What is a Vocation?

Religious Vocation as a Free Choice

Fr. Joseph Bolin

What is a vocation?
Vocation is a free choice
Vocation is an invitation to devote oneself wholeheartedly to love of God and neighbor
The Value of Religious Vocation

Choice of Vocation is a Normal Choice

“What should I do with my life?” There are two basic ways to approach this question. The first way begins by saying “Do good and avoid evil,” or “Do what is best; that is, do what will make you happiest, make others happy, and contribute most to the glory of God.” The second way begins by saying “Do what God wants you to do, and do not do what God does not want you to do.” In day-to-day life, we look at things sometimes in the first way, sometimes in the second way. Each way is valid, and each way has its own advantages and its own disadvantages.

But when it comes to choosing a state of life, people sometimes set these two ways in opposition to one another. They say that the choice of a state of life should not be based upon one’s own will, or one’s own judgment of what would be best, but must instead be based upon God’s will, what God wants.

This dichotomy between choosing what is good and choosing what God wills is based upon a misunderstanding of God’s will. God loves us and wants to make us happy; he always wills our good. So if something is truly good, we can conclude that it is God’s will, and if something is God’s will, we can conclude that it is good. Thus St. Thomas says, “For the one who enters religious life, there can be no doubt whether the resolve to enter religious life that has arisen in his heart is from the Spirit of God, to whom it belongs to lead men into the right land.” The meaning of this is that since it is certainly good to enter religious life, the resolve to do so is from God.

Understanding this basic principle, that what is good corresponds to what God wills, we can see that there need be no opposition between choosing what is best and choosing what God wills. However, this is still not enough to resolve the issue. We do not know everything, and when we make a judgment about what is best, we can be mistaken. So when we can learn God’s will directly, it is a much surer guide than our own reasoning. And sometimes God’s will is revealed in a clear and definite way, as when he says to Abraham, “Go into the land I will show you.” But there are not always such clear signs of God’s will. We would not seek signs of God’s will to decide whether to change the tires on our car, to have dinner early, or to do any other ordinary thing. The question arises: in choosing a state of life, should we determine what the better thing to do is, or should we look for special signs of God’s will?

We find the answer to this question first in the Gospel. A young man comes to Jesus and asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “If you would enter into life, keep the commandments.” Unsatisfied with this answer, the young man responds, “All these I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” Jesus answers, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, etc.” The reason he gives for choosing poverty is that it is a way to perfection. He goes on to say, “every one that has left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting.” The reward is not promised only to those who leave these things at Christ’s invitation, but to all those who leave them for his name’s sake.

We find the same thing when we consider the argument St. Paul gives for remaining unmarried. He bases it not upon some sign of God’s will, but upon the value of each way, saying that he who marries does well, but he who remains a virgin does better. He does not talk about signs from God that one should remain unmarried. The motive he gives us for choosing virginity is its own excellence, the opportunity it gives us to think on the things of the Lord, to be concerned for the things of the Lord.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry--it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.[1]

Likewise the reason he gives for marrying is based upon a persons’s disposition, not upon signs from God. “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”[2]

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church, in turn, understand the choice of religious life not as something forced upon people from on high, but as a normal and free choice for the sake of something good.

To those is given the gift of virginity who wish it.[3]

Christ said to the young man: “If you wish to be perfect,” in order to draw him, but He left it to his free choice.[4]

Choose what is good; if you cannot because you do not wish, the Lord shows that you can if you wish, because He has proposed both (alternatives) to your free will.[5]

The rule of St. Benedict is proposed to all men, imposed on none. It is profitable if devoutly chosen and maintained, but if it is not chosen there is no sin.[6]

We find this same understanding even among those saints who make their starting point the question, “What is God’s will?” As St. Francis de Sales points out, “to know whether God will have one become a religious, one ought not to expect that God himself should speak or send to one an angel from heaven to signify his will.” Rather, the things sought as signs of God’s will are precisely those things that make religious life the best choice. The two great proponents of this obedience to the will of God were St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Alphonsus de Ligouri. Both of them deny the necessity for special signs of God’s will. St. Ignatius Loyola, writing about choosing a way of life, states at the beginning that one should strive for nothing other than to do God’s will, yet says that this can be found by a consideration of which way of life is best for one.[7]

St. Alphonsus de Liguori likewise says that the one important thing in choosing a way of life is to choose that to which God calls one,[8] yet denies that it is necessary to have special signs of God’s will.

