Supporting vocations in a time of uncertainty

Wednesday, November 21, 2018 - Updated: 11:20 am

By Father Michael Ackerman and Dr. Anthony Isacco

Discerning a vocation has never been a precise science or an easy task. Often discernment brings with it doubt, fear, anxiety, worry and apprehension about what such a commitment will entail. In light of the recent sexual abuse crisis in the church, perhaps many young men and women discerning a vocation to serve the church have a new element to add to the mix: shame.

St. John Paul II, in “Love and Responsibility,” referred to shame as “a natural reflection of the essential nature of the person.” We all are created essentially as God’s beloved sons and daughters, and because of that bear infinite dignity. Whereas guilt motivates an individual to live up to their infinite dignity, shame causes an individual to wish that he or she was not that person at all.

For example, we have talked to many young men about the priesthood. A common phrase we hear from men is “I do not want to be a priest.” Such a statement may reflect a rejection of their identity and dignity that was given to them by God. In other words, they wish that they were not the person that God has called them to be.

Why would someone reject their God-given vocation? One answer to that question is that their dignity and trust has been violated, which does immeasurable harm and fosters shame. Shame for the church as an institution, shame for its priests and those who failed to live like Christ, and shame to affirm a vocational call.

The men we have talked to can be very honest. They have told us straight-up that they don’t want to be confused for a pedophile or considered weird by friends and family. Some have acknowledged that their parents and friends have adamantly swayed them away from a religious vocation.

What can be done to help those discerning and those family members and friends trying to support someone actively listening to God’s call? We offer three potential aids: reflection, accompaniment and prayer.

Reflection: By reflecting on the course of salvation history, God has continually called men and women in difficult and shameful circumstances to follow him. Moses protested that he was a poor speaker with an impediment (Exodus 4:10); Amos prophesied during a time of great corruption and immoral behavior (Amos 2:7); Mary was asked to be the Mother of God, although she was a young, unwed woman (Luke 1:34); and Paul addressed the Corinthians about infidelity and scandalous actions (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

By re-examining salvation history, it is evident that God has often worked to purify and bring about reconciliation through shameful situations with the aid of good, holy and courageous servants who are willing to say yes to him, and this continues today. Now more than ever, we need good men and women to become great servant-leaders in the church. This is not the time to hide strengths, but to bring those strengths to the church.

Accompaniment: Dr. Greg Popcak, a popular Catholic counselor, wrote in an article in the November 2018 issue of Priest Magazine. He defined accompaniment as being present and empathetic toward the other in need. A recent study of newly ordained priests found that those who were supported by one person were twice as likely to become ordained and those who received support from three people were five times as likely to become ordained. Supportive accompaniment is important to overcome self-doubt, social pressures and shame.

Popcak offered a few options for action. Jesus accompanied the disciples on the way to Emmaus in spite of their great shame at the scandal of the cross (Luke 24:13-35). He did not “solve” their problems or interject his own values, ideas or motives. Instead, he walked with them, allowing them time to grieve, heal and receive the love God had for them. We must accompany and support each other in the messiness of discernment.

Prayer: Finally, the value of conversation with God through prayer cannot be underestimated, and neither can the value of intercessory prayer. If someone is struggling with accepting a vocation or dealing with shame, take time to pray for them and with them.

Shame can cause individuals to view God as punishing, controlling, unloving. In other words, shame distorts our relationship with God. Prayer helps to transform that incorrect view of God and removes the experience of rejection that is at the heart of shame.

We can learn from the crippled man in Scripture who felt rejected. Peter and John in Acts of the Apostles pray on behalf of a crippled man to be healed physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. We, too, must adopt this same attitude to help those attempting to know God’s will in their lives and have faith in God’s calling, even during times of challenging uncertainty. There is no better antidote to shame than God’s grace.


Father Ackerman is diocesan director of vocations, and Isacco is a licensed psychologist, associate professor in the graduate psychology programs at Chatham University, and co-author of the recently published book “All In: Breaking Barriers to Discerning the Priesthood” (Lambing Press), which is available at www.ascentcatholicmedia.com.

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