Discerning a vocation to priesthood, religious life or marriage isn’t simple. It can be especially daunting for college students.

Many are seeking discernment help through Samuel Group.

Once a month, from September through April, 50-60 students meet for several hours on Sunday afternoons. The time includes Eucharistic adoration, confession and Mass. Specific sessions on prayer and confession are included; then comes time to interiorly review one’s current life choices and relationships, as well as personal attributes and goals.

Another session focuses on recognizing attachments and passions that need to be addressed. After this are sessions on specific vocations: marriage, celibacy for the Kingdom and apostolates in general.

Since Samuel Group was introduced in the United States in 2001, many attendees "come to truly understand their vocation, whether to marriage or religious life," said Sister Elena Morcelli, a member of the Apostles of the Interior Life, which runs the program.

Sister Elena helped launch the program in America and heads the Samuel Group at St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M, one of two universities where the discernment group is currently run. The other is at the Catholic Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., which started in 2003 (and is on hiatus this year only).

The name comes from 1 Samuel 3:7-11. Eli told Samuel to discern the will of God after the Lord called Samuel during the night. Samuel prayed: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

The name was chosen by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who founded the group to help young people in his Diocese of Milan, Italy, free their hearts from attachments to see clearly what God put in their hearts.

"We ourselves took the program as young women discerning, and we saw the benefit of it on our journey," explained Sister Elena, which led her and others to join the Apostles of the Interior Life. "We thought that program would be good for young men and women in the States."

Cardinal Martini gave the blessing to bring the program to the U.S.

The program equips young men and women to discover what vocation the Lord is calling them to in practical ways.

"We tell people God has a vocation in life for them, but we don’t always give them the tools to discern more precisely what that vocation is," said Father Mitchel Zimmerman, the vocation director/associate director at St. Mary’s Catholic Center. "So, rather than generally say: ‘You have a vocation, and discover it,’ the Samuel Group actually gives the tools of discernment and is as specific as possible."

"Discernment is not difficult, but it is difficult to free up your heart from any attachments to reach what is called interior indifference (an Ignatian concept), which means to see what God placed in your heart from the beginning," explained Sister Elena. "We need to get to a pure heart. We need to learn to deal with attachments and inconsistencies to see clearly what God put in our hearts. The process of discernment is to free you of all the attachments."

Spiritual direction is a requirement. "Everybody who goes to the program has to have a spiritual director," said Sister Elena. "The program works only if you have spiritual direction also."

The charism of the Apostles of the Interior Life is spiritual direction, which they offer on campus as well as other places, so the sisters help students find spiritual directors as needed.

"We want to teach the young men and women to make decisions [based] on God’s will, not their own," said Sister Elena.

Outcomes vary. Some come to an understanding of their gifts but are not yet at the point to know their lifetime commitment. But many come to definitely know their call in life.

"Usually half or more than half of them come to truly understand their vocation, whether to marriage or religious life," explained Sister Elena.

For the last five years, Father Zimmerman has observed the fruitful results. "Half express some confidence in whether they’re called to the married life, religious life or priesthood," he finds. "The others come to a strong resolution to what their next step is."

He says as many as six to eight current seminarians confirmed their discernment to the diocesan priesthood at Samuel Group.

Kalin Holthaus, a 2011 Kansas graduate, found the monthly sessions to be like mini retreats. "They focused on the formation of the human person in all aspects. They gave me the practical tools to know what desires God placed in my heart, what desires were coming from myself and from other places and what to do and how to respond to these."

She came to see "marriage and religious life as two equally beautiful options for my life, so it didn’t matter where God was calling me. As soon as I got to that point of indifference, it became immediately clear to me: God was calling me to religious life."

She has now joined the Apostles of the Interior Life.

A number of members have discerned their vocation to marriage, including Mike and Kristi Dennihan, who were members of the Samuel Group in Kansas in different years. They met randomly, became friends, and after having experienced Samuel Group, Mike suggested it to Kristi.

Through her time with the group, she discovered three things. First, God cares about all areas of one’s life and has a special plan for everyone. Second, Samuel Group "really gives you the time and space to make yourself available to listen to God and what he wants, opening you up to the different choices, whether religious life or marriage."

Finally, she said, in college, people focus on career choice, but rarely on vocation preparation — and "if it’s marriage, how can you be a better wife and mother?"

"Marriage was my call, so I already had to start preparing myself to be a good wife and mother. You don’t find that anywhere in the college atmosphere." The Samuel Group, she added, "made me prioritize that my vocation is the most important thing and then make a decision upon that."

Mike seconds Kristi’s insights. He says the program gives participants the time and space in which to discern, not just "how to discern your specific vocation, but it gave discernment principles in general and the nuances in listening to God," he said.

It was a double bonus for him because at the time he was coming back to the Church after being away for awhile.

"You realize your vocation is going to determine everything — the way you’re going to meet God," he emphasized.

Following their Samuel Group involvement, Mike and Kristi kept in touch with the Apostles of the Interior Life. Kristi lived at the apostles’ residence in Rome while she studied there for the Pontifical Institute of John Paul II for Studies on Marriage and Family. Mike traveled to Rome with his younger sister at that time and called Kristi to ask her to guide them around the city because she knew Italian. That Rome meeting developed into a courtship.

They married in 2007 and today are parents to 4-year-old Gianna and 16-month-old Joseph. They’re active Catholics in the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan. — and models of success for the Samuel Group.

Joseph Pronechen is the

Register’s staff writer.