Come and see!

By Laura Dodson Vocation discernment retreats offer opportunities to experience the prayer life and work of a religious community and let you get a feel for this unique way of life.

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Image: DISCERNMENT retreat participants pray with the Carmelite Fathers of Middletown, N.Y.

"Listening is the main task
of discernment,” says Sister Mariette Therese Bernier, O.S.B., vocation director for the Benedictine Sisters of Elizabeth, New Jersey, as she reflected on her experience at a vocation discernment retreat before she entered religious life. “In daily life, it’s not usual to come in contact with other people considering a religious vocation. I attended a discernment retreat and enjoyed the interaction with other discerners. It was a time for personal reflection and with the community—it furthered the process of my calling. The more time I spent, the more I realized that it was my calling, and the more comfortable I became, the more I realized that I could do this.”

“Just come”
A discernment retreat is a stop along the journey to explore God’s purpose for an individual life. It offers a chance to come away, to be with others on a similar path, and to find a place of quiet to listen so as to hear God speak. It is a time of discovery, not necessarily decision.

These retreats can involve looking at the direction of your life, discerning religious life, determining whether a particular religious community is right for you, or some or all of the above. They can last from a day to overnight to an entire weekend; some communities host longer “live-in” experiences for a week or even a month as well. Meals and prayer times are frequently spent with members of the community so that retreatants can have a better understanding of community life and enjoy the stories and fellowship of the sisters, priests, brothers, and others who have recently responded to the call and are already in formation. (See the box for the kinds of activities most discernment retreats offer.)


What to expect on a discernment retreat


While vocation discernment retreats can vary
from community to community, most involve:

  • Prayer time alone and prayer and liturgy with the community
  • Chances to learn about or take part in ministry
  • Presentations on the history of religious life and the spirit and mission of a particular community
  • Opportunities to mingle with community members at meals or another informal time
  • The possibility to share with others in discernment

For a listing of current discernment events
in your area, go to VISION’s online calendar at VocationNetwork.org/opportunities.

“Just come,” Sister Bernier says. “Come on a discernment retreat. Enjoy the ride and let God take control. Trust that God in time will make it clear.”

“Be open”
“I’m 48, an older vocation,” says Father Vincent Wirtner, C.PP.S., who was ordained in June 2010. “When I came [to a discernment retreat], I wanted to soak it all in. I listened a lot and wasn’t pressured to share. I was in my mid-30s, active in my parish, but I didn’t need to ask questions. Everyone else was answering my questions in their own sharing and that was very unique for me since I’m an extrovert and used to sharing. It was an opportunity for me to listen to the Spirit speaking through others. I was listening to the voice of God through the stories of other people and letting it sink in.

“Be open,” Father Wirtner says. “Take the risk it takes to come and see. It’s finding where our gifts are best used for the community and discovering you feel at home, respected.”

Finding that home and community are one of the major challenges of vocation discernment, says Father Brian Smail, O.F.M., vocation director for the Franciscan Friars, Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in Silver Spring, Maryland. At the time of this writing they had five men in formation—the largest group in five years.

“Our greatest challenge is that the young people today have so many options,” Smail says. “To actually consider religious life as an option—it gets pushed to the bottom of the list. It really is a very rewarding life, and our come and see discernment weekends are a way to convey that. Our goal for these weekends is to show that it’s a great way to spend a life. The retreats are very informal and participants can plug in as they wish. Participants want something more in life. There’s a nagging for something more. There is something missing. They’re unsettled. They need to just come and see.”

Sister Pauline Bouton, O.P., codirector of sisters in temporary profession for the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose in Fremont, California, agrees on the need discerners feel for “something more.” “It’s part of our charism to reach out to the young. They’re really made to feel comfortable to ask any question,” she says. “Discernment retreats are a real connecting with young people hungering for spirituality.”

A tap on the shoulder
at a discernment retreat for both men and women sponsored by the Missionaries and Sisters of the Precious Blood, participants listen to Father James Seibert, C.PP.S. speak about the religious orders’ history.
AT A DISCERNMENT retreat for both men and women sponsored by the Missionaries and Sisters of the Precious Blood, participants listen to Father James Seibert, C.PP.S. speak about the religious orders’ history.
Last December Paul Richmond of Red Hook, New York accepted an invitation to enter formation with the Carmelite Friars of St. Elias Province in Harrison, New Jersey. He was a senior communications and media major at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, New York, actively involved in campus ministry and planning to graduate in May 2012. He attended a discernment retreat weekend in June 2011, applied to the community in October, and will enter formation in the fall of 2012.

