The Meaning of Vocation

This summer we saw another World Youth Day – this one a double celebration because, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, it was held in Poland, the home of St. Faustina, to whom the Divine Mercy messages and devotion were entrusted. And, not incidentally, also the home of the initiator of World Youth Day, St. John Paul II.

By now, amazing as it is to realize, many of those who participated in the earlier World Youth Days are middle-aged, but the trajectories of many lives were altered by this special experience of Christ in his universal Church. We might ask ourselves why subsequent popes have chosen to continue holding and – by their presence – shining a spotlight, on this recent tradition that calls young Catholics from all corners of the globe to congregate together.

Some people consider these gatherings to be little more than a “Catholic Woodstock,” attracting young people to what in the late 1960s would have been termed a “happening.” This ignores, however, the genuine spiritual fruits for great numbers of Catholic young people, the hundreds of priests hearing long lines of confessions, the changed lives, and in the case of many priests ordained in the last couple of decades, the number who trace the beginnings of their priestly vocation precisely to an experience of World Youth Day.

Of course, all Catholics are called in one way or another, given their circumstances and God’s particular will for them, to give themselves completely to the Lord, in whatever form that might be. Many wonderful fathers and mothers of strong Catholic families have also emerged from World Youth Day, as well as single people –consecrated or lay – devoted to various worthwhile apostolates and professions.

There is a great need for more laborers in God’s vineyard, during all ages of life, from childhood to adulthood to old age. And this includes all states of life. In all professional and social circumstances, lay men and women are called to participate in the mission of the Church. There are an infinite number of ways for them to work in the vineyard.

How do we convey to young people the need to seek the will of God in their life choices, particularly the choice of a Christian spouse and the self-giving of Christian marriage? An important ingredient is the example that faithful Catholic parents present to their children by the way they give themselves to each other.

To achieve the unique mission that God has entrusted to each one of us, however, we also need formation in a way analogous to that of preparing for one of the professions. For example, it is not enough just to want to be a doctor. You must study medicine and undergo years of training.

St. Josemaría Escrivá

To live out the Christian vocation that we’ve been called to, we also need serious preparation, which we refer to as spiritual formation. Such formation helps us develop the character and the personal maturity to attain “unity of life,” a phrase much used by St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. By this he meant refusing to accept a split between our spiritual life and our secular life: “Any honorable work can be prayer and all prayerful work is apostolate.”

Talking to young people, St. John Paul II once said:

Ask yourselves, young people, about the love of Christ. Acknowledge His voice resounding in the temple of your heart. Return His bright and penetrating glance, which opens the paths of your life to the horizons of the Church’s mission. It is a taxing mission, today more than ever, to teach men the truth about themselves, about their end, their destiny, and to show faithful souls the unspeakable riches of the love of Christ. Do not be afraid of the radicalness of His demands, because Jesus, who loved us first, is prepared to give Himself to you, as well as asking of you. If He asks much of you, it is because He knows you can give much.

Every lay Christian is a masterwork of God’s design and called to the heights of holiness. Many lay men and women do not appreciate the dignity of their vocation, the mission to express and incarnate the Gospel in the world, the workplace, and their homes.

St. John Paul wrote movingly of human work as a collaboration with God in creation affirmed, “There is no vocation more religious than work,” and spoke of both the duty and possibility “to live the Gospel while remaining immersed in the world, to be united with God in the world in whatever situation” we find ourselves.

Although this somewhat general and even exalted language may lead us to think – incorrectly – that he is encouraging us to spend our work time reflecting on its theological meaning, he is really exhorting us to focus on the work before us, doing it to the best of our ability, working to become better at doing it, and to help those around us become better do it. The very fact that whatever we do, in Christ, has a higher meaning calls us to take the thing itself – whatever we are called to do – seriously, since God does so.

The same is true of a vocation to marriage and family. We are not meant to spend our days reflecting on Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body, as beautiful and inspiring as it is. Instead, we are meant to realize that, in all the concrete actions we take to love our spouse and children, and to give ourselves in free self-donation to them each day in a hundred different ways, we are fulfilling God’s purposes and imaging the self-donating Trinity. The meaning emerges from the responsibilities – and joys – of the day.

Our great Polish saint was not speaking in mere platitudes, but calling on each of us – in whatever walk of life or circumstances we find ourselves – to discover, personally, what “following Christ” means.

Fr. C. John McCloskey (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.