A Synod also on Vocational Discernment

Friends: Robert Royal continues to provide some of the best coverage of the Synod on Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. Bob’s latest Synod Report, “It’s All or Nothing,” may be read by clicking here. And you can read all of Dr. Royal’s reports (on the current Synod and those of 2015 and 2014) by clicking above on Events and then choosing Synod Reports from the drop-down menu.

I bet you do not know that the official title of the current synod is “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”  Everyone calls it the “Youth Synod.”  But if logic holds sway, it might equally be called the “Vocational Discernment Synod.”

That theme makes more sense. The Vatican defines “youth” as anyone within the ages of 16 to 29.  But mere chronological age means next to nothing.  Some adolescents are already adults in character, and some adults are still adolescents.  Things have purposes, and we identify them by their purposes: from the point of view of the Church, youth is for discernment towards a vocation in adulthood.

So, say that the synod is about “discernment,” and we see immediately that a 23-year-old married man with two children and a regular plan of Christian piety would not belong there (except to give advice). But a 40-year-old professional discerning a vocation to the priesthood plausibly would.

On the other hand, to use mere chronological age is to risk picking out, not a meaningful kind, but a “tribe” which is a creature of marketing, consumer habits, and social media.

Say that the synod is about vocational discernment, and the Church has a lot to teach; say it is on “youth” – and you, me, and everyone else will be baffled. Even the 16-year-olds will be baffled as to why someone grouped them with the 29-year-olds.

Given that the grouping isn’t coherent, then – it must be conceded – you can do little more constructively than “listen” and “accompany.”

But the theme of vocational discernment is truly important – and disturbing.  It should be of highest importance to our bishops, whose task it is to teach the faith.

Perhaps the most important teaching of Vatican II was “the universal vocation to holiness.”  But (let’s be concrete) how many students in Catholic high schools or universities understand that their primary task is not to get good grades, excel at a sport, “get into a good school,” or get a job – but rather to seek holiness?  How many believe that this should be the absolute top priority for them?

It was the role of our bishops in the last fifty years to teach this to them.  If this teaching has not been imparted, why not?  This is something, it seems to me, the bishops might very profitably discuss.

In practical matters, begin with the end, and then engage in “backward engineering” to see how to get there. What we want, our goal, is for young persons in high school and college to think in this way: “My life is a gift from God. I want to render it back to Him. I am under a serious responsibility to work out in His presence how He wants me to do that.”


We want young people to think this, because it is the truth and makes for true happiness.  I have known a handful who have been like this, but we want this attitude to be the rule not the exception for Catholics. What practical steps can be taken to make it so?

Let’s backward engineer. No one adopts such a frame of mind without self-possession.  By “self-possession” I mean holding one’s life as if in trust and being capable of giving it freely to a worthy object.

However much some clerics may now want to downplay it – because they think the “culture war” has been lost – it is practically necessary for the soul-body unities that we are, that, if we are to have self-possession, we must practice holy chastity. St. Paul puts it this way, “The body is for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body.”  In the same passage he says, “I will not let myself be dominated by anything. . . .The body is not for immorality.” (1 Cor 6:12-13)

Let’s speak plainly: it is practically impossible to be shacking up with someone and have this sort of self-possession; or to be involved in the ‘hook up’ culture; or (most obviously) to be dominated by pornography.  Again, we emphasize chastity not because we think “sex is dirty,” but because we are for the Lord, and the body is for the Lord.

So, in a synod on vocational discernment, chastity would need to be a huge theme, as it is the near neighbor of the self-possession necessary to give one’s life to God in freedom.

Continuing our backward engineering, we say: self-possession and chastity are practically impossible unless one’s life is “with Christ,” in the sense that one has a true interior life marked by friendship with Christ.  Again, St. Paul is our guide: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Gal. 2:20)  But it is practically impossible to have friendship with Christ without a daily “quiet time” of prayer and Bible study.

So, again, in a synod on vocational discernment, the simple practical matter of daily prayer and spiritual reading, as a precondition of Christian discipleship, would also need to be a huge theme.

Of course, no one will give up his life if there is not something “there” to give it to.  Young people today are generally uneducated about even their own history and civilization.  But for Catholics to discern a vocation, it helps to know about the history of the Church, the saints, and the Church’s teaching.  In short, one needs to know the catechism.

Here’s an idea for our bishops:  Apply to the Church the procedures regularly used for university accreditation.  Construct an examination based on the Catechism and administer it, to see how widely it is known.  Then, devise both a plan to teach it better and tests, later on, to confirm learning.

By backward engineering, we’ve arrived at some practical steps we can take – here and now.


*Image: Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea (Jésus enseigne le peuple près de la mer) by J. J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.