“I was with six other young men,” Richmond says in describing his retreat experience. “We discerned our call by listening to friars from the province. We sat and talked about when the Holy Spirit grabbed us, where we see ourselves in the future, and where is God present in our lives.”

One of the unique elements of this discernment retreat weekend is that on Saturday the retreatants are taken to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Middleton, New York. They receive a packed lunch and the Gospel of Mark to read. They have three hours to sit and ponder. At the conclusion they return to the chapel of the Shrine to reflect on the day’s events and where their life-direction is going.

“Scripture is our big thing,” says vocation director Brother Robert Bathe, O.Carm., “and I can’t tell you how many miracles have come out of reading the Gospel of Mark! I make a point that they are not coming here to meet people but to have a strong encounter with God. We provide the opportunity for silence, formative talks, and community time.”

Richmond says that the period following the retreat was an intense one of discernment, and he sees his communications and media major as an opportunity to share his gifts with the church. “I came to the conclusion after much constant prayer and daily Mass altar-serving that I’m called as a priest,” he says. “Carmelite spirituality is all about prayer, service, and community. The thing I love about the Carmelites is that they’re always laughing together, but during liturgy I see a reverence and real devotion to Mary and God in serving the community. They love what they do. Jesus just tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Follow me.’ ”

“What is God calling you to?”
After participating in three retreats over the course of three years, James Smith applied to and was accepted into the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. “The retreats were an opportunity to explore further connections with others in formation and be around members of communities,” Smith says.


Four tips for getting

the most out of a
discernment retreat:

1. Be open to where God
is leading you

2. Set aside your fears

3. Plan ahead for follow-up prayer-time and possibly visits to other communities as well as talks with a spiritual director and/or a vocation minister

4. Realize that discernment is a process and you won’t necessarily leave with “the answer”

There is a distinct difference in the retreats Smith attended. The Missionaries of the Precious Blood offer collaborative retreats with the Sisters of the Precious Blood in Dayton, Ohio. The men stay at the St. Charles Spiritual Center in Carthagena, Ohio and the women at the Spiritual Center of Maria Stein, eight miles away in Maria Stein, Ohio.

The collaborative retreats begin separately with a meal on Friday night, but then the men join the women at the Maria Stein Center for prayer, scripture reading, table discussion, and a social. On Saturday morning the men return to the Maria Stein Center for a communal breakfast, separate for a morning session, and then come together for Mass and lunch. They split up again for afternoon sessions on discernment, and then the women join the men at the St. Charles Center for social time. On Sunday they are again together at St. Charles for Mass and lunch.

“The spiritual component of being together gave a more holistic view—a completion of perspective,” Smith says. “We’re man and woman in the world by nature and it gives better strength and validity to my own experience because I’m hearing what someone different from me brings to the table, which points out the uniqueness from my own experience which I bring. Hearing the sharing from women discerning and from women in ministry gives a more complete image of the divine.”

Tanya Broerman has attended the collaborative retreats for the past three years, and her experience illustrates the fact that taking part in a discernment retreat does not have to lead directly to entrance into a community. It can have value for reflecting on your life’s direction and calling. “It’s nice to know that you’re not the only one in your age group feeling called,” Broerman says. “It’s different than when you’re out with your peers in the secular world. People think you’re crazy when you say you’re called, but at the retreats you can appreciate your own spirituality. . . . It’s uplifting to share the same focus and understand the difficulties with it—the same struggles.”

Sister Carolyn Hoying, C.PP.S. knew in high school that she was called to be a sister and will be celebrating her golden jubilee in August 2012. In elementary education for most of her career, she has been the vocation director for her community, coordinating the discernment retreats, for the past nine years.

“We have a collaborative family of Precious Blood Missionaries and Sisters,” she says. “The collaborative retreats are so successful because we both have the same charism and we express how we live it out as men and women.

“One of the highlights for the women on Saturday is the Emmaus Walk,” Sister Hoying says. “The retreatants pair with sisters to each share their journey and to build a relationship. Your life is a journey forever and the question to ask is, ‘What is God calling you to?’ ”

“Does this feel like home?”
Acknowledging the many options out there for young people, Sister Bouton says: “Get information, but don’t drown yourself in 92 communities. There are wonderful communities in your own backyard. There’s a real hunger for relationship with God with community support that shares your values and ideals. Find someone who can help you sift through to know the best choice for you and the world. Listen to your heart. Does this feel like home—a place where you could be your best self—maybe even bigger than you imagine?” 

Laura Dodson is a freelance journalist blessed to be able to combine her pastoral ministry education and experience with her passion to spread the good news of the Catholic faith.

2013 © TrueQuest Communications

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