VATICAN CITY -- Within the universal Christian vocation of serving God and serving others, God handcrafts a specific calling for each person, a vocation that fits his or her personality and abilities, Pope Francis said.
"To discern our personal vocation, we have to realize that it is a calling from a friend, who is Jesus. When we give something to our friends, we give them the best we have. It will not necessarily be what is most expensive or hard to obtain, but what we know will make them happy," the pope wrote in "Christus Vivit" ("Christ Lives").
The document, his apostolic exhortation reflecting on the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment, was released at the Vatican April 2.
Much of the document is a summary of the discussion at the 2018 synod and a presynod meeting of young adults about ways to improve youth and young adult ministry and create more space in the church for the contributions of young people.
But the most original part of the 35,000-word document is its explanation of what a vocation is -- strongly moving away from seeing vocation only as a reference to priesthood or religious life -- and practical ways for a person to discern his or her vocation.
A Christian's first vocation is a call to friendship with Jesus, he said. And closely related to that is the call to serve others.
"Your own personal vocation does not consist only in the work you do, though that is an expression of it," the pope said. "Your vocation is something more: It is a path guiding your many efforts and actions toward service to others."
Finding one's vocation "has nothing to do with inventing ourselves or creating ourselves out of nothing. It has to do with finding our true selves in the light of God and letting our lives flourish and bear fruit."
God's personalized gift of a vocation "will bring you more joy and excitement than anything else in this world. Not because that gift will be rare or extraordinary, but because it will perfectly fit you," Pope Francis wrote. "It will be a perfect fit for your entire life."
Following a vocation, he said, "is a very personal decision that others cannot make for us," which is why it requires "solitude and silence," as well as serious discussions with friends and wise guides.
Pope Francis offered basic questions each person should ask him- or herself: "Do I know what brings joy or sorrow to my heart? What are my strengths and weaknesses?"
But since a vocation isn't about serving oneself, he said, those questions lead to others: "How can I serve people better and prove most helpful to our world and to the church? What is my real place in this world? What can I offer to society?"
And, then, he said, one must ask: "Do I have the abilities needed to offer this kind of service? Could I develop those abilities?"
Discovering one's vocation, even in the deepest prayer, is not like finding the exact road map for one's life with all the stops and starts and obstacles and detours clearly marked, he said. Instead, it is more like being invited on an adventure.
That sense of adventure, even as a person ages and slows down, is what keeps them young at heart, he said. "When I began my ministry as pope, the Lord broadened my horizons and granted me renewed youth. The same thing can happen to a couple married for many years, or to a monk in his monastery. There are things we need to 'let go of' as the years pass, but growth in maturity can coexist with a fire constantly rekindled, with a heart ever young."
Most young people will discover their vocation is to marry and form a family, he said, and that requires preparation to grow in self-knowledge and in virtue, "particularly love, patience, openness to dialogue and helping others."
"It also involves maturing in your own sexuality, so that it can become less and less a means of using others, and increasingly a capacity to entrust yourself fully to another person in an exclusive and generous way," the pope wrote.
And while most young people will marry, he said, Catholics must believe that God continues to call men to the priesthood and men and women to religious life.
"The Lord cannot fail in his promise to provide the church with shepherds, for without them she would not be able to live and carry out her mission," he said. And "if it is true that some priests do not give good witness, that does not mean that the Lord stops calling. On the contrary, he doubles the stakes, for he never ceases to care for his beloved church."
The key qualification for helping someone in their vocational discernment is an ability to listen, the pope said. The helper may be a priest, religious, layperson or even another young person.
"The other person must sense that I am listening unconditionally, without being offended or shocked, tired or bored," he said. And while listening, "I need to ask myself what is it that the other person is trying to tell me, what they want me to realize is happening in their lives."
Assistance also means having such respect for the work God is doing in the life of the other, that the guide would never dare to try to dictate the way forward, he said. "In the end, good discernment is a path of freedom that brings to full fruit what is unique in each person, something so personal that only God knows it. Others cannot fully understand or predict from the outside how it will develop."
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