Discernment and desire


When Pope Francis was a young seminarian in his twenties, he had to think about celibacy very carefully. A few years ago, when he was a cardinal, he recalled in an interview:

“I was dazzled by a girl I met at an uncle’s wedding… I was surprised by her beauty, her intellectual brilliance…and, well, I was bowled over for quite a while. I kept thinking and thinking about her. When I returned to the seminary after the wedding, I could not pray for over a week because when I tried to do so, the girl appeared in my head. I had to rethink what I was doing.”

Let’s state the obvious: young men and women are strongly attracted to one another. And this attraction becomes even stronger when you meet someone who shares your ideals and interests.

If you are a faithful Catholic, the attraction deepens even further when you meet another Catholic who is serious about her faith.

This is why, for example, a seminarian can suddenly find himself “a person of interest” in a way that he did not experience before seminary. In situations where a seminarian takes classes in a co-ed environment, he often finds it easy to make friends with female students. Why? Because these young woman feel both unthreatened — “He’s going to be a priest, right?” — and also attracted by a man who is intentionally pursuing holiness. And the seminarian himself can feel the same way about a good-looking student in his philosophy class. As one seminary professor observed, “It’s hard to resist virtue in a pretty package.”

Writing about sexual attraction in his famous book Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla wrote that “Love begins with desire.” But when you’re discerning your vocation, that strong attraction can become a burdensome distraction. Like the young Jorge Bergoglio, who found himself unable to pray because of visions of an Argentinean beauty, some guys can become distraught, falling into a cycle of “God or the girl” obsession.

Many vocation directors have noted that a candidate often meets the “woman of his dreams” the summer before entering seminary. Just as frequently, though, the men who delayed seminary to pursue a last-minute relationship experience disappointment in the end.

So, if you are serious about discerning priesthood, the best advice is to discern one vocation at a time. Sometimes a man goes on a “dating fast,” reasoning that it would not be fair to lead on a woman if the priesthood was constantly in the back of his mind. Think about it from this perspective: if you were dating a woman and found yourself falling in love, how would you feel if she announced, “I’m very seriously considering religious life; I was just dating you to rule out marriage.”

Sexual attraction is both beautiful and good — and it doesn’t magically disappear when you put on a black shirt with a white collar. After all, even the Holy Father had to work through a crush as a young Jesuit seminarian. So as you discern, be realistic about your attractions, and don’t let them disturb your peace.