It is a true vocation whenever the following three conditions concur: First, a good intention, namely, to escape from the dangers of the world, the better to insure your eternal salvation, and to unite yourself more closely to God. Secondly: When there is no positive impediment for want of health, talents, or some necessity on the part of one’s parents, in regard to which matters the subject ought to quiet himself by leaving all to the judgment of Superiors, after having exposed the truth with sincerity. Thirdly: That the Superiors admit him. Now, whenever these three things truly concur, the novice ought not to doubt that his vocation is a true one.[9]

The practice of the Church also shows that special signs of God’s will are not normally found in those called to the religious life and priesthood. She does not require such special signs in candidates to the religious life, which implies that they do not have to be present, or at least that it is not necessary to find them.

Can. 597 – 1. Any Catholic, endowed with a right intention, who has the qualities required by universal and proper law and who is not prevented by any impediment can be admitted to an institute of consecrated life.[10]

And the qualities required are simply those that make someone able to live the life of the institute.

Can 642 – Superiors are to be vigilant about admitting only those who, besides the required age, have health, suitable character and sufficient qualities of maturity to embrace the particular life of the institute; this health, character, and maturity are to be attested to, if necessary by using experts, with due regard for the prescription of can. 220.[11]

It might be thought that these are merely the legal demands, and that something more, namely a call from God, is required. But against this, it is clear from many places that those who are canonically suitable for a state of life are free to choose it.

In choosing a state of life there is no doubt but that it is in the power and discretion of each one to prefer one or the other: either to embrace the counsel of virginity given by Jesus Christ, or to bind himself in the bonds of matrimony.[12]

4… no one may prevent those who are canonically suitable from entering religion, since the religious state by its very nature lies open to all the faithful and is to be held in honor by all. “Let no one, who is unwilling, be driven to this kind of consecrated life; but, if one wishes it, let there be no one who will dissuade him, much less prevent him from undertaking it.”[13]

Thus if someone desires religious life as the better life, and is canonically suitable, he should not think that he may not be called to religious life, and consequently refrain from entering. For he would, in effect, be preventing himself from enter. But if no one ought to prevent him from entering, then he ought not to prevent himself. It might be objected that the purpose of these texts is to prevent other people from hindering a suitable aspirant, not to deny that the aspirant himself need nothing more than to be willing and to be suitable. However, if there were some reason for which he who desires religious life and is canonically suitable ought to dissuade himself from entering, then someone else could dissuade him for the same reason.

The requirements for aspirants to the priesthood are similar. Canon law states, “The diocesan Bishop is to admit to the major seminary only those whose human, moral, spiritual and intellectual gifts, as well as physical and psychological health and right intention, show that they are capable of dedicating themselves permanently to the sacred ministries.” Here too, some may object that the law only says that these characteristics are necessary for someone seeking the priesthood; it does not say that they are sufficient. Is not something more required, namely that mysterious “call”?

But if this is so, if these characteristics are not sufficient signs of a vocation, why does canon law not require in addition to them that the candidate show signs of a vocation? The law only makes sense if these characteristics actually are sufficient signs of a vocation to the priesthood.

That these are sufficient signs of a priestly vocation is confirmed by the report on Canon Lahittion’s work, “La Vocation Sacerdotale.” In response to arguments around the turn of the nineteenth century by those who held that a vocation consisted in an interior attraction, a Commission of Cardinals examined this work. Their view, fully approved by Pope Pius X, was that the following teaching of the author of the book is deserving of praise: (1) that no one has a right to ordination antecedently to the free election of him by the bishop; (2) that what is called vocation to the priesthood does not consist, at all events necessarily and as a general rule, in some interior desire of the subject or in an impulse of the Holy Spirit to receive the priesthood; (3) but, on the contrary, nothing more is required in the candidate that he may rightly be invited by the bishop, than a right intention together with a fitness based on those gifts of nature and grace, and confirmed by that goodness of life and sufficiency of learning, that afford a well-founded hope, that he would be able rightly to fulfill the priestly duties and maintain its obligations holily.[14]

Thus, God does call people, and there are “signs of vocation”, but these signs are precisely those things that in one’s concrete circumstances make the choice a good choice. Pope John Paul II says that while sometimes a vocation comes in an evident way from God, usually it is determined by the circumstances of one’s life. Making a comparison with Abraham, the pope says: “Sometimes a vocation is an obvious call from God, as in the case of Abraham... God speaks directly to him... Usually, however, the Lord must wait for the person's response.”[15] Speaking about discerning a vocation in general, he says:

Young people, entering into themselves and at the same time entering into conversation with Christ in prayer, desire as it were to read the eternal thought which God the Creator and Father has in their regard. They then become convinced that the task assigned to them by God is left completely to their own freedom, and at the same time is determined by various circumstances of an interior and exterior nature. 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.[16]

More concretely, the “signs of vocation” are that right intention and suitability for the life which were laid down as the requirements for accepting aspirants, as can be seen in the following description by Pope Pius XI of the signs of a priestly vocation, or lack thereof.

