Discerning the Priesthood Pt. 1

Can I imagine this?

As promised, I wanted to explain my journey of discernment related to the priesthood and to let everyone know where I stand now. When I started to discern religious life, there were two questions I had to answer: 1) Am I called to be a Franciscan? and 2) Am I called to be a priest? (Without wasting a lot of time in the technical side, I do want to make it clear that not all Franciscans are priests, and that all Franciscans are supposed to be viewed as equal brothers whether they are ordained or not.) Clearly, I have answered question number one with a loud and clear yes; when it comes to question number two, there are still some big questions I have that leave me hesitant and still searching for an answer.

Though it would seem like an oversimplification of the matter, an interesting question that I have been advised to ponder is this: “Do you like doing things that priests do?” The only way that this question can be answered is by imagining oneself in that position, and wondering how it would feel. Every time I’m at mass, confession, or any of the other sacraments, I ask myself that question: “Can I imagine myself doing that, and would I like it?”

In a typical on-the-fence response, I have to say that I would and I wouldn’t. I love the eucharist and find it to be the most beautiful Christian experience possible, but I’m not sure if I want to be the one doing it. I have no problem speaking in front of people, and I have enjoyed my roles as altar server and such, but there is a big difference between setting the table and actually breaking the bread.

Confession on the other hand is something that I would find great joy in as a priest. I’ve often found myself in many counseling or mediating roles over the years, and cherish deeply the conversations I’ve had with those willing to open up and trust me in such a way. I can think of few greater things than aiding someone in their journey from separation to communion, and find it to be a wonderful privilege of being a stand-in for Christ.

The great thing about the friars is that I don’t have to choose between being a priest and other things such as a professor or administrator of parish education (two professions that I am very interested in pursuing). As long as a priest does priestly things, i.e. the sacraments, he can take on other roles and professions. Though this is a great freedom as to allow greater versatility, there is a danger in this freedom, and requires this question: “Do I want to take on all the responsibilities and obligations of a priest to keep up the life of the Church, no matter what is required of my other professions, or do I want to be a priest because of the added authority and status within the Church, only to use it whenever it is convenient?”

The reason that this is post is labeled “Pt. 1” is because there is another factor in this discernment process: What God is calling me to do? What I want to do is all well and good, but ultimately, the discernment process is not about what I want (though I would hope God would motivate me with joy as well, not just obligation). Check back in a few days for Pt. 2 where I’ll share a few of my experiences determining the will of God.

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The Formation Process

How easy is it for God to form us?

In order to become a Franciscan friar (or any religious), I must follow a process called formation. Formation, as the word implies, is about orienting oneself to God in a special way, allowing for changes and transformations to take place. This process lasts around six years, and though there are required steps that one must complete to move forward, the emphasis on forming a person is most important. It is not uncommon, then, for friars to repeat certain steps or to take a bit longer than others.  Such instances are not punishments or failures of faith; they are simply examples of how God works in each of us differently, and that there is not a one-size-fits-all “perfect” way to grow in faith.

Though each province has the freedom to determine the specifics of each step, there are 3 main sections of the formation process that all must complete, with an additional step for those wishing to be ordained as priests (look for a post on that topic shortly):

Pre-Novitiate, or Postulancy: This step is best described as a “Come and See” year, with emphasis on exposing first-year members to the life of the Franciscans. In a lot of ways it’s an orientation for a new job and in other ways it’s like a year long interview.  By taking on the life of the friars (without the formal commitment) the main goal of a postulant is to take in the experience of eating, working and praying in community, the knowledge gained from Franciscan spirituality classes, and the relationships built while traveling across the province, and decide if this is what God is calling us to do. If it is, and the formation leaders agree, then its on to the Novitiate.

Novitiate: It is as this point that the habit is received and members are considered brothers (and able to put o.f.m. after their name!) This year closely resembles a monastery, in which novices spend the majority of their time in or around the house in prayer, contemplation, community or work. To be honest, I know very little about this step, only that it is where a lot of the “forming” takes place.

