Professor John Betz shares his thoughts on vocation and Notre Dame


The Rover had the special privilege of speaking with John Betz, Associate Professor of Theology, about vocation and about how students can better understand the purpose of their education in light of their vocation. Enhanced by Scripture references, Professor Betz’s responses provide material for reflecting on a student’s time at Notre Dame in particular.


Irish Rover: How would you define vocation in a general sense?

Betz: In my view, a vocation is, certainly in the Christian sense of the term, something more exalted than we tend to think; it implies a lot more than an “occupation.” Consider what Paul says in his letter to the Philippians:

“Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:12-14).

Paul has a very clear sense of vocation here, and it doesn’t have anything to do with his being a tentmaker, which was what he did to “make a living.” Today I think there is a tendency to confuse our vocation with our occupation. True, as Paul also says, some are called to be “apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers” (Eph. 4:11), and that certainly resonates with what we mean by vocation, but really there is only one vocation. One venerable way to put it is to say that we must become what we are, namely, the image of God. And this implies a task. More disconcertingly, though, it also means that we can fail—that we can actually fail to be who we were created to be; in which case the story of Genesis 3 just repeats itself—only this time in us. Fortunately, just when it looks like we have a vocation that is impossible to fulfill, Christianity tells us that there is a Way to fulfill it—a Way that is actually a person. Thus, to put it very simply, in following Christ, who is the Way, we become who we are—who we were created to be.

What do you understand your vocation to be at this point in your life?

In general I’d prefer to say that we all have one vocation, as I’ve described it, which is realized in different contexts and occupations. (Incidentally, I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t have “callings” to different occupations; I think it’s obvious that we do, and it generally takes time to figure out what one’s “calling” in that sense is. But, as far as I’m concerned, it would never be an ultimate calling or vocation.) But here I take it that you mean vocation in the more ordinary sense of the term. Occupationally, of course, I’m a professor of theology; and I have to admit, to put it that ways sounds much better to me than saying “I’m a theologian.” For one thing, many people don’t even know what a theologian is anymore; and to say professor of “x” already gets you a bit closer to explaining what it is that you do. Often enough, I find that I have to explain that I don’t teach “geology,” but, literally pointing in an upward direction, theo-logy. But I prefer the phrase “professor of theology” for another reason, too. I think we in the Christian West tend to use the word “theologian” much too easily—flippantly—as though speaking about God could ever be something easy. The Orthodox tradition uses the word “theologian” more like the way we in the West use the title “Doctor of the Church,” as it is applied to such great saints as Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and the great—because she was little—Thérèse. In fact, in the Orthodox tradition, only three persons have ever been called “theologians,” and the last one died nearly a thousand years ago in 1022. That’s not a lot of people. I think that, by analogy, Kierkegaard got something right when he said that being a Christian was something he aspired to be, not something that without hesitation he could say that he was. Being a theologian would have to be something similar—something one aspires to be. So, put that way, I’d see my vocation as trying to be a theologian and, as such, trying, by the grace of God, to say something meaningful about God, which is what theology by definition is.

As a father and as a professor, do you have in a sense two vocations, or do you understand there to be a unity?

Bracketing what I said above about the one vocation, I suppose I have at least two vocations—one to being a father, one to being a professor, not to mention a vocation to being a husband. So here already I’d want to expand our sense of vocation to mean something more than one’s occupation. But then how can one have three—or even more—different vocations? And what, if anything, could unite them and keep them from competing? Here, as in many other areas, I think it would be helpful to think in terms of analogy. If we think this way, then there is, strictly speaking, one primary vocation to which all other secondary vocations—now relativized—refer. My different vocations to be a husband, a father, a professor of theology can at times compete and even conflict—even now I have to get home to put my kids to bed, for example. But they are all harmonized, so to speak, if they are ordered to and by the one primary vocation I was trying to describe above. Then, being a husband, a father, and a professor of theology are not competing with one another, nor are these secondary vocations competing with one’s primary vocation. Rather they become wonderful ways of fulfilling that one vocation, and so one tries to live out one’s vocations well in order to live out one’s primary vocation well (e.g., being a better father is one way to be a better human being). But I think the converse is true as well, and more fundamental: that we become better at our secondary vocations the more seriously we take our primary vocation.

What are some blessings and struggles that you have encountered in living out your vocation?

One of the challenges that anyone with a family faces is how