This year, Sunday, May 8th has been designated as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The term “vocation” can mean different things within different contexts. In a particular sense, it essentially means that all of us have a calling from God to fulfill a very specific role or roles in each of our own lives. For example, some of us are called to be parents, doctors, artists, or activists for a moral cause. In this context, we often have more than one vocation at a time, such as one woman being a wife, mother, and teacher in obedience to all God has called her to be. When we acknowledge our God-given gifts and agree to do with them what the Lord intends, we are living out our vocational life.
In a more general sense, the Catholic Church identifies three primary vocations: priesthood, consecrated religious life, and lay (single or married). Sometimes we may also see it presented as four vocations: single, married, religious life, or priesthood. Either way, each of us will fall under one of these categories as we choose a path in life according to how God is leading us. Each vocation comes with distinct graces that help us along our paths to holiness. Spouses help one another get to heaven by being partners in the carrying of various crosses, the raising of children, and all of the other graces that come along with the Sacrament of Matrimony. The single laity also have roles to play within the Body of Christ that entail unique sacrifices, which contribute to their own holiness and the holiness of the entire body of Christ. Each vocational path is good in and of itself, so long as its purpose is to fulfill the will of God and is lived out with the intent of building up the Kingdom of God.
While each of the vocational options are good, when the Church asks for prayers for vocations, as she is doing today, she is specifically asking for an increase in vocations to the religious life and priesthood. As we live in a world today that has progressively devalued consecrated life, our Church has suffered a lack of people committed to living such a life. This fact is of great detriment to the world around us, as we are deprived of the specific gifts that priests and religious have to offer for the greater good of the world. This universal call to prayer for an increase in religious vocations is an acknowledgement of how we need more men and women to heed the call of the Lord and devote themselves more fully to the Lord without worldly distractions for the greater good of the Body of Christ on Earth. The Catechism quotes Lumen Gentium, saying:
Mother Church rejoices that she has within herself many men and women who pursue the Savior’s self-emptying more closely and show it forth more clearly, by undertaking poverty with the freedom of the children of God, and renouncing their own will: they submit themselves to man for the sake of God, thus going beyond what is of precept in the matter of perfection, so as to conform themselves more fully to the obedient Christ. (CCCC #2103, LG #42)
This text is essentially saying that to give up more worldly vocations, such as marriage, one is more closely united and conformed to Jesus because of the self-emptying nature of religious life. In other words, in choosing religious life, one is sacrificing the goods of a secular life (which are, in fact, good) for the greater good of conformity with Jesus, who sacrificed everything for the greatest heavenly good. Let’s explore how this is manifested in a practical sense.
First, when one enters into the religious life or priesthood, that person is opting to forgo marriage, children, and most other types of secular careers. Thus, the person is no longer divided between God and the world and can devote one’s entire self to his or her own vocation. Take, for example, a priest receiving an evening phone call to give last rights to a dying parishioner. If the priest was married with a family, he would have to choose one over the other in that moment. However, since Catholic priests generally cannot be married (except in very rare and specific circumstances), he is free to devote himself to his parishioners’ needs without sacrificing his time with a wife and children to do so. His work is God’s work. A woman who has devoted her life to a religious order that ministers to vulnerable pregnant women can give her time to that mission without worrying about leaving a woman in need in order to pick up her own children at school. To choose a vocation like this is to sacrifice the good of a family for yourself in order to serve the people of God more fully, without constraint.
Another practical part to understand about vocations is that, like secular jobs and
careers, religious vocations have their own charisms that will appeal to various individuals differently. Cloistered sisters and monks live in communities that are completely separated from the hustle and bustle of the world so that they might devote their lives to prayer for the world. Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, dedicate themselves to providing dignity to the sick and dying who might not otherwise receive it. Therefore, they are out and active in worldly settings. A parish priest devotes his life to the pastoral care of a specific geographical community, a Capuchin Monk (like Padre Pio) gives hours of his day hearing confessions for the good of souls, and a Dominican Friar has the gift of preaching. Just as there is no singular path to holiness for those in secular vocations, there is no one path to holiness for religious life either. Those called to these types of vocations can still live very full lives, contributing the particular gifts God has given them in their religious lives to the betterment of the Body of Christ.
Probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of the religious life is that of celibacy, because we live in a time that no longer values it for what it is. Celibacy is a very special calling. You may or may not have considered it before, but sexual relations will not exist in heaven after the final resurrection of all of our bodies. The reason for this is that the end of time will have come and there will be no more need for procreation, which is the primary purpose of those relations. Yes, there is pleasure involved, but the pleasure we will experience in heaven will far exceed that of any pleasurable act on earth. Therefore, to take a vow of celibacy is to experience a bit of what it will be like in heaven. Yes, it is a sacrifice and a cross for certain, but it is a sacrifice and a cross that shares in the self-emptying sweetness of Jesus’ sacrifice and cross. Similarly, to use one’s free will to practice self-control over base human urges is a tremendous practice in virtue. It can be easily argued that self-control is the beginning of all virtue and to live a life of celibacy is to imitate the perfect self-control of Jesus Christ. Even in marriage, we are called to a virtuous sexual life by not objectifying our spouse and to empty ourselves as a gift to our beloved rather than being self-serving. Given this, how much more virtuous is it to forgo that altogether as a self-emptying gift of oneself to the Lord and only the Lord?
Most of us are not called to religious life or the priesthood, but more are being called than are responding, as evidenced by the declining numbers to these orders. We, as lay people, can do our part by encouraging young people around us to consider the religious life as equally as they consider other vocational options. We have all heard the concerns expressed over our youth choosing this path, such as a desire for grandchildren, or the fear of celibacy, or making the sacrifice of no longer being able to see or speak to a son or daughter for a long period of time. However, we must ask what God wants for each individual more importantly than our own personal desires for the person. When we experience fear or anxiety over the possibility of the youth in our lives choosing a religious vocation, we ought to turn it over to God with faith, and trust that He will use these people for an eternally greater good, rather than our limited insight into worldly and temporal goods. This week, spend some time in prayer for an increase in religious vocations. Make an effort to encourage young people in your life to consider religious vocations as an equally viable option as secular vocations and ask God to speak His will clearly to all those considering religious life.