The word vocation means a calling, and a calling is a proposal or initiative addressed to someone to which that someone is invited to respond.
All of us have received a vocation from God, a multifaceted calling to which we are invited to respond. God calls us out of nothingness into being. Not one of us would be here if God had not called us to be. God also calls us to faith, that is, to life in Christ. This is not something we achieve for ourselves. In fact, it is formal Church teaching that faith is a gift from god that cannot be earned or caused by us. As part of our call to faith, God calls us to eternal happiness in heaven. All this is God’s initiative, God’s call. It is all vocation. Our part is to accept or to reject, to cooperate with God’s invitation or to evade it.
In ordinary Catholic vocabulary, however, we have tended to use vocation to mean God’s call to the priesthood or the religious life. In this chapter, I wish to deal with how such a vocation works.
There are two facets to a priestly vocation: an individual subjective one, and an ecclesial or objective one.
In the heart of the individual, a vocation to the priesthood manifests itself by a combination of appropriate talents and a God-given inclination to use those talents in the service of Christ and the Church as priest. A person who has no bent for learning, who has no potential for public communication of any kind, and who has no leadership skills may be a saintly individual, but he is clearly not called to the priesthood, simply because God has not given him the human equipment that a priest has to have. But even if the human equipment is there, it doesn’t necessarily mean that God is calling the individual to the priesthood. After all, the human talents that are required for priests can be used in lots of other good ways. A vocation to the priesthood seems likely only when the individual begins to perceive some sort of personal attraction to the work of priestly ministry, when he begins to realize that it might be a good thing for him to dedicate the gifts he has received to the Church as a priest. It is not that God awakens him in the middle of the night and tells him to enroll in the seminary; rather, he begins to be aware of the priesthood as a real and appropriate way for him to spend his life. He is led to make a prudential judgement that he may have a priestly vocation.
Obviously this awareness calls for some response. The response includes more careful prayer and reflection. Eventually it means professional preparation in a seminary. It’s not enough to accept what seems to be a vocation and then sit back and wait for it to happen.
The story of every priest, therefore, involves an invitation from God, quietly and respectfully delivered, and a response on the part of the one who has been called. Every priest is a priest because God has not only called him but also because he has decided to answer.
There is more, however. A vocation to the priesthood is not a private matter between God and the one called. There is also an ecclesial dimension to it. It is not possible to be a priest without ordination, and ordination comes from Christ through the Church. The individual has to be called by holy orders by the bishop, and it is that call which constitutes a priestly vocation in its most narrow and technical sense. Obviously the bishop has to exercise some discernment before he calls someone to the priesthood, but the fact remains that it is he, the bishop, who delivers the “official” vocation to the one who presents himself for the priesthood.
We should not overly romanticize priestly vocations. They do not generally come through visions or irresistible urges of grace. They are discerned in a combination of human gifts and human responses. At the same time, we should not overly rationalize priestly vocations. Every vocation involves the work of the Lord, busy in the deepest interior of the one called, working through all those who lead the candidate through his period of preparation toward the call to holy orders. There is some mystery in every vocation.
Every priestly vocation is different. There is no simple, standard story because vocation deals with individuals, and every individual is unique. Some priests say that there was never any doubt in their mind about what the Lord wanted for them in their lives, never a question about how they would respond. Others found that they had to struggle for a long time to understand clearly the invitation that God was giving them, and then struggle some more to bring themselves to respond. Some are ready to begin their preparation for the priesthood at a relatively early age, others only later. Some find that, once they have begun their preparation, everything works together without incident to bring them to the bishop’s call. Others experience a long series of questions and problems they have to resolve before they can take the last steps. The only real common elements in every priestly vocation are the quiet work of the Lord, human response, and final validation in the sacrament of holy orders.
Is it a sin not to accept a vocation to the priesthood? I am inclined to think that it is not a sin in the same way it would be a sin to refuse the vocation to life or to faith. It might be a mistake though, or a lack of generosity, if I use what God has given me for personal ends when those gifts could have been used for the well-being of God’s people. One thinks of the rich young man in the gospel who turned away from Jesus’ call because he had other plans (cf. Matthew 19:16ff).
Does each of us have a specific vocation that we have to discover and accept or else run the risk of both temporal and eternal misery? I don’t think so, since the gifts that God gives each of us are capable of being used in many good ways. At the same time, ordinary common sense would seem to dictate that we are best off if we make the most generous and most appropriate use of the talents that God has given us.
Vocations to the priesthood are among the most important gifts that God gives to the Church. Without priests, the Church cannot be what God intends it to be. Without vocations, there are no priests.
I think that many Catholics are disturbed about the apparent decline in priestly vocations in our time. There are reasons for the decline. One is the self-serving culture in which we live that does not seem to esteem a life of dedication and service like that of the priest. Another is the turmoil in the Church caused by elements both inside and outside it, not excluding differences of opinion about married priests and the ordination of women.
We also need to recognize that many of us grew up in a time when there was an unusual abundance of priests, and we are inclined to think that that’s the way God meant it to be, whereas God may now be showing us that it’s not necessarily so. Moreover, the decline in numbers of priests seems to be a localized phenomenon in highly developed countries and may say more about those countries than about the priesthood.
All of which is not to say that we don’t have to be concerned about vocations. Vocations are a gift from God, but they are a gift that needs to be cultivated. Clearly, none of us can give
a vocation to anybody. That’s God’s work. But we all can help people respond to the vocation that may be there. We can encourage likely candidates to think about the possibility of the priesthood for themselves. We can offer our appreciation and respect to those who are already priests and thus perhaps inspire others to follow in their footsteps. Above all we can pray, publicly and privately and regularly, for the vocations that God wants his Church to enjoy. Prayer is not something we do because all else has failed; instead, it is the way in which we open ourselves and our neighbors to receive the gifts that God wants us to have.
Vocation is something that is part of every human life, every Christian life. Priestly vocations are a specialized calling for the good of the Church. They do not result from purely human initiative, nor from some sort of magical intervention on God’s part, but rather from the cooperation of God and the individual and the Church. Each of us has our own part to play in seeing that the Church has the priests it needs.