Post-Novitiate: This step is where friars gain formal education to be able to articulate the nuances of our faith and prepare us for ministry positions. For many, this will be the completion of a Masters of Divinity (M.Div.), but it depends on the career in mind. During the summers, friars are assigned an internship site to gain more practical experience in ministry. It is also during this time that friars are “simply professed,” meaning that each make a one-year commitment to the three vows, renewed each year until the solemn profession, or life-long vows.

Diaconate: After graduation and solemn profession, those wishing to be ordained as priests spend a year as a deacon, giving homilies, presiding over weddings and funerals, and fine-tuning their pastoral skills. It’s important to note that ordination comes after solemn profession. In this way, all are considered brothers first and foremost, equal with one another. If some choose to seek ordination after that, it does not separate or elevate them above the rest in the order, it is merely a form of work like professor, doctor, or lawyer.

At this point, all I really know is the checklist. Postulancy, Novitiate, Seminary, Profession. But as I mentioned with the word “formation,” this process is not a checklist. It doesn’t account for the love, hardship, spiritual struggles, friendships, headaches, tears, and failures that I will inevitably face and, depending on how I respond to each, form me into a new person. It is a long road ahead, and I am very excited for what I do not know yet.

So… What am I doing, and WHY am I doing it?

Is this what you're picturing?

For a lot of you, I’m sure you’re wondering what the heck I’m doing with my life. You’ve heard that I’m joining the Franciscans, you’ve seen Robin Hood and so are familiar with Friar Tuck, and you’re trying to picture me in a medieval world. For those who understand what it means to be a friar in the modern world, you’re are probably wondering WHY I would want to live a life of austerity. Let me explain.

First of all, there are many different types of friars: Augustinians, Carmelites, Dominicans, and of course, Franciscans. A friar is simply a brother, or a member of one of these religious orders. A Franciscan friar follows the life and rule of St. Francis of Assisi: this means accepting a life of simplicity, brotherhood, others-centeredness, prayer, and love of creation. Formally called the Order of Friars Minor (o.f.m.), the Franciscans strive to be “lesser brothers,” people in solidarity with the poorest and weakest, working in the world by taking on the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (or as it is sometimes referred to as “no money, no honey, and do what you’re told.”)

The friars are a very diverse bunch. Before entering the order, members of my province held jobs as DJ’s, photographers, translators, interior designers, corporate managers, and scholars; since entering, friars hold positions as priests, spiritual directors, retreat coordinators, professors, social workers, missionaries (while still DJ-ing, photographing, translating, designing, managing, and learning).  Franciscans are found working in and throughout world wherever there are people in need, often times in highly populated areas. Because of this, I find them to be more in touch with the world than any other religious or secular group.

So why is it that I found a need to wear a brown dress, live with a bunch of men, and earn less than minimum wage for the rest of my life? To put it simply, it was the best way that I found that I could follow God and do his work. The three vows, though it would seem like a limit to my freedom, actually make me more free: I don’t have to focus on a getting ahead in my career, caring for a family, or worrying about where I’ll go next. There is a freedom in letting go of some individualism, and focusing solely on how I can serve. What separated the Franciscans from other religious communities was St. Francis’ emphasis on brotherhood, love of creation, and radical poverty (even greater emphasis than other religious groups), and obviously the fact that St. Francis is by far the greatest saint ever. What put me over the edge was seeing and meeting the friars in action. It was one thing to like the ideals of an 800 year old saint, and another thing to like the individuals upholding them; in this case, I could definitely see this group of men as brothers.

To read more, I wrote an article for the Franciscan vocations newsletter last year explaining my discernment journey that can be found here.

Welcome!

I must say that I never envisioned myself as the author of a blog. Had another friend not already self-proclaimed herself the “reluctant blogger” I would be all over that tagline. But as I realized, it is quite an effective way to keep myself accountably while keeping many people involved in my life. I hope that you’ll check out my “Why Blog?” page to learn a bit more about it! Check back soon, or subscribe to get updates (found on the side of the screen) so that you can follow me from the beginning!