Whether in Rome at the recent Synod On Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, or within the parishes of the Archdiocese of Detroit, the radical nature of a personal vocation is being deliberated throughout the world by the people of God. To build a culture of vocations within the Church we must remember that each person is responsible for his or her vocational discernment. There are no benchwarmers! God calls each of us.
In 2014, the Archbishop of Detroit prayed for the gift of a New Pentecost to descend upon his people, sparking a special awareness of individual mission and a desire for deeper vocational discernment among the laity. In his own words, Archbishop Allen Vigneron spoke prophetically of the vocation each Catholic in Detroit is being called to:
“I speak in the name of Christ to you, the Church of Detroit: ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! The Lord is breathing his Spirit into you to bring you to life! He is awakening you to what Christ came to give you, the fullness of life that comes from knowing him and receiving the free gift of his salvation. He is renewing his Church in her identity as God’s beloved people, the bride of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit, sent forth to transform the world in the light of the Gospel’” (Unleash the Gospel 3.4).
Hear, awaken, and receive. Renew and transform the world. Archbishop Vigneron offers a unique summary of our vocation and mission as members of the archdiocese even as we individually discern our particular call from God.
The starting point for vocational discernment is grounded in a life centered on Christ. In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI pointed to that foundational relationship. “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” This personal encounter with Jesus is the source from which all other relationships are sustained. These encounters which we experience throughout our lives build upon one another and expand our understanding of who we are and what we are called to be.
In the book, “Unrepeatable: Cultivating the Unique Calling of Every Person,” the authors (Luke Burgis & Joshua Miller) lay out five foundational aspects of building a culture of vocations.
Personal encounter is primary to sustaining and clarifying a vocation. Those who claim to be a Christian know they did not become one on their own. Turning to my vocation story, someone taught me how to pray, inspired my conversion to Christ and showed me how to be a disciple. It was the encouraging word and the affirmation of my fellow Catholics that helped me when I doubted my own vocation to the priesthood. As one who received encouragement I now add my voice to theirs to help others to discover and embrace their vocation.
Language is the second element for building a culture of vocations. Truth and love comprise the language of vocation emanating from the heart of the Gospel. Our truest identity as beloved sons and daughters of God the Father was revealed to us in Christ. The mission and vocation we are given also has a divine origin and is sustained by divine love. Quoting from the archbishop earlier, “…hear the word of the Lord! The Lord is breathing his Spirit into you to bring you to life!” The mission and vocation of every disciple has a divine origin. It is not merely a human endeavor by which I use my natural capacities to fulfill my own happiness. For example, marriage as a vocation is not simply a civil contract endorsed by two people. Rather it is a covenant of self-giving, founded on the truth of Christ’s sacrificial love. The vocation of husband and wife does not simply depend on their human ability to peacefully coexist. Their vocation is sustained by their relationship with Christ. They reveal the love of Christ for his Church, which points back to the love of the Father whom Jesus revealed. Every vocation comes from God and leads back to God. It takes a special language to communicate this truth.
The last three elements essential to nurturing a culture of vocation are prescriptions to be applied to the current culture which replaces personal vocational discernment with pithy ads. First, try to restore wonder “as an antidote to calculation,” (this is to reduce a person’s value into what they can do for me). A healthy dose of wonder can lift our heads from the gutter of distraction and narcissism to imagine the great things God has in store for us.
Another prescription is the very Incarnation itself. By taking on human flesh Jesus transformed humanity forever. As the priest says sotto voce at Mass, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Jesus didn’t cast off his humanity like a garment after his resurrection. Instead, the apostles encountered him and accompanied him by way of his humanity. Eating, walking and speaking are the very means by which they connected to him. It seems appropriate then to allow our own humanity to accompany today’s disciples as they discern their vocations, for through it Christ is communicated. “We will not build a culture of vocation by proposing high-minded ideas but by living out our vocations in hot-blooded bodies that can touch, feel, see, hear, and taste the reality of God and proclaim the Gospel through them” (p. 144).
Finally, allow creativity to inspire young disciples to discover the truth of their own vocation. There is something about creativity that allows the touch of the “creator” to come through. We are not cookies cut from the gingerbread of conformity but are members of the body of Christ, equal yet distinct, with a dignity that God has bestowed. The youth of today are looking for a special kind of accompaniment as they discern God’s activity in their lives: “They expect to be accompanied not by an unbending judge, nor by a fearful and hyper-protective parent who generates dependence, but by someone who is not afraid of his weakness and is able to make the treasure it holds within, like an earthen vessel, shine” (Instrumentum Laboris, no. 142). As an example of the kind of creativity that inspires, I leave you with a quote from St. Pope John Paul II in his 1992 address anticipating the World Day of Prayer for Vocations:
“But most of all I address the youth of today, and I say to them: Let yourselves be seduced by the Eternal One, repeating the words of the ancient prophet: ‘You duped me, O Lord ... you were too strong for me and you triumphed’” (Jer 20:7).
Let yourselves be charmed by Christ, the Infinite who appeared among you in visible and imitable form… Let yourselves be loved by the love of the Holy Spirit…
Fall in love with Jesus Christ, to live his very life, so that our world may have life in the light of the Gospel.