Foundations of the Faith Part 6: Each Christian has a personal vocation

This is the sixth of a 12-part series that will cover core teachings of the Catholic faith. Once a month from January through December, this space will focus on exploring a specific aspect of the Church’s teaching. To read and share this and the previous parts of the series, visit OSV.com/foundations.

Next month’s topic: Catholic morality

Walking home with her father, Louis Martin, after praying vespers on the feast of Pentecost on May 29, 1887, at St. Peter’s, their parish church in Lisieux, France, St. Thérèse (1873-97) fretted over telling him about the conviction she had reached through prayer regarding her vocation. The anxiety was not linked to the specific call, becoming a Carmelite nun. Her worry was about timing, for she was only 14.

Louis worried too, and he told Thérèse that she was “still very young to make such a serious decision.” Perhaps he wondered as well if Thérèse’s resolve was influenced by the fact that two of her older sisters had already entered the Carmel at Lisieux: Pauline in 1882 and Marie in 1886. Thérèse, however, pleaded her cause so convincingly that she persuaded her father to give his consent.

After allowing Thérèse to pursue her vocation — she would, in fact, enter the Carmel almost a year later on April 9, 1888 — Louis gently took a little flower from the ground and told his daughter that God had brought it into being and sustained it ever since. Thérèse would never forget the image, nor the description of God’s merciful action. She always maintained that her father was really speaking about her. Hence, the world has come to know Thérèse as the “little flower.”

Created beautiful

Reflecting on this scene eight years later, having spent seven winters inside the convent, Thérèse recognized that she was not the only flower in God’s garden. Writing what would eventually be published as her autobiography, “Story of a Soul,” she said: “[A]ll the flowers He has created are beautiful ... the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. ... Just as the sun shines simultaneously on the tall cedars and on each little flower as though it were alone on the earth, so Our Lord is occupied particularly with each soul as though there were no other like it.”

The task for each person, as Thérèse knew, is to accept humbly this divine attention and to be what God calls one to be.

Thérèse’s image reflects beautifully the Church’s teaching on vocations. Both Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) reveal that God is intimately involved in bringing each person into existence.

From Psalm 139:

“You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works! My very self you know” (No. 13-14).

From the Catechism:

“The Word of God and his Breath are at the origin of the being and life of every creature” (No. 703).

Special purpose

The care with which God creates each human being indicates the noble purpose he intends for them, and his intention is realized and fulfilled through the vocations he offers to men and women. Like flowers, vocations come in many varieties, but the Church distinguishes three basic kinds: a common call to every member of the human race; a common call to every member of the Church; and, finally, the specific vocations that are addressed to individuals.

Called to Beatitude
The common call that God addresses to every member of the human race can be expressed as a goal or as an action. Either way, the end is the same: “God calls us to his own beatitude. This vocation is addressed to each individual personally” (CCC, No. 1719). Beatitude, as defined by the Church, is not so much about happiness here and now, but, more fully, about eternal joy in God’s presence, which certainly can be anticipated here and now.

The objection might be raised that this common call is fine for those who believe in God, but it is not applicable to unbelievers. Certainly, the Church cannot force anyone to believe its teachings, but it can share with the world the truths it received via divine revelation.

For example, it would not be far-fetched to maintain that each person desires to be happy. But where does this desire come from? The Church offers an answer:

“The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC, No. 27; see also No. 703).

Deep in the recesses of the human heart, there is a primordial memory of having been made by God, and, as St. Augustine said, “[O]ur heart is restless until it rests in [God]” (cf. Gaudium et Spes, No. 19). Human beings at the dawn of creation chose to ignore this intimate connection with their creator, but Jesus reminded the world of God’s love by sacrificing himself on the cross and renewing the invitation to divine beatitude. The Church wants all people to know this good news. (See sidebar above.)

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The statues of Jesus and Twelve Apostles in Domus Galilaeae International Center at the Mount of Beatitudes near the Sea of Galilee in Galilee, Israel. alefbet / Shutterstock.com

The call to holiness

In fact, the second layer of vocation, which applies to every member of the Church, is focused precisely on making Jesus and his gift of salvation known: “[T]he common vocation of all Christ’s disciples, a vocation to holiness and to the mission of evangelizing the world” (CCC, No. 1533). This includes Christians who are not members of the Catholic Church: “In this unity in mission, which is decided principally by Christ himself, all Christians must find what already unites them, even before their full communion is achieved. This is apostolic and missionary unity. ...” (Redemptor Hominis, No. 12; see CCC Nos. 818, 1271, and Lumen Gentium, No. 15).

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Prayer is a powerful tool for discovering God's plan for our lives. Shutterstock

All who have received the gift of being baptized into Christ receive the corresponding blessings, but they also share in the same fundamental duty: to go out to all the world and proclaim the Gospel of Christ, so that others may encounter him and know the hope of eternal life too. It even can be stated more strongly: Jesus’ disciples are called to live in such a way that other people encounter Christ through them, as it was with St. Paul, who said, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

This common call to the baptized to be holy and to spread the Gospel may seem like an impossible task. And it certainly would be if a person, or even the Church as a whole, were to attempt it apart from Christ. Baptism, however, unites the person to Jesus, and, when one yields to this grace, the person shares in what the Church calls the three “munera” (i.e., the offices or missions) of Christ: priest, the sanctifying office; prophet, the evangelizing office; and king, the serving office. Indeed, the Church states that all the faithful participate in these munera “in accord with the condition proper to each” (Code of Canon Law, No: 204.1).

