Christians should put hope into practice by living for the kingdom. They do that by finding, accepting, and faithfully fulfilling their personal vocations, which are their particular shares in the apostolate. As a principle of Christian life, personal vocation is treated in volume one (especially CMP, 23.E, 27.B, 28.E, and 31.C). The present treatment will not repeat what is explained there, but will focus instead on one’s specific responsibilities in this important matter.65 Personal vocation should embrace every part of one’s life, and care should be taken to discover and commit oneself to all its elements. Having done so, one should faithfully carry out one’s vocational commitments.
Vocation means calling. God calls everyone to faith and holiness; he calls some in particular to priesthood or religious life. These, however, are not the only sorts of vocation, for there are genuine callings to states of life other than priesthood and religious life. But, more than that, God calls everyone (including those called to the priesthood and religious life) with his or her own personal vocation: a unique share in the Church’s mission, a personal way of following Jesus.
a) Jesus calls each of his disciples by name for a unique task. Jesus himself had a personal vocation: the unique mission he received from his heavenly Father and carried out in the totality of his life, from childhood, through his baptism in the Jordan, and ending with his death on the cross (see CMP, 22.C).66 Mary also had her own personal vocation: announced to her by Gabriel’s message, accepted by her “Let it be done to me,” and carried out through all the rest of her life.67 Similarly, each and every Christian is hand picked, assigned a specific task in life, and personally called by Jesus to follow him in a unique way (see CMP, 23.E).
All Christians are called to holiness and to one and the same heavenly hope, but each also is called to a personal share in the Church’s mission and given the special grace needed for that particular apostolic life, so that by living a life of witness, a prophetic life, he or she can cooperate with the Spirit in building up Jesus’ body.68 What God said to Jeremiah he says to each of Jesus’ disciples: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1.5).
b) As they mature, persons normally develop a plan for their lives. Growing up, young people normally look to the future, anticipating fulfillment. They usually expect to marry, to work at some sort of gainful employment, to participate in civic affairs, to follow out various cultural and recreational interests, and so on. Needing to coordinate these diverse expectations, they rightly develop a plan for life.
In affluent societies, however, such a plan is all too likely to be self-centered, amounting to a set of egoistic goals—things to be owned, satisfactions to be enjoyed, positions and power to be obtained—together with a strategy for achieving them (see CMP, 28.D). Instead of shaping their lives in response to values and persons beyond themselves, many people merely aim at satisfying their desires, at trying to get what they want out of life.69
c) One’s plan of life should be rooted in a sense of vocation. Idealistic young people see the matter differently. They are less concerned about what they will have, enjoy, and control than about what they will be (see GS 35). They too seek self-fulfillment, but they expect to attain it by self-giving, by sharing in the realization of genuine human goods in loving fellowship with others. They hope to contribute to others’ well-being and to leave the world a better place than they found it. They want their relationships to be based on the mutuality of fairness and love. While, like their egoistic peers, they freely shape their own lives, their plan has the character of vocation, since they take into account and respond to the claims others make on them and to the appeal of objective values.70 Such a life plan is not so much a set of goals to be achieved as a set of commitments to be made (see CMP, 9.E and 23.E). It integrates various roles of service—in the family, at work, in the civic community, and so on—so that all the responsibilities a person assumes will be met.
d) One discerns God’s call in one’s actual circumstances. Some people imagine that many elements of life fall outside the area encompassed by God’s call, as if they had nothing to do with his salvific plan. The supposition, in other words, is that God calls people to ways of life and service unrelated to their gifts, opportunities, and true personal fulfillment. If that were so, someone’s real needs, well-integrated feelings, and decent aspirations could be more or less at odds with his or her vocation, and God’s call could be an arbitrary demand to sacrifice true self-fulfillment.
This way of conceiving vocation is mistaken. It overlooks the fact that divine providence is all inclusive. God’s salvific plan and will concern every aspect of each person’s being and situation. One’s gifts and opportunities are no accident: God provided them in view of his plan’s goal, the kingdom, which includes each person’s own true fulfillment and in no way conflicts with it. Since God’s providential plan of creation and redemption includes everything about one and one’s whole world, his call will in no way be at odds with one’s gifts and circumstances, nor even with one’s needs and feelings, except insofar as these are defective and need reformation for one’s own good.
Therefore, John Paul II explains, what God calls one to can be discerned precisely in the facts of one’s life and situation. “ ‘What is my vocation’ means ‘in what direction should my personality develop, considering what I have in me, what I have to offer, and what others—other people and God—expect of me?’ ”71 When Christian young people in friendship with God pray, “ ‘What must I do?’, what is your plan for my life? Your creative, fatherly plan? What is your will? I wish to do it,”72 they will find the elements of God’s reply in the appeal of values, the needs of others, and the gifts and talents they discover in themselves. Hence: “Examining these circumstances, the young person, boy or girl, constructs his or her plan of life and at the same time recognizes this plan as the vocation to which God is calling him or her.”73
Although many Catholics today realize that it is a mistake to limit personal vocation to the calling some receive to the priesthood or religious life, not all appreciate the comprehensiveness of God’s plan with respect to their lives. Inasmuch as the whole of life should be shaped by faith and hope, however, no part of it should remain outside one’s vocational life plan.
