Odd as it may seem, some of the most beautiful and useful texts for discerning vocation, and seeing where it is I fit into the Church’s life with regards to choosing and living vocation, can be found in the official legislation of the Church, contained primarily in the Code of Canon Law (or CIC 1983, as it usually abbreviated) – the book which contains the fundamental laws and norms which serve the Church as a body of persons and institutions, founded by and on Christ. So, in this piece, let’s look at some of the canons, or norms, which can give us pause for thought and prayer.
Distinct vocations tend to fall within various broader categories which express the diversity of the Church’s life, service and mission. This is important – vocation by itself stands for very little – it finds its fullness and definition – its content – within a lived context. It always expresses participation, how I take hold of and live out the specific part which is mine in this body.
The Christian faithful are those who, inasmuch as they have been incorporated in Christ through baptism, have been constituted as the people of God; for this reason, since they have become sharers in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and royal office in their own manner, they are called to exercise the mission which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world, in accord with the condition proper to each one.CIC 1983
We have touched on this in other places – baptism is the key moment in which my membership of the Church – Christ’s body – is made actual. Baptism, once received, can never be lost because it changes me in the very depths of my being – I become Christ-like in that moment because baptism establishes me in a special relationship with the Father, a relationship which mirrors Christ’s. By it my membership in the People of God is realised. This title is one which is given in the first instance to the people of Israel in the Old Testament – God calls them into a covenantal relationship with himself, in which he commits completely to them, and they do the same. In that moment they become something that no other nation can claim to be – they acquire an identity which transcends socio-political boundaries because this agreement is made with one who is not himself bound by any definition – God! So it is with the new people of God, called into a new and definitive relationship with God because the new covenant is established in the blood of the Only Begotten Son of God. This covenant will never be superseded and this birth of a new People will never happen again. Into this covenanted People of the Kingdom of God I am called by baptism. In that, my vocation already is articulated.
Each one of the baptised exercises, in some way, the priestly, prophetic and royal charismatic functions which are supremely Christ’s – we have seen this in our discussion of vocation as one with Christ. The canon makes it clear now that we each do this in our own manner and according to our own condition. Both of these qualify our living out of these charismatic functions, or services, or gifts. It’s important to grasp this at the beginning of our reflections, and when we make any personal reflection on vocation – I am called personally and according to where I am in life to serve the needs of the Church, as the Church discerns those needs. And sometimes our status in the Church, our condition, and our manner of living qualify the vocation which we live in service.
Among the Christian faithful by divine institution there exist in the Church sacred ministers, who are called clerics in law, and other Christian faithful, who are called laity.
From both groups there exist Christian faithful who are consecrated to God in their own special manner and serve the salvific mission of the Church through their profession of the evangelical counsels by means of vows or other sacred bonds recognised and sanctioned by the Church. Such persons also are of service to the saving mission of the Church; although their state does not belong to the hierarchical structure of the Church, they nevertheless do belong to its life and holiness.CIC 1983
This canon tells us, in a fairly straightforward way, about the fundamental hierarchical structure which exists in the Church – that there are those, in the first case, who serve in a particular way and by their lives of service are called to exercise more particularly the function of sanctification, which also emphasises how they teach and how they are called to serve by governance. A priestly function and office – the usual way in which sacred ministers serve the Church – exists in most religious groupings. In Christianity it has a direct line of descent from its Jewish roots, and in particular in the model of the High Priest, whose role is especially associated with sacrifice. The priestly families in the Old Testament and the Jewish worship of Christ’s day, mediated in a very distinct and recognisable way for the people of Israel, particularly when the Temple was still functioning. This role of interceding and praying for the people, and above all of offering sacrifice, is brought to perfection in Christ, who does away with all other priestly forms when he is shown to be both Priest and the Victim who is offered in sacrifice. The role of sacred ministers in the Church centres around, in the first place, the consecration of the People of God through the celebration of liturgy, the public worship in which the whole Church, the Body of Christ, offers praise and worship and thanksgiving to God. In this, the proclamation of the Word of God has a special prominence, and the liturgy finds its highest expression in the celebration of the Eucharist, the memorial of the Lord’s Supper.
There are three states within the sacrament of orders: the diaconate, which is concerned mainly with the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, but also with assisting in the liturgy; the priesthood, which centres upon the sanctification of the People of God by the celebration of the sacraments, and the quiet and continuous shepherding of the members of the Church; and the episcopate, which is described as the “fullness of the apostolic priesthood”, and embraces the fullness of the pastoral care of God’s people. Each state participates in its own way in the three charismatic offices of Christ, for the good of God’s people and for the good, of course, of the society in which we live.
