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IN THE LIGHT OF FAITH | Vocational discernment and anxiety

"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' call to our Church today: to live the joy of the Gospel.

However, as a college campus minister, I've noticed that discerning one's vocation isn't often associated with joy. Instead, it's often the contrary. Vocational discernment often brings forth anxiety in our young people, which may be said of any major life decision.

However, it isn't simply the "traditional" Catholic vocations that stir up this tension. Questions such as, "What am I called to do to next semester? Tomorrow? This afternoon?" may yield just as much apprehension.

It's been said that millennials are the most anxious generation. Regardless of whether this is an exaggeration or a self-fulfilling prophecy, many young people today suffer from anxiety.

It's important to understand that anxiety isn't just feeling anxious. Generalized anxiety disorder as defined by the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders" is prolonged, excessive, apprehensive worrying.

Anxiety has 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 isn't the only cause for anxiety, it is by far the most common in my experience. But since anxiety is not the only mental health issue I find my students struggling with (depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.), I'm calling 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 can't do so effectively if we are ignorant of other spheres of reality such as mental health. This isn't to say that all ministers must also be psychologists. We each have 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.

There may be some wisdom in the words "Prayer is not enough," provided we aren't 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 Corinthians 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." 

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