a) Personal vocation includes every sphere of activity. Certainly, the great commitments which settle one’s state in life—as cleric, religious, or married or single lay person—are important elements of personal vocation. But one’s work—whether it be in homemaking, day labor, farm, factory, office, trade, profession, government, education, or whatever—also is a large part of life and offers its own opportunities for giving Christian witness, serving one’s neighbor, and recapturing some part of the fallen world for Jesus’ kingdom. Hence, although choice of work and commitment to an employer and a group of fellow workers are not so permanent and unconditional as to constitute a state of life, they are an important component of one’s vocation.74
Similarly, in choosing where to live, a person undertakes the responsibilities of a citizen in that neighborhood, local community, and nation, and these civic duties must be fulfilled in a way which contributes to one’s Christian apostolate. Even hobbies, forms of recreation, ways of vacationing, and so forth should be viewed as elements of vocation and carried on in accord with relevant norms.75
b) Personal vocation includes every stage of one’s life. Personal vocation includes more than the life plan which a young person forms.76 The small child who decides to obey parents and teachers in order to be more like the obedient Jesus makes a basic commitment of personal vocation. Though this commitment will develop and be further specified, it need not be replaced. Widows and widowers must ask anew what God’s will for them is. Similarly, people who retire from their jobs have new opportunities for witness and service; they should continue to fulfill themselves and serve others by putting their gifts and resources to use, not simply filling their days with pastimes.
Thus, from childhood until death, an individual should listen for God’s personal call, shaping and reshaping his or her life according to faith and hope, and living each day of it with love. In this way, one lives according to God’s plan even when the immediate result seems to show that one had mistaken one’s vocation. For instance, some are called to prepare for the priesthood, but not to be priests; to be novices, but not religious; to be engaged, but not married. Often such experiences have an unforeseeable significance which only much later becomes clear. Discovering the limits of one’s calling at a particular stage, one should thank God for the opportunity it has afforded to give witness and to serve, while at once trying to discover the next phase of his plan for one’s life.
c) Personal vocation includes education and preparation. Human beings naturally desire to develop their capacities, to set goals and succeed in reaching them, to fulfill themselves and win others’ respect. This natural desire motivates every serious effort to study, learn, and practice skills. While the pursuit of self-fulfillment can be selfish, it need not be. Paul VI explains:
In God’s plan, every man is born to seek self-fulfillment, for every human life is called to some task by God. At birth a human being possesses certain aptitudes and abilities in germinal form, and these qualities are to be cultivated so that they may bear fruit. By developing these traits through formal education of personal effort, the individual works his way toward the goal set for him by the Creator. . . .
Thus, every effort at self-development through education should be undertaken and carried out as part of one’s vocation. Aptitudes and abilities should be appreciated as God’s gifts, and their cultivation should be regarded as a responsibility to him.
Self-development, however, is not left up to man’s option. Just as the whole of creation is ordered toward its Creator, so too the rational creature should of his own accord direct his life to God, the first truth and the highest good. Thus human self-fulfillment may be said to sum up our obligations.77
This way of considering education has important consequences. Rather than doing their school work merely to avoid punishment or reach some extrinsic goal in the future, Christian children and young people should commit themselves to their studies insofar as these are an important part of the life to which God calls them now and a preparation for the service to which he will call them in due time. To the extent the educational system allows choices among programs and courses of study, students should select the options which will more fully develop their gifts and prepare them for greater service rather than those which seem easier or offer greater material rewards. Young people who have the opportunity for higher education should make the most of it for authentic self-development, not waste it in self-indulgence or regard it as a deferment of adult responsibilities.
d) Repentant sinners always have a complete personal vocation. While Christians who choose to live in mortal sin more or less completely reject God’s call, others, perhaps partly due to poor catechesis, simply ignore their faith and hope in making plans which organize large parts of their lives. Their planning, directed to getting what they want without regard to what God wants, is at least venially sinful. But what becomes of the vocations of those who through sin make binding commitments they should not make or fail in ways that cannot be remedied to make commitments that should have been made? Suppose a young girl, careless about God’s plan for her life, ignores her vocation to the religious life, marries, has children, and only then becomes devout. Has she missed her vocation, once for all?
The answer is: No. God remains forever faithful; his gifts and calling are irrevocable (see Rom 11.29). But what God calls one to varies according to the particular circumstances of one’s life. Having become a wife and mother, this woman is not free to abandon her responsibilities. She should recognize her marriage and parenthood as important parts of her vocation and commit herself to fulfilling them. As God calls those who have defrauded others to restitution, so he calls sinners who missed what would have been their vocation to that life of witness and service—that share in the Church’s mission—available to them now, even at the eleventh hour. Hence, although a sinner may miss his or her vocation, a repentant sinner once more has a complete personal vocation.
This is not to say repentant sinners always are more blessed than if they had never sinned. Because of God’s generous mercy, that sometimes might be the case; but it also may be that those who sin and repent, while blessed with many gifts, would have enjoyed far greater gifts had they never sinned.
e) Conditions beyond one’s control can pertain to one’s vocation. After speaking of the more obvious elements of vocation, such as work and state of life, John Paul II adds: “And I am thinking also of other situations: for example, of the husband who is left a widower, of the spouse who is abandoned, of the orphan. I am thinking of the condition of the sick; the old, infirm and lonely; and of the poor.”78 While many elements of one’s vocation are undertaken by free choices, conditions of life beyond one’s control can be elements of it insofar as they provide special opportunities to live according to faith.
