—fond or not—just a memory?

How do we get to the best answer to the question of who we are? We can start with the questions Jesus asks his disciples. First, he wants to know who the crowds say that he is. They answer. Then, he turns to his friends and students and asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers for the disciples. Note that Jesus first asks about the crowds, then he directly questions his friends. What do the disciples know about Jesus that the crowds do not? This is exactly what Jesus wants them to recognize and confess. They know who he is, and those in the crowds do not. Knowing who Jesus truly is means knowing what his purpose is, what he is here to be and do. The crowds think that Jesus is a just another prophet, like Elijah or John the Baptist. So, at most, those in the crowds will see a miracle or two; maybe two or three of them will be healed. But b/c the disciples know and confess Jesus' identity as the Christ of God, they belong to Christ; they are Abraham’s descendants; and “heirs according to the promise.” The best way to answer the question of who we are is to correctly answer the question: who do you say that Jesus is? Who you say Jesus is is who you are.

And if you say that Jesus is the Christ, then you will deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him. If you will save your life for heaven, you will lose your life for Christ on earth. But if you seek to spare yourself suffering, trial, and persecution by denying Christ while you're alive, you'll just end up losing your eternal life. The reason for this is simple: you belong to Christ. We all belong to Christ. And belonging to Christ has consequences. As heirs to the promise, we have our own promises to keep. To seek holiness through self-sacrifice and self-denial. To bear witness to the mercy we've received from God. To forgive those who have sinned against us. To enthrone the Holy Spirit in the tabernacles of our hearts and surrender all of our gifts to His service. None of these promises is easy to fulfill. But they are all the more difficult to keep if we shy away from confessing that Jesus is the Christ, if we persist in following the crowds and making him into a latter-day prophet, or a social reformer, or a political revolutionary. He showed us the way to eternal life on his cross—sacrificial love. And it is sacrificial love that will nail each one of us to our own cross. . .if we will follow him; if we deny the Self and all that bloats and rots the Self in this world.

So, who do you say that Jesus is? Do you follow after a Barbie Doll Jesus, changing his designer outfits whenever the whim strikes? Do you say that he was just a religious leader that died in the first century? Some biblical scholars argue that Jesus was really an early second century literary composite of many different prophets. The gospel writers and editors invented Jesus to help the early church in its PR campaign against the Jews and Romans. Or maybe you would say that Jesus was a peace-nik vegetarian hippie prototype with serious Daddy issues? Just remember: whoever you say that Jesus is tells you who you are. And what you have promised to do with your life. And what you will be after you are gone. Our Lord isn't a Barbie Doll or a literary composite. And following him isn't always a parade. He tells the disciples what will happen to him: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the [religious leaders] and be killed and on the third day be raised.” If they follow him, they can expect the same. And so can we. Knowing this, expecting this: who do you say that Jesus is? Not just “who is Jesus to you” but who is he really, truly? If he is the Christ, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. Daily. Daily, seek to spend your life living as a child of God clothed with Christ. You belong to Christ. You are Abraham’s descendants, and you are heirs according to the promise.

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