Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

13 September 2012

"Know Your Role" in Vocational Discernment

The Divine Missionary(c) Josephite Fathers
You never know what you'll find among the articles left at the entrance to the Daily Mass Chapel.

The above holy card was one of the better finds in recent months.

As the caption mentions, the image was copyrighted by the Josephite Fathers in Baltimore.  This community of consecrated men (priests and brothers, in fact) are predominantly African-Americans who serve their fellow African-Americans.  (My introduction to this community came by way of Fr. Stephen F. Brett, one of our moral theology professors in the seminary.)  

I was moved by the image of a devout young man looking up to the Crucified Lord, Whose arm embraces him and Whose face looks upon him with serene confidence.

This image tells us how it is: Jesus really trusts us--and supports those who make it their business to  follow Him.  Jesus Himself is the "Divine Missionary" by nature, and we are by grace.  He is the divine Sender, we the divinely Sent.

On the reverse is a "Prayer to Know One's Vocation," which reads:

O my God, Thou Who art the God of wisdom and good counsel, Thou Who readest in my heart a sincere desire to please Thee alone and to direct myself in regard to my choice of a state of life, in conformity with Thy holy will in all things; by the intercession of the most holy Virgin, my Mother, and of my Patron Saints, grant me the grace to know that state of life which I ought to choose, and to embrace it when known, in order that thus I may seek Thy glory and increase it, work out my own salvation and deserve the heavenly reward which Thou hast promised to those who do Thy holy will.  Amen.

(Incidentally, the prayer carried an indulgence of 300 days according to the Raccolta.  The Church no longer treats indulgences in terms of days or quarantines, so we can presume that, if any indulgence is attached to this prayer anymore, it's "partial."  And that's quite fine with me.  I'll take what I can get.)

This prayer gives voice to the person who wants to know "what to do with (his or her) life."  The ordinary, post-modern presumption is that one's life choices are completely personal, autonomously considered, decided, and executed; unless, of course, one chooses to enlist outside advice, which must entail no obligation or expectation.  This applies not only to one's vocation (intentional celibacy with or without religious vows, marriage, or ordination) but also to one's profession or occupation, and everything else besides.

Pick up a holy card like this one and entertain for a moment that it's good for anything more than a toothpick, and you're asking for trouble...or, depending on your perspective, you're asking for help.

The young people of today would profit from vocational formation, at the heart of which is the "universal call to holiness" propounded by the Second Vatican Council.  God wants us to know Him personally, to recognize His interest in us, and to allow that interest to guide not only our daily conduct but also our weightier decisions.  From the universal call to holiness we discover that what we want to do with life is as important to God as it is to us.

Allow me, patient reader, a digression on "Stuff My Dad Used to Say": 
"I just want you to do something you enjoy, something moral."
Dad was a forklift operator for a textile plant, but he knew that his son had religious and academic interests.  He also instinctively knew that one should (or at least may) choose a life-task that accords with personal inclinations and aptitudes.
"Don't bust your [posterior] like I did.  You don't need to do that."
(I never realized until now that, in his own sweet way, he was giving me a compliment.  I further realize that I scarcely gave my father due credit for doing what he did: marrying my mother, siring and raising me as best as he could, providing for the family by honorable labor that he performed faithfully and well--all of which mattered to him as much as it did to God.)

Mary and my patron saints (especially Joseph, my father's name, my Confirmation name, and patron of the universal Church, families, and laborers) undoubtedly interceded for me in my vocational discernment.  So did the priests and people I knew in my parish as well as another local parish for which I played the organ.  They expressed enthusiasm for me and my priestly predilection, and supported me in varied ways throughout the process.  Given the absolute need and relative rarity of priestly/religious vocations, one can appreciate the motive for eager support, especially among faithful families and parishes.

I admit that I wondered whether people's approval might have fostered in me an expectation (real or imagined) that I should continue to the altar, much as I suppose some people could develop an internalized impetus toward marriage, whether to a particular individual or in general.  Solid emotional and spiritual formation will help a person to sift through those understandable concerns--better sooner than later, so as to minimize post-decisional drama.

Freedom is key in the choice of one's vocation.  The last several popes have spoken to people obsessed with their autonomy by reminding them that freedom is for something: it has a purpose outside of our self-determination.  Recent authors have noted the difference between saying "This is my body" at the altar of self-interest, and saying "This is my body" at the altar of self-sacrifice.

All sorts of attachments can whittle away at one's freedom like a fine-grade sandpaper.  We readily acknowledge the effects of addictive substances or processes; but an undue regard for the opinion of family, friends, and society is just as insidiously harmful to the developing moral agent and, a fortiori, to the process of vocational discernment.

The weak or nonexistent pursuit of holiness in the family may be the greatest liability for one who is choosing a life-state.  The child who had little exposure to prayer as personal communication with an interested God won't readily acknowledge God's interests in his or her life, let alone seek them.  A friend of mine says that he grew up with the idea that God takes care of only the big stuff.  For many years he would pray: "You take care of the movement of the planets, weather, etc.; I'll handle the rest, thank You very much."  Perhaps most people say such things not so much with their lips as with their actions.  Sometimes this attitude takes root despite a family's best efforts; we know well of parents who lament their children's apparent nonchalance toward divine things.  Remember the wife of Patritius.

Not only do we wish to exercise our vocational decision with freedom and intelligence, but we also want to have the best possible motives.  The purification of motives, I also concede, is an arduous process, which isn't often completed by the point of decision (e.g. marital or religious vows).  The above-quoted prayer reminds us that God's children seek to know His intentions for our lives:

(1) So that the world may acknowledge God's existence and nature in all its radiance, which many neither know nor care to know.  The more God's glory is known and sought in this world, the more disposed people will be to "let Him in" on their lives; in a strange (though not necessarily perceptible) turn, it may begin to seem that He's the One letting us in on our lives!

(2) So that we may promote our eternal welfare.  This is the greatest privilege that God gives to human beings: by the proper channeling of our freedom, understanding, and passion, we get to cooperate in the renewal of our own selves and our associates.

Pray for an authentic renewal of a religious and spiritual sense among our youth.  There is Someone outside themselves who wishes to make missionaries of them.  He "cares enough to send the very best" into the world--to send them as well-formed and eager disciples.

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