By far the larger “grouping” in the Church is that which embraces the laity. It’s important not to define this group as “those who are not sacred ministers”, since the laity are those who enjoy the fundamental dignity of baptism. The Church has articulated the principle role of the laity as those who are a kingdom leaven in the world – by their daily, mundane, ordinary living of the Gospel wherever they find themselves, in whatever they undertake, with whomsoever they cooperate, the laity bear, in a sense, the burden of the living Gospel, as they live their lives. There is an immense responsibility here – for each person to take up, according to where they find themselves, their own personal call, originating in baptism, to preach the Gospel and aim, in their own way, for holiness. And this, essentially, is the call of every baptised Christian – to live a life which is characterised by holiness, the consecration which Christ shares with us all, but which each of us must accept and actualise.
So, from the beginning of its history, the Church has sought to establish groupings and movements under her care for the laity to express their identity and desire to work for the kingdom – prayer groups, charitable organisations and institutes, Catholic education and formation, lay-led catechesis and Bible study, participation in the missionary activity of the Church throughout the world, involving in secular organisations but always with a view to promote Christian ideals…. Very often it is the laity who, with the support of their clergy, effect tremendous change based on the principles of the Gospels in the world in which we live, giving voice to many issues which require, and indeed call out for, Christina intervention. Such a vocation can never be underestimated.
The third grouping which exists within the Church has been present from the earliest centuries of the Church’s history and has grown out of a desire to imitate more closely and more exclusively certain principles which are discernible in Christ’s life and in the Gospel values which gradually assume greater prominence over time. In this sense, what we call broadly the “religious life”, or more properly, “consecrated life”, does not belong exclusively to either the clergy or sacred ministers – because not all religious, obviously, are called to a priestly ministry – nor does it belong to the life of the laity, since those in consecrated life step away from the usual life of the world. The choice for this life represents, therefore, a sort of “third way” of living the Gospel, and is distinguished particularly by binding oneself specifically to three evangelical counsels, usually made in the form of promises or vows. Traditionally, these vows have been distilled as poverty, chastity and obedience.
Those who live these vows do so in a very structured way, usually in communities of others who are attracted by the same call, usually in a way which represents a more radical but nonetheless freely chosen renunciation than other baptised Christians choose, and usually in a life marked by a special charism or characteristic spirit. Indeed, over the centuries this form of Christian life has expressed itself by living out specially discerned services and ministries within the Church – everything from the active missionary apostolate articulating total preaching of the Gospel to the more austere forms of the enclosed contemplative live embracing total-prayer. In many ways, the many forms of consecrated life express the multifaceted nature of the Church as body – the ongoing discernment of the needs of the Church and the world also demonstrates the great variety of gifts which the Spirit gives so that the Gospel will always have her ministers and always be preached in the world.
Life consecrated by the profession of the evangelical counsels is a stable form of living by which the faithful, following Christ more closely under the action of the Holy Spirit, are totally dedicated to God who is loved most of all, so that, having dedicated themselves to his honour, the upbuilding of the Church and the salvation of the world by a new and special title, they strive for the perfection of charity in service of the Kingdom of God and, having become an outstanding sign in the Church, they may foretell the heavenly glory.CIC 1983
So, this canon gives us something of the flavour of the purpose of the consecrated life – it exists as a “sign”, first and foremost. We might say that, from this point of view, it is entirely pointless in the first instance! But the whole of the Church’s mission is brought down into that single point – to look beyond this life and world and age to the perfection of the life and age to come. In this sense, we say that the life of the evangelical counsels, a life rooted in charity and sustained entirely by charity, has an eschatological dimension – it looks beyond the here and now to what God has in store and promises: the perfection of all things in him. Thus the three vows establish as complete as possible a renunciation of what is considered important in this present life – material riches and wealth, sexual and genital relationality as a means to happiness, and the autonomy to make my own decisions and act on them however I wish.
The state of those who profess the evangelical counsels in institutes of this kind pertain to the life and sanctity of the Church and for this reason is to be fostered and promoted by all in the Church.
