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Facilitating Vocational Discernment at Sacred Heart

Helping Men Discern a Call to the Priesthood and Celibacy

by Msgr. Daniel Trapp

Discerning a call. At St. Augustine/St. Monica church on Detroit’s East Side, a beautiful painting on the triumphal arch shows Jesus calling people from every state of life to holiness. After World War II, the pastor of the then St. Catherine of Siena Parish brought two Italian artists to reproduce, in paint, the fourth century mosaics of St. Paul-outside-the-walls.   Monsignor Vismara designed this interpretation of the vision from the Book of Revelation 4:4 to show Christ surrounded by the saints, as in Rome. But, instead of showing the twenty-four elders surrounding Christ, Monsignor Vismara directed that the artists paint male and female saints of every state of life, demonstrating, through liturgical art, the universal call to holiness.

The first call that students at Sacred Heart must discern (that is, see through) is the call to follow Jesus, the call to holiness. That discernment, for seminarians and lay students, takes place in the years preceding applying to the seminary. If a student did not hear that call, if the student were only racking up credits, chances are he or she would take their classes, but look and not see, listen and not hear.

While we rightly distinguish academic from human and spiritual formation, all seminary formation is faith formation directed to living out the holiness and righteousness which exceed that of the Pharisees (Mt 5:20). That call to holiness and righteous living, when heard and lived out, leads to a second call which is the state of life to which we are called.  

Discernment for seminarians

We are very blessed at Sacred Heart to have hundreds of lay students who discern and live out their call to holiness as they study at the seminary. As graduate spiritual director for seminarians, I know best the vocational discernment process for seminarians, and will describe that.

Discerning the call according to the Law of the Gift

Pope John Paul II coined the term “the law of the gift” to describe the law within us to make ourselves gifts for others. This law is rooted in our creation according to the Book of Genesis. In the first chapters of Genesis, we have the capacity and duty to leave “the aloneness that is not good (Gn 2:18),” and we have the capacity and duty to be life-giving, to make the earth fruitful and productive (Gn 1:28).  

No matter what state of life we live in, whether we are called to be married, single or celibate, God has created us each to move out of the aloneness that is not good, to find intimacy with others, and to be life-giving. As members of the Body of Christ, grace assists us to both live out this capacity and to fulfill our duty.  There is an aloneness which is good (intimacy with God) to which all people are called and there is a fruitfulness, a generativity to which we are called as well.  

For married people, the law of the gift is expressed most fully when their love becomes alive in new children of God, but the law (capacity and duty) is expressed in other dimensions of their lives as well.  

Many people live a good part of their lives as single people who, at least for a time, discern that there is no one whom they can honestly have and hold, in good times and in bad, in marriage. They also discern that despite the often-insistent suggestions of other Church members, they cannot honestly say that they perceive a call to ecclesial celibacy. So, in radical honesty and trust, apart from the security of vows, people called to live as single people in the Church live out their duty and capacity to love.

For those called to ecclesial celibacy, discernment involves being attentive to the Law of the Gift. One must cooperate with grace to move out of the aloneness which is not good into intimacy with the Lord and others. Similarly, those called to celibacy have to cooperate with grace in order to find their capacity to be life-giving, in order to fulfill their duty to live generously and confidently.  

Men who apply to the seminary have begun their discernment and must show some signs of capacity and desire for a sacrificial life as ecclesial celibates. Priesthood candidates at Sacred Heart are from the Latin Church and from the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas, both of which call their priests from those called to celibacy.

Discerning the call to priesthood in those called to celibacy

Pope St. Paul VI summarized the experience/discipline of the priesthood in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (SC) that priests in the Latin Church, and in some Eastern Churches, are called from those men who have the prior call to celibacy. The call to priesthood is often experienced first by the individual, but the Church’s discernment sees a prior call in celibacy. Why celibacy?  Because those called to celibacy are called to live in the state of life—the path of loving—which Jesus himself chose and lived. This motive for priestly celibacy is the first of the motives mentioned by Pope St. Paul VI in his encyclical and is often referred to by the popes and bishops throughout Tradition.

Married priests bring their own wonderful gifts to the priesthood in many Eastern Churches and in the Latin communities in which former non-Catholic married ministers have been ordained as Catholic priests. Several years ago, we were blessed at Sacred Heart with a married seminarian who has since served with great generosity and fruitfulness as a married priest.  Still, the choice of the popes and bishops of the Catholic Church has been that most of her priests live the state of life that Jesus lived.

Pope St. Paul wrote that once a man enters the seminary, the formators must carefully discern that he has sufficient “physical, psychic and moral qualifications.” He further stipulates, “Nor should anyone pretend that grace supplies for the defects of nature in such a man (SC, 64).”  So, the faculty, human formators, spiritual directors, other seminarians, and parish leaders all help a man discern that he has the character and the natural abilities to live out the life of a celibate priest. The grace of God allows people to be celibates “for/and because of the Kingdom” (Mt 19), but the man must give evidence that he has the natural qualities to live the life.

