Discerning A Vocation

A Roman Catholic Explanation of the Teachings of Jesus Christ 

Is the Lord, perhaps, calling you to the priesthood?
To religious life? Or to both?

 "If you had but known the gift of God, and who it is who is asking you for a drink, you would have asked Him instead, and He would have given you living water." (Jn 4:10)

There are many great and wonderful gifts God has given us in this world. There are the gifts of life, of family, of friends; of our country, of our education, of our employment, of our talents and opportunities. For all these we own immense thanks to the Lord who arranges all things sweetly for those who love Him. But there are far greater gifts than these. Indeed "As high as the heavens are above the earth," so far are there gifts above all of these.

Part of our Catholic Faith is belief in the twofold providence of God: a general providence and a special providence. God's general providence oversees all our needs from birth until death, especially as regards the gifts of nature, but also as regards the gifts of grace. For God's general Providence foresees the need of our salvation and has granted to us the inestimable gifts of the sacraments and the general vocation of all the baptized: eternal life.

For the grace of baptism alone we shall never thank God enough. For the riches of baptism exceed the value of all created things of the material and spiritual world. Baptism makes us adopted sons of the Father, co-heirs with God the Son, and friends of the Holy Spirit, who is the Lord and Vivifier of souls. What can be more wonderful than that? We can call God "Our Father"; "Our Redeemer"; "Our Advocate." The mystery of God's inner life [the Trinity] has been revealed to us and not to any other nation. By baptism we have been taken up into the Ark of Salvation, the Catholic Church, outside of which there is entirely no salvation. By Baptism we are called to remain and grow up in that Communion of Saints which is the Church Triumphant, Militant, and Suffering. We do this by faithfully adhering to the teachings of Christ and His Church, by our obedience and communion with the Successor of Peter, Christ's Vicar on earth, and by the faithful fulfillment of the duties of our state in life.

Baptism also brings with it the possibility of all the other sacraments: Penance, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Sacred Orders, Anointing of the Sick. These are the very foundation of our lives as Catholics, as children of God, as children of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Among these many and exceedingly wonderful gifts of grace, one stands in a principle place. It is the grace of a vocation. From this grace comes a stream of other graces leading to eternal life.

The Importance of Responding to the Grace of a Vocation

It is the common teaching of Roman Catholic Theologians, following in the footsteps of the Doctors of the Church, that the grace of a vocation is crucial to the eternal salvation of the one to whom God gives it. This is the expressed teaching of saints no less than St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus Maria dei Liguori, Doctors of the Church.

Just how important is the grace of vocation? According to these saints, the grace of a vocation is one of the gifts God gives us under a special Providence and care for our salvation. God in predestining us to grace and glory already called some of us to stand before Him in eternity, singing His praises and enjoying His friendship. In the excess of His love, with which He loved us before the foundation of the world, He therefore foreordained the grace of the vocation of baptism, whereby even if Adam should fall, we would be saved in Christ by the merits of His most blessed Passion and Death. This kind of vocation is the vocation we received in baptism. It is the vocation all Catholics have. And to remain faithful to our baptismal vows is at once both the most prudent course and the most glorious.

There is a special grace of vocation, however, which we Catholics call a vocation. It is the vocation to the priesthood and/or to the religious life. This kind of vocation is a calling, a stirring one might say of the the soul, to undertake a special state of life which is ordained to the supernatural good of others. Unlike the "vocation" of marriage (which is a duty for the baptized who consider conjugal life), the vocations of priesthood and religious life are essentially supernatural in origin and purpose. To both of these are attached special promises (see below) by Christ, which distinguish them above the state of marriage in both dignity and mission.

These special kinds of vocation are like the vocation of baptism: they are a gift of God's special providence, caring for our salvation. Without these our own salvation, and that of many others, is placed in jeopardy, if not all together made impossible. This is the clear teaching of St. Alphonsus Maria dei Liguori, whom the Church has made a special patron of confessors and moral theologians. During the process of canonization, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared all of his teachings worthy of acceptance by the faithful. And so we can be sure this teaching of his is to be trusted.