Thus, although children have no choice about going to school, they can, as explained above, see their school work as an important part of their vocation, and can commit themselves to doing it for that reason. People who think they are called to marriage but do not find a suitable partner can and should consider their single state part of their vocation for as long as it lasts, even for the whole of their lives, and should make the most of it for witness and service.79 The aging, as they lose their autonomy and become increasingly dependent on others, should neither exhaust themselves in a pointless struggle to retain what they must give up nor passively resign themselves to an empty existence. Instead, they should regard their situation as an opportunity to befriend those who care for them, to grow in meekness, to deepen the contemplative dimension of their lives, and to help others both by their prayers and by the witness of joyful hope.80 Similarly, the vocation of someone injured in an automobile accident, permanently paralyzed from the neck down, and constrained to spend the rest of his or her life in bed would be the life of prayer and witness still possible even in that situation.
Since vocation is God’s calling, its source is God’s providential plan. Thus, one may not decide arbitrarily about any element of one’s vocation. Rather, as John Paul II teaches: “Man must discover it—and discover it exactly.”81 He summarizes the process:
To be able to discover the actual will of the Lord in our lives always involves the following: a receptive listening to the Word of God and the Church; fervent and constant prayer; recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide; and a faithful discernment of the gifts and talents given by God, as well as of the diverse social and historic situations in which we live.82
One must not expect to hear God calling in some extraordinary manner; with the light of faith, personal vocation can be discovered in the sufficient signs by which God ordinarily makes his will known (see PO 11).
a) The chief elements of one’s calling are to particular roles of service. Discovering a vocation is very different from merely knowing what one wants in life. People can know what they want and set out to achieve it without considering others or while viewing others’ needs and interests as secondary, as mere helps or hindrances to self-fulfillment. In discovering the chief elements of his or her vocation, however, a person must consider others and accept the fact that an indispensable sign of being called to anything is a favorable response from the other or others who must decide whether to accept the offer. This is so because each and every Christian’s vocation mainly is to use his or her gifts to serve others and build up the communion of faith, Jesus’ body.83
Thus, God’s plan for one’s life is part of his larger plan for the life of the Church as a whole, and so one sometimes learns the limits of one’s vocation by finding no response to one’s readiness to make a commitment or even that a commitment already made cannot be fulfilled. For example, a man who thinks he may be called to the priesthood must try to find where he is needed. Only the particular needs of some concrete community will offer him a role of service; he has no vocation to the priesthood unless some bishop or religious superior accepts him as a candidate for ordination. Similarly, while those considering marriage may have good reasons for thinking that is God’s will for them, they cannot be certain until they find someone with whom marriage is mutually agreeable. In general, proposals by members of the Church to use their charisms in particular ways are subject to the judgments of the Church’s pastoral leaders.84
When the unwillingness of others to cooperate prevents Christians from committing themselves to something to which they thought they were called, they should accept that outcome as an inarguable sign of God’s will. God calls no one to do what is impossible, and so in such a case it makes no difference to one’s vocation whether the other acted rightly or wrongly. Even a wrong response, having been permitted by God, does not fall outside his plan; the insuperable obstacle of another’s no makes it clear that God is calling one to something else. It is an error, then, for a man to be sure he has a vocation to marriage despite the fact that no woman will marry him and, even if proponents of women’s ordination were correct in thinking it possible, it would be a mistake for a woman to think she clearly discerns a vocation to the priesthood so long as the Church does not accept women as candidates for ordination.
b) One should seek to serve those whose needs are great. Since a personal vocation is a share in the Church’s mission, and the Church has a preferential love for the poor, one should look for opportunities to serve those whose needs are unlikely to be met by others. The worst forms of poverty are spiritual: sin, ignorance of the gospel, lack of the sacraments, and so on.85 Those who can should therefore consider serving in the ordained priesthood, the religious life, the foreign missions, religious education, and so on. Moreover, they should consider offering themselves where the need is great, rather than remaining in familiar, comfortable surroundings.
The millions who are materially poor and oppressed also appeal to the Church’s preferential love, and those who can do so should consider devoting at least part of their lives to helping them. Action to overcome structural injustices by morally acceptable means surely deserves special consideration, because of its potential for widespread benefits. Efforts to help individuals or small groups better their condition also are worthwhile. The benefits to persons are real and immediate, and the witness value of such service is clear.86 Also, certain fields of activity deserve special consideration because they offer challenging opportunities for Christian witness: education, the media of communication, public affairs, and so forth.
c) Relevant facts about oneself and one’s situation are signs. Vocational and job counselors try to help young people learn about existing and likely future opportunities, their own abilities, and their not fully conscious interests and feelings. The goal is to help each client find a suitable place in the economy, a role the client can fulfill, and in this way also find personal fulfillment.
Such data also are relevant to the effort to discover some element of one’s Christian vocation, but they should be considered differently. Knowing by faith that nothing happens except by God’s will or, at least, his permission, one will see the facts one faces as signs of his plan and will, to be interpreted in the light of faith (see 1.J.3). This means regarding one’s gifts as talents by which God invites one to undertake a particular service, while limitations and defects (except insofar as they are handicaps to be overcome or sins to be repented) are recognized as indications that God is not calling one to certain forms of service. One also will be attracted by those possibilities which offer greater opportunity for witness and service to neighbors.
