Dating While Discerning

My priest told me to go for it; my spiritual director said I was ready; I had always been told it was a perfect fit for me. But I was afraid to try it.

If you are wondering whether I mean dating or priesthood, the answer is: yes. I was painfully shy and always fighting feelings of inadequacy, and was so afraid to try either one, to step outside my comfort zone. But they were right: I was at a point where sitting around and hoping to be enlightened as to God’s call for me wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Waiting to be told is not exactly “active discernment,” and I had to face the fact that by not truly engaging, I was implicitly refusing to listen to God. I was effectively shutting Him out. And it was time to open myself to His will, and become the man He was calling me to be. But what on earth did that mean?

I didn’t feel that God was calling me to enter seminary. While I had felt a pull in that general direction for most of my life, to varying degrees, it just didn’t seem quite right at that time. I had even had dinner with my Archbishop, along with other prospective seminarians, but I wasn’t exactly about to submit my application. A matter of weeks later, I was in a relationship with the woman who is now my fiancée.

When my fiancée and I had first met and were getting to know each other, one of the first things I told her was an anecdote about that dinner. From the very beginnings of our relationship, she was well aware of the fact that I was still uncertain where God was calling me, and that the priesthood was still very much a path I was considering. But still, I found myself wondering: should I be doing this? Is it right to date while discerning a possible call to the priesthood?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in my discernment process was “Just give it a try.” When I had reached a certain point in my discernment, a priest friend of mine who is just a few years older and whom I have known my entire life, said to me “I think you should just apply to the seminary. If you get in, I think you should go. Try it out. What harm could that do?” What harm, indeed? Entering the seminary, while certainly a huge step not to be undertaken lightly, is not a lifelong commitment. In fact, seminary formation itself is designed as an extended, focused discernment process in addition to formation.

A priest I know who is the vocations director for his religious order once said to me, “My job is not to convince as many men as possible to become priests—it’s to help men discern their vocation, whatever that is.” I know several men – including my brother – who spent several years in seminary, only to discern that they were not called to the priesthood, but rather to marriage. It is quite possible that God was calling them to be in seminary for that time for any number of reasons: to more clearly discern His path for them, to give them that period of spiritual formation in preparation for the life that lies before them, to give them the theological and pastoral training that they will need as husbands, fathers, and perhaps lay ministers in the future. The important thing is: they were actively discerning, and giving it a shot.

Nothing is accomplished by sitting and fretting. Certainly it is an admirable thing to take your vocation so seriously, and to recognize that a commitment to marriage is a lifelong one, as is a commitment to the priesthood or religious life. But if we simply pine for a booming voice from the sky, yearn for God to inspire just one more author (preferably our local skywriter or billboard artist), this time with the valuable information of what God is calling us to do, or mope about the fact that we are having trouble figuring out just what it is that we are meant to spend our lives doing and being, then we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to God. Such an attitude betrays a lack of trust in God, and a lack of trust in our relationship with Him.

God speaks to us through the events in our lives. And God is not bound by our choices – He can communicate His will to us no matter the situation we put ourselves in. But we must always be listening. Dating while discerning, discerning while dating, it doesn’t matter. If we are honestly listening for God’s call and seeking His path for us, God will enlighten us.

We are all discerning, always. God seldom speaks to us in a booming voice from the heavens – we must always be seeking the right path, doing our best to follow whatever signposts God may place along our way. Discernment is not only for someone considering religious life – whatever our potential vocational path, be it marriage, priesthood, religious life, or devoted single life, the decision must be made with God. Discernment, like all prayer, is a conversation with the Lord. God may not change every billboard in our town to say “BE A PRIEST,” but he will certainly answer us if we ask Him.

Discernment must not only be an active endeavor, but we must also recognize the mutuality inherent in it. Just as a couple in a relationship is discerning together whether or not they are called to the vocation of marriage, an individual who has entered a religious community as a candidate or novice or entered seminary is now in a period of mutual discernment with that community and the superiors thereof. In other words: you may reach a point in your discernment where the next step to take is indeed to “give it a shot”, whether that be in the context of a relationship or religious studies.

I would like to highlight several important points here in closing, as well as provide some cautions.

– We are not called to “decide whether we want to get married or enter religious life.” First of all, these are not the only two options; second, and more importantly, we are called to discern God’s call for us, not simply “pick a career”. We can certainly pray that the Holy Spirit will enlighten us and lead us to desire what God desires for us. But it is more than simply choosing what we want.

– One of the most important things to remember if you are going to date while discerning is this: the fact that you are discerning must be out in the open from day one. You do a disservice to yourself and your partner if this is not made clear from the get-go.

– Do not date simply to avoid becoming a priest. I cannot stress enough the importance of this. The priesthood is scary; no one is worthy for the priesthood of Jesus Christ, so it is only natural to feel hesitation and avoid it if you are feeling that call. But it does nobody any good to do so. If you are dating, you are discerning a possible call to marriage, and if you are dating under false pretenses you are only hurting your significant other and yourself.

– You must always keep in mind that the two are happening simultaneously: you are dating while discerning, but you are also discerning while dating. If you find yourself continuously giving precedence to one over the other, that may in fact be a sign of what you are leaning towards for your ultimate vocation. If you spend the entirety of the relationship thinking of and describing yourself as someone who is discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood but has a girlfriend right now, you should probably reexamine your level of dedication to the relationship.

– In that same vein, it is also very important that you date someone who understands your situation. You will find yourself caught in an awkward situation indeed if your significant other sees no value in the Catholic priesthood. Rather, they should be honored to help you in discerning what God is calling you to (as should you for them).

-And lastly, discern actively. This is not a “Don’t just do something, sit there” situation. God is calling you. He is calling me. It takes a conversation with Him to discover what that calling is, and a conversation by definition cannot be one-sided. We must engage with God.

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Paul Senz is a native of Verboort, Oregon, and a graduate of the University of Portland, where he is currently working towards a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry.

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