How can a vocation be so important? Because as St. Augustine remarks, "God who created us without us, does not will to save us without us." And the reason for this mystery of God's will is wrapped up in the purpose of all creation, to be for the greatest honor and glory of God, which cannot be without the salvation of souls. Now just as without faith it is impossible to please God, and since no one comes to faith unless some one is sent to preach the Gospel, so the vocation of priests are necessary for the salvation of us all: to teach, preach, sanctify, lead, guide, shepherd, and correct us, sinners. Likewise, the vocation of religious life is necessary for us all, for we all have sins which need to be atoned for by penance, beyond our means, for mercy beyond our ability to pray, for good example, to turn us from the errors and attractions of this world.

Furthermore, eternal life is no small gift; and the devil, the enemy of our souls, is no small enemy. Enter Jesus, Mary, the Saints, the clergy, and good religious and friends, to help us arrive in Heaven safely. It is the grace of this special kind of vocation that leads us to them, and through them to the sacraments, and to a life of prayer and works of mercy for God's sake alone, so as to help both us and our neighbors on our way to Heaven.

The grace of a vocation is also the source of many other graces. It is an occasion for doing many good works, for having more time to pray, to learn about God, to serve Him by love and sacrifice and fidelity, of avoiding many dangers to our salvation, such as all the impurity, errors, and vanity of this world and its culture of death. It is the source of graces for ourselves, for God apportions to each of us grace in the measure to our needs. The greater the vocation, the greater the graces. The greater good we can do for the Church, the greater the graces to help and encourage us to do so. And how great indeed is the good that priests and religious do for God and His Church and for each of us.

The grace of a vocation, then, is like a fountain welling up to eternal life. From it continually comes forth a multitude of graces leading us to eternal life. To heed a vocation then is the greatest wisdom. To turn away or ignore it, the greatest folly. 

Some Illustrations of the Importance of a Vocation

Some scriptural passages can be used to reflect on the importance of a vocation and responding to it. These have been chosen, below, for that purpose. It would be a thing pleasing God very much if we kept these close at hand and read them frequently in times of decision.

 The Parable of the Sower and the Seed

A large crowd was gathering, with people coming to Him from one town after another. He spoke to them in a parable:

"A farmer went out to sow some seed. In the sowing, some fell on the footpath where it was walked on and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, sprouted up, then withered through lack of moisture. Some fell on good soil. grew up, and yielded grain a hundredfold."

As He said this, He exclaimed: "Let everyone who has ears attend to what he has heard."

His disciples began asking him what the meaning of this parable might be. He replied, "To you the mysteries of the reign of God have been confided, but to the rest in parables that, ‘seeing they may not perceive, and hearing they may not understand.’

“This is the meaning of the parable. The seed is the word of God. Those on the footpath are people who hear, but the devil come and takes the word out of their hearts lest they believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. They have no root; they believe for a while, but fall away in time of temptation. The seed fallen among briers are those who hear, but their progress is stifled by the cares and riches and pleasures of life and they do not mature. The seed on good ground are those who hear the word in a spirit of openness, retain it, and bear fruit through perseverance." (Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 8, verse 4- 15)

 The Parable of the Lamp

"No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket or under a bed; be puts it on a lamp-stand so that whoever comes in can see it. There is nothing hidden that will not be exposed, nothing concealed that will not be known and brought to light. Take heed, therefore, how you hear: to the man who has, more shall be given; and he who has not, will lose even the little he thinks he has." (Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 8, verses 14-18)

The Parable of the Talents

While they were listening to these things He went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem where they thought that the reign of God was about to appear. He said: "A man of noble birth went to faraway country to become its king, and then return. He summoned ten of his servants and gave them each ten talents., saying to them, 'Invest this until I return.' But His fellow citizens despised him, and they immediately sent a deputation after him with instructions to say, 'We will not have this man rule over us!' He returned, however, crowned as King. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, to learn what profit each had made. The first presented himself and said, "Lord, the sum you gave me has earned you another ten.' 'Good man!' he replied. 'You showed yourself capable in a small matter. For that you can take over ten villages.' The second came and said, 'Your investment, my lord, has netted you five.' His word to him was, 'Take over five villages." The third come in and said: 'Here is your money, my lord, which I hid for safekeeping. You see, I was afraid of you because you are a hard man. You withdraw what you never deposited. Your reap what you never sowed.' To him the King said: 'You worthless lout! I intend to judge you on your own words. You knew I was a hard man, withdrawing what I never deposited, reaping what I never sowed! Why, then, did you not put may money out on loan, so that on my return I could get it back with interest?' He said to those standing around, 'Take from him what he has, and give it to the man with the ten.' 'Yes, but he already has ten,' they said. He responded with, 'The moral is: whoever has will be given more, but the one who has not will lose the little he has. Now about those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king, bring them in and slay them in my presence.'" (Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 19, verses 11-27)

What is a Vocation?  A closer look

Having read these parables we can begin to ask the question again in more detail: What exactly is a vocation? Where does it come from? Where does it lead? Who receives a vocation? And how does one know it? When does one know for sure that the grace of a vocation has been given?

