The National Catholic Review
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Despite all the talk about a vocation shortage, there is in fact no such thing in the Catholic Church. The real shortage is that of vocational discernment, and that is a very different problem. The shortfall in the number of candidates for the priesthood, the consecrated life and other forms of Christian witness and service would quickly disappear if many more Catholics, and ideally all, made it a practice to discern, accept and live out their unique, irreplaceable callings from Godtheir personal vocations.

The idea of personal vocation and the practice of discernment are also the key to removing clericalism from Catholic life once and for all and replacing it with a healthy understanding of clergy-lay relationships. Personal vocation and vocational discernment also are crucial to helping the laity, along with everyone else, understand and embrace their proper roles in carrying out the church’s mission.

These are large claims, of course. In weighing them, it is useful to begin with the three distinct but related senses that the word vocation has in religious talk.

The first of these is the common Christian vocation received in baptism and strengthened by confirmation. In very general terms, the common vocation consists in what follows from the commitment of faith: loving and serving God above all else and loving and serving one’s neighbor as oneself, and so collaborating in the redemptive work of Christ that is the mission of the church. In 1964 the Second Vatican Council offered a succinct but clear statement of the idea when it said the baptized are appointed by their baptismal character to Christian religious worship and have an obligation to profess before people the faith they have received (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 11).

The second meaning of the word refers to what traditionally is called state in life. The clerical state, the consecrated life, Christian marriage, the life of the single lay person in the worldthese are states in life. They are specifications of the common Christian vocation, chosen by overarching commitments that set us on long-term paths that shape our lives by the countless specific choices and actions needed to see them through to the end. Christian states in life are meant to complement and reinforce one another, not to compete.

The third sense in which vocation is used is that of personal vocation. It is the unique combination of commitments, relationships, obligations, opportunities, strengths and weaknesses through which the common Christian vocation and a state in life are concretely expressed in the case of someone trying to discern, accept and live out God’s will; it is the particular role intended by God for each of us in his redemptive plan. We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:10). Or, as Pope John Paul II said in a message for World Vocations Day in 2001, Every life is a vocation.

When Catholics speak of vocation, they usually mean state in life. In fact, they usually mean priesthood or religious life. A vocations director is someone in a diocese or religious institute responsible for recruiting and screening those who think they may be called to be priests or religious; a vocations program is a program with this purpose. From one point of view, there is nothing wrong with speaking of vocation in this way. Priesthood and religious life really are states of life and, for some people, central parts of their callings from God. From another point of view, however, exclusive emphasis on vocation as state of lifeand, practically speaking, as a call to be a priest or religiouscan do much harm.

The most obvious harm is in communicating to those not called to be priests or religious the message, You don’t have a vocation. That may be disappointing for some and welcome news for others; but in either case it is a disincentive to continuing discernment, acceptance and living out of God’s will for oneself. Here is one of the root causes of the clericalist mentality still so widespread among Catholics.

The idea of personal vocation is the antidote. Everybody has oneGod calls every member of the church by name. Seen in this light, the challenge is not to find out whether you have a vocation but to identify the vocation you unquestionably have.

The idea of personal vocation is unfamiliar to most Catholics today, but it is hardly new. It is rooted in the Pauline doctrine of charisms and of the church as the body of Christ. Other classic sources of Christian wisdom have developed the insight further. St. Francis de Sales, for instance, spoke of personal vocation in his Treatise on the Love of God, though he did not use the term. It is not God’s will that everyone live the evangelical counsels, he points out, but only such counsels as are suitable according to differences in persons, times, occasions, and abilities. Writers like St. Ignatius Loyola and Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J., suggest the same.

Cardinal John Henry Newman offered a particularly insightful exposition of personal vocation in one of the sermons he gave while still an Anglican, Divine Calls. Newman emphasized the here-and-now, ongoing character of this uniquely personal call: For in truth we are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us. He called us first in baptism; but afterwards also.... He works through our natural faculties and circumstances of life. Still what happens to us in providence is in all essential respects what His voice was to those whom He addressed when on earth.

Given the existence of this powerful and persuasive testimony, why have Catholics been slow to grasp the idea of personal vocation? One probable reason is that Martin Luther was an enthusiastic exponent of this truth. Everyone must tend his own vocation and work, he wrote. But Luther also rejected the idea of mediation in the spiritual realm and, with it, priesthood and religious life. The reaction this provoked among Catholics helped make the idea of personal vocation suspect in Catholic circles for centuries.

