Let’s begin this reflection on the relationship between vocation and the Church by considering some foundational texts in Sacred Scripture:
These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. The many miracles and signs worked through the apostles made a deep impression on everyone. The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the Temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.
The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed for his own use anything he had as everything they owned was held in common.
In the light of the grace I have received I want to urge each one among you not to exaggerate his real importance. Each of you must judge himself soberly by the standard of the faith God has given him. Just as each of our bodies has several parts and each part has a separate function, so all of us, in union with Christ, form one body, and as parts of it we belong to each other. Our gifts differ according to the grace given us. If your gift is prophecy, then use it as your faith suggests; if administration, then use it for administration; if teaching, then use it for teaching. Let the preachers deliver sermons, the almsgivers give freely, the officials be diligent, and those who do works of mercy do them cheerfully. Do not let your love be a pretence, but sincerely prefer good to evil. Love each other as much as brothers should, and have a profound respect for each other. Work for the Lord with untiring effort and with great earnestness of spirit. If you have hope, this will make you cheerful. Do not give up if trials come; and keep on praying. If any of the saints is in need you must share with them and you should make hospitality your special care.
I Corinthians 3:9-13, 16-17
We (Paul and Apollos) are fellow workers with God; you are God’s farm, God’s building. By the grace God gave me, I succeeded as an architect and laid the foundations on which someone else is doing the building. Everyone doing the building must work carefully. For the foundation, nobody can lay any other than the one which has already been laid, that is Jesus Christ. On this foundation you can build in gold, silver and jewels, or in wood, grass and straw, but whatever the material, the work of each builder is going to be clearly revealed when the day comes…. Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you? If anybody should destroy the temple of God, God will destroy him, because the temple of God is sacred; and you are that temple.
I Corinthians 19-23
So that I am not a slave of any man I have made myself the slave of everyone so as to win as many as I could. I made myself a Jew to the Jews, to win the Jews; that is, I who am not a subject of the Law made myself a subject of the Law to those who are subjects of the Law. To those who have no Law, I was free of the Law myself (though not free from God’s law, being under the law of Christ) to win those who have no law. For the weak I made myself weak. I made myself all things to all men in order to save siome at any cost; and I still do this, for the sake of the gospel, to have a share in its blessings.
I Corinthians 12:4-11
There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit; there are all sorts of service to be done, but always to the same Lord; working in all sorts of different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them. The particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose. One man may have the gift of preaching with wisdom given him by the Spirit; another may have the gift of preaching instruction given him by the same Spirit; and another the gift of faith given by the same Spirit; another again the gift of healing, through this one Spirit; one, the power of miracles; another, prophecy; another the gift of recognising spirits; another the gift of tongues and another the ability of interpreting them. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, who distributes different gifts to different people just as he chooses.
I Corinthians 12:12-30 – The analogy of the body
Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit because all these parts, though many, make one body, so it is with Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens, and one Spirit was given to us all to drink.
Now, you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it. In the Church, God has given the first place to apostles, the second to prophets, the third to teachers; after them, miracles, and after them the gift of healing; helpers, good leaders, those with many languages.
II Corinthians 4:18-21
It is all God’s work. It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation. In other words, God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding men’s faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled. So we are ambassadors for Christ; it is as though God were appealing through us, and the appeal that we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God.
So you are no longer aliens or foreign visitors: you are citizens like all the saints, and part of God’s household. You are part of a building that has the apostles and prophets for its foundations, and Christ Jesus himself for its main cornerstone. As every structure is aligned on him, all grow into one holy temple in the Lord; and you too, in him, are being built into a house where God lives, in the Spirit.
And to some, his gift was that they should be apostles; to some, prophets; to some, evangelists; to some, pastors and teachers; so that the saints together make a unity in the work of service, building up the body of Christ. In this way, we are all to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself. Then we shall not be children any longer, or tossed one way and another and carried along by every wind of doctrine, at the mercy of all the tricks men play and their cleverness in practising deceit. If we live by the truth and in love, we shall grow in all ways into Christ, who is the head by whom the whole body is fitted and joined together, every joint adding its own strength, for each separate part to work according to its function. So the body grows until it has built itself up, in love.