Certain Christian faithful are specially called to this state by God so that they may enjoy a special gift in the life of the Church and contribute to its salvific mission according to the purpose and spirit of the institute.CIC 1983
Again, each institute – or congregation, or order -brings something different to the Church, and will exist in the Church while that need is fulfilled. Traditionally, although we refer rather generically to religious orders in the Church, only very few strictly exist as orders, and they tend to be those who base their life in a recognised Rule. Therefore, the rules which give rise to the Orders in the Church are: the rules of St Augustine (the Augustinians and the Dominicans); that of St Benedict (the Benedictines and the Cistercians); the rule of St Francis (the Franciscans); and then, after the reformation, the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. The other groups of religious in the Church tend to be known as institutes or congregations or associations. All are distinguished by the fact that their members make vows or promises of various types which mark their way of life.
We might just note here that, while most religious in the Church makes vows or promises expressing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, in some form or other, those who live by the Rule of St Benedict make the vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life.
By divine institution some among the Christian faithful are constituted sacred ministers through the sacrament of orders by means of the indelible character with which they are marked; accordingly they are consecrated and deputed to shepherd the people of God, each in accord with his own grade of orders, by fulfilling in the person of Christ the Head the functions of teaching, sanctifying and governing.CIC 1983
The Sacrament of Order, by which a man is consecrated to exercise the diaconal, priestly or episcopal ministry, is most closely married to Christ, and therefore, in many ways, demands the greatest personal renunciation and responsibility. Not for nothing is that phrase “by fulfilling in the person of Christ the Head” one which should stop a man in his tracks. Those given this privilege make Christ present when they celebrate the sacraments for the good of the People of God. It involves a very particular configuration to Jesus Christ and so is a vocation which demands, at the same time, great initial discernment and preparation and serious ongoing discernment and formation. Above all, no one has a right to this way of life. No one can claim that they have a right to be ordained a priest in the Church – it is supremely for the Church to discern a man’s suitability for this office and service, and then when the necessary enquiries have been made and formation undertaken, to call him o this service and consecrate him for this purpose. And it is the matter of a life given, because it seeks to imitate Christ most closely. As with all vocations in the Church, it constitutes the person’s own way to salvation, and so cannot be misused or exploited – it is not a function or means of daily employment, because it so clearly should present Christ, the one who offers and is offered, and so becomes the content of one’s life.
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.CIC 1983
The essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which in Christian marriage obtain a special firmness in virtue of the sacrament.CIC 1983
For most of those who constitute the laity within the Church the vocation to marriage will be the great fundamental option of their lives. This said, many today remain single, unmarried, and without any defining attachment to another, in a very real sense for the sake of the kingdom of God, choosing to live that way as their vocation and way of expressing their baptismal call and service to God’s Church.
The Church has always maintained that marriage, established in nature as the complementary coming together of the sexes in which each finds fulfillment in the other, is an essential expression of the human person. The Church did not invent marriage between man and woman, which declares this natural complementarity. But she does see it consecrated and raised to a different order by its being made a sacrament, that is to say, a real expression and making present of Christ, by Christ. So, the natural finds its fullest expression in the supernatural, and the natural is giving its full meaning in the supernatural end to which it is directed.
As a vocation, then, marriage is at the same time a way to salvation for the spouses and an expression of the salvific relationship which God has established with humankind, epitomised by the relationship of Christ to the Church. Canon 1055 makes it very clear that the two ends of marriage – the good of the spouses and the generation and education of children – go together, and exist together equally in the marriage relationship. They are the hoped-for ends to which the spouses give themselves with an entirely new and selfless openness – this is really what it is to give oneself for another, as completely as possible. And because it is a sacrament it has a permanency, not because of human action or intention, but because Christ wills it so and makes it so. And the sacraments exist and operate for the good of all the People of God – thus, married couples, by accepting and cooperating with the consecration which comes to them by the grace of their new relationship, also consecrate the Church and the world – they become sacrament themselves, a means by which Christ lives among and sanctifies his brothers and sisters. No matter what society proposes about the content of marriage or how it is constituted, the Church continues to safeguard this, not only because of its profound human influence and goal, but because it is inseparably expressive of the divine. The sacrament of marriage makes the kingdom of God present, in the spouses – in their children, should God grant them that grace – in their homes – even in the midst of troubles, difficulties and sufferings – and the Church, while always seeking to accompany those who discover the need to form relationships in other ways, prizes most particularly this great gift for its own good and the good of society.
This is the briefest overview of the broad vocation context in the Church. Over the next few weeks we’ll try to look at each canvas in a little bit more of a detailed fashion.
-Part of our ‘Vocation’ series-