In modern times, nevertheless, the concept can be found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and in many postconciliar documents of the magisterium. No one has analyzed the idea more carefully or promoted it more vigorously than Pope John Paul II, who wrote about personal vocation long before becoming pope (in Love and Responsibility, which appeared in Poland in 1960) and has returned to it time and again during his pontificate. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, published in 1979, he said:

 

 

For the whole of the community of the People of God and for each member of it what is in question is not just a specific social membership; rather, for each and every one what is essential is a particular vocation. Indeed, the church as the People of God is also Christ’s Mystical Body. Membership in that body has for its source a particular call, united with the saving action of grace. Therefore, if we wish to keep in mind this community of the People of God...we must see first and foremost Christ saying in a way to each member of the community: Follow me. (No. 21)

 

The idea of personal vocation is an important complement to Vatican II’s teaching about the universal call to holiness. All members of the faithful, not just a select few, are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, the council declares (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 39). But there is not much guidance for living this out, and even less incentive to do so, in telling people that if God has not called them to be clerics or religious, they do not have a vocation in any meaningful sense.

Personal vocation puts this matter in a radically different light. Everyone has a personal vocation, an unrepeatable call from God to play a particular role in his redemptive plan and the mission of the church. The task of each is to discern God’s will, accept it and live it out. That is responding to the universal call to be holy.

Contrary to an elitist view of vocational discernment, which tends to treat it as an exercise for a select few, discernment is for everybody. The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it out, Pope John Paul II says in his post-synod document on the laity, Christifideles Laici (1989).

To carry out this mandate, parishes need to become schools of vocational discernmentplaces where liturgy, catechesis and spiritual direction encourage parishioners to engage in continuing, prayerful reflection on what God is asking of them. The effort should start with children (in an age-appropriate manner) and continue with adolescents, young adults and adults at every stage of their life journey. Special opportunitiesretreats, days of recollectionshould be provided for those who have major vocational choices to make. The aim is discernment, not recruitment.

But, someone might object, won’t emphasizing personal vocation distract people from heeding calls to the priesthood and consecrated life? Won’t it make the real-life vocation shortage worse?

The answer is no. If many more Catholics practiced ongoing discernment regarding their personal vocations, many more would discover that they are called to the priesthood or consecrated life. The best solution to the dearth of new candidatesand to many other problems in contemporary Catholic life as wellis personal vocation. Indeed, it may be the only one.

Russell Shaw is co-author, with Germain Grisez, of Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2003) and author, co-author or editor of 15 other books.

Comments

Sister Joyce candidi, OSHJ | 1/2/2008 - 2:25pm
I am a Doctor of Ministry Student. My project will address the topic of creating a Vocation Culture. I am in complete agreement with Mr. Shaw's article, "What Vocation Shortage?" I am very interested in contacting Russell Shaw either by e-mail, letter or telephone. I would like to ask Mr. Shaw for any further information he can give me regarding other sources that I may explore pertaining to the topic of vocations, particluarly regarding a theology of Call, etc. I am not interested in having this comment posted. Thank you.
Mark Laboe | 3/29/2004 - 3:05pm
Bravo to Russell Shaw and his article, "What Vocation Shortage?" in the 3/29 issue! The discussion of vocation is too often limited to priesthood or consecrated religious life alone - or somehow, such vocations seem to be valued more by the Church and "vocation directors." Religious communities have the opportunity and privilege to share their rich tradition of discernment and deep understanding of "vocation" but too often seem to be focused only on recruitment. What a gift and power the Church and religious communities would unleash if the focus shifted as Shaw suggests to the much broader focus on discernment: Lay people blessed with a deeper understanding and sense of appreciation for their role in service to the world, and a much healthier context out of which individuals could and would commit to consecrated life as priests or religious.
Charles Bolser, C.S.V. | 3/30/2004 - 9:42am
Many thanks to Russel Shaw on his excellent article, "What Vocation Shortage?" While I agree with his question, it seems as if he leaves much unsaid. I am aware of many who have actually engaged in prayerful discernment about their vocations and come to the conclusion that they were in fact called to active ministry as priests. However, it is one thing to discern this call, but quite another for the institutional Church to accept it. These people that I know, are rejected out of hand because some of them are women; others are married and while are convinced that they (men and women)are called to the active priesthood, do not recognize a call to celibacy.