What is a vocation?

A vocation is a special grace given to an individual person upon which the mystery and purpose of their entire life finds its perfect meaning and solution. All the gifts we have of nature (body, soul, family, possessions, talents, education, opportunities) have been given to us to help us accept and fulfill, in some way, the duties of our vocation. If we chose rightly, all will go well and we will arrive safely in Heaven; if badly, we will have much greater suffering coming our way, and will perhaps end in Hell.

Where does a vocation come from?

A vocation comes from the Most Holy Trinity by means of the Mediation of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is our Mother in the order of grace. Also it frequently is made known to us though the help and advice given by those who strive to be faithful to God themselves. We hear this call in prayer by a secret desire welling up in the depths of our hearts, often with special light in our minds to see its goodness and usefulness for our eternal salvation.

Where does a vocation lead?

A vocation is a calling to "life on high with Jesus Christ." It is a call to walk with Jesus and Mary along the narrow way that leads to heaven. It is a call to the perfection of virtue, of holiness, of charity, of faith, and of hope in the things to come, to service of God, of Church, and of our neighbor.

Who receives a vocation?

God gives the grace of a vocation only to one who has faith, for "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6) and the grace of a vocation is first of all a calling to live a life pleasing to God in every way. That God gives a vocation is often a sign of our faithfulness up until the present; sometimes, though it is a call to turn away from a present or future course which will only lead to our eternal damnation. Thus to receive a vocation one must first be baptized and be truly catholic.

Secondly, although God calls even those who are sinners, nevertheless, it is impossible to accept the grace of a vocation and to remain faithful to it so long as one commits grave sin. Indeed the habit of committing mortal sin is a sign that the most fundamental spiritual work has yet to be done. That work is repentance, and it calls us to receive the sacrament of reconciliation worthily and frequently, so as to live free from the habit of all grave sin.

But a vocation is preeminently a grace given to those who have already sought and who still seek earnestly to live with Christ according to the commandments of the moral law. It is not that such persons consider themselves more perfect or better than others. Rather, recognizing that without God they can do nothing, and that but for the grace of a vocation they would sooner forsake the God of Glory, and perhaps even work greater evils, these who receive the grace of a vocation strive ever to be servants and handmaids of God Most High.

And how does one know that God is holding out to him the grace of a vocation?

There is a prayer recommended for many years that is worth quoting in this regard: "Anticipate O Lord our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every prayer and work of ours may be pleasing to Thee and be brought to completion through Christ Our Lord. Amen."

Prayers of this kind bear witness to a fundamental doctrine of our Catholic faith, namely, that no one can will something good, holy, or worthy of respect, unless God the Father grants the grace to do so first of all. Indeed, so much is this rule to be trusted that St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori states that one of the clear signs of a priestly vocation is the desire to be a holy, just, and chaste priest, if God should call him to the priesthood.

This rule is also applicable to religious. And moreover, the opposite is true. If one seeks any vocation for the sake of anything in this world then this is a clear sign that this aspect of one's motivation does not come from the Lord who is Spirit and Truth. If such is the only or primary motivation of a person, then the best advice is NOT to pursue it, for this will lead only to ruination of yourself and many others.

Another clear sign of a vocation is the attraction to that state in life, especially in the time of prayer and recollection. If when one withdraws from the noise and cares and vanities of this world, there arises the desire to be a priest or religious, then this is a sign that the Lord is calling.

There are even more signs, and it is the teaching of the saints that the Lord of Grace will not fail to make us know for certain, at least at one moment in our life, especially when we are striving to live in a manner that pleases Him, that He indeed is certainly calling us.

Finally it must be said that God will never inspire anyone to pursue a vocation that the Church Herself teaches is not for them. Thus no woman is led by God's Spirit if she feels herself called to the priesthood or diaconate, simply because "God cannot deceive nor be deceived," and again "He is a Spirit of truth," and not a "father of lies" who would give his daughter a snake when she asks for bread.

