January 13-19 the USCCB is sponsoring its annual “National Vocation Awareness Week“. While the week specifically promotes vocations to the religious life, having a proper understanding of vocation is essential even for those of us not called to religious life.
Here is an excellent article from a recent issue of Lay Witness on the basics of “vocation.”
Know Who You Are: The Importance of Vocation
From the Mar/Apr 2011 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
When I entered the Swiss Guards, I was 20 years old and, like my fellow guards, in peak physical condition. But for as fit and energetic as we were, John Paul II could still run rings around us.
That running began before six every morning when he would rise, pray, dress for the day, then head to his private chapel for more time in prayer. At 7:00 AM, small groups of visiting dignitaries, Catholic pilgrims, or Vatican staff would join him for Mass. After Mass, other guests joined him for breakfast. An hour or two of office work followed. Before greeting official visitors at 11:00, he would meet briefly with linguists to review the finer points of whatever language he would be using to speak to the visiting crowds or dignitaries. Then the audiences began.
Sometimes he spoke to thousands. Sometimes only a select few. Almost always these audiences lasted until one or two in the afternoon. Then it was on to lunch, where various Vatican staff would join him. Then there was more time for prayer, with John Paul often heading to the roof top gardens of the Apostolic Palace to walk and talk with God.
After that there was more office work, then more audiences. These often lasted right up until dinner at 8:00 PM, at which, again more often than not, guests dined with him. But even after these long, late Italian style meals ended, his day wasn’t over. At 10:00 or 11:00 PM he would return to the reading and writing that awaited him and work well into the night. Sleep came around midnight or even later. Somewhere in all that, he also found time to ask a Swiss Guard about his day, chat with the sisters who cooked for him, and keep up with old friends.
And that, of course, was just his Rome schedule. Compared to his schedule while traveling, it was comparatively light.
I’ve wracked my brain trying to remember a time where I saw that schedule taking a toll on the Pope. And I couldn’t. I remembered plenty of occasions where I was worn out with exhaustion. I remembered the other 110 twenty-somethings with whom I served being dog-tired. And I remembered the guards who traveled with him returning home and just shaking their heads in wonder, saying, “I don’t know how the guy does it.” But not once do I recall him being bleary-eyed. In fact, it was just the opposite.
When he would return to the Vatican from weeks on the road, he didn’t head straight for his rooms and collapse in exhaustion like most of us would. Instead, he would stop and greet all the staff who March/April 2011 5 had gathered to welcome him home. Also, like a general reviewing his troops, he would “inspect” us, the guards lined up in honor formation, talking to us and shaking our hands as he moved down the row. He had every right and reason to walk right past us to the calm and quiet of his apartments. But he didn’t. He knew it was his sacred duty to make a gift of himself to us as much as to the crowds that greeted him in foreign lands. And so he did.
Day in and day out, John Paul II poured himself out in response to what God asked of him. And the reason he could do that, joyfully and unfailingly, was because he knew what God had made him to do. He knew his vocation.
If you had to sum up the Catholic understanding of the word “vocation” in one sentence, you could say that one’s vocation is one’s mission in life. It’s what God made you to do.
You could also say it’s what you do for God. God gave you life, and now, by means of your vocation, you give it back to Him. Either way you look at it, your vocation is what gives meaning to your life. According to John Paul II, your vocation answers the question, “Why am I alive?” Moreover, he believed, only when you’re living out your vocation can you find fulfillment in this life. Your vocation, understood, embraced, and faithfully lived, is what makes you feel truly and fully alive.
The Universal Vocation
That’s the simple explanation of vocation. But there’s still a lot more to it. For starters, there are essentially three different levels of vocations. They are different in kind, and they are different in importance.
The first of these three is the universal vocation. This is the vocation in which we all share. It doesn’t matter who you are or where or when you live, you have the same universal vocation as every other human being on the planet: To know, love, and serve God in this life so that you can know, love, and serve Him eternally in the next life. Your objective is to receive grace now so that you can receive glory later, or even more simply put, to cooperate with God in His work to save your soul.
As part of that cooperation, God calls all of us to be co-creators with Him. He charges us with giving life to others—either physical life or spiritual life—and with giving life to ideas—creating works of art, gadgets and products, or systems of thought and service. That co-creation, John Paul II believed, is the essence of love, the fullest realization of the possibilities inherent in man. He actually described our ability to give life—to give birth, to invent, create, conceive, and build—as the true “grandeur” of love. Which is to say that when we create, we are doing that for which God made us. We’re carrying out our mission and making a gift of our life to God.