Others have discerned a call to ministry as priests, but on a temporary basis. I am convinced that many are called and needed, but while they hear the quiet voice of the Spirit within their own hearts, the institutional Church remains both deaf and blind. The crisis is not among the faithful, it is within the structure of the leadership.

Ben Brenkert | 3/25/2004 - 12:25pm
As one who has considered the priesthood for the past seven years nothing bothers me more than the current dialogue on vocations. Whether it is Russell Shaw talking about personal vocations or diocesan vocation officers pitting "the-marriage vocation" against "the-priestly-vocation" this trend is troubling.

Discernment is less about a universal call to be holy, then a divine call answered through witness of vocation, identification with priests and the restoration of priests to respectability and holiness.

I also believe that the priesthood should not be lowered to some career path or mistaken for a job. This interpretation has fallen on many ears during recent sermons on vocations in my local diocese of Rockville Centre, Long Island. Here the differences between marriage and priesthood and "doctors" and priests is discussed to audiences that may or may not be well versed in scripture. When the priesthood is reduced to a 9 to 5 job it loses both solidarity and solemnity...the sacrificial-self-loving-sacramental role is lost in a drive towards increasing numbers.

I find Jesus' call to become fishers of men one of the most prolific messages on discernment in the Bible. When vocation directors talk about the priesthood as a career and highlight the careers duties, mass, sacraments, etc., the priesthood is troubled by unhealthy interpretations of the priestly role. Finally, what is wrong with a conservative understanding of the priesthood? The trouble with vocations is not discernment, but visibility. If priests dressed in their collors, took walks in parks or went out into their local environment, they would attract men to the question: Could I be a priest like that some day? Thus, the vocation shortage is less about the function of language or the psychological understanding of one's discernment, but more about the performativity of the priestly role - as one who is called to serve and as one who serves the public visibly and lovingly.

David Myers | 3/26/2004 - 8:44am
Russell Shaw argues that "the shortfall in the number of candidates for the priesthood... would quickly disappear if many more Catholics, and ideally all, made it a practice to discern, accept and live out their unique, irreplaceable callings from God." He essentially places the burden of discernment on the laity.

But what about the Church's need for discernment? Where is the call for the Church to assess honestly why so many people with a vocation for the priesthood nonetheless choose not to pursue it?

Perhaps a church with more open arms would catch more vocations.

Richard Oehmke | 3/20/2004 - 8:21pm
Russel Shaw make a lot of sense with his revival of the notion that we all have a specific personal vocation. I have read Shaw in various publications for over almost 30 years and sometimes have felt he is mourning for a Catholicism that preceded the renewal. I, like Shaw, have been around for almost a lifetime now and compliment both him and America for a fine article.
Irene Osborne | 2/9/2007 - 12:49pm
Russell Shaw delivers a timely message for today’s church in “What Vocation Shortage?” (3/29). He takes nothing away from the importance of priesthood or religious life and adds the mission of God and his church to each and every Christian.

I have long believed that the overall purpose and goal of every state in life, indeed every life, is the same. We are here to learn to love. I realize it sounds simplistic and the word love is so abused, but that does not change the truth that God is love. When we take in the love of God, we are capable of responding in kind.

We laypeople can no longer compartmentalize discipleship. Whether we are lay ministers in the church or volunteer ministers or workers in the marketplace, we must be consistent as disciples of Jesus. We learn to love through all circumstances, all experiences and all relationships and by the grace of God.

It may be that we have fewer vocations to the priesthood and religious life at present. To manage the current load some adjustments will have to be made in the short term. In the long run, awakening all laypeople to their personal vocation will surely serve the coming of the kingdom.

Kenneth Smits, O.F.M.Cap. | 2/9/2007 - 12:59pm
Russell Shaw’s confidence in discernment of vocation is unbounded (3/29). Of course, people in the fields of spiritual theology and spiritual guidance have long been advocating such discernment. But the following statement gives me pause: “If many more Catholics practiced ongoing discernment regarding their personal vocations, many more would discover that they are called to the priesthood or consecrated life.” Really? That may be Shaw’s personal belief, but it would need a lot more proof than Shaw demonstrates. There are no simple answers to the issue of special vocations in the church.

Amy M. Hoey, R.S.M. | 2/9/2007 - 12:57pm
Thanks to Russell Shaw for his excellent article, “What Vocation Shortage?” (3/29). The clarity of his exposition of a word that has assumed a lot of baggage over the years is helpful to all of us in the church. Particularly helpful was his identification of “state of life” as only one meaning of the word. His emphasis on the personal vocation of each individual and his call for parishes to become schools of vocational discernment are most welcome.

