By Mike Gabriele
Discerning a call to religious life is probably the one, distinct vocation that requires the most … well … discernment. Choosing to dedicate your entire life to God—to spreading the Gospel and serving the Church with all that you are and all that you have—carries with it a seemingly endless list of personal and spiritual questions and challenges, regardless of how clearly the Holy Spirit may be inviting someone. Very few people suddenly decide one day to enter the nearest novitiate, seminary, or convent—even those who may have been considering such a vocation through much of high school or college.
The two key areas both men and women find themselves wading through in their discernment of a religious life are 1) spiritual issues and 2) personal challenges. Most religious orders recognize the need for guidance through the former, but all too often leave the latter unaddressed. Yes, spiritual direction is helpful for anyone’s faith, especially for those considering a vocation where they will ultimately lead others in faith. But when it comes to more personal guidance and advice, those discerning a call to religious life must often rely on family and friends—people who surely love and care for them, but who usually cannot offer counseling and encouragement from the perspective of somebody who has also experienced the same call.
For young men considering a call to the Society of Jesus in the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces, this personal void is now being filled in a unique and inspiring way. In addition to meaningful spiritual direction, these men are now assigned individual mentors: mentors who have actually been in their shoes—true Jesuits in formation—scholastics already studying to be priests or brothers in the Society.
Think of the many questions these discerners have, these souls who have taken the first brave steps in following their call to religious life. How do I tell my parents and friends about my vocation? How will they react? How do I go about moving away from the dating scene? What is religious community life like? How do I navigate the application process?
While a spiritual director can help an individual recognize the Holy Spirit and offer leadership through prayer and discernment, a mentor’s job is simply to be there for personal advice, much like an older brother—someone who is a quick email or phone call away when all those other questions arise.
Fr. Phil Florio, SJ, provincial assistant for vocations for the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces, implemented this mentorship program. “Scholastics are indeed the closest peers and make the best mentors for those seeking to advance in their vocations discernment,” he said. “They speak the same language as our young discerners. I even try to assign a mentor based on compatibility—military service, the school they graduated from, a love of the classics, sports they played, etc.”
“When I was discerning a vocation to the Society and to the priesthood, I found the examples and the prayerfulness of younger Jesuits inspiring,” said Bill Woody, SJ, a second-year theology scholastic who serves as a mentor. “A vocation is truly a gift from God, and the joy and witness of younger Jesuits can help others to discern their own vocation. Putting Jesuit scholastics and brothers in formation in contact with those interested in the Society of Jesus is a great resource for them—and a source of hope and inspiration for us as well.”
John Pignone, SJ, a third-year scholastic in First Studies and a fellow mentor, agrees. “The questions a man has when he is discerning a call to the Society are vast and varied. Having a relaxed and organic conversation with someone who is living out some of those answers can help iron out hearsay and assumptions. It has been a privilege for me to be involved in these conversations. I see the Spirit moving when some concern the inquirer has evaporates simply because I say, ‘yes, we can go to baseball games,’ or something to that effect. In these conversations, I reflect back on my own journey and the questions I had.”
Talking to and interacting with peers who have already said yes to the call is a welcome opportunity for those still contemplating their own discernment. Paul Phillipino, SJ, a second-year scholastic in First Studies, who benefitted from a mentor in his career before becoming a Jesuit, now enjoys being one to others thinking of entering as well. “I appreciated each time I came in contact with Jesuits in formation. I met solid guys at each stage of formation, and it seemed to me that as the men progressed, they became freer and freer to follow the unique way God was calling each of them into service for the greater glory of God.”
“Right now we have 27 scholastics mentoring 31 young men in various stages of discernment,” said Fr. Florio. “We are the first Jesuit province to offer this kind of official mentorship, and I hope the idea catches on in others.”
“It has given me a lot of joy to encounter men who take discernment seriously,” added Paul Phillipino. “They have been open and honest. God is clearly at work in their lives. And it’s easy to imagine them being my Jesuit brothers someday.”