Thursday, March 5, 2009

God IS calling you

If we look at the matter honestly there is very little, really, that one cannot do if one is not in holy orders. After all, one has to be baptized prior to receiving holy orders. Those in holy orders are but a subset of the baptized and set apart to serve, that is, minister to the baptized. In other words, it is a poor theology of holy orders and an even more impoverished ecclesiology to focus on what a bishop can do that a priest can't, what a priest can do that a deacon can't, what a deacon can do that a layperson can't, etc. Does that mean that each does not have a unique and specific part? No! It does mean that one part is not more important in the grand scheme than the any other part. We must develop a perspective and then keep within it. Losing perspective and looking at the matter in a negative way leads to bad sacramental theology which, in turn, leads either to a distinct lack of praxis or poor praxis. One result of this view is what I like to call a confectionery view of Eucharist (i.e., the priest whips up a batch for us as if the assembly, made up of God's priestly people, plays no part). After all, the priesthood of all believers was not some innovation concocted by Martin Luther, but something he retrieved from apostolic tradition (see 1 Peter 2:9-12). Now, it is true that a priest must lead the assembly for there to be a valid Eucharist and that a priest is able to celebrate Eucharist without a congregation, but even without a congregation, such a celebration cannot be and is not done in isolation, apart from the rest of the Church, just as one never prays the Liturgy of the Hours alone, even if she is by herself. Commenting on the importance of the laity, Cardinal Newman, referring to what a priest does during the liturgy, said something to the effect that "We would look silly up there without them".

As an example, there is nothing that a deacon can do by virtue of being a deacon that a properly authorized layperson cannot do (i.e., baptize, preach, witness marriages, preside at prayer and other liturgical rites). Of course, apart from emergency baptisms, one has to be authorized by one's bishop, but there are places where all of the above are done, validly and licitly, by laypeople. As I see it and try to practice it, the vocation of a deacon is to exemplify and highlight the baptismal vocation to service, diakonia, to which we are all called.

All vocations are rooted in baptism, which call is confirmed and strengthened, not only by confirmation, but each time we take communion and restored when we confess. Writing about confession, about reconciliation, the priest is not the only minister of it, we are called to be ministers of reconciliation to each other and the world. We do this by forgiving "those who have trespassed against us" and by practicing the spiritual work of mercy whereby we bear wrongs patiently. Precisely because it is a sacrament, it must not be confined to the small space in which we ritually celebrate it, just as Eucharist is not limited to Mass and the sacrament of Matrimony is not confined to the wedding liturgy. In order to be sacraments, that is, visible and tangible signs of Christ's presence in and for the world, they must be lived out. Let's face it, sometimes it is easier to go confess a highly sanitized version of some wrong to an disinterested third party than to go and be reconciled to the one we have wronged (Matt. 5:21-26).

Last night my wife and I watched the film Fireproof. My wife rented the movie on the insistent recommendation of her Dad, who is recovering well from his recent heart troubles. He credits this film with saving his marriage, which is his second. He and his wife are deeply committed Evangelical Christians. While I have to admit the film is a bit sappy, it is good and I recommend it for married couples, perhaps especially for those preparing for marriage. After I got over my sarcastic commentary (no snickering, Sara) and just started to watch it, I was deeply moved. The most moving scene is the one in which Caleb, kneeling next to the bed on which his somewhat estranged and definitely disaffected wife is laying, repents, asking, begging, for her forgiveness. I admit it, I got choked up, it was beautiful. This is an area where we, as Catholics, can learn a lot from our Evangelical sisters and brothers: what it means to live as disciples of Jesus Christ and how that translates into being ministers, that is, servants of the good news!

This brings me to the crux of the matter: discernment. I don't know how discernment works if the starting point is What is God not calling me to? In my view, such an approach is the spiritual equivalent to Descartes' method of doubt because to start from a negative hypothesis may well imply a belief that there is the possibility that God is not calling me to anything at all. With St. Paul, I am firmly convinced that all the baptized have spiritual gifts that are to be put into service (i.e., diakonia) (1 Cor. 12:4-11). More than that, I make appeal to our Lord himself. After all, is this not what the parable of the talents is all about (Matt. 25:14-28)? Especially if you are baptized, it is not a question as to whether God has called you, it is a fact that He has called you. So, the question becomes, Will you be faithful to the call to which you have responded, even if your initial response was given by your parents and godparents? I have always liked Karl Barth's (a theologian whose writings remain very influential among Evangelical Christians) theology of election, based on Matthew 22:14, which, if I understand it correctly, stipulates that all are called and that the chosen are those who respond to the call. So, the question, even for those not baptized, again, is not whether God is calling you, it is whether you will respond to God's call.


  1. Thanks for a great post! It is impossible to be reminded too often that God has a plan and that he calls everyone individually to be a part of that plan.

    Can you suggest any books or articles that study vocations more closely? The particular question on my mind is the following: there is a certain group of people who, according to present cultural and disciplinary norms, are unsuitable for marriage, priesthood, and religious life. But since this necessity came about only by general norms, there is no reason to expect that the gifts God has given them will "agree" with their call (by default) to the single lay vocation. In other words, absent the norms, some of these people might have been good parents, or lay brothers and sisters. So---what I'm hoping to find out is how someone's state of life relates to his or her vocation... and that's why I ask for books or articles.


  2. Look for a post in a few days with some recommendations.

  3. I find this very clear and helpful, Scott. In my work as a catechist, I have collaborated with Christians who aren't Catholic, and among them there were female Episcopalian priests. Two of these were so bold to opine that I have a vocation to the priesthood and that I ought to convert to pursue it. It was a struggle to be polite in these situations (leaving aside how presumptuous these suggestions were) because I know for a fact that I'm not called to the priesthood -- not just because it is impossible for me as a woman, but because the call ain't there; I mean, how is it possible to be called by God to something God's Presence on this earth isn't inviting you to? Vocation isn't some mystical voice from heaven whispering in one's ear. Vocation is the voice from the backseat saying she needs a tissue. Vocation comes through the Presence of Christ in His people, the Church. All right, my Episcopalian sisters, through their Baptism, are part of the Body of Christ, too; but while they are a part of the Body, they are also protesting against the Head. So. Only once was I jealous of a brother's Roman collar -- when it occurred to me that if I wore one, no one would bat an eye if I only spoke about Jesus 24/7.

    One thing I love about Fr. Giussani's teachings is that he insists that God calls us in every moment, in every circumstance we find ourselves in. Vocation is not just the broad path we travel, but every step we take along the way. It has to do with the way we look at a flower or set a cup down on the table.

    The observation that you attribute to Karl Barth (I haven't read anything by him) is also found in Judaism's understanding about being "chosen." The chosen people are the ones who respond to the call.

  4. I have say that what really attracted me to the Movement intially and remains attractive is jut what you describe.

  5. I have a list of some books and articles on my site Paths of Love: Catholic Vocation Discernment.

    I'll be checking back for your recommendations, too.

  6. There are a dozen or so paragraphs in von Balthasar's "Christian State of Life" that have some connection with the problem posed above.