Preparing young people for the journey of a lifetime


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My take on the vocations crisis in the Church today is counterintuitive to some, radical to others. I believe there are plenty of vocations out there! I'm talking about celibate vocations -- to the priesthood, sisterhood, and brotherhood. Monks, nuns, friars, and fathers.

The issue, based on my 30 years working with Catholic college students, is not a lack of interest or desire but a lack of clarity about the process. How does one, in fact, discern God's call?

There is certainly no lack of programs and approaches to discernment out there, but in my experience, they miss the mark. Either they're too broad (everything is a vocation) or too narrow and niche-oriented, guiding young people in a specific direction. Some lean on spiritual classics but ignore the opacity of the language to modern minds. Others make great use of virtual avenues -- apps and online portals -- but adopt the language of modernity (be true to yourself) at the cost of orthodoxy.

Years ago, I recognized these shortcomings in vocational tools and began working on ways to communicate and invite young people to make an informed decision on offering their lives to God in pursuing a celibate vocation. Why only celibacy? Many Catholic outlets offer resources for dating, sex and marriage, but few help young people make sense of celibacy. I wanted to address that deficiency.



What is the 99-Day Novena?

The 99-Day Novena (www.99daynovena.org) draws on the treasures of Catholic spirituality -- both old and new -- to capture a young person's imagination and launch them on a personalized, transformative journey of discernment. Each day features a two-page meditation along with a workbook section for personal application.

There's even a helpful first step: a nine-day introductory novena that gives young people a sample of the 99-Day Novena's approach and offers them a way to prayerfully decide what's right for them.

A key feature of the 99-Day Novena is it uses imagery to communicate spiritual principles. Think about St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, those rooms within a room, castle within a castle, house within a house. Or, think about St. John of the Cross' Ascent of Mt. Carmel, climbing the mountain, the various stages of personal virtue and detachment.

The Novena uses three images: the Table, representing self-knowledge; the Temple, focused on where we go to satisfy our relationship needs; and, the Treasure, which is about self-gift and total generosity.

The Novena lays out practical approaches relying heavily on Ignatian discernment while identifying various avenues of vocational paths. The end goal is encouraging the young person to participate in an eight-day Decision Retreat to help them come away not with an answer for the rest of their lives, but with clarity on the next step for pursuing whatever vocational call the Lord is offering to them.

The second key feature differentiating the 99-Day Novena is its interactive accountability. This is not a "Do-It-Yourself" discernment tool. I provide a complete parallel track of material that equips a spiritual advisor to accompany the candidate throughout the 99 days.

The discerner is called on to identify somebody who is spiritually grounded, faithful to Church teachings, and who will walk with them through this process. This is especially valuable for busy pastors and ministers since the candidate does most of the heavy lifting. We provide meeting agendas, guidelines, things to look for, and aids for the discerner and spiritual advisor throughout the process.

Results will vary. Some find clarity and direction. Others simply narrow their options, which can be a great blessing. Most, we find, arrive at a good next step along with tools and a reliable roadmap for what lies ahead. Every vocation is a gift and a mystery. The 99-Day Novena helps you hear and see where the path may lead you, but the timing ultimately belongs to God.



BROTHER SAM GUNN IS THE CAMPUS MINISTER AND MISSION TRAINER AT BROTHERHOOD OF HOPE.