In one sense “personal vocation” is a simple concept. John Paul II repeatedly declared: become who you are. “Personal vocation” is God’s call to each person to become who he or she is in loving service to God and neighbor.
But the word “vocation” has several different meanings. And, as we will see, “personal vocation” includes these meanings. So, although the term is simple, it is also multi-faceted. I will first address the different nuances of “vocation.” Then, we turn to a more robust definition of “personal vocation.”
Universal Vocation to Holiness
Drawing from Sacred Scripture and the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that every person has been given the vocation to holiness: “’Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.’ All are called to holiness: ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’”
The call to holiness is often referred to as the universal vocation or sometimes the primary vocation. It is for every one of us. Although this vocation is supernaturally given at baptism, which literally engrafts the Christian into the body of Christ, God beckons every human being to a life of holiness. Those not baptized are definitely called to seek holiness through baptism.
As soon as we begin to consider how to live out the universal vocation to holiness in our own lives we are on the threshold of personal vocation. In his recent Apostolic Letter on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, Pope Francis makes this connection explicit:
Yet with this Exhortation I would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16). The Second Vatican Council stated this clearly: “Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord – each in his or her own way – to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect”.
“Each in his or her own way” the Council says. We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable. There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.
On the one hand, we all have the vocation to holiness. In this sense it is universal, but Pope Francis stresses that this call is given to each one personally. We should not do violence to ourselves by seeking to conform to a model of holiness not our own. Rather we should each “discern his or her own path.” It is important to note, especially as we consider the paradigm of personal vocation for pastoral empowerment, that Pope Francis applies this exhortation not only to lay persons, but to priests and religious as well.
Vocation as State of Life
A second meaning of “vocation” is the one many Catholics have in mind when using the term. This is vocation as state of life, which is sometimes referred to as “secondary vocation” following the “primary vocation” to holiness.
State in life means the basic way a person gives him or herself in relationship to others in the Body of Christ. Normally, this self-gift involves vows that make the state in life enduring and exclusive. Husband and wife vow to commit themselves to marriage “until death to us part.” Monks and nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
The unconsecrated single life does not involve such vows and, in many cases, those in this state justifiably seek to leave it, but we can still think of it as a “state in life” vocation.
Vocation as Profession
People often and rightly speak of their professional lives as vocations. One might say he or she feels called to be a doctor, a farmer, or a nurse and so on. Along these lines, we sometimes reference “vocation” in connection to skilled trades fostered in “vocational technical” schools.
II. Personal Vocation Defined
The different meanings of vocation just discussed cover a lot of ground. As Luke Burgis and I argue in our recent book, Unrepeatable, “’personal vocation’ is the spirit that animates all of them-the way they are lived out. Personal vocation does not sit beside them: it comes before, after, above, and below them.”
Because ‘personal vocation’ includes the universal call to holiness, ‘state in life’ and other aspects of ‘vocation’ it holds the broadest meaning of vocation. It is also specific to each person. It is, in the words of Saint John Paul II, the “singular, unique, and unrepeatable grace by which each Christian in the community of the People of God builds up the Body of Christ.”
The basic theological foundation for personal vocation is found as we turn to God’s love which is directed not toward abstract concepts or states in life but toward persons. Sacred Scripture reveals a God who knows each person intimately and who seeks to redeem each and every one. “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you…fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
What is declared to us in Scripture is borne out clearly in our own experience. Love for humanity is non-existent unless it is made real in concrete acts of service to real people. And in our encounters with people to the extent that we treat them as mere instances of a concept, to that extent we fail to love them. Love demands and is authentic in personal encounter.