Not only a clerical call

Still some may protest that such a call belongs to bishops and priests alone, those people who comprise the “official Church.” However, this attitude is contrary to the Scriptures and the constant teaching of the Church. In the first place, there is only one Church, and, while there may be distinctions among members (and different roles), every member is part of the body. Clearly, St. Paul thought so: “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1 Cor 12:27).

Different Vocations
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Pursuing a vocation of any kind requires careful discernment. Shutterstock

Clergy

And the Church in its documents echoes St. Paul: “Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them” (Lumen Gentium, No. 10).

In other words, no one is exempt from the call to holiness and the sharing of the Gospel. If one is a member of the Church, then one shares the responsibility.

That does not mean, however, that every member matures in holiness or preaches the Gospel in the same way. Remember St. Thérèse’s image of the garden with many different, but equally beautiful, flowers. In just the same way, God gives particular gifts and talents to each person for the good of all, which is exactly what St. Peter told his correspondents 2,000 years ago: “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pt 4:10). Hence, a third layer of vocation as taught by the Church is the specific call God addresses to each individual.

In considering specific vocations, the Church distinguishes three different, but complementary, groups: the clergy, the laity, and those in consecrated life (CCC, No. 873).

“By divine institution, there are among the Christian faithful in the Church sacred ministers who in law are also called clerics; the other members of the Christian faithful are called lay persons [married and single people]. There are members of the Christian faithful from both these groups who, through the profession of the evangelical counsels [i.e., poverty, chastity, and obedience] by means of vows or other sacred bonds recognized and sanctioned by the Church, are consecrated to God in their own special way and contribute to the salvific mission of the Church; although their state does not belong to the hierarchical structure of the Church, it nevertheless belongs to its life and holiness” (Code of Canon Law, Can. 207.1, 2). (See the sidebar entitled “Different Vocations” for a more detailed explanation of these three groups.)

All things to discern

With such a diversity of vocations available in the Church, how can one come to a decision? Does one become a priest or a brother or a nun? What about marriage or single life? And what about becoming a doctor, a skilled craftsman or a teacher? Actually, given the different personalities, life histories and even the bio-medical make-up of people, the possibilities can be narrowed down quite a bit for any particular individual. Nevertheless, in coming to a decision, there are a few essentials: What does God want, what is one suited for, and what does one’s community think (i.e., one’s family, friends, mentors and the Church)?

For most people, coming to a decision about a vocation will take a lot of time and prayer. There are, of course, exceptions: prodigies who have been blessed with an amazing talent or people, like St. Thérèse, who reach a conviction quite young.

The first step, however, is placing oneself in God’s hands through prayer: “What is your will for me, God? Speak, for your servant is listening.” While it’s unlikely that God will answer the prayer in an audible way, he does provide people with certain personalities and skill sets that can steer them in the right direction. A person who struggles in the physical sciences but excels in literature and philosophy may not be on a path toward being a doctor. Does one’s personality augur for a life of celibacy or marriage? The point is that God speaks to people through the gifts he has given them, and those gifts should be developed and brought to bear in one’s discernment.

God also speaks to people through their loved ones, mentors, and the Church. A wise person listens very carefully to the opinions of those who know him or her well.

Moreover, if one does discern a call to the clerical or religious life, then those who are charged with receiving candidates will test the call.

To put it succinctly, when one is discerning a vocation, one must pray, think and act. Moreover, undergirding one’s discernment must be a confident trust in the mercy and love of God. As St. Thérèse discovered in her own discernment, the God who made each person with such great intimacy and care is not going to leave a person in the dark.

There may be periods of frustration and impatience; it may seem as if God is holding back. Often, however, setbacks are ways that God interrupts a person’s logic in order to set him or her on the path he prefers. Indeed, many wise men and women, who have spent their lives chasing passionately after God, will testify that one needs to be ready for surprises when one is making the effort to yield to him.

Nevertheless, the absolute, non-negotiable requirement to being what God calls one to be is to remind oneself daily of God’s love, even if it seems absent. For the Lord has spoken: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49:15).

David Werning writes from Virginia.

Nihil Obstat: Msgr. Michael Heintz, Censor Librorum

An Anonymous Christian?
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Father Pedro Opeka during Mass in his village of Akamasoa, Antananarivo, Madagascar, on Oct. 7, 2007. Father Pedro was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013. Pierre-Yves Babelon / Shutterstock.com
What happens if a person is not aware of the good news of Jesus? If, as the Church teaches, it is part of human nature to love and to seek happiness, then a person without knowledge of Jesus may respond to these innate drives without knowing their source. God’s grace is given independent of a person’s recognition. If one lives according to the love of God implanted in one’s heart, one can be saved. However, this lack of knowledge is not a good thing. The world has been given a gift beyond measure in Jesus. To say that it’s possible to be saved without knowledge of him is not to suggest that ignorance of him should be accepted. It is far better to know Jesus than not to. Knowing him means knowing where one comes from and where one is headed. A person may have a sense that there is more to life than here and now, but without Jesus the person misses the full picture. Worse yet, “some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair” (Lumen Gentium, No. 16). To work against this fate for anyone, the Church urges every member to share the Gospel.