One hears much talk of the "vocations crisis" in the American Church. Often this label is applied to a perceived shortage of ordinands to the priesthood, or to troubling divorce rates and other narratives of marital decay.
For many Catholics, "vocation" simply means "a calling to the priesthood or religious life." For even more Catholics, "vocation" refers more broadly to marriage, the single life, or the priesthood. Or, "vocation" may refer to one's career, one's profession.
Vocation does mean all of these things. But it also means much more, and to restrict vocation to these meanings is to rob it of its richness and truly liberating beauty.
The Church speaks of vocation in three broad senses. All baptized Christians share a common vocation by dint of their participation in the sonship of Christ, as members of his mystical body. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) means in teaching: "All men are called to the same end: God himself" (1878). This baptismal calling to holiness is embraced through the cultivation of perfect charity, the supernatural virtue that enables and ennobles man to aspire after and merit communion with the Father, through the Son, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1699, 2819).
The Church also speaks of vocation in the "state-in-life" sense with which most Catholics are familiar: the clerical state, the married life, consecrated life, and single lay life. Germain Grisez, with whose work on vocation every Catholic should acquaint herself, describes these "modes" of baptismal vocation as "broad, overarching commitments that set people upon certain paths that will fundamentally shape their lives by the countless choices and actions required to carry them out."
Finally, the Church speaks eloquently of personal vocation: God calls each person by name to participate in a unique and radically unrepeatable way in the building up of the Kingdom of Heaven. Or rather, Christ calls each person by name to join him as co-laborer in the vineyard, tasked with preparing the Kingdom that he will hand over to his Father upon his second coming, when the Kingdom of God will arrive in its fullness and splendor (1 Corinthians 15: 24; Lumen Gentium 9). We receive our personal vocations from Christ, who asks us to join him in preparing the Kingdom that he received from the Father (Lk 22:29), who sent him into the world to establish a "messianic people ... [whose] end is the kingdom of God" (LG 9); who "put all things beneath [Christ's] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church" (Ephesians 1:22). Only the Lamb is worthy to break open the scroll of salvation; yet we are incorporated into his Kingdom, which will reign on earth when the Father "makes all things new" (Revelation 5, 21:5).
The radical uniqueness (not "individuality"; the Church states very clearly the communal nature of vocation) of personal vocation grounds and embeds its "scope." Discernment of one's vocation, and setting upon one's path toward holiness, do not end with committing to a "state-in-life" (say, marriage) and a "career" (say, secondary education). Rather, discernment of one's personal vocation extends deeply into the vocational sphere shaped by those broader commitments, which are themselves embraced as a result of prayerful discernment (and become elements of personal vocation for those called to them). Were vocation (and vocational discernment) to end where one's "state-in-life" and career are settled (committed to), the Lord would have no more to say to us as persons beyond what we share in common with others sharing our "state-in-life" and careers.
No, vocation and vocational discernment are (and ought to be) far more pervasive, according to the tradition. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman articulated the radical uniqueness of personal vocation in a way that captures well its scope (as cited by Pope Benedict during Newman's beatification ceremony): "God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission" (emphasis added). John Paul II wrote in 1992 that "each one of the faithful must be helped to embrace the gift entrusted to him or her as a completely unique person, and to hear the words which the Spirit of God personally addresses to him or her" (emphasis added). Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, writing in 2002, connected personal vocation to Creation itself:
When Holy Scripture presents an image of the creation of man—with God as the potter, who shapes him and who then breathes the spirit of life into him—that is meant as being archetypal for each and every one of us.
In the psalms, man says with respect to himself: YOU have shaped me with clay; YOU have breathed into me the breath of life.
What is thereby portrayed is the fact that each person stands in direct relationship with God. And each has thus in the great web of world history a significant place and role that have been assigned to him and by means of which he can make an irreplaceable contribution to history as a whole (emphasis added).
J. R. R. Tolkien captures this reality most succinctly through the person of Gandalf the Grey (I paraphrase): "This task was appointed to you, Frodo Baggins, and if you do not find a way, no one will."
Thus we see the great sense of urgency and magnitude that an awareness of personal vocation ought to inspire. While still having trust in God's providence, we realize that in a meaningful way, if we fail to live out our personal vocations well, history—and the Kingdom—will be irreplaceably unrealized. Yet a sound understanding of personal vocation ought to inspire great calm and peace as well.
Since Christ tasks each one with radically unique participation in the building of the Kingdom, he desires that each of us discover his will for our participation in cultivation of the "messianic people." The methodical process whereby one seeks to know what one's role in that project is, is discernment.
Discernment is not a mystical or mysterious process, nor is it imposing or difficult. We discern God's will for our lives—our vocations, through and through—simply by intentionally prioritizing the discovery of our vocation through the same activities and habits through which we draw closer to God: regular prayer, reception of the sacraments, spiritual direction, purposefully creating an interior sphere of quietude, attending spiritually enriching programs (such as retreats), and so forth. Indeed, a glance at the USCCB's "Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood" reveals that for most of the 477 men on track for ordination this spring or summer in America, such unspectacular habits were instrumental in discernment of their (counter-cultural) vocation.
One also must take candid stock of one's abilities and shortcomings, recognize what is morally possible (meaning, one must form one's conscience responsibly so as to identify the goods, inexhaustible and sometimes incommensurable, from among which one must accept a call to realize particularly) and be prepared to set aside one's "passions" or "dreams" in order to listen clearly to the still voice with which God speaks (1 Kings 19:12), lest Christians fall prey to self-serving determinations, "because they are subjectively attached to what pleases them, to what corresponds to their own experience, and to what does not impinge on their own habits," as John Paul II wrote.
Above all, one must abandon completely the notion of "self-direction" in life, instead adopting receptivity as the essential mode of relating to God and the world. Authentic discernment requires proactivity, but only in the service of receptivity. Within this sphere of receptivity, God speaks clearly to the "listening heart" (1 Kings 3:9), instructing man as to how he should live out and concretize his baptismal call to holiness, his "state-in-life" commitment, his profession or career, and every other element of his personal vocation. Accepting that God's will constitutes a normative standard for every decision one makes will discomfit some. Ultimately it is liberating.
This is why vocational discernment engenders peace and calm: God seeks to make known his will for our lives, and if we seek above all things to know and follow his will (in the spirit of that most blessed and archetypal fiat mihi), we will come to know his will. The carrying out of that will perfects us not only as humans but as the unique persons that we are. John Paul II said on the occasion of the Fortieth World Day of Prayer for Vocations:
How can one not read in the story of the "servant Jesus" the story of every vocation: the story that the Creator has planned for every human being, the story that inevitably passes through the call to serve and culminates in the discovery of the new name, designed by God for each individual? In these "names," people can grasp their own identity, directing themselves to that self‑fulfillment which makes them free and happy (emphasis added).
Grisez summarizes what the Church assures us we may dare to hope in regard to the beautiful and liberating reality of personal vocation:
Everyone needs to discern what God wants of him or her. The central question is not "What do I want out of life?" but "What is God's plan for my life? Lord, what do you want of me?" People who approach discernment that way can be confident that God will answer their question.
There is a "vocations crisis" in the American Church, but bad marriages and a lack of priests are only symptoms of it. Priests, teachers, youth group ministers, and others continually expound a restricted theology of vocation, one that leaves many Catholics wondering how to make their way in the world. Renewed catechesis of personal vocation, in all its ramifications, will go a long way toward enfranchising and rejuvenating American Catholics in their daily routines. After all, those routines have eternal consequences, and if each of us does not contribute to the Kingdom in his unique way, no one will.