What is a vocation?  In many Catholic circles, the term “vocation” generally refers to a calling to the priesthood or consecrated life.  As a chair of this year’s upcoming Edith Stein Project, a student-organized conference that will explore the concept of vocation, I would argue that the notion of personal vocation is a richer, more compelling idea than this narrow usage – and ultimately more relevant both to those who eventually pursue the religious life and to those who do not. 

In his book PERSONAL VOCATION, theologian Germain Grisez describes the historical and theological development of the notion of personal vocation.  He discusses three important elements or “concentric circles” of vocation.

First, we are all recipients of the common Christian vocation: to know, love, and serve God and one’s neighbor.  Second, one’s vocation is also lived out through one’s state in life whether through marriage, the priesthood, single life, or consecrated life.  Third, each individual has a personal vocation, “a unique, unrepeatable role God calls each baptized person to play in carrying out the all-embracing divine plan.”

Tracing this emphasis in the Bible and in the writings of St. Francis de Sales, Ven. John Henry Newman, Pope John Paul II, and many others (as well as authors like Flannery O’Connor), Grisez encourages his readers to realize that each and every human person has a distinct and multifaceted vocation.

I think Grisez’s analysis and the distinguished thinkers on whose work he draws should simultaneously provide both a challenge and a reassurance to students in particular, from freshmen trying to discern their majors to seniors scrambling to apply for jobs, graduate schools, service programs, and fellowships. 

On the one hand, the Church calls each person to a life of self-denial, obedience to Christ’s laws, and self-gift.  As the Second Vatican Council declared, “Man, who is the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” 

This radical message runs directly counter to prevalent notions of self-fulfillment and individual autonomy.  As G.K. Chesterton quipped, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” 

I would argue, admittedly from the limited perspective of a 20 year old, that one does experience great joy from striving to grow in virtue – but that this type of joy is more like running a marathon (St. Paul says, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race”) or learning to play an instrument.  Both are rewarding experiences that come only through exercising discipline over an extended period of time.  Self-denial is the only road by which one reaches what the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called “the hilarity and high adventure of Catholic fidelity.”

At the same time, this idea of personal vocation doesn’t demand perfection or instant discernment.  One can graduate from Notre Dame without knowing one’s exact career path – and circumstances and the constantly shifting job market will likely ensure that one’s plans will eventually change at least a bit anyway.

Similarly, one doesn’t need to know that one is going to be single, consecrated, or married by age three or by age thirty.  Does this give a recent graduate license to spend his days playing video games in his parents’ basement?  Of course not.  Perpetual adolescence is inconsistent with Christian vocation, but neither should one be constantly paralyzed by fear of making the wrong decision.  Citing St. Augustine’s famous motto, “Love God and then do what you will,” Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft writes, “If you truly love God and his will, then doing what you will, will, in fact be doing what God wills.” 

At some point, each person must make major decisions that will affect him for the rest of his life – which school to attend, what type of career to pursue, to marry, remain single, or enter the religious life, and so forth.  Each of these decisions opens some doors and closes others – just as an individual’s circumstances, inclinations, and prior commitments can help reveal his vocation. 

Thus, through careful, individual discernment, taking one’s distinct situation and natural talents into account, each of us can live out every day in response to God’s will whether we think we know where we’ll be tomorrow or not. 

Finally, in light of the themes discussed above, I would like to encourage each reader to consider attending the sixth Edith Stein Project, held February 11-12th in McKenna Hall.  This annual student-organized conference promotes a greater understanding of the intimately personal nature of men and women’s vocations and how they can be understood and lived out concretely in our modern world.  Our theme this year is “Irreplaceable You: Vocation, Identity, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  

We will be looking at these issues through the lens of the Catholic tradition, as well as the Jewish and Protestant faiths of some of our speakers, but we would like to welcome those of any or no faith to consider these compelling arguments for the unique dignity and vocation of the human person. 

We will have well-known authors like Wendy Shalit and Dawn Eden, scholars like Dr. Gilbert Meilaender, and several great Notre Dame professors, including Dr. John Cavadini, Dr. David O’Connor, Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC, and Notre Dame Law School Professor Gerard Bradley.  Professor Bradley will be delivering a keynote address that addresses personal vocation much more completely and eloquently than my brief comments here.

I wish that I could list all of our excellent speakers on these pages, but you can check out our complete schedule on our website (http://www.nd.edu/~idnd/).  Registration for the conference, through the McKenna Hall website, is encouraged but not required.  Please join us!

            Claire Gillen is a junior history major who wants YOU to come to the Edith Stein Project.  Contact her with questions or comments at cgillen2@nd.edu. 

Box for middle:

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.

Therefore, I will trust Him, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, he knows what He is about.

-Ven. John Henry Newman