Not all men called to celibacy by Christ are called by Christ to the priesthood. Some men enter priestly formation at Sacred Heart and discern that God is not calling them to the priesthood, but He is calling them to live as religious brothers, or as celibate men in the world.  Because of the acute need for priests, Catholics are often saddened to hear when a man leaves the seminary. In my thirty years at Sacred Heart, I have seen many men enter the seminary for Christ and then leave the seminary for Christ. For them, the seminary is a place of growing towards full stature in Christ, but it becomes clear to them that God is not calling them to become priests.

Practically, how do men discern and how does the Church discern? A double discernment takes place in the seminary. The seminarian looks through his experience of prayer, of service, of common life, of classes and of relationships to see if the Law of the Gift is being fulfilled in him and to see if Christ continues to call him. At the same time, the man’s family, his parish, his bishop, the seminary formation team, the faculty, his classmates and many others are looking to see the signs that the man, as he grows to full stature in Christ, is becoming someone who can live out the graces of priestly ordination.  

Seminarians meet every month with their formators and twice a month with their spiritual directors to speak about their discernment. The formators and spiritual directors have seminary guidelines which assist them in knowing whether a man is ready to move on in his formation to the next year. Those guidelines are based on a very practical and wise document produced by the United States bishops called the Program for Priestly Formation. That document is based on directives from the Vatican, especially Pope St. John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis. Pope Francis directed the completion of a long-term project to renew priestly formation and that project led to a new Ratio Fundamentalis, which gives fundamental directives for priestly formation in the future. The American bishops and their coworkers are now working on a new edition of the Program for Priestly Formation which will follow the directions given in the new Ratio.

So, the entire Church is constantly discerning what is needed to form priests. That discernment guides the man’s discernment as well as the discernment of the seminary community, especially centered in our rector and vice rector. Each year, the man’s progress is reviewed to see if he is ready to move on to the next year’s goals and objectives. Those goals and objectives make clear the expected growth that needs to occur in a man. At times, a man who still feels called to the priesthood will leave formation to pursue his maturation in Christ outside the seminary. When that maturation takes place, he may apply again for admittance to formation.  

Discernment in the context of Sacred Heart’s life

A very important moment in the formation of our process of discernment happened following the abuse scandal in 2002. Following the publication of so many articles about the failure of priests to live out their call to holiness as celibates, people asked the perennial call of God’s people when they are concerned about the Church: just what are they doing at the seminary? It is a tremendously valuable question which needs to be asked often, and which needs to be responded to thoughtfully.  

Part of the concern several years ago was that several of our priest alumni had left the active ministry after ordination. A committee of lay and priest faculty was formed. After prayer and study, the committee asked two questions: what could Sacred Heart have done better to help men discern their vocations? What could the seminary have done better to prepare men for the demands of parish life?

The responses to the questions led to two convictions: 1) we needed to do more to help the men discern their vocation as a call from God; 2) we needed to do more to help the men grow in the strengths and habits (virtues) to live the sacrificial service of the priesthood with confidence.  

To help the men better discern their vocation from God, we implemented two changes:  1) a more consistent approach to celibacy formation and 2) the opportunity of making a thirty-day Ignatian retreat. The committee studied some fine programs of celibacy formation from other seminaries as well as our own program of formation. As a result, the seminary implemented an approach in which ten core components of priestly celibacy were identified. These components are studied, taught and discussed in each of the three levels of formation:  College, Philosophy, and Theology. In addition, the content areas are taught and reflected upon in the different forums of seminary formation:  the classroom, rector’s conferences, Saturday Formation sessions, spiritual direction, and individual formation sessions.  

After the Desert Formation Program in First Theology, the men are given the opportunity to make the long Ignatian retreat at the Broomtree Retreat Center in South Dakota. During First Theology, the men meet with me to review a list of readiness indicators. Not everyone makes the retreat, but most of the men do, and it is wonderfully helpful in discerning God’s call. For some men, the confirmation of their call comes in a single identifiable moment, which seems undeniably true for them. For others, in the tranquility of the retreat, the man’s call is confirmed in a more gradual way. As a result, by this time in their formation, most men have their vocation confirmed, but to some, God makes clear that He is calling them to serve Him in a way other than the priesthood.

The second change in our program was to help men be better prepared for the demands of priestly life. As one formator told me, “The men need to pray, but they also need to have the virtues to sustain their service.” So, with leadership provided by the vice rector, Father (now Archbishop) Mike Byrnes, the seminary began a more systematic process of assisting the men in identifying the particular virtues or habits which they needed to develop. Sacred Heart’s work in this area has been recognized by the Seminary Formation Council (SFC) in Boynton Beach, Florida.  Leaders from the seminary have been asked to present on virtues formation in the SFC’s certificate program for external seminary formators in Boynton Beach.

Our cornerstone announces that God will give shepherds after His own heart. Part of becoming a shepherd for the Shepherd involves listening to Jesus’s call to follow him. That call leads to the further calls to discern the state of life in which we are to live the vocation to love, and the call to serve in the ordained priesthood. We are blessed to have hundreds of students come each year to Sacred Heart following the Shepherd and discerning his call.

To learn more about priestly formation and discernment at Sacred Heart, visit our webpage at

by Msgr. Daniel Trapp

Msgr. Daniel Trapp

Msgr. Daniel Trapp is a Spiritual Director and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Liturgy and Sacraments at Sacred Heart.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.