I had an email recently from a young man discerning a vocation to the religious life and the priesthood, asking for some advice. So I wrote something and sent it to him. I thought I would share it here:
First of all, pray in thanksgiving for your vocation, which is precious, no matter where it leads in the future. Expect opposition from friends and enemies alike and even from family. This is nothing out of the ordinary.
Be sure to have a good spiritual director, especially one who is mature enough in the Lord to be indifferent to your discernment process. If your director is a priest or religious, ignore his advice to join the diocese or community that he is a member of himself. (Not that you can't do this; you only have to discount biased advice to do it.) At best you need someone who is removed enough to help you discern impartially.
Go to college and finish before entering. Developmentally and spiritually, I think it just makes sense in our culture. Plus, if you decide on religious life and are called to study for the priesthood, having already done your undergraduate study removes cumbersome extra steps that a lot of guys have to deal with. So, go to college and study philosophy, as a minor at the very least.
Take your time. Communities everywhere are looking for applicants. It's a sellers' market. You are young, devout, and bright--every vocation director's dream. So when you meet them many will be trying to sign you up right away. Don't let them rush you. Seven or eight years from now you would still be a young candidate by current standards. Many vocation directors are looking for numbers, but the question for you is not which vocation director calls or pays the most attention to you, but where God wants you to be. There's a reason why vocation director is one of the ministries from which religious most often leave.
In that same spirit, visit different communities. This isn't a consumerist, 'shopper' attitude, but the accumulation of food for discernment. Always look at what the particular group or province does for their ministry--this is a realistic view of what you might be doing. Pay attention to your heart on visits, especially to what attracts and gives spiritual delight to your heart. On the other hand, If you are ever scandalized or confused by what you see, don't second guess yourself about it. Both of these are the Spirit working on you.
Look for a group that has others interested as well, and with whom you feel like you have something spiritually in common. If there are no other candidates or aspirants, walk away. There is probably a reason. If all of the other candidates or potential applicants seem like fanatics, lunatics, unorthodox Catholics, or deviants, walk away. Again, there is a reason.
Be ready for an adventure, both inside and out. I can't stress that enough.