70. The Head of the seminary lovingly follows the youths entrusted to his care and studies the inclinations of each. His watchful and experienced eye will perceive, without difficulty, whether one or other have, or have not, a true priestly vocation. This, as you well know, Venerable Brethren, is not established so much by some inner feeling or devout attraction, which may sometimes be absent or hardly perceptible; but rather by a right intention in the aspirant together with a combination of physical, intellectual and moral qualities which make him fitted for such a state of life. He must look to the priesthood solely from the noble motive of consecrating himself to the service of God and the salvation of souls; he must likewise have, or at least strive earnestly to acquire, solid piety, perfect purity of life and sufficient knowledge such as We have explained on a previous page. Thus he shows that he is called by God to the priestly state. Whoever, on the other hand, urged on, perhaps, by ill-advised parents, looks to this state as a means to temporal and earthly gains which he imagines and desires in the priesthood, as happened more often in the past; whoever is intractable, unruly or undisciplined, has small taste for piety, is not industrious, and shows little zeal for souls; whoever has a special tendency to sensuality, and after long trial has not proved he can conquer it; whoever has no aptitude for study and who will be unable to follow the prescribed courses with due satisfaction; all such cases show that they are not intended for the priesthood.[17]

The “signs of vocation” given here are a right intention together with the qualities that make one fitted for such a state of life; i.e., the things that are necessary to be a good priest. These requirements also correspond to present canon law’s requirements of aspirants to the priesthood. These things are not signs “from God” in the sense that they are not from anything else. They are influenced by many factors: genetics, upbringing, education, the person’s own decision, etc.

As is clear from the regulations in canon law regarding aspirants to the religious life and priesthood, the requirements for the priesthood are basically the same sort as for the religious life. However, in general more is required for the priestly vocation than for the religious vocation, especially in regard to holiness of life, which is demanded by the priesthood, but is the goal of religious life. “Holy Orders demand holiness, but the religious state is an exercise for attaining holiness.”[18] The priesthood also demands more learning and intellectual ability than many religious institutes do.

We should still consider God’s will

Thus it is clear that ordinarily one should try to determine what is best rather than look for special signs of God’s will. This does not mean that one should not consider God’s will at all. It is not false to say that one should do what God wills. Nor is it useless, since this consideration helps us to be subject to God, to make our choice based upon supernatural motives rather than natural or earthly ones, and to see the importance of the choice we make. Thus when St. Ignatius speaks of choosing a way of life based upon which way of life is the best for one, he says to pray to choose in accordance with God’s holy will.[19] Similarly after choosing a way of life we should consider the fact that it was God’s will that we should choose it. For since God knows all things and orders them most wisely, there will be many more reasons than we know for us to be in our chosen state, and this consideration will help us to persevere in our choice.

Our choice remains free

However, there is a certain danger in considering God’s will, of thinking that we are being “forced” to choose a certain way of life. God does not force people like that. He wants our choices to be made in a human way, with freedom.

But how can that be? It is a sin to disobey God. And if we decide that it would be best for us to enter some particular state of life, and so conclude that such is God’s will, would it not be disobeying God to do otherwise? It seems that we still don’t really have an option, but are obliged to one particular thing.

If this argument were true, it would apply not only to the choice of a state of life, but to every choice we make. We would always be obliged to do what is best. To choose what is second best would be a sin.

But there is a mistake in this argument. It lies in the supposition that to act against God’s will is necessarily to disobey God. God’s will does not in fact always oblige us. To make this manifest, let us consider how his will is directly expressed. Just as we sometimes express our will by means of a command, sometimes means of counsel, or advice, so God both commands some things, as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and counsels some things, as “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have… and come, follow me!” When God gives a command, we are obliged to obey it; but when he gives a counsel, we are not obliged to follow it.

Although he made new demands in the call to follow him, Jesus offers them for the free choice of those he calls. They are not precepts, but invitations or "counsels." The love with which Jesus addressed the call did not take away the rich young man's power to decide freely, as shown by his refusal to follow Jesus because he preferred his possessions. The evangelist Mark notes that he "went away sad, for he had many possessions" (Mk 10:22). Jesus did not condemn him for this.[20]

The case is similar with God’s will for us as it is manifested in the particular circumstances of our lives. Sometimes we are obliged to do a certain good deed, such as to rescue someone who is drowning. Other times it would be better to do a certain good deed, such as to help someone trying to learn something new, but we are not obliged to do it. God’s will for us in the first case would correspond to a command, something we would be obliged to obey; in the second case it would correspond to a counsel, something we would not be obliged to follow, though it would be better to do so.