II Timothy 4:1-5
Before God and before Christ Jesus who is to be the judge of the living and of the dead, I put this duty on you, in the name of his Appearing and of his kingdom: proclaim the message and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it. Refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience – but do all with patience and with the intention of teaching. The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes; and then, instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to myths. Be careful always to choose the right course; be brave under trials; make the preaching of the Good News your life’s work, in thoroughgoing service.
I Peter 2:9-10
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people at all and now you are the People of God; once you were outside the mercy and now you have been given mercy.
I Peter 3:15-17
Simply reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience, so that those who slander you when you are living a good life in Christ may be proved wrong in the accusations that they bring. And if it is the will of God that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.
From the very beginning of her existence the Church has always sought to identify, with joy, the specific services which brothers and sisters give, for building up the Church herself and for preaching the Good New, witnessing to Jesus Christ, in the world. Of course, this is the fundamental expression of any Christian vocation – it has its origin in, its drive from, and its goal towards the person of Jesus Christ. The very nature of the Church is to present Jesus Christ and his message of the kingdom of God, present and yet to be perfected, as the only meaningful goal toward which we should aim. Every vocation is a personal expression of this same yearning and striving and working. Every vocation, discerned with integrity and truthfully, expresses the Church.
Reflecting on the teaching of Sacred Scripture we take a look now on the nature of vocation as something born within the Church and having no meaning without the context of the Church.
The fundamental characteristic of the Church is mission, being commissioned to preach the Good News in whatever way is given to us. Christ gives her this defining aspect in that last meeting with his disciples, the great commission to go out and preach, allowing the Gospel to be the supreme tool for witnessing to the transformative power of God’s kingdom-reign (Matthew 28:16-20). But this has been exactly the example which Christ has given during this earthly ministry and it becomes the single great motivation when the Church is born at Pentecost. Nothing happens in those early, very powerful chapters of the Acts of the Apostles without the fundamental kerygmatic faith being announced. This kerygma – the Greek word for proclamation – sets the scene for every moment of personal witness given by the apostles and those who undertake the preaching of the Gospel: fundamentally, that Jesus Christ, who was crucified, has been raised from the dead by God, and the disciples and the Holy Spirit are witnesses to this fact. Indeed, Paul begins his career as apostle, after his conversion, by preaching just this: “Jesus is the Son of God”, and then he goes on to demonstrate that “Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 9:20-22).
Vocation is situated within this fundamental context – my own personal belief that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is the Son of God, who took flesh and lived among men at a specific time in our history, who was remarkable for the things he did and the things he said, that clear witness is given to the fact that he died and rose from the dead, that he appeared to his followers after this resurrection, and that they, burning with faith in him, continued his preaching and work. This personal faith is not an isolated one – it is a faith which is shared by all those who are convinced of this truth and feel called together into the Way of life which is expressed in the Church.
This faith – a fundamental defining belief in truths which are revealed here and yet transcend this world and lead us to a transcendent experience and unity with the Divine – is galvanised in the reception of baptism. Nor for nothing does Christ ask his disciples to use this sign as the key action binding its recipients to him and to one another. Baptism is more than sign – it brings about an essential and transforming change in persons. Indeed, it confers, we might say, a very specific personhood – a share in Christ’s personhood by making us part of him. Hence its great importance from the beginning of the Church’s life and mission – those who believe in Christ receive baptism, incorporation into Christ, who brings new life and purpose and goals. This is why, for St Paul in the passages above in the First Letter to the Corinthians, the image of ‘body’ for Church is so central – those who share in baptism share in Christ, and do this together, through a cooperation which continually brings the body-Church to greater maturity and which further proclaims Christ, the body’s head. Baptism is the key which opens the door into this belonging, participation and identity. And being part of this body is always a dynamic, living, energizing way of being – baptism, far from being a static moment closed in some distant point in the past, can be seen now as the motor which drives a person to fulfillment. Nothing happens in a Christian’s life which does not have its root in baptism and therefore in belonging, participation and identity.
