In light of our Gospel reading, today is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Throughout the universal Church, Good Shepherd Sunday is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Pope St John Paul II spoke and wrote a lot about vocations. He identified a primary, secondary, and, for some, a tertiary vocation. Vocation comes from the Latin verb vocare, meaning “to call.” For Christians, a vocation is a divine call, meaning it is God- who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- who issues the call.
In Baptism God called us to live lives of holiness, that is, to be like Christ. This is our primary vocation. So, in an overarching sense, there is really only one vocation: follow Christ. In the first chapter of Genesis we read that man and woman were initially made in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26). While the image of God that constitutes us as human beings is ineradicable, meaning there is nothing we can do to lose it, our likeness to God is lost through sin and can only be restored by grace, the most efficacious means of which is the sacraments.
Our secondary vocation flows, if you will, from our baptismal call to holiness. This vocation is how we concretely live out the call we received in Baptism, which was confirmed when we were confirmed and is renewed each time we go to confession and participate in the Eucharist. Hence, our secondary vocation is to holy orders, matrimony, single, or consecrated life. I think this is important because, as Catholics, when we hear the word “vocation” too often we think only in terms of priesthood and religious life.
Finally, a tertiary vocation is what you do to earn your living. By our cooperation with God, our work can become a means not only of our own sanctification, but can contribute to the transformation of the world, the ushering in of God’s kingdom.
We find the vocation of the laity beautifully laid out in Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:
the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life… They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven (par 31)
But today, on the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, the Church, while recognizing the importance and even the necessity of all vocations among the People of God, concentrates its attention on vocations to ordained ministries (i.e., priesthood and diaconate) and to religious life in all its forms (male and female, contemplative and apostolic).
In our first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of Peter healing the crippled man. Especially in light of this glorious miracle, reflect for a minute about Peter, his background, his experience with Jesus, including his betrayal out of fear, but also his being forgiven and restored by our risen Lord and then fully empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out his apostolic ministry.
One issue for many who consider a vocation to consecrated life and/or ordained ministry is feeling unworthy of the call. But, if it occurs to you at all to consider these things, then Jesus just might be calling you. Respond by undertaking a process of discernment, which has both a spiritual and practical component. Two take-aways from our first reading: the Lord transforms whomever He chooses and He very often does not call those whom we might deem equipped. Instead, He equips those He calls. Is this not precisely what our Psalm response- “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone”- brings to our attention? It’s easy for us to lose sight of how unlikely a Messiah, Savior, and Lord Jesus is.
The celibacy required for priesthood and religious life stands as a beautiful sign of contradiction, one badly needed in our confused time. Having been one once, I can confidently say that young people are often quite determined to be counter-cultural, to rebel. However, most of the ways we’re “counter-cultural” when young turn out to be the epitome of conformity. Writing about The Chronicles of Narnia, Archbishop Rowan Williams pointed out that "a consistent theme" in the writing of C.S. Lewis is, "The truth of God is found in rebellion against oppressive clichés of the world" (The Lion's World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, 51). It would be difficult to find a better way of rebelling against the oppressive cliché, so pervasive in Western societies, that life is primarily about sex than freely embracing a life of celibacy, in imitation of Jesus, as a tangible sign of God’s kingdom.
For the vast majority of Catholics, it is in local parishes that Church happens. Parishes are led by pastors, who are priests. The center of parish life is the Sunday Eucharist, which surely requires a priest to lead. “Pastor” is synonymous with “shepherd.” Our diocese needs priests to collaborate with Bishop Wester, who is our Shepherd-in-Chief, in spiritually providing for the Lord’s flock. As Jesus indicates in today’s Gospel, a priest is not “a hired man,” but a shepherd, who knows, cares for, defends, and sometimes stands up courageously for those whom the Good Shepherd places in his care.
To all Catholic parents (which includes me), while we are blessed to have a wonderfully diverse and international presbyterate in our diocese, something we should cherish, lest we become an weird island unto ourselves, we should, nonetheless, as a local Church do all we can to foster vocations, not only to priesthood, but to religious life, and, yes, even to the diaconate. Vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and diaconate are one of the surest signs that the Holy Spirit is active in our midst. Hence, we should encourage our sons and daughters to be open to God’s call on their lives. For Catholic young people, considering priesthood and/or religious life, along with the many other options available, should be a given. Of course, as good parents, we should never try to coerce or in any way manipulate our children in this, but we should encourage them. One way to encourage them is by getting to know the priests in your parish, befriending religious sisters and brothers so their manner of living is not so foreign, or strange, to them.
Being a priest or a religious, because it is a vocation, that is, a divine calling is not a profession let alone a job. Because it is a divine call, for those who respond, it is their way of becoming who God created and redeemed them to be, the way they live out their baptismal call to holiness, contra mundum- counter-culturally. Priesthood and/or religious life is their way to sanctification, to holiness, to Christ-likeness, which is the primary vocation of everyone who is baptized. Is the Lord calling you?