When does one know for sure that the grace of a vocation has been given?

Before one has definitively assumed the state in life associated with a vocation (such as at ordination, or perpetual profession) there always is and can be some uncertainly, simply for the reason that we are weak and feeble creatures. That is, barring extraordinary fidelity to grace, for uncertainty and doubt in one who has clear signs of a vocation, or of the fact that God has or is calling, is a weakness, not a strength. Indeed it can be a punishment for sin, especially for neglect for prayer, chastity, faith and/or charity to our neighbor.

But some also, on account of their special mission in life or fidelity to God receive the firm and unshakable conviction that the Lord is in fact calling them. Such prove that this is from God only if they persevere in following this call until death, and for this they must always pray, lest they loose the little they have, through pride and presumption. 

How to Discern a Vocation

There are a few things recommended to those who desire to be more certain regarding the possibility of a vocation. Indeed these practices are recommended for every one, since we all are called by God in baptism to holiness of life, and because these practices are nothing more than fidelity to our baptismal promises. At the present you may practice one or more of these, or even none of these. Are you required to practice them all? Is that necessary to know for certain your vocation?

The answer is simple enough. These practices are like flames of a fire. The more flames, the more heat, the more heat, the greater the likely hood of a wet log burning. Now the soul who is beginning to walk to the Lord, indeed even many of us who have begun long ago, is likened to a wet log. It must draw close to God or God to it to be dried from sin, enlightened by faith, kindled by charity for God and neighbor.

Therefore the more that one does to draw closer to God, the clearer will be one's knowledge of one's vocation, whatever it may be, and wherever it may lead.

Here are some recommended things you can do:

  1. Consecrate yourself to the Blessed Virgin Mary and ask Her for all the graces and lights you need to please Her Son best of all.
  2. Resolve to spend some time each day in prayer. The more definite the time and place the better.
  3. Receive the sacrament of penance frequently and worthily.
  4. If you are not conscious of having committed a mortal sin which you have not confessed, then receive the Eucharist and with devout attention and participation at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Keep free from all sin, especially mortal sin, and strive to receive worthily often.
  5. Pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary each day; and strive to acquire the habit of saying Her Rosary each day.
  6. Pray often to one's guardian angel and to one's patron saints for the light of guidance and the grace of help.
  7. Avoid everything that might destroy one's love of God and Heaven, especially, impure pictures, films and immodest clothing or friends. (This practice is of course not optional, but obligatory, for "He who lives by the sword is doomed to die by the sword.")
  8. Read the lives and/or writings of canonized saints. Especially those who were outstanding priests, religious and founders of religious orders.
  9. Study the catechism.
  10. Take up some work of charity for your neighbor, in so far as your present duties allow.
  11. Frequently ask God for the grace to know and love Him more and more.
  12. If there is a priest who in his actions is faithful to the Pope and a man of prayer ask for his advise and counsel. If you think you need advice concerning a vocation to religious life choose a priest who does not in any way despise the religious vocation.
  13. Be faithful to your present duties in life, even making sacrifices to fulfill them without negligence.

 The Reward for those who follow Him

Finally we have the assurance of Christ that all who follow Him in a vocation will be greatly rewarded in this life and the life to come:

Peter said to Him, "We have left all we own to become Your followers." His answer was, "I solemnly assure you, there is no one who has left home or wife or brothers, parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, who will not receive a hundred homes, brothers, parents or children in this age and in the world to come life everlasting." (Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 18, verses 29-30)

Supplement: Advice on Fulfilling a Vocation

Finding a Diocese

If you have discerned that God is calling you to the diocesan priesthood, then here is some simple advice that you can follow to help you fulfill His will for you.

First of all, do not pursue the vocation of a diocesan priest if you have sometime thought your vocation is to the religious life, and are choosing a vocation to diocesan priesthood as an escape from a vocation to religious life. This kind of behavior displeases the Lord very much, and He is not one to be mocked. Rest assured that He will block your way and have His way in the end, or that you will perish in your folly.

Second, strive to find some truly holy and learned diocesan priests to be your mentors and advisers. Discern who to entrust your soul to by examining their deeds more than their words. Don't hesitate to make sacrifices in traveling to find, even in remote places, such men, for they are worth their weight in gold. And having found them, do not let human respect or friendship lead you to accept anything they might advise that would be against the teaching of the Church or the way of holiness.