After the universal vocation, it starts to get a bit more specific. After all, it’s one thing to say all Christians share in the vocation to love. It’s another thing to actually live that vocation. How we live it, the way of life in which we love and serve God and others, is our primary vocation. According to the Catholic Church, there are three primary vocations: married life, the priesthood, and consecrated life (religious brothers, sisters, and consecrated singlehood).
Each of these vocations is a permanent and freely chosen way of life. Each also entails a gift of self. In choosing a primary vocation, you make your non-transferable “I” someone else’s property. In other words, you give your life either to your spouse or to God.
This gift of self gives your life a concrete direction and purpose. It orders your desires, priorities, and responsibilities, at least in a general way. If I’m married and have a child, I’m responsible not only for myself, but also for them. I’m called to provide for their physical and material needs, but also for their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs. The care of their souls, as well as their bodies, is entrusted to me. It’s my “job” to help them get to heaven, just as it’s their “job” to help me get to heaven. The choices I make, the actions I take, the responsibilities I undertake are all decisions that have to be made in light of my responsibilities to them.
The same goes for religious persons and priests. A religious sister considers the good of her community before her own good. Her path to heaven is paved by the rules and obligations of her life with the other sisters. A priest is likewise tasked with providing for the spiritual well being of his parishioners and supporting his bishop in teaching and defending the faith. How he orders his life and time needs to be directed to those larger ends.
Our modern notions of freedom can confuse us about the value of this kind of vocation. So often, we see the type of limitations to our freedom that a permanent commitment brings as impediments to “being who we are.” But real freedom isn’t freedom from outside restrictions. Real freedom is the freedom to love and give ourselves fully. Freedom in fact exists for the sake of love. It is the means to the end we all desire—loving communion with God and others. And it is when we give ourselves most fully that we fulfill ourselves the most effectively. That’s when we’re truly free.
Your universal vocation gives you the overarching purpose of your life, your ultimate goal. Your primary vocation gives you a framework for achieving that goal. It sets certain parameters or lays out a path for you to follow on your journey to heaven. The third level of vocation, your secondary vocation, is what you do on that path. It’s how you use your gifts and talents in service of God and others while living out your universal and primary vocations. For most of us, this means our work or profession. It also, however, can apply to your civic and community involvement, apostolate work, or simply bearing the various crosses and trials that come your way in life. It’s basically your plan of action for living.
When it comes to work, John Paul II believed that one’s profession was integral to who we are as human beings. And he believed that not just of professions as seemingly exciting and important as being the Pope, but also of the harshest forms of manual labor. And when it comes to labor, John Paul knew of what he spoke. As a young man, growing up in Poland during World War II, the future Pope worked long hours in a lime quarry and a chemical plant. He knew from those experiences just how challenging work could be.
But he also knew what happened when work was taken away from man or when man was not free to pursue the work for which God made him. He learned that as a seminarian, priest, and bishop in Soviet-dominated Poland, where economic centralization led to the elimination of private property and ended entrepreneurial activity.
As that occurred, John Paul saw freedom curtailed, workers denigrated, and human dignity violated. He came to realize that in order to become the person God made us to be, we each had to be free to choose, free to create, and even free to fail in our professional lives. And when we do that, he argued, when we freely pursue the work for which we were made, for which our gifts, talents, nature, and circumstances suit us, we discover who we really are.
The fact that work is sometimes difficult, monotonous, or downright painful doesn’t lessen its efficacy in that endeavor. It enhances it. And that is because all the difficulty, monotony, and pain are something you can unite to the work, passion, and death of Christ. They are something you can, to quote centuries of Catholic moms, “offer up” in order to obtain grace for yourself and others.
That ability is a holy thing. Work can, in fact, be a holy thing. And not just the work of priests and religious. All work can be holy when it’s done as an act of love, service, and sacrifice according to the mind of God. That’s what the Incarnation made possible. And that’s why St. Thomas Aquinas could say with such confidence, “There can be no joy in living without joy in work.”
The Chaos Of Competing Priorities
What John Paul II understood so well—his universal, primary, and secondary vocation— is the very thing most of us spend our entire lives trying to figure out. We want to know who we are, why we exist, and what we were made for. Those are some of the eternal questions that have haunted man in every age. Answering them is never easy, and all the demands of life—the competing roles we play and priorities we juggle—make answering them less easy still.
Everyone—whether you’re a pope leading millions, a CEO leading hundreds, or a father leading a few—wears more than one hat in this life. You’re an employer or employee, but you’re also a son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, mother or father, community leader or volunteer, citizen or soldier, friend or neighbor. The list can go on and on. All these various roles give you multiple ways to serve others and use your various gifts. They also, however, create multiple sets of expectations and goals. And those expectations and goals often conflict.
