Firstly, thank you for your courage, opens, and desire to go where the Lord calls. That is not always an easy thing to do, as you are finding out. There is some very valuable and insightful advice here, and I think you should certainly consider what everyone has said. As someone pointed out, discernment is about figuring out where God wants you, and that’s not an easy discernment, and for most of us, it can be a real struggle to figure that out. I’m currently in the early stages of formation with a religious order, and can definitely identify with everything you’re experiencing.
Someone recommended a spiritual director. And that’s a phenomenal recommendation. A spiritual director can really help you to sort through your fears, emotions, desires, and help you figure out where God is moving in your life. A good place to start is with your Parish priest…talk to him about your discernment, see if he recommends good books to help, ask about seminary or formation. Listen to his vocation story. And see if he has any recommendations for a spiritual director. He may offer to be your spiritual director, or he may know of some other good leads. Many pastors are too busy to take on a spiritual direction commitment, but not all, so don’t be put off if he can’t personally do that. I see a semi-retired nun as my spiritual director, for example.
Also do some research on religious orders and communities, you may be surprised by the results. Personally, I felt a “call” or desire to seek the priesthood, and discerned at various levels with the archdiocese and about 5 religious orders, 3 pretty seriously. I found that once I found the community that was right for me, a lot of my doubts and fear lessened significantly. I won’t say the disappeared, but I felt much more at ease, and was able to narrow down my “search” pretty quickly that way. Listen to your heart.
I found my parents to be supportive. They were both raised Catholic, but really couldn’t be further away from the faith now. I pray often they’ll make their way back. Despite that, they were still supportive, although I don’t think they really understand it. When I explained it, they knew it was something I really wanted to do, and that I had done my research and wasn’t just jumping into something. I think that helped put them at ease.
Your desire to date a girl is not wrong at all. It’s a very natural, biological desire. You’re young, and there are certainly a lot of great lessons to be had in a good (or bad) relationship that will help wherever God is calling you to. Priests deal with families all the time, and it’s good to have some insight relationship dynamics, although certainly not necessary. Also as far as I’m concerned, just because you want to enter the priesthood or religious life does not necessarily mean that you wouldn’t like to be married and have a family. Personally, I see it as something beautiful I’m giving up for God. It’s not easy. I ended a serious 5-year relationship in order to join my community. It was painful, and I’m sure I may always wonder “what if…”, but I have to say I am very happy where I am now, and wouldn’t change it.
Reach out and contact your pastor first, or a priest that you know or feel comfortable with. Reach out at contact the vocation director for your diocese and perhaps some religious communities. It takes courage to do that, because it feels like a huge step, and is a lot of ways it is. But at the same time it’s not THAT huge of a step, you’re making no commitment. At that state it’s just like “dating” and all good vocation directors know that. you’re seeing if they might be right for you, and they are also trying to figure out if you might be right for them. There’s really nothing to be afraid of there. Do on discernment retreats or weekends if you can. It’s a great way to see things a bit more in depth. My favorite part of these retreats (also called “come and see weekends”) is getting to know others, who usually are of similar age, discerning and facing the same doubts, fears, struggles, and have the same questions as everyone else.
Discernment is a process, and a journey in itself. It’s daunting, but its also fun, and I learned a lot, and continue to learn a lot about myself in the process. Theres nothing to to be afraid of, Christ and the Blessed Mother are watching over you. Enjoy it! PAX!