While hoping for self-fulfillment in serving God and neighbor, one will expect that reward to be complete only in the heavenly kingdom. This life offers only limited self-fulfillment, together with the suffering Jesus promised to all who follow him (see CMP, 26.K, 31.D).
d) One should consider difficulties and obstacles only secondarily. A vocation is the contribution one is called to make to the Church’s mission: the building up of Jesus’ kingdom. Those who keep this in mind in trying to discover the central elements of their vocations will be concerned primarily with the work to be done and only secondarily with the difficulties and obstacles, such as their deficiencies, the lack of necessary means, and the effort required.
Someone for whom these negative factors assume primary importance has forgotten that it is possible to draw on the Holy Spirit’s resources by prayer. Counting on God and discovering some great service one might render, one will look for and usually will find ways of overcoming deficiencies and obtaining means. And one will be encouraged to accept the challenges of hard work and possible failure, confident that commitment and effort will not be fruitless for those who sincerely try to discover and do God’s will. Even if one fails in this life, the attempt will bear witness to the kingdom and provide it with material which will be found purified and perfected in heaven (see GS 38–39).87
e) A process of discernment is needed to discover one’s vocation. While God sometimes uses extraordinary means—an angelic visitation, a mysterious voice—to make his plan and will known to an individual, most people can discover their vocations by a process of discernment.88 Vocational discernment means carefully gathering the relevant facts and then bringing to bear on them all the resources of faith, Christian morality, and Church order. One should take into account Jesus’ advice—for instance, the counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience—and seek the advice of trusted persons, such as parents, confessors, and devout friends. But nobody can discover someone else’s vocation.89 Even when all this has been done, therefore, an individual still must judge what he or she should do, sometimes determining between or among alternative possibilities, and always between accepting and not accepting something as an element of vocation.
One should pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and sincerely try to prepare to receive and follow it. When this has been done, feelings play their proper part. All options but one eventually become less appealing, while that one seems definitely right. A sense of light, joy, and peace is experienced in recognizing God’s will. (The discernment of vocation is treated more fully in CMP, 31.E; and below, 5.J.)
f) Certain commitments should not be made without certitude. To marry, to accept ordination to the priesthood, and to make final religious vows are commitments of a special kind. Not only is the matter very important for one’s Christian life but the commitment is highly structured: one assumes a set of definite obligations to definite people over an indefinite future. The choice to be made definitively excludes its alternative. That choice, without further specification by additional choices, settles an important aspect of one’s total vocation.
Once a commitment is made in these cases, one cannot significantly adapt the vocation to one’s capacities, but must adapt oneself in every way possible to the vocational commitment. If therefore at the point of making such a commitment one is not confident it should be made, one should not make it. The process of discernment needs to be continued until every alternative to making the commitment—ordination, final vows, marriage to this person—loses its appeal and making it appears clearly to be God’s call, recognized as such with a sense of light, joy, and peace.
Someone might say: If only one attractive option remains, there is no choice to make, and so, paradoxically, these most important commitments are made without any free choice. But that is not so. While someone who reaches the moment of making a major vocational commitment with the appropriate confidence no longer has any rational basis for not making it, nor even any feeling of attraction toward an alternative, such a person nevertheless knows that until the commitment is made, it can be declined; just as he or she also knows that, once the commitment has been made, other options will be foreclosed for the future, even if he or she then regrets making the commitment. This awareness of the unknown future naturally arouses some feelings of anxiety and reluctance, which the will must overcome to make the commitment. Thus, with respect to major vocational commitments, the confidence one should have and real freedom of choice are compatible. Consequently, while a commitment to a state of life should not be made so long as any doubt remains, it is a mistake to demand too much. A person who enjoys the necessary confidence that a commitment is God’s will still experiences the general anxiety about the unknown future and the general reluctance about taking on a lifelong obligation which are felt by every thinking and responsible person.
g) Other commitments may be made with less assurance. In the case of other important commitments, although an initial failure to discern should not lead to treating them as a toss up, a less definitive outcome can be accepted as a sufficient indication. Thus, the choice of a certain line of work should be an important vocational commitment; unlike choosing particular projects to carry out a professional commitment, that commitment itself is to the good or goods which the line of work serves, and to the persons who can be served in respect to the relevant good or goods. Yet no single choice fully specifies such a commitment, which must instead be developed through a series of choices.
A choice, for example, to go to graduate school (which is somewhat like a choice to enter a seminary or begin courtship with a particular person), ordinarily is not followed by a definitive commitment to a certain community for the remainder of one’s professional life. Rather, the commitment is to a career, which requires one specification after another. In making these further specifications, the career can be adapted repeatedly to one’s gradually emerging better self. And as one continues to discern and accept the career, one sometimes rightly returns to alternatives earlier rejected, and, seeing them now as appropriate parts of one’s vocation, accepts them and commits oneself to them.
Hence, although commitments such as those to a certain profession are important in Christian life, less confidence is needed to make them responsibly. When a clear indication of which option better pleases one’s better, Christian self emerges, this is sufficient. It is not necessary to continue until other possibilities lose their appeal and the one to be chosen emerges as uniquely appropriate, although that sometimes happens.
h) One should not try to discern too soon. People sometimes make the mistake of trying to discern too soon. For example, a woman who is a postulant in a religious order may or may not have a vocation to give her life in that community, but the commitment cannot be made until the time comes to make her vows. Yet she tries to discern now whether she is called to that vocation. Her effort is likely to fail, and if it seems to succeed may well lead to a false judgment, since she has not yet received the formation she will need before making the commitment.
