Vocations and the 2018 synod

When the pot is boiling, turn down the heat. You can’t be sure, but that could well have been part of the reasoning behind Pope Francis’ decision to choose as topic of the next world Synod of Bishops “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment.”

For months, speculation out of Rome had focused on the possibility that the pope would tell the 2018 synod to debate ordaining married men as priests in countries with an acute clergy shortage. Francis himself was said to be interested in that.

If so, it’s not unreasonable to think that topic may have been set aside in view of the surprisingly contentious synods on marriage in 2014 and 2015 as well as the ongoing debate on how to understand Pope Francis’s followup document, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”). That’s enough excitement for now, someone might reason.

However that may be, the theme chosen — youth, faith and discernment — should not be dismissed as an option in favor of blandness. When 250 or so prominent bishops from around the world gather at the Vatican two years from now, they’ll have an opportunity to make a much-needed course correction in thinking about vocations.

The key to it is “vocational discernment.” As matters stand, there are two common ways of understanding vocational discernment — and neither is quite right.

One is to suppose that the big decisions young people face are only about things like choosing a college major and prepping for a career, and that the relevant question is: How can I make the most money and have a comfortable life? Much bigger issues are at stake, and a question of far greater importance comes first: What does God want?

The other mistake is to think vocational discernment is mostly or exclusively for people who think that God may be calling them to the priesthood or religious life. Discernment certainly is essential for this group. But not only for them.

In fact, discernment is necessary for everybody, including those called to be lay Christians in the world. “Every life is a vocation,” Pope Paul VI once said. Pope St. John Paul II couldn’t have been clearer in his 1989 document on the laity: “The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it so as to fulfill one’s mission … . This personal vocation and mission defines the dignity and responsibility of each member of the lay faithful and makes up the focal point of the whole work of formation” (Christifideles Laici, 58).

Vocational discernment is a lifelong task — we have to examine our life situations constantly to see what God asks of us here and now. But, as the synod theme suggests, it’s especially important in the formative years when young people are weighing large choices that will shape the rest of their lives.

Good programs to help them exist some places, but elsewhere the old, narrow thinking about vocations prevails. The Synod of Bishops could help change that. In doing that, it would be helping to remedy the shortage of priests and religious. As more people practice vocational discernment, more will hear God’s call to be priests and religious — as well as committed lay Catholics.

A canny friend of mine frets that ordaining married men as priests could slip into the synod debate under the rubric of vocational discernment. Here’s hoping it doesn’t. The vocational questions I’m talking about are important enough to merit discussion in their own right.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.