Paths of Love: The Discernment of Vocation

 According to the Teaching of Aquinas, Ignatius, and Pope John Paul II


Joseph Bolin

Listen, O son, to the precepts of your master,

and incline the ear of your heart.

Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue

Copyright © Joseph Bolin, 2008

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Principles of Christian Life



Evangelical Counsels

Devotion to the Lord

Chapter 2: Two Approaches to the Question of Vocation

St. Thomas

St. Ignatius of Loyola

Discernment of Spirits

Summary and comparison of the Three Times

Chapter 3: Comparison of the Two Approaches

Objective Approach

Advantages of the objective approach

Potential disadvantage of the objective approach

Personal Approach

Advantage of the objective approach

Potential disadvantage of the personal approach

Chapter 4: The Popes on Vocation

Pope John Paul II

Pope Benedict XVI

Chapter 5: Conclusions

Inadequate methods for discerning a vocation

(1) Making a decision on the basis of one’s own strengths and abilities

(2) Following one’s inclinations

(3) Waiting for miraculous signs

(4) Attempting to draw everything from the particulars of providence

Proposal for discernment of vocation

Confirmation of a Choice


Selected Bibliography


“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”1 (Mar 10:17) This question, asked of Jesus centuries ago, continues to be asked by Christians today. The answer to this question is one’s “vocation.” The ways in which one may ask this question, and the means by which one seeks an answer, are indeed many and diverse, according to the character of each person, and the workings and providence of God. Nonetheless, we can identify two basic ways of approaching the question, each of which has strengths and weaknesses peculiar to it. The first approach basically asks the question in this way: “What will bring me and others closest to God, and make us happiest?” The second approach asks it in a different way: “What does God most want me to do with my life?”

The fundamental distinction between these two approaches, and at the same time their complementarity, is often not sufficiently appreciated. Most treatments of vocation basically adopt one of these two approaches, and either disregard or reject the other one. We believe that a much sounder point of view will be attained by a balanced consideration of both approaches. In this work, then, we will examine these two basic ways of approaching the question of vocation, and the advantages and the potential dangers of each approach. Then based on these considerations, we will propose an integral view of vocations that seeks to preserve the benefits of each approach.

Most books on vocation fall into one of two categories: either they are theological treatises, of interest mostly to theology students and spiritual directors, or they are vocational guidebooks, which offer lots of practical advice on choosing one’s vocation, but often fail to provide substantial nourishment to their readers, to give them a solid foundation from which they can proceed further on their own. This book is of a different kind. The goal of this book is neither to make an exhaustive theological treatment of vocation, nor to give detailed advice or a foolproof “method” for discerning one’s vocation. Rather, its goal is to provide a deep, yet simple and accessible perspective on vocation, as it were a solid footing, both for individuals who are discerning their vocation, and for spiritual directors who are guiding others in the choice of a vocation.

In this work, we will seek to follow the twofold desire of the Church in regard to vocation—to promote the universal vocation to holiness, and to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life, as vocations that have a special value and irreplaceable role in the Church. The universal vocation to holiness has been described by Pope Paul VI as the “most characteristic element” of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching.

The Second Vatican Council again and again called all the faithful, of whatever condition or order, to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity; this exhortation to holiness may be considered the most characteristic element of the council’s teaching, and as its final goal.2

But at the same time, the popes note the importance of manifesting the special value and character of the priestly and religious life, as may be seen in the following text of Pope John Paul II, where he simultaneously points to the universal vocation to holiness, and to the special value of the priesthood and religious life:

It is indeed fitting to emphasize over and over again the universal vocation to holiness of the whole People of God.... An integral part of Christian family life is the inculcation in its members of an appreciation of the priesthood and religious life in relation to the whole Body of the Church. Our common pastoral experience confirms the fact that there is a very special need in the Church today to promote vocations to the priesthood and to religious life.... In every age the Church not only reiterates her esteem for these vocations but she acknowledges their unique and irreplaceable character.3

We will begin this examination of vocation with a consideration of the universal vocation to holiness. For the source and reference point of every vocation is the vocation to baptism and to holiness, the vocation to union with God in Christ. We must therefore first consider this common vocation—the end to which we are called, and the means given us for reaching that end.

After this consideration of the common vocation of all men to holiness, we will turn to consider specific vocations, and the basic ways in which one may seek to discern one’s vocation. St. Thomas will be taken as a representative of the first viewpoint, which looks at vocation primarily from the vantage of the good to which man is called, and St. Ignatius of Loyola as a representative of the second viewpoint, which looks at vocation primarily from the vantage of the will of God by which man is called. Following a consideration of each point of view, we will consider vocation as presented by Pope John Paul II, who to some extent unites the two views in a single account, and by Pope Benedict XVI.

Finally, we will turn to a somewhat more practical application of these considerations. First we will point out both the value and the dangers of some of the modern approaches to vocational discernment. Then, on the basis of the preceding considerations of vocation, we will make a proposal for a simple presentation of the issue of vocational discernment and decisions regarding states of life.

1Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966).

2Pope Paul VI, Sanctitatis Clarior, March 19, 1969. The same point is reiterated by Pope John Paul II: see his homily of May 9, 1988, and Christifideles Laici, n. 16.

3Pope John Paul II, Letter to the Bishops of the Unites States of America, May 14, 1986.

First Chapter of "Paths of Love": Principles of Christian Life

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