Now one may be obliged to enter a particular state of life because it is necessary either for one’s own good or for the good of others under one’s care. Thus some have considered it necessary to enter religious life in order to attain the salvation of their soul; when such is the case, they are obliged to enter religious life. On the other hand, a child who must care for his parents, or a parent who must care for his children, will be obliged not to enter religious life. In the past, a king might have been obliged to marry and raise children as his heirs for the sake of his people, to maintain peace and avoid civil strife. In these cases, the vocation to such a way of life, i.e., the manifestation of God’s will, would correspond to a command, which he would be bound to follow

But nothing is made necessary or obligatory simply by being better. The fact that one thing is better than another does not mean the other thing is bad. If it would be best for someone to enter religious life, but he could also live a holy life in marriage and raise a good family, then either choice would be good. One would be better than the other, but each of the two would be good. In this case the vocation to religious life, God’s will for him, would correspond to a counsel, which he would not be bound to follow.

This principle works the other way around as well. Just as the fact that one thing is better than another does not mean that the less good thing is bad, so the fact that one thing is good does not mean that something else might not be better. The fact that one could live a holy married life does not prove that it would not be better to enter religious life. Likewise the fact that one could live the religious life does not prove that it would not be better to marry, although it is certainly a sign of that, as will be shown in the section “Religious Life in Better in Itself.”

[1]    1 Co 7: 32-38 The last several verses are not perfectly clear in the Greek. The last verse, for example, is literally “He who joins his virgin in marriage does well, and he who does not join his virgin does better.” It is sometimes taken as applying to the father giving his daughter is marriage, but is more often taken to apply to the potential husband. “Paul will say of those who choose matrimony that they do "well"; and about those who are willing to live in voluntary continence, he will say that they do "better". Pope John Paul II, General Audience   April 7, 1982.  In any case, the reason given is not a special sign of God’s will, although God’s will is involved. “Each has his gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”

[2]    1 Cor 7:8-9

[3]    St. John Chrysostom, M.P.G., 58, 600  Moral and Pastoral Theology, Davis

[4]    In Mt. 19,21

[5]    Tertullian,  De Monog., c. 14.

[6]    St. Bernard, Moral and Pastoral Theology, Davis

[7]    Cf. Spiritual Exercises, Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1948, n. 177 ff.

[8]    Cf. Counsels Concerning a Religious Vocation, near the beginning. The text is in The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection, p. 375 ff.

[9]    Exhortation to Novices to Persevere in their Vocation, in Volume XVII of The Complete Ascetical Works of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, Benziger Brothers, 1890, pp. 175-176

[10]  Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition, Canon Law Society of America, 1983

[11]  Ibid.

[12]  Casti Connubii, Encyclical Letter Of Pope Pius XI, Vatican Translation, Pauline Books and Media, p. 7. The pope is here quoting Rerum Novarum.

[13]  The General Statutes annexed to the Apostolic Constitution Sedes Sapientiae, The Sacred Congregation of Religious, The Catholic University of America Press, 1957, Art. 32, p. 45

[14]  Moral and Pastoral Theology, Davis

[15]  Pope John Paul II, Homily of June 8, 1992

[16]  Dilecti Amici

[17]  He who oversees the Seminary with prudent and vigilant care, who follows with zealous solicitude the youths entrusted to him, one by one, and examines their impulses and gifts of mind, will without exceeding difficulty discover and know who of them is called by heavenly bidding to receive the priesthood. This inclination ready to undertake the sacred duties is manifested, as you well know, Venerable Brethren, not so much by a conscious interior attraction and motion of the senses, which can often be absent, as by the right propensity and intention of mind of those who desire the priesthood, joined to those ornamenting virtues of soul and body which render them fit to embrace this office. He who aims for this sacred institution for this one noble purpose, to give himself to the divine service and the salvation of souls, and at the same time either has attained or is striving to attain, solid piety, proven chastity, and suitable learning such as we have spoken of, is truly, as is clearly evident, called to the priestly ministry by God.  (A more literal translation) (Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, Pius XI, December 20, 1935   A.A.S. 28 (1936), p. 40).

[18]  II-II 189 a1

[19]  Op. Cit., n. 180

[20]  "According to the Founding will of Christ"  October 12, 1994, p.186

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