Third, don't play the cafeteria game: that is do not decide on a diocese simply because you can get more out of it for yourself, especially if this "more" regards material things. Consider rather a diocese where there is greater possibility of pleasing God and serving the needy. Mission dioceses are often places were God can more easily found.

Fourth, don't accept compromises. Often many men go the way of perdition by agreeing to immoral arrangements in regard to their priestly formation, thinking once they become a priest it won't matter how they became one. There is little that could be more stupid than such thinking. God sees all, and the man who ascends the Altar unworthily is the most cursed man on the face of the earth.

Fifth, do not neglect prayer and study—in that order. Do not be swayed by what men say but bend your mind and heart to what the Church and the Saints, Doctors, and Fathers teach and did. Pay as much regard to a teaching as the authority of the one who taught it, and you will never go wrong.

Sixth, be holy for the Lord your God is holy. Make your first work, each day and week, be the keeping of your good resolutions and the examination and formation of your conscience. Never call evil good, nor good evil. Never call what is better, worse, or what is worse better. For such is the sin against the Holy Spirit.

Seventh, never be afraid, when you have sufficient reason, to disclose to those superiors who are able and willing to do something about it, the names of those persons in the Church who need help or who are destroying Her from within. 

Finding a Religious Institute

Finding a religious institute is an essential part of a religious vocation; though, alas, it is not at all easy in the contemporary situation. But there are several points of advice that will smooth your journey, if only you remember them:

First, discern your vocation. Half the work in finding a religious institute is knowing to which one the Lord is calling you. He will not fail to make this clear, but to discern this rightly you must consider the totality of all the holy desires the Lord has sown in your soul, not just one of them. It is disastrous to choose one community over another simply because you would prefer this or that particular characteristic most of all. What matters is not what you want, but what God wants for you. Therefore put His will first and make the decision that will please Him. This is the most fundamental rule. If you break it, your life may be pleasant, humanly speaking in this world, but very unpleasant, spiritually speaking, in the life to come.

Second, to be a religious is to promise God, under the penalty of eternal damnation, to spend one's life seeking to grow in virtue. If you do not have this intention, do not be a religious, for it would be a quick road to damnation. If you have this intention, you need to pray and study a great deal the teachings and lives of the saints, on how to be holy. This will be the greatest help in deciding which community the Lord wants for you.

Third, never consider any community which is in any way not Catholic in its way of life. Examine their doctrine and discipline, what they do and what they don't do and what they permit members to do and not to do. What periodicals and books do they read, what places do they visit, what clothes do they wear. The key questions to look for are how do they live their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Be frank in your questions when you visit, if necessary. No worthy community will tolerate in the least such things as theological dissent, sodomy, impurity, individual monthly stipends, or freedom to do your own thing, etc.. If such criteria, as these, limit the number of places to choose from, all the better, since God only has one place in mind for you anyhow.

Fourth, do not give up. Even if you make the wrong decision, there is always time to change your heart and decide aright. Many times a community seems one way to us in our youth and another once we live there. If there are truly sound reasons, do not hesitate to leave. Do not join in the revelry of the wicked, simply because you have so little faith in the Providence God will show you if you seek Him in purity of heart and life. Sometimes too, after some years we realize that God was calling us to a holier life, and that there is a real possibility to live it now. Make this known to a good holy priest and seek the permission to follow this vocation-within-a-vocation. It is never too late to follow the Lord with a renewed spirit.

Fifth, never set a limit. If you only knew the things that make the Lord very, very angry, you would realize that one of they is those individuals who say "If I find such and such in such and such a period of time then I will say yes to the Lord, otherwise, I will go my merry way." These individuals go from folly to perdition faster than lightning. And they deserve such, for they have spurned the Love and powerful Providence of God, who alone is worthy of love and who knows best the times and seasons to serve Him.

Sixth, do not join or remain in a community if they do not observe their rule or norms, or if they are not willing to expel dissenters or those who flagrantly transgress their vows. But resolving to remain a religious and be a better one, keep the rule or norms and look for the possibility of transferring to a better community. To do otherwise is to put your soul in grave danger; to join such a community is, according to St. Alphonsus a mortal sin.

Finally, consider items 4,5,6 and 7 from the advice given to seminarians.