This is the season in which it’s dangerous to ask graduating college seniors about what they’re doing next year. A few weekends ago, I was back at Loyola University Maryland, and as I saw students I’d taught who were getting ready to take their last finals and then walk across the stage at commencement in a few weeks, I tried to make the instant assessment: do they look peaceful? Do they know what they’re doing next year? Can I ask, or will that freak them out? Recent reports like this aren’t making things much better.
Listening to NPR last weekend, I discovered that in what I saw as a challenge, some Spanish bishops (and their marketing agency) found an opportunity. They began using the Spanish economic woes (much worse than in the U.S. currently) as a spur to get the young to consider a vocation, with a YouTube video that starts off “I don’t promise you a big salary. I promise you a permanent job” … as a priest, for those who didn’t click through to the video yet. That’s a little odd, I thought to myself.
There are closer-to-home examples of this kind of effort too: New York’s vocation website, NYPRIEST.com, declares “the world needs heroes,” and a trailer video made in 2007 mixes clips of more normal priestly ministry with military chaplains and the funeral of a fallen firefighter, using the images of heroism available to New Yorkers after 9/11. It’s a truism that, like everything else in the life of faith, vocational discernment is shaped by the surrounding culture, or by contrast to it, which may be why these priesthood videos catch our attention so readily. Readily, and perhaps too easily; after all, every serious Christian vocation, lay or ordained, celibate or married, contrasts with the surrounding culture — priesthood has no monopoly on that. But more important than the answer they hope for is the question they raise: how is God speaking in the gap between worldly success and the deeper desires of my heart?
An old series of Jesuit vocation posters once declared “sometimes our hearts desire more than a job.” (Shameless plug alert: we’ve upgraded to YouTube videos these days; check out this great series from the guys at Bellarmine House.) When I was discerning, I was once praying about the difference between the time I spent writing code at work as a programmer and the time I spent volunteering in ministry at my parish, and the words God offered back were: “You know, this doesn’t have to be a part-time job.” A few weeks later, I was talking to the vocation director.
Of course, discernment involves a lot more than choosing between job and vocation — or between unemployment and vocation, apparently, in Spain — but it always starts somewhere concrete, with a real question that feels addressed right to you. Sr. Anne Elizabeth Fiore, of the Georgetown Visitation Monastery, illustrates that point beautifully with her story of trying to run out of morning prayer with the sisters before they could catch her to ask her the question she was already asking herself.
God, after all, will take any opening we give him, and may be at work even in the worries about what job lies ahead. Maybe God is beginning the good work that he will one day bring to fulfillment. And God, unlike me, knows exactly the right time to ask a graduating senior, “So, do you know what you’re doing next?”