For the next few posts, we’ll be focusing on one of the most important discernments that we can ever make: our vocational discernment.
In his apostolic exhortation, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, St. John Paul II wrote, “Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (no.11). Every person has a unique, unrepeatable vocation to love. Discerning one’s vocation means discerning how God is calling us to love, how God is calling us to bring life into the world.
Several understandings of the word “vocation” have arisen even in Catholic circles, which could cause a bit of confusion.
Possible meanings a Catholic would give to “vocation”:
1) a person’s call to priesthood or religious life
2) how God is calling a person to live their call to love throughout their entire life
3) how God calls a person to live their call to love through a specific state in life
Let’s look closer at these three meanings:
1) Using the word “vocation” only to mean a person’s call to priesthood or religious life is too restricted a meaning. Every human being has the vocation to love. The vocation to marriage is just as important as the call to priesthood or religious life.
2) The concept of “personal vocation” is important and still developing. Our personal vocation includes—but is more comprehensive than—our vocation to a specific state in life. Our personal vocation animates how we live in every aspect of our lives. Every human being has a vocation to love, which is strengthened and specified when we receive the sacrament of Baptism.
Father Herbert Alphonso, in his small but powerful book Discovering Your Personal Vocation: The Search for Meaning Through the Spiritual Exercises, talks about our personal vocation as the unique God-given meaning of our lives, and as God’s call to us to reveal through our lives a particular aspect of the face of God. In an article in “America” magazine, author Russell Shaw describes personal vocation as “an unrepeatable call from God to play a particular role in his redemptive plan and the mission of the Church.”
(If you are interested in exploring the concept of personal vocation further, I highly encourage you to read Father Herbert Alphonso’s book, Discovering Your Personal Vocation: The Search for Meaning Through the Spiritual Exercises, and Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name by Germaine Grisez and Russell Shaw.)
3) The most common understanding of “vocation” in its Catholic sense, is how God calls a person to live their call to love through a specific state in life. “Discerning one’s vocation” traditionally refers to discerning whether one is called to Holy Orders, consecrated life, marriage or the single state. This is how I have been and will continue to use the word, “vocation.”
Discerning one’s vocation, understood as discerning one’s state in life, is potentially the most important discernment one can make, because this one choice “sets the course” of our entire lives to be most in accord with God’s plan for us. Living God’s will as closely as we can is the surest way to finding deep happiness and fulfillment. Living according to God’s plan for us means that we are seeking to fulfill the unique mission God has given us—and others’ happiness could easily depend on whether and how we fulfill our specific mission.