As the end of August approaches each year, there will be much media interest in the numbers who have been accepted to diocesan seminaries and religious orders in Ireland. Will it be a good or bad year? If it is a year when the numbers of new entrants are low, there will be the same tired analysis of the Irish church in crisis. If the numbers are better than expected, then the media will want to understand why people would offer themselves as candidates for priesthood and religious life at such a time. For vocations personnel, it's a no win situation.
Whether the numbers game is positive or negative, it will rightly get those concerned with vocations in Ireland to think once again about discernment. Vocation discernment is often the poor relation when it comes to candidates and enquirers. There remains a distinct lack of authentic discernment programmes or methodologies for men and women who feel called to follow the Lord. I regularly hear of prospective candidates being pushed toward the path of spiritual direction when they present themselves as interested in seminary or religious life. Spiritual direction is good and can be necessary but it is not a substitute for the discernment of a potential vocation.
Part of the difficulty lies in the fact there is a lack of clarity about who should discern in the first instance. While determining whether a candidate has the desired aptitudes or not is a necessary element in the discernment process - the preparation of a candidate for religious life or seminary has to be the first concern of a vocations director. All too often our way of doing things can be ambiguous. On the one hand, we hope that the candidate will discover his or her vocation; as a matter of fact, though, more often than not, we seek protective measures against candidates who may spell 'trouble'. We want to avoid failure and we seek security in the event of someone departing. Seminaries and religious orders take departures quite badly as though they spell failure, despite our reassuring utterances that formation is a time for discernment, for trying things out. We often don't try hard enough to ascertain what has happened.
The first person responsible for discernment is the candidate. Signs are no guarantee of his or her success. Discovering that a person has a vocation is not tantamount to saying that he or she will see it through successfully. Recognising certain signs allows and invites the candidate to align their human and spiritual tendencies. In as much as the aspirant/candidate is the principal player in the discernment process, he or she has to find their proper place. While there are many modes of vocational discernment - in the end it boils down to the quality of the pastoral accompaniment provided by vocation directors. Vocations personnel need to keep in mind always that the call of God is to some one. The invitation to think it over has to be extended, without trying to decide for the individual, without trying to protect the institution from 'doubtful' candidates, or what can be worse, without seeking to attract only the best or perfect candidates. If God is calling, it is with the assistance of the Holy Spirit that everyone must work.