“The purpose of vocational discernment is to find out how to transform (our choices), in the light of faith into steps toward the fullness of joy to which everyone is called.”
These words from the introduction to the Vatican preparatory document for the upcoming synod on “Young people, faith and vocational discernment” reiterate Pope Francis’s call to our church today: to live the joy of the Gospel.
However, in my time as a college campus minister, I’ve noticed that discerning one’s vocation is not often associated with joy; quite the contrary, I find that it can even keep one from it.
Vocational discernment often brings forth anxiety in our young people. True, any major life decision can bring about variable levels of stress or worry.
However, I find it is not simply the “traditional” Catholic vocations that stir up this tension. Questions like, “What am I called to do to next semester? Tomorrow? This afternoon?” yield just as much apprehension.
We’ve heard countless times that millennials are the most anxious generation. Regardless of whether this is an exaggeration or a self-fulfilling prophecy, there are very many young people today that suffer from anxiety.
It is important to understand that anxiety is not just feeling anxious. Generalized anxiety disorder as defined by the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders” is prolonged, excessive, apprehensive worrying.
Anxiety can have many causes, sometimes even other mental illnesses. Indeed, social psychologists debate what the causes are for such a spike in anxiety among our young people today.
While vocational discernment is not the only cause for anxiety that I see, it is by far the most common. But since anxiety is not the only mental health issue I find my students struggling with (e.g., depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.), I’d like to use my experience as an opportunity to call for greater mental health awareness in professional ministry.
We ministers are charged with the spiritual care of our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we cannot do so effectively if we are ignorant of other spheres of reality like mental health. This is not to say that all ministers must also be psychologists. We each have our distinct roles to play.
We must, however, acknowledge that purely spiritual exercises can only do so much to heal one suffering from anxiety or other mental illnesses. Sometimes quoting Jeremiah 29:11 or Philippians 4:6 isn’t enough.
I am cautious not to use the popular dictum, “Prayer is not enough.” However, there is some wisdom in these words if we understand that by saying “Prayer is not enough,” we are not saying that “Christ is not enough.”
In fact, Christ is absolutely enough; and we seek him above all else to heal us. We seek him in the sacraments, in Scripture and in prayer. But what I feel we often forget is that we are the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). “Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” St. Teresa of Avila tells us.
The church, the body of Christ, is made up of priests, religious and ministers, but it is also made up of doctors, psychologists, you and me. Each of us possesses gifts necessary to bring the healing of Christ to one another.
“How (can) the church help young people to accept their call to the joy of the Gospel?” our bishops ask.
My answer: Urge all ministers who accompany young people to take mental health seriously, to take time to educate themselves on these matters and, most important, to refer young people to reputable counselors when necessary.
Lopez is director of campus ministry at the University of Dallas. He is a guest columnist for the Catholic News Service column “In Light of Faith.”