To start with, they pull you in opposite directions, each demanding time from the other. They also seem to require opposite virtues. What it takes to get ahead in business can seem a far cry from what it takes to be a good father or Christian disciple. And each role comes with a culture of competing priorities. For example, what the culture of corporate success tells you is important—long hours at the office, cut throat business instincts, and quarterly benchmarks—is different from what the culture of parenthood says matters most—saving money, being present at home, and modeling responsibility, commitment, and love for your children.
Most of us at least try to balance our different roles and the priorities that accompany them, working hard to do what’s expected of us at work, home, and in our communities, making every effort to please our boss, our spouse, and our kids. But in trying to please everybody, we can end up feeling like we’re pleasing nobody.
In order to be successful in competing cultures, we can also start acting like one person at the office and another person at home. We compartmentalize, allowing one set of values and beliefs to guide us in our professional lives and another in our personal lives.
We also usually make trade offs, compromises, and negotiated attempts to navigate through multiple worlds. And those tradeoffs can cost us dearly. I can’t count the number of executives I’ve known over the years whose success in business has cost them the affection and respect of their wives and children, if not the relationships themselves. I’ve known others who’ve neglected their real professional passions in pursuit of a higher salary or more prestigious title. Even those who manage to strike a seemingly reasonable balance are often worn out from their efforts. They’re not happy. They’re exhausted. And the passion they once felt for their work, hobbies, or volunteer activities first diminishes, then disappears.
Disappointment, confusion, fragmentation, and ultimately, exhaustion—that’s what you set yourself up for when you don’t have a clear hierarchy of roles and priorities.
The Way Out of the Chaos
When you understand all three levels of vocation and the place each one holds in the hierarchy of importance, it becomes much easier to order your life and priorities rightly, pursuing the virtues you most need, and balancing competing roles without compromise.
John Paul II was living proof of that.
While serving in the Swiss Guards, one of my friends who had been there much longer than I had told me a story about John Paul II’s first days as Pope. On his first official day “on the job,” with the weight of the world suddenly placed on his shoulders, John Paul made a decision. A friend and fellow Polish bishop was sick and he wanted to see him. But that’s not quite right. He didn’t just want to see him. He believed he was supposed to see him. He thought, on that day, at that moment, seeing his friend was the most important thing for him to do. So, despite the loud objections of his staff, he did just that. And the world, of course, kept on turning. The most important needs were met, and the less important waited.
A few days later, at a press conference for 2,000 journalists, John Paul again went his own way. Rather than just offering a few comments and then leaving, he delivered his remarks then plunged into the crowd and began chatting with the press corps. Some poor monsignor, tasked with keeping the Pope on schedule, tried to pull John Paul II away. But the Pope waved him off and announced into a reporter’s camera, “There are people here telling me it’s time to leave now. I’m the Pope. I’ll leave when I want to leave.”
That’s the difference a clear understanding of all three levels of vocation and their relationship to one another can make. John Paul considered first and foremost what God was asking of him, and then he did it. He put God first, his vocation to the priesthood second, and the many demands of the papal office third. He prayed, said the Mass, then did everything else. And he did “everything else” with the same spirit that he prayed and offered Mass. That is to say, he let the duties and values of his universal and primary vocation shape how he fulfilled his secondary vocation. And because of that his energies never lagged, his passion never waned.
Finding Your Balance
In his understanding of vocation, John Paul II found the balance between competing roles and priorities. He knew what mattered and why. And he lived every day according to that knowledge. There was no confusion, no fragmentation. Everything was ordered rightly. Nothing was compartmentalized. John Paul II was the same man in front of millions that he was in front of a single lowly bodyguard.
As a lay person, you need to strive for the same. Knowing your universal, primary, and secondary vocation will do for you what John Paul II’s knowledge of his vocation did for him. It will order your commitments rightly. It will help you live according to the right values and strive for the right virtues. It will help you live an integrated life and work for the things that really matter. Above all, it will help you give yourself passionately and without reserve to what God is calling you.
That doesn’t mean that you won’t ever occasionally work late at the office when you’d rather be home, or that you won’t miss saying your usual night prayers from time to time because you’re up with a sick child. There are times when one vocation demands a higher priority, even if, technically speaking, its usual place is somewhat lower on the vocational totem pole. But knowing your vocation does prevent those occasions from becoming a way of life. And it also ensures that the right value system, the value system that goes along with your universal vocation, is always shaping the way you live your primary and secondary vocations.
In effect, it is your fail-safe when the temptation to compromise your values arises. It’s what you can always rely on to know the right course of action and find inspiration for why you’re doing what you’re doing.