Whether the postulant feels almost sure that she has a vocation or only thinks she might have one, her attitude should be: “I wish only to do God’s will, and he seems to be (or might be) calling me to this form of religious life; so, I will follow his lead and prepare to commit myself to this.” She ought to be confident that when the time comes the Spirit will give her the light she needs. Before then, she should be content to know only what she needs to know to live her life faithfully from day to day. Her current calling is to be a postulant and she should make the most of it. First-year seminarians who agonize over whether they should be priests make the same mistake; the time for that discernment is when they approach ordination to the diaconate.
Someone may object: But a final decision cannot be delayed that long. Far in advance, family and friends will be looking forward to the happy day. A certain momentum builds up, and, in practice, that will take the place of the necessary discernment. The answer is: To prevent that from happening, it is essential to make it clear to family and friends that no firm decision will be made until very shortly before the time comes to act on it.
i) One should recognize and accept one’s present vocation. A related mistake is made by those who, aware that the time for discernment with respect to a major commitment has not yet arrived, assume that meanwhile they have no vocation. For example, a young man who thinks he is called to marriage and family life but has not yet found the right woman may fail to recognize his present responsibilities: to prepare himself to be a good husband and father, to save for a house, and so forth. At the same time, he should recognize that his present single state, which may continue until he dies, is part of God’s plan for his life. He should accept and live it as an element of his personal vocation, making full use of the opportunities it offers for service and apostolate.
j) One should consider one’s priorities critically. The less binding elements of one’s vocation should be subordinated to others which are more important. Certain elements, such as a commitment to priesthood, religious life, or marriage, involve very important duties. Other important elements of vocation, such as those concerned with work, must be harmonized with such commitments. Hobbies, forms of recreation, and ways of vacationing should be selected and modified, without disregarding the genuine values involved, so as to harmonize with the central commitments and roles of service.
In discovering one’s vocation, no already-existing duty may be ignored. For instance, a young man whose aged parents need his help and care may not ignore his responsibilities toward them when considering whether to get married. Still, duties should not be confused with attachments. While most people are attached to their family and home community, many have no duty to remain there. By mistaking such attachments for duties, people limit their availability and easily ignore important elements of their vocation.
People have the right and duty to determine their own state of life and line of work, to decide where they will live, and to make many other large choices which will shape their lives.90 As these and other elements of vocation are discovered, one should accept what one finds oneself called to and, having accepted it, should faithfully carry it out, as John Paul II teaches:
It is precisely the principle of the “kingly service” that imposes on each one of us, in imitation of Christ’s example, the duty to demand of himself exactly what we have been called to, what we have personally obliged ourselves to by God’s grace, in order to respond to our vocation.91
a) Some elements of one’s vocation need no commitment. Besides his or her overarching commitments, a Christian should consider every lasting interest and ongoing activity in terms of vocation. Some of the less central lasting interests, such as hobbies, often develop unreflectively, perhaps beginning in childhood. Having come to see them as possible elements of vocation, one need only make sure that anything done in respect to them will contribute to one’s Christian life and the harmonious fulfillment of one’s total vocation.
Very often, people must accept rather than choose ongoing activities which make up an important part of their lives. Most children have little choice about whether to go to school; some people have no practical options about where to live; and some have no choice about what kind of work they will do. Even so, Christians can meekly accept these as elements of vocation which they simply cannot change, and can make the commitment to fulfill their unchosen responsibilities as part of what God calls them to. In this way they will fulfill their vocation in these respects, with the intention of bearing witness to Jesus and serving the needs of others.
b) Failure to accept some element of one’s vocation is a sin. Since each person’s vocation is to play his or her unique part in God’s plan, failure to accept any element of one’s vocation both impedes true self-fulfillment and evidences a defect in the meekness appropriate to those living in covenantal friendship with God. Moreover, since hope should shape one’s life into apostolic service to the kingdom, and since personal vocation is one’s unique share in the apostolate, failure to accept some element of a personal vocation betrays a defect in hope. How serious is such a sin? Its radical character suggests that it is grave, but the fact that the Church has not clearly warned against such sins suggests that any sin of this sort which is likely to be committed is only venial.
Perhaps the solution is that the responsibility to discover and accept one’s personal vocation is a specifically Christian one, and a person becomes aware of such responsibilities less through applying general norms than through the dynamics of the Holy Spirit’s law of love as it shapes his or her life (see CMP, 28.F). If so, those who gravely fail to seek and accept their personal vocations sin through lack of sufficient reflection, and so not mortally; while those who clearly discern God’s call to do something are predisposed to respond as they should.
Each element of one’s vocation defines a set of responsibilities for witness and service which by definition should be fulfilled. Leaving aside the endless task of enumerating those responsibilities, what follows is intended to clear up a few confusions about what faithful fulfillment of vocational responsibilities means.
a) Faithfulness means using everything one has to carry out one’s vocation. Since a Christian life properly organized by the principle of personal vocation includes every sphere of activity (see 2.a, above), it has a place not only for work and prayer, attending to the necessities of life, and sleeping, but for hobbies and recreation, celebrations, visits with friends, and so on. Because everything one has is a divine gift, to be used as God intends, all of it should be put to use, as efficiently and fully as possible, in carrying out one’s vocational plan. Of course, if some activity fits in nowhere but seems genuinely worth doing, reflection and discernment can lead to the judgment that one’s existing plan of life should be amended. What faithfulness excludes is holding anything in reserve for the use of an uncommitted part of the self, or thoughtlessly wasting material resources, energy, or time.
