What is a Vocation?

Vocation is an Invitation

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

Not all receive this saying 

The idea that the choice of vocation is a normal choice might seem at first sight to be at odds with scripture. Jesus says in regard to celibacy, “Not all receive this word, but those to whom it is given… He who can receive it, let him receive it.” St. Paul similarly says “Now I wish all men to be as myself, but each one has his own gift from God, one thus, while another thus,” and in regard to the priesthood, “no man takes this honor upon himself, but he who is called by God, as Aaron was.”

Again, Pope John Paul II says, “in this consecration human endeavor does not have priority. The initiative comes from Christ, who asks for a freely accepted covenant in following him.”[1] But if it is a normal choice, it seems that the initiative comes from the individual.

In response to the objection about celibacy, the first thing to say is that being a gift of God is not opposed to being by choice. In order for someone to be celibate, he needs two things; the ability to be celibate, and the will to be celibate. Even if only the ability to be celibate were given by God, it would be true both to say that being celibate was from God and that being celibate was by one’s choice.

"All men do not receive this saying, except those to whom the power is given." Now they to whom this is not given either are unwilling or do not fulfil what they will; whereas they to whom it is given so will as to accomplish what they will. In order, therefore, that this saying, which is not received by all men, may yet be received by some, there are both the gift of God and free will.[2]

But in fact, not only the ability to be celibate, but also the will, or choice to be celibate, is from God. For God is the cause of all things that happen in the world. Those that happen by necessity, he makes happen by necessity; those that happen by chance, he makes happen by chance, and those that happen by free will, he makes happen by free will.[3] “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[4]

The second answer to this objection is that, while celibacy is a special gift from God, still we do not know “to whom it is given.” Thus, while only those receive it to whom it is given, since one doesn’t know whether it will be given to him, he can try to be one of those to him it is given.

The Divine Master showed such high esteem for chastity… The great apostle Paul preached the inestimable value of virginity… The priests of the New Law felt the heavenly attraction of this chosen virtue; they sought to be of the number of those "to whom it is given to take this word," and they spontaneously bound themselves to its observance.[5]

In regard to the priesthood, “no man takes this honor upon himself, but he who is called by God, as Aaron was.” Now, how did God call Aaron? He did so not by speaking directly to him, but through Moses. Moses stood in the place of God for Aaron. “He shall speak for you to the people; and he shall be a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God.”[6] And God instructed Moses, “Take unto thee also Aaron with his sons, from among the children of Israel, that they may minister to me in the priest’s office.”[7] Thus when St. Paul says, “no one takes this honor upon himself, but he who is called by God,” it is not a call directly to the individual, but one mediated by the ministers of the Church.

"Let no one take the honor to himself, but he that is called by God as Aaron was;1 and they are called by God who are called by the lawful ministers of His Church.[8]

The statement of Pope John Paul II, “in this consecration human endeavor does not have priority,” can be understood in the same way as “not all receive this word.” It does not mean that there is no human choice, but that the human choice proceeds from a prior divine choice.

The Requirements are Desire and Ability

If the choice of a way of life is essentially a normal choice, then it is really up to the individual. If he is able to live a certain way of life, and wants to do so, then he can go ahead and choose it.

XIV. Concerning virginity we have received no commandment; but we leave it to the power of those that are willing.[9]

Jesus does not condemn the possession of earthly goods absolutely: he is instead anxious to remind those who own them of the twofold commandment of love of God and love of neighbor. But he asks much more of anyone who can and wishes to understand so.

The Gospel is clear on this point: Jesus asks those he called and invited to follow him to share his own poverty by renouncing their possessions, however great or few they may be…

This poverty is asked of those who are willing to follow Christ in consecrated life.[10]

However, he must want it for the right reasons, and be willing to do what it takes to achieve it. If someone wants to learn French, he must be willing to study it. If someone wants to enter religious life, he must do so in order to devote himself to God, and be willing to live chastely and to obey the superiors of his community.

Let him who wishes to enter religion not forget to resolve to become holy, and to suffer every exterior and interior pain, in order to be faithful to God, and not to lose his vocation. And if he be not resolved to this, I exhort him not to deceive the Superiors and himself, and not to enter at all, for this is a sign that he is not called, or, which is a still greater evil, that he wishes not to correspond, as he ought, with the grace of his vocation. Hence, with so bad a disposition it is better to remain without, in order to acquire a better disposition, to resolve to give himself entirely to God, and to suffer all for God.[11]

Let none be admitted to religious profession except after he has given in the course of a novitiate made according to the rule, proofs of a real vocation; in such sort that one may with good reason presume that the novice is embracing religious life solely to live in God alone and to labor according to the rules of his Institute at his own salvation and the salvation of his neighbor.[12]

There are still many to be found who agree at least in general with this point of the traditional doctrine, as can be seen in the following texts.

There are three basic signs and they are really very simple. The three signs are (1) a desire for the life, (2) the right motivation for the life, and (3) fitness for the life.[13]

It is not just a matter of feeling, or waiting for a jab from on high; there are solid theological principles, three of them:

First: Do I want this way of life, and want it for reasons at least basically supernatural? (They may be mixed, especially early on). The reasons might be to serve and please God, or help souls, so to make your own soul safer.

Second: Do I have the needed qualities, mental, moral, physical and psychological? …

The final requirement is just as essential: Do I have a canonical call from a Bishop or Superior? Without it, none of the above count.[14]

After having considered the way St. Thomas goes about making his argument, and established that the choice of a way of life is essentially a normal choice, and that we should consider the goodness of the possible alternatives, we must look at the premises he uses. The two basic premises used in this argument are that religious life considered in itself is the better thing, and that there is in general no reason to doubt that one who enters it will be able to live it.

[1]    General Audience, October 26, 1994

[2]    On Grace and Free Will, St. Augustine

[3]    References. St. Thomas,

[4]    Phil 2:13

[5]    Ad Catholici Sacerdotii

[6]    Ex 4:16

[7]    Ex 28:1

[8]    Council of Trent

[9]    Constitutions of the Holy Apostles Book IV, Sec II.

[10]  Catechesis on the Consecrated Life, John Paul II, November 30, 1994

[11]  Counsels concerning a Religious Vocation, in The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection, p. 412 This English translation had “resolve to become a saint,” (santa in Italian) which  has been changed to “become holy,” as more appropriate to our way of speaking.” We usually reserve the term “saint” to those canonized as such by the Church.

[12]  Nostis et nobiscum, December 8, 1849, in The States of Perfection, p. 107

[13]  Martin Pable. OFM Cap. His primary concern in positing a desire as necessary is to oppose the idea that one would enter religious life simply because he thinks it is his vocation. He wants to exclude the idea that God forces a vocation on us against our will. He does not take care to distinguish between a rational and sensible desire, however, so he sometimes speaks of a sensible desire, or attraction.

[14]  Fr. William Most

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