Bible Alive Articles

The Gift of Discernment Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment

The Bishops of the world are getting ready for their next Synod in October 2018 when they will gather to discuss the theme: Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.

Pope Francis has a great heart for young people and recognizes that they face many challenges and hurdles in discerning God’s plan for their lives in conformity with his will.

To this end Pope Francis has written a letter, a heart to heart, person to person, one to one, affectionate letter, expressing his deep and profound desire to encourage them to hear God’s call, as Abraham received God’s call many centuries ago:

‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’. (Gen 12.1). These words are now also addressed to you. They are words of a Father who invites you to ‘go’, to set out towards a future which is unknown but one which will surely lead to fulfilment, a future towards which he himself accompanies you. I invite you to hear God’s voice resounding in your heart through the breath of the Holy Spirit. (Pope Francis).

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales have published the booklet ‘Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment’ in the hope that many young people in England and Wales will read it with intense interest and soak up the challenges and vision it presents.The essence of the booklet is to encourage young people to make decisions for their future in the light of the call of Jesus, who wants only what is best for them, but of course, what is best is not always what is most comfortable!

Pope Francis has suggested that the demographic of what it means to be a young person is between the ages of 16 and 29. If we don’t fall into this category we may feel that the Synod and its theme hasn’t much to say to us but this would be a mistake. Pope Francis is encouraging the whole Church to pay attention, reflect on and pray about what God is doing in the lives of young people today. This is because all of us, young and old alike, are called to respond to the grace of baptism and live the Christian life, a life in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are all called to put into the practice the gift and charism of discernment.

In this sense, understanding young people and the challenges they face helps us to grapple with, wrestle with and pray about how each of us, regardless of our age, or state in life, or job, occupation or profession, discerns God’s will. Discernment, then, is a gift, a gift from the Holy Spirit.

The Bible actually has a lot to say about discernment. The first thing to say, however, is that the scriptures recognize that discernment is not easy, it isn’t a ‘piece of cake’ or like ‘falling off a log.’ As the Psalmist prays: ‘Who can discern their own errors?’ (Psalm 19:12). The prophet Jeremiah, with piercing prophetic insight, wrote: ‘The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). One of the reasons for this challenge and difficulty is what is in the heart. Jesus’ teaching on the human heart can be hard to hear for, as much as the human heart can produce many good and wonderful things, the heart can also produce evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander (Matthew 15:19).

We need God’s gift of discernment to figure out what is going on inside of hearts. The grace of discernment is a blessing, an anointing, if you like, poured out upon us from above. But perhaps the key to the process of discernment is the humble confession that we actually find discernment challenging. How do we know what God wants for us? Does God want me to remain single, get married or enter the religious life? What job, occupation or profession does God want me to do? Or how to discern the best way forward in the midst of the problems life throws at us. There is a wisdom, a grace of humility and revelation required, whereby we confess and admit that we struggle to discern God’s plan and will, not only for our lives, but in many of the daily decisions and choices. This was the experience of the prophet Hosea who lamented: ‘Who is wise? Let them realize these things. Who is discerning? Let them understand. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9).

How do we get wisdom as the ancient sages used to plead? Well, we must devote and dedicate ourselves to finding wisdom. ‘Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding.’ (Proverbs 4;7). The quest or adventure to acquire wisdom is nothing less than the call to holiness, the invitation of the grace of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. St Paul expressed it like this: ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ (Romans 12:2).

We get wisdom by asking God for this most precious of gifts (James 4:4). Consider the insight of St Paul: ‘And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God’ (Philippians 1:9-11).

The gift of discernment, then, involves a two-way process. As St Augustine said: ‘God created us without us but doesn’t save us without us.’ As our love for God grows in knowledge and depth of insight (our part) we receive the tools (God’s grace) so that we can better discern God’s plan and will for our lives. St Ignatius of Loyola is a great example of someone for whom the gift and grace of discernment was an essential aspect of his charism and legacy. He encouraged his retreatants to examine not just their conscience but also the deep, mysterious and often confusing interior movements of the heart as they pondered the scriptures. He encouraged frequent self-questioning: What is God saying to me through this text of scripture? What is its meaning for my life? What do you want for my life, Lord?

This much we know. God definitely has a plan for all our lives. (‘For I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ (Jeremiah 29:11). For young people, part of God’s plan is, of course, the momentous and important process of discerning their state in life, be that as a single person, or to married life or in testing their vocation to the priesthood or religious life. It also involves discerning what profession, occupation or job they are called to. These are huge decisions and require prayer, research, patience, sound advice. Young people need freedom to make their own decision, supported and encouraged by their families but also their parish and the wider Church. However, God’s plan for our lives doesn’t stop there. God’s plan for all of us is the daily adventure and on-going invitation to a deeper conversion and seeing every day as a new opportunity to be a witness of God’s life, joy and love.