Many people, for example, waste much of their time and energy in pastimes which, while perhaps sinless in themselves, bear no real fruit either for themselves or others: daydreaming, useless worrying, idle chatter, and passive entertainment. Even fairly well-organized people often fail to make good use of the time and energy still available while they engage in some necessary activity, for example, by allowing their minds to wander as they shower and dress or by using a radio for passive entertainment as they commute. Committed Christians should discipline themselves to replace useless activities with others which not only promise real benefit but further one or another element of their vocation, and, whenever possible, should do two or more such things at once. For example, while occupied with necessary activities which leave the mind free, a person can make plans, think through a problem, or pray; while commuting, someone might listen to worthwhile tape recordings. The ideal of faithfulness is set by the exhortation: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3.17; see CMP, 27.E).
b) Faithfulness does not preclude change and creativity. Some elements of one’s personal vocation involve morally binding promises or even unbreakable commitments. Moreover, faithfulness generally requires doing one’s own duty rather than taking on responsibilities pertaining to others’ vocations, for, as John Paul II teaches, “Confusion of charisms impoverishes the Church; it does not enrich it in any way.”92 Still, not all elements of one’s vocation are unalterable, and faithfulness requires fulfilling one’s vocation as it now is, not as it once may have been.
Again, while faithfulness means carrying out the responsibilities one has assumed, there may be various ways of doing that. Wishing to give better service, the faithful person does not always follow standard practices, but innovates, while respecting the requirements of morality and just law, as did the saints who founded new religious institutes to satisfy unmet needs.
Then too, in carrying out responsibilities, it often is necessary to undertake projects directed toward certain definite goals; but because projects are only means to the goods to be served, they often can be modified or abandoned without unfaithfulness, if they fail to serve the purposes they were meant to serve or if the purposes can be better served in other ways.
c) Faithfulness means reaffirming one’s commitments against temptations. When a commitment is made, other possibilities are foreclosed. Encountering difficulties later or growing bored, one is likely to recall what was given up and imagine what might have been. The temptation arises to entertain the thought: I wish I were not married (or married to my spouse); I wish I were not a priest; I wish I had not made these vows . . ..93 Entertaining such thoughts is not a light matter but a grave violation of vocational commitment: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9.62).
Although this sin’s guilt no doubt is often mitigated by lack of sufficient reflection or full consent, the sin, if not repented, nevertheless generates inertia and sadness, and leads to a dispirited and plodding minimalism in doing one’s duties. Since this state of soul is easily mistaken for depression or fatigue due to overwork, people often try to deal with it by seeking rest and distractions. Far from helping, such tactics only further weaken the commitment and make matters worse. The proper response is to recognize the seriousness of the sin, repent it, and reaffirm the commitment.
In doing so, one acts against one’s feelings, and these should not be repressed; rather, discrepancies between feelings and commitments ought to be recognized as helpful clues to ways of thinking and acting which call for modification. Necessary changes should be made not only to fulfill vocational responsibilities more perfectly, but to make doing so more satisfying. For example, in order to better integrate feelings with a commitment, it sometimes helps to reorganize the activities which fulfill responsibilities, alternating sedentary work with physical exertion and solitary work with cooperative efforts.94
d) Faithfulness means not giving in to discouragement. The optimism inherent in contemporary secular humanist ideologies is both deceptive and contagious. It is deceptive because the fallen world cannot be perfected in the course of history. Of course, humankind can and should struggle against evil of every kind; this can achieve much good. Medicine, for example, can heal some illnesses and prolong life. Nevertheless, everyone will die, and only Jesus gives the medicine which cures death. The same urgency and the same poor prospects in the struggle against evil hold in every area of human endeavor, not least in politics. Yet Christians, infected with secular humanist optimism, often entertain false expectations concerning prospects for freedom, national and international economic justice, world peace, and so on.
When false expectations eventually encounter hard realities, optimism gives way to pessimism and cynicism. Then, rather than faithfully doing the good which is possible, even Christians often give in to discouragement and abandon their vocational commitments. To forestall this, they should live, not by optimism, which lacks realism about evil, but by hope, which counts on God to overcome it. While hope motivates efforts to overcome every evil and do every good possible in this world, it anticipates limited success and much frustration; but, counting on God for the ultimate overcoming of evil and the perfection of creation, hope never gives in to discouragement.
e) Faithfulness means making the best of bad situations. Often one can and should try to change a bad situation, but sometimes there either is no means or none whose use would be morally acceptable. Then a faithful person makes the best of the situation. There is an alternative: wasting time and energy analyzing the situation, even though one plainly cannot or should not try to change it; considering how the situation could be changed for the better by others who will not; complaining and wishing things were different; and omitting to do the good which is possible on the ground that it is so much less than what could be done if only things were different.
Especially tempted to fall into this sort of unfaithfulness are idealistic people with unselfish commitments: priests or religious whose dioceses or communities are in disarray, loving spouses whose partners are selfish, hard workers whose employers are poor managers, good students whose school is second rate, and so on. No situation in this fallen world is perfect, and there are constant temptations to indulge in an idealism which weakens faithfulness. The remedy is to remember that God calls one to do only what one can, by oneself and in cooperation with others. He does not expect one to accomplish what would be accomplished in a world not fallen; he alone can complete redemption by re-creation.
f) Faithfulness means dynamic submission to God’s plan and will. Having suffered setbacks, even disastrous failures, those who try to fulfill the responsibilities of their personal vocations are likely to be told: “Practice resignation!” The advice is sound insofar as resignation means Christian meekness, which excludes rebelliousness against God. One must follow Jesus, who encountered much frustration in his earthly mission, but “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5.8; cf. Phil 2.6–8), and so fulfilled his mission and won glory. However, resignation also connotes passivity and despair, while faithfulness calls for a dynamic and hopeful attitude.