He admits his prediction that emphasizing the personal vocation and giving greater place to continuing discernment will ease the shortage of candidates for priesthood and consecrated life is a “large” one. We will not know unless we try. I hope we will try in serious and multiple ways. Strengthening the sense of personal vocation can only help each one of us in the church—whatever our “state of life.”

Mark Laboe | 3/29/2004 - 3:05pm
Bravo to Russell Shaw and his article, "What Vocation Shortage?" in the 3/29 issue! The discussion of vocation is too often limited to priesthood or consecrated religious life alone - or somehow, such vocations seem to be valued more by the Church and "vocation directors." Religious communities have the opportunity and privilege to share their rich tradition of discernment and deep understanding of "vocation" but too often seem to be focused only on recruitment. What a gift and power the Church and religious communities would unleash if the focus shifted as Shaw suggests to the much broader focus on discernment: Lay people blessed with a deeper understanding and sense of appreciation for their role in service to the world, and a much healthier context out of which individuals could and would commit to consecrated life as priests or religious.
Charles Bolser, C.S.V. | 3/30/2004 - 9:42am
Many thanks to Russel Shaw on his excellent article, "What Vocation Shortage?" While I agree with his question, it seems as if he leaves much unsaid. I am aware of many who have actually engaged in prayerful discernment about their vocations and come to the conclusion that they were in fact called to active ministry as priests. However, it is one thing to discern this call, but quite another for the institutional Church to accept it. These people that I know, are rejected out of hand because some of them are women; others are married and while are convinced that they (men and women)are called to the active priesthood, do not recognize a call to celibacy.

Others have discerned a call to ministry as priests, but on a temporary basis. I am convinced that many are called and needed, but while they hear the quiet voice of the Spirit within their own hearts, the institutional Church remains both deaf and blind. The crisis is not among the faithful, it is within the structure of the leadership.

Ben Brenkert | 3/25/2004 - 12:25pm
As one who has considered the priesthood for the past seven years nothing bothers me more than the current dialogue on vocations. Whether it is Russell Shaw talking about personal vocations or diocesan vocation officers pitting "the-marriage vocation" against "the-priestly-vocation" this trend is troubling.

Discernment is less about a universal call to be holy, then a divine call answered through witness of vocation, identification with priests and the restoration of priests to respectability and holiness.

I also believe that the priesthood should not be lowered to some career path or mistaken for a job. This interpretation has fallen on many ears during recent sermons on vocations in my local diocese of Rockville Centre, Long Island. Here the differences between marriage and priesthood and "doctors" and priests is discussed to audiences that may or may not be well versed in scripture. When the priesthood is reduced to a 9 to 5 job it loses both solidarity and solemnity...the sacrificial-self-loving-sacramental role is lost in a drive towards increasing numbers.

I find Jesus' call to become fishers of men one of the most prolific messages on discernment in the Bible. When vocation directors talk about the priesthood as a career and highlight the careers duties, mass, sacraments, etc., the priesthood is troubled by unhealthy interpretations of the priestly role. Finally, what is wrong with a conservative understanding of the priesthood? The trouble with vocations is not discernment, but visibility. If priests dressed in their collors, took walks in parks or went out into their local environment, they would attract men to the question: Could I be a priest like that some day? Thus, the vocation shortage is less about the function of language or the psychological understanding of one's discernment, but more about the performativity of the priestly role - as one who is called to serve and as one who serves the public visibly and lovingly.

David Myers | 3/26/2004 - 8:44am
Russell Shaw argues that "the shortfall in the number of candidates for the priesthood... would quickly disappear if many more Catholics, and ideally all, made it a practice to discern, accept and live out their unique, irreplaceable callings from God." He essentially places the burden of discernment on the laity.

But what about the Church's need for discernment? Where is the call for the Church to assess honestly why so many people with a vocation for the priesthood nonetheless choose not to pursue it?

Perhaps a church with more open arms would catch more vocations.

Richard Oehmke | 3/20/2004 - 8:21pm
Russel Shaw make a lot of sense with his revival of the notion that we all have a specific personal vocation. I have read Shaw in various publications for over almost 30 years and sometimes have felt he is mourning for a Catholicism that preceded the renewal. I, like Shaw, have been around for almost a lifetime now and compliment both him and America for a fine article.