National Vocation Awareness Week: 5 Ways Men and Women Are Called to a Religious Vocation
COMMENTARY: In a society that tends to reject or gloss over sexual differences, it is crucial that we recognize the distinctive difference in the way that Our Lord calls and speaks to the hearts of both men and women.
During my 11 years of experience as a priest and chaplain at a dynamic Catholic college campus ministry, I was blessed to be able to walk with nearly 100 young men and women who entered formation for either priesthood or religious life.
While so often we use similar phrases to describe the generalized process of vocational discernment, I found that there are distinct differences between how men and women experience and discern a priestly or religious call.
For this year’s National Vocation Awareness Week, I’d like to offer a few reflections to priests, religious and laity on the five main differences I’ve witnessed between men and women in this regard, in hopes that might it help them as they encourage and accompany the men and women who are discerning Our Lord’s call in their lives.
First, men tend to experience their call more as a command to follow Christ. Hans Urs von Balthasar explains the logic behind this reality:
“The priesthood is primarily an ecclesiastical function, hence the call to it will also have something official about it and will have, to a certain extent, the character of a command. It is closer to the categorical ‘follow me’ that Christ spoke to his apostles, thereby summoning them from their secular way of life in order to give them a new positional; it is like a muster roll in which each one is called by name and must step forward (Mark 3:13).”
But for women it is often not experienced so much as a call or command as an invitation. This invitation is, as von Bathasar says, “much more in need of a freely given personal response.” Consider that since a “call” to the religious life is inherently spousal, the Divine Bridegroom would not command his chosen bride to marry him; this would not respect her freedom. Instead, he offers it more as invitation, or a “marriage proposal,” where the Bridegroom awaits her “Yes” and respects her freely given “No” if that is how she chooses to respond.
Next, I found that men often need less time to “discern” and are more willing to enter seminary formation quickly with less forethought. I’ve considered that this has the same roots in their natural impulsivity that leads some young men to do stunts that put them in the way of bodily harm.
Unlike men, women generally tend not to jump off of fourth-story roofs into hotel swimming pools. Overall, men don’t think enough about their decisions, while women tend to overthink them. So when it comes to vocational discernment and decision, women often put off taking any step down the path towards a religious vocation and simply stand at the crossroads unable to choose a path. It can be such a challenge for them to “step out of the boat,” and many times they need a gentle nudge to step onto the waves. Men, on the other hand, will walk onto the water not even noticing the fins frantically circling the boat.
Third, any vocation to celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom entails a certain denial of self and renouncing of good pertaining to marriage. For men, this tends to focus on giving up sexual intimacy. This can seem like an insurmountable task to many that leads them to walk away from a potential call. However, in my experience, I have yet to hear a woman express this as a concern. On the other hand, women tend to struggle with giving up what comes after conjugal intercourse; they struggle to give up the gift of motherhood. In the same vein, I’ve rarely encountered a young man who hesitated to respond to a call to the priesthood because of the prospect of renouncing paternal bliss. Irrespective of the differences, both are significant obstacles since both are so deeply ingrained in our masculine and feminine natures.
Fourth, when it comes to the actual discernment process, men tend to take a more “deductive” approach. You can present to them a list of generally observable “priestly traits” and demonstrate how they as an individual have related gifts. This will often lead them to deduct from that evidence that they might have a vocation. And after a period of discernment, some will decide to give the seminary a try.
However, this is rarely if ever the approach to take with a young woman. Instead, I’ve found that what will lead them to consider a vocation is more of an “inductive” approach. They will notice particular movements or desires of their heart that will lead them to consider a possible call. But it almost always has to start with something they experience as an individual and not a set of traits that those with religious vocations tend to share.
Fifth and finally, men tend to respond well to direction when it comes to vocational discernment. As a priest or mentor, you can suggest that they should consider a vocation and then direct them to contact the vocation director, and they will often be more than willing to make that call. Yet with women, there often needs to be a period of accompaniment and dialogue. This can be a longer and more involved discernment period, but after it, the woman who decides to enter has a greater certainty of the Lord’s voice speaking directly to her heart. It’s a lot more spiritual flexing, but it is completely worth it.
In conclusion, in a society that tends to reject or gloss over sexual differences, as Catholics who are working for a “culture of vocation,” it is crucial that we recognize the distinctive difference in the way that the Lord calls and speaks to the hearts of both men and women. While there are similarities in the calls to priesthood and religious life, I’ve found that a failure to recognize these differences can lead to a fair bit of confusion, especially for women. This should prompt all of us who care about promoting vocations to care for the way the Lord speaks differently to the hearts of both men and women.
Father Bryce Sibley is a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette. In 2010 he was appointed as pastor and chaplain at Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where he served for 11 years. He now serves as professor of moral theology and spiritual director at Notre Dame Seminary.