You recognize that all Christians are called to discipleship and to share in the mission of the Church. So I’m not going to talk about the lay vocation here. Just let me note that it would be worth reading everything the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about vocations in the section entitled “Christ’s Faithful—Hierarchy, Laity, Consecrated Life” (#871-945).
Your question seems concerned with recognizing a call to priesthood or religious life. Joseph Gallen, S.J., in Canon Law for Religious (Alba House) states the fundamental element in a vocation to the clerical or religious life is the special call, election or choice by God. Pope Pius XII, in Sedes Sapientiae, said that the two essential elements to a divine vocation are a call from God to enter religious life or the priesthood and the call or admittance by the Church.
But how does a person recognize the call of God before seeking admittance and acceptance by the Church? Says Gallen, the choice, election or call of God is communicated to a person through grace, and the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Ordinarily there is a series of acts which culminate in the decisive and supernatural intention to become a religious or priest. The supernatural or graced aspect of the intention is deduced and ascertained primarily from the rectitude of motives.
In other words, as good Sister Mercedes said to the Wise Man when he was in the third grade, “Don’t wait for an angel to come down and tap you on the shoulder.” That isn’t usually the way.
You discern a call to ministry or religious life in the same way people judge whether they should become a plumber, bookkeeper or radio announcer, or whether they should marry John Doe or Mary Jones. The one who wonders if he or she has a call has to feel some kind of attraction to a life in the priesthood or a religious order. That person looks at his or her talents and abilities in the light of the life he or she is considering.
Those who think they might be called ask if they have the necessary physical, mental and emotional health to live the sacerdotal or consecrated life. They ask if their motives are good—to do the work and will of God and not because they think it’s a way to escape parental control, get financial help toward a better education or escape a life on welfare.
If you believe you might be called, you pray and reflect, asking the guidance of God. You ask the advice and opinion of people you trust and seek the counsel of a confessor or spiritual director. If you find you desire to live the religious or sacerdotal life not just at peak emotional moments but with constancy, you apply to the proper authority for acceptance and the opportunity to test what you believe is your calling.
Can you be saved or happy if you reject what may be a vocation to the religious or sacerdotal life? Father Gallen says, as do other theologians, that since religious life is a counsel, it is not in itself a sin to refuse to follow the grace of a vocation. An obligation could exist from a vow or from the certainty that God has commanded the individual person to enter such a life. But such a command would be most rarely verified! I believe you would almost need a private revelation to recognize such a command.
Father Gallen also writes that it is not true that refusal to accept a vocation is sinful because it necessarily exposes the person to eternal damnation by remaining in secular life. While the person will not be given the graces he or she would have received to live a holy religious life, he or she will receive sufficient and, if he or she prays, efficacious graces for a secular life whose purpose is also a life of sanctity.
I’m sure the vocation office of any diocese or religious order will be glad to send you literature about the priesthood or a particular order upon request.
And, if you send 50¢ and a self-addressed envelope or $1 and ask for Catholic Update C0994, “Why Become a Priest, Sister or Brother Today?”, or C0986 “Are You Called to Be a Lay Minister?”, I’ll see to it that you get a copy.