To discern vocation, therefore, is to ask – how do I personally live the dynamic reality of my baptism in the Church and the world so that it is the pathway to my own fulfillment and perfection and at the same time contributes to the building up of this body-Church to which I belong? Vocation is precisely the living out of baptism; it is the deep and penetrating investigation, a lifetime’s work, of one’s own personality, the truly meaningful identity, and the belonging which goes with that. Vocation as the continuation of baptism is the how of my life in the Church, but also the who and lastly the what. Although St Paul speaking to us through his letter refers to each one in the Church having a “function” it would be wrong to define this simply as what one does. On the contrary, because it flows from my baptism and is lived as a matter of service in the giving of myself totally for others it is charismatic function, lived life through the Spirit.
Can vocation as a living out of baptism be discerned apart from the sacramental life which enriches my baptismal identity and binds me to my brothers and sisters in the Church by participation in the graced life of Christ? No! The very nature of vocation in this sense is that it is realised within the context of a lived sacramental life. Baptism is the doorway which leads to this fullness of participation in the kingdom life which is guaranteed to us through the Church. This fullness is experienced through our life in the sacraments.
In thinking about and discerning vocation we need to look at this aspect in the first instance – how do I reclaim, as fully as possible, the sacramental life which is mine and proper to me in the Church? The sacraments are Christ’s freely given gifts which ensure his continuing presence and reality in my life each time I participate in them, and in the Church always. The sacraments exist precisely so that we can live lives which are marked by holiness and consecration. The participation is important – essentially it means that each of us, members of Christ, must take for himself the part which is proper to me in the Church. Again, this leads us to reflect that each of us, while we share the equality and same dignity which baptism confers, participates in the life of the Church in a wholly personal and individual manner. It’s importance is carried through into the discernment of vocation, as Paul indicates above – each of us is called to a different realisation of our baptism according to the needs of the Church and the grace given to us. And this has always been so – one baptism and a variety of gifts flowing from it, each one given as the Spirit chooses, for the good of all.
Why is it important to live a sacrament-centred life to be able to discern vocation? Because the sacraments conform us to Christ, they sanctify us, and fit us for the purpose that expresses the Church’s deepest reality – the proclamation of the kingdom. So, vocation is always tied up with this – it has its origin in the Word of proclamation, and it finds its fulfillment in the realisation of the proclamation.
The decisions which surround a vocation lived out in the light of Christ’s invitation to us can be tough – not for nothing does Peter ask Christ the question, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What are we to have, then?” In what is basically a reward-centred society – I’ll work harder if I know I’m going to get more at the end of the job – this question has a certainly meaning and even validity. And in a sense vocation has this ring about it too – what will it bring me at the end of all? In this case we need to consider again that vocation truly felt and received and lived will find it’s ultimate fulfillment in how it is lived towards others, and in so far as that is realised in my life I will achieve happiness and blessedness. Vocation is always a life lived in selfless love directed toward the other. In the sharing of that love I myself grow in love. Each time I turn the gaze back to myself I lose something of that graced feeling. Why? Because vocation is always, as its name suggests, about call – from someone else to me.
Christ calls me into discipleship in the moment that I take seriously the word of the Gospel, the stirrings in my heart for something more than I am presently living, with its aim not only in the here and now but in the eternal afterwards. And that call finds a concrete expression in how the Church calls me to life within her – the Church always calls, because in her neediness – which is the need of her members – she knows who to call and what life to call them to. The resultant listening on my part, the prayer, the talking through with a wise person, the feeling deep in my own gut that this is who I am and this is how I should live – all of this is the gentle, almost hidden, but never static work of the Spirit who brings the Church into existence – Pentecost – and sustains me with the breath of life, giving me the gifts and fruits that I need to live gospel mission. Living such a missioned way of life – as a religious, as a priest, as a consecrated person, as married woman or man, single…. – is living vocation from the heart of the Church.
-Part of our ‘Vocation’ series-