One’s limitations, defects, setbacks, and failures should be interpreted as signs of something more important than the frustration of one’s own desires: God’s mysterious way of redeeming the fallen world. It is essential to bear in mind that faithfulness is more important than success, since whatever fragile and mutilated goods are achieved by faithfully fulfilling one’s responsibilities are material for the heavenly kingdom. Hoping, one should actively bring one’s own plans into harmony with what one learns is God’s rather different plan, counting on him to purify and complete the fragments of good which one succeeds in realizing in this world (see GS 39).
g) Faithfulness means abstaining from the use of morally bad means. Even conscientious people may be tempted to violate moral norms when there is no other way of preventing some evil or achieving some good for their community (Church, country, company, school, family, and so on) or the people for whom they are responsible. For instance, some otherwise honest people regularly lie in the line of duty. Moreover, proportionalism rationalizes doing evil to attain good or prevent some “greater” evil. But the proportions of good and bad in options available for free choice never can be known, and so proportionalist judgments lack an objective basis (see CMP, 6.H.4–6).
Faithfulness never requires wrongdoing. To suppose it does impugns God’s providence. A faithful person is not responsible for finding a solution to every problem, but only for doing what can rightly be done and hoping for the best. Witness and service are within one’s power, but success in realizing good and preventing evil is not, since it depends on other factors, including the cooperation of other people. Moreover, God’s redemptive plan, clearly revealed in Jesus’ death and resurrection, does not ensure that all will go well in this world, but only that faithfulness will bear fruit by God’s almighty mercy. Finally, then, only someone who hopes will act responsibly in the face of all setbacks and disappointments; for such a person counts on God to make his or her efforts fruitful, now or not now, as the case may be, but certainly in eternity.
h) Faithfulness means not counting the costs of doing one’s duty. In evaluating projects, which are means to the goods one should serve, a person must count costs. Moreover, if it would be wrong to accept certain side effects of an act which otherwise would be required to fulfill a responsibility, the responsibility must be left unfulfilled. Often, however, it appears likely that fulfilling a responsibility will have side effects one finds repugnant but can rightly accept. The temptation then is to set aside the responsibility, on the excuse that the bad consequences of fulfilling it would be worse than the evil of not fulfilling it. But the two evils are compared not rationally but emotionally; here proportionalism rationalizes evasion of responsibility.
On this basis, pastors are tempted to be silent about truths which are out of season, parents to omit disciplining rebellious adolescent children, political leaders to tolerate the injustices of the powerful, and so on. Those who are unfaithful in this way often call such behavior “prudence,” especially when they act on the basis of calculations about the harm to the institutions they serve rather than to themselves. This false prudence manifests weakness of hope. True prudence would determine how best to fulfill responsibilities while minimizing the bad side effects.
65. What is said about personal vocation in volume one is confirmed by many recent documents of John Paul II. Besides those cited below, see: Meeting with the Youth of Madagascar, 5; L’Osservatore Romano, It. ed., 1 May 1989, 7 and A.iv (Fr. text); OR, 8 May 1989, 4.
66. See John Paul II, Homily in Miraflores Park (Cuenca, Ecuador), 7, Inseg. 8.1 (1985) 309, OR, 11 Mar. 1985, 5.
67. John Paul II, Homily at Mass for Students of the Pontifical Minor Roman Seminary, 2, Inseg. 4.2 (1981) 1171, OR, 25 Jan. 1982, 5, teaches: “That was the moment of Mary’s vocation. And the very possibility of Christmas depended on that moment. Without Mary’s ‘Yes’, Jesus would not have been born.” Also see Germain Grisez, “Mary and Christian Moral Principles,” Marian Studies 36 (1985): 40-59; Benedict M. Ashley, O.P., “Moral Theology and Mariology,” Anthropotes 7 (1991): 137–53.
68. See John Paul II, Homily at Mass at Bellahouston Park (Glasgow), 6, Inseg. 5.2 (1982) 2066–67, OR, 7 June 1982, 16, who uses Eph 4.7, 11–12 to illustrate this point; Christifideles laici, 58, AAS 81 (1989) 507–9, OR, 6 Feb. 1989, 19; cf. 1 Cor 12.7–11, Rom 12.3–8; LG 12, UR 2.
69. On plan of life and self-fulfillment, see John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the Occasion of the International Youth Year, 3, AAS 77 (1985) 582–85, OR, 1 Apr. 1985, 2.
70. On plan of life as vocation, see John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the Occasion of the International Youth Year, 9, AAS 77 (1985) 600–601, OR, 1 Apr. 1985, 4; Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H. T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981), 255–58.
71. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, 257.
72. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the Occasion of the International Youth Year, 9, AAS 77 (1985) 601, OR, 1 Apr. 1985, 4.
73. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the Occasion of the International Youth Year, 9, AAS 77 (1985) 602, OR, 1 Apr. 1985, 5.
