Confessing Our Way to Vocational Discernment

By Mattias A. Caro
May 22, 2018

Pope Francis does not follow through at the end of his latest apostolic exhortation to connect a link between the sacraments and discerning the Lord's will.

Throughout Gaudete et exsultate Francis continually turns our gaze to a path of holiness that is outward facing, toward a concrete encounter with the other.  We recognize the face of Christ in the poverty around us. Yet, in his closing paragraphs, Francis turns introspective, discussing the topic of discernment. 

I would have expected, given the hundred or so paragraphs of set up, that Francis would have encouraged discernment of our vocation in terms of recognizing a call that each of us has to respond to visible needs we see in the world, and in particular our neighbors in need. And yet, discernment does not face the world in the same way: 
We should always remember that discernment is a grace. Even though it includes reason and prudence, it goes beyond them, for it seeks a glimpse of that unique and mysterious plan that God has for each of us, which takes shape amid so many varied situations and limitations. It involves more than my temporal well-being, my satisfaction at having accomplished something useful, or even my desire for peace of mind. It has to do with the meaning of my life before the Father who knows and loves me, with the real purpose of my life, which nobody knows better than he. (Gaudete et exsultate, 171)
Discernment must involve a discovery of my relationship to God the Father, a relationship that, despite Francis' continual focus on charitable works, is not mediated by my actions towards others. It's a relationship reliant upon grace, obtained through prayer, and ultimately through a casting aside of the things that hinder me from responding to God with the totality of my life.

Although he doesn't say it in this document—and in my estimation, that is a failure—Francis is clearly pointing to the sacramental linchpin of discernment: Confession.

Even he admits it himself. Earlier this year, the Holy Father encouraged confessors to work with young people in confession to help them discern their vocations. "Discerning a vocation," he said, "means helping young people read the signs that God has placed in each of their lives, through prayer, through their gifts and personal inclinations and through encounters with people they have met."

While this seems to make sense, I've never really "felt the love" from my confessor. Perhaps the fault is my own. I usually choose my parish priest who hears hundreds of confessions a week and isn't specially trained in spiritual direction. Maybe I'm just too mundane a sinner. (One priest actually fell asleep during my confession. He was probably tired, but just as well I assumed my mediocrity now had empirical confirmation.)

In any case, Francis is right that confession really is essential to discerning and living our vocations. This means continually turning in prayer back to the Father, asking "What is my mission?" and "Why have you placed me here and now?" If we are further down the path of discernment, the question becomes a bit more stoic: "How am I to persevere today?"

An examination of conscious (done daily and nightly, even if hurriedly) will probably reveal how we've fallen short in our daily commitments before God in work, family, and community. When I tiredly reflect back on my day, I remember the times I lost patience with my children; or how I was sloppy in my work; or when I didn't stop to help someone out because I found myself too busy. The point is a diligent examination of conscience probably revolves, more or less, around the commitments of our vocation.

Thus when we confess our sins, as ordinary lay faithful living in the world, we are taking the sins against God and admitting, "in this time and place where you have put me and the tasks you have given me, I have fallen short." If our resolve to avoid these sins means anything, then it substantively means a deeper commitment to our vocation.

In a world where the millennial seek their place and woke means, I suppose, being "really aware," confession works as the sacrament that brings us back to our calling in the present moment. Although God can call saints to leave everything and travel to far off places, most of the commands of God's will, as the Holy Father emphasized, are quiet calls. Whispers are really heard only one phrase at a time.

While the Holy Father is right to encourage confessors to help young people listen, I'm not sure a typical parish priest is up to that task. The anonymity of most confessionals means advice will often be generalized. And even when the confessor recognizes the penitent, human beings are complex. Unless you really know someone, the advice you give might be too much like wearing a suit off the rack: sure it fits, but it hasn't been tailored yet. This means, ultimately, that the real work is to be done by the penitent with a careful ear to the promptings on the Holy Spirit.

Andrew Haines was right when he discussed the importance of forming a truly active conscious. But if his advice is to be more than a hortatory exercise, it must incarnate itself through and be activated by a robust devotion to the sacrament of confession. Discernment comes precisely through seeing where we need God's help and asking for it. 

In a Church that talks about a crisis in vocations and observes a society where people cannot seem to grow up, renewing a commitment to frequent confession will pay dividends. Confession starts with a humble admission of our faults and ends with a forgiveness for our sins. But to live that reconciliation, as we leave confession, we should have a renewed commitment to seeking out God's will in the here and now. Vocation is really an ordinary action discerned, typically, through every day situations and needs, where we are called to be Christ for others. 

Mattias A. Caro is the Executive Editor of Ethika Politika.