Casper — a reader of this blog — has e-mailed this question:

Fr. John if somebody is interested in becoming a priest and feels especially called to serve the Church and God through academia – eg. doing a doctorate in philosophy – becoming a Catholic philosopher and working in defending the Church’s teachings against secularism, doing apologetics or teaching philosophy at a university or seminary, then what would be the best group to join? The secular diocesan priesthood or a religious order. While I think traditionally religious orders were a good option, due to their incredible decline I feel that the most flexible and better suited for my particular calling would be the diocese. Any guidance will be awesome.

This is a good question which raises, I think, two different stages of discernment.

My plans and God’s plans

Firstly, we have to discern what we’d like to be and what we’re called to be.

For a long time, I wanted to marry and have a large family, like my father and my grandfather. And I wanted a career in politics, like St Thomas More.

I wasn’t blithe in these comparisons. I took seriously the universal call to holiness. As well as being a husband and father and politician, I wanted to be a saint. So my interior plan of life was pretty intense. Daily mass. Spiritual reading. Meditation. Frequent confession. Spiritual direction. This isn’t just the domain of priests and religious. I recommend it for all Catholics.

As I began my honours year, I was faced with a decision. Upon graduation, do I seek work in an MP’s office? Or do I embark upon postgraduate studies? I prayed about this. For months I prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

And then I meditated on our Lord’s encounter with the rich young man. This gospel is proclaimed on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, in year B. The night before, I listened to a preached meditation on the Sunday gospel. The priest made several points which I remember very well:

Our Lord invited, but did not impose. Our Lord loved the young man, but let him walk away. The young man was good and generous, but attachment held him back. He left in sorrow. A failure to respond generously to the Lord’s call produces sadness.

I didn’t want to be like that young man. So my prayer that night was an unqualified yes.

Until then, my prayer had been a question. “What is your will Lord? Advise me.” Now my prayer was an answer. “Lord, I will go wherever you send me. My answer is yes.”

The next day — Sunday 12 October 2003 — is the day I discerned my priestly vocation. I was at Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral. At some point in the Eucharistic Prayer, I pictured myself in place of the priest, standing at the altar, offering the sacrifice. The idea filled me with joy and sorrow, excitement and dread. I had never seriously entertained the idea before. It did not attract me. Now it was overwhelming. And it did not come from me.

Based on that experience, I think the first step in vocational discernment is to distinguish one’s own ideas and plans — no matter how noble and pious — from God’s ideas and plans. Hopefully they coincide! But don’t assume that. Prayerfully discern it.

Serving a charism

Now maybe Casper has done that already, and he believes that the academic priest thing is God’s plan, not his own. I can believe it. Apparently, Fulton Sheen was still in the seminary when he discerned God’s plan for him to be a bishop! (Happily, I’ve never been burdened with that one.)

I’m no expert, because I never went through any discernment vis a vis religious life. But I imagine the Jesuits and Dominicans are two obvious choices, which merit investigation. By that I mean speaking to SJ and OP seminarians, contacting vocations directors, and going on their retreats and other means of formation. Perhaps readers can recommend additional orders and congregations.

A diocesan priest does not have the license to insist on a particular assignment. Speaking personally, I’m attached to the idea of being a parish priest in a country parish. My own Ars! I like my chances, but I don’t presume it. My task is to serve and obey my bishop, and my own preferences are always subordinate to that. So if you were to sign up to the diocesan priesthood Caspar, you would have to renounce your aspirations to the academic life.

Now that’s not to say you would be denied an academic assignment. I often wonder what would have happened to the rich young man, if he had renounced his property and followed the Lord. It may be his wealth and privilege were restored to him. We’ll never know. All we do know is that his failure to respond generously produced sadness.

God forbid any of us follow the same path.