74. See John Paul II, Homily at Mass at St. Joseph Cafasso Parish, 4, Inseg. 4.1 (1981) 215–16, OR, 16 Feb. 1981, 6. Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, AAS 23 (1931) 226, PE, 209.141, already pointed out: “The first and immediate apostles to the workers ought to be workers; the apostles to those who follow industry and trade ought to be from among them themselves.” Although slightly marred by anti-Catholic polemic, the Protestant tradition offers a rich theology of work as an element of Christian vocation; see Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), who points out (68–76) the convergence between that tradition and modern Catholic social teaching.
75. For example, John Paul II, Address at the World Organization of Tourism (Madrid), Inseg. 5.3 (1982) 1061–63, OR, 20 Dec. 1982, 5, 12, points out that vacation travel should be neither “a banal fact of consumerism” nor “a modern form of alienation, a waste of time and money”; it should be “more than a simple rest or kind of escape”: “a pause to restore the psychophysical energies consumed in working,” “a restorative activity, which should help [a man] to ‘re-create’ himself through new experiences derived from upright and free choices,” “a capacity for self-education and of culture,” and “a privileged instrument for reinforcing and multiplying the mutual relations which enrich the human community” and “help to establish those ties of solidarity of which the present world, disturbed by wars, has such a great need.”
76. See John Paul II, Christifideles laici, 45–48, AAS 81 (1989) 481–86, OR, 6 Feb. 1989, 15–16.
77. Paul VI, Populorum progressio, 15–16, AAS 59 (1967) 265, PE, 275.15–16.
78. John Paul II, Homily at Mass at St. Joseph Cafasso Parish, 4, Inseg. 4.1 (1981) 215–16, OR, 16 Feb. 1981, 6.
79. See Pius XII, Address to Italian Women (21 Oct. 1945), AAS 37 (1945) 287, Catholic Mind 43 (1945): 708.
80. See Lucien Richard, “Toward a Theology of Aging,” Science et esprit 34 (1982): 269–87.
81. John Paul II, Homily in Miraflores Park (Cuenca, Ecuador) 9, Inseg. 8.1 (1985) 311, OR, 11 Mar. 1985, 6.
82. John Paul II, Christifideles laici, 58, AAS 81 (1989) 508, OR, 6 Feb. 1989, 19.
83. Whether they are exceptional and great or simple and ordinary, one’s gifts are charisms, graces which the Holy Spirit provides for building up the Church; they always are to be exercised for service, subject to ecclesiastical authority. See LG 12; John Paul II, Christifideles laici, 24, AAS 81 (1989) 433–35, OR, 6 Feb. 1989, 8.
84. Paul VI, Address to the Rota, AAS 63 (1971) 139, OR, 11 Feb. 1971, 7, teaches: “Hence it is necessary to judge and differentiate between charisms in order to check their authenticity and correlate them with criteria derived from the teaching of Christ, and in accordance with the order which should be observed in the ecclesial community. Such an office pertains to the sacred hierarchy, which is itself established by a singular charism. So true is this, indeed, that St. Paul does not recognize as valid any charism that is not subject to his apostolic office (cf. 1 Cor 4.21, 12.4–5; Gal 1.8; Col 2.1–23).”
85. See John Paul II, Homily at Mass in Calcutta, 7, Inseg. 9.1 (1986) 317, OR, 10 Feb. 1986, 13.
86. Thus, an apostolate like that of Mother Teresa’s congregation always will have great value. See AG 12, GS 88; Paul VI, Populorum progressio, 47 and 74, AAS 59 (1967) 280–81 and 293, PE, 275.47 and 74; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, 11.2–3, AAS 76 (1984) 903, OR, 10 Sept. 1984, 4.
87. As St. Thomas points out (see S.t., 2–2, q. 133, a. 1, ad 3), pusillanimity can originate from pride. Those who think they must accomplish everything by themselves underestimate what they really could do—with help. Conversely, Christians who abound in humility and hope seem reckless at times in their ambitious apostolic undertakings.
88. What follows regarding discernment uses but also modifies the classic treatment of St. Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 169–89, trans. Lewis Delmage, S.J. (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1968), 87–95.
89. Sometimes parents or others are confident that they know for certain what someone’s vocation is. Unless they have received a private revelation, however, they have no way of discerning anyone else’s vocation, because discernment presupposes awareness of one’s own feelings. Thus, such people’s confidence in their judgment is an illusion, very likely rooted in their own subconscious feelings and wishes. Hence, when one is attempting to discern one’s vocation, one should consider suspect the advice of those who think they know for certain that one should or should not make a certain commitment.
90. See John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 261 and 263, PE, 270.15–16 and 25, for state of life and dwelling place, including migration. The Church’s social teaching concerning work generally talks about people already engaged in a particular line of work, and so seldom treats this element of vocation as an area in which there are important options. However, although the right to choose one’s line of work clearly is not absolute but conditioned in various respects, this element of personal vocation ordinarily is subject to the individual’s responsible choice— obviously more so in advanced industrial economies than in less complex economies.
91. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 21, AAS 71 (1979) 318, PE, 278.87.
92. John Paul II, Address to Ecclesiastical Assistants of International Catholic Associations, 4, Inseg. 2.2 (1979) 1391, OR, 7 Jan. 1980, 11.
93. The temptation also can arise in regard to professional and other work commitments, but these in the nature of the case are open to development and legitimate change, so that in regard to them one must distinguish between temptations to infidelity and thoughts about possibly appropriate modification.
94. See Kenneth C. Russell, “Acedia: The Dark Side of Commitment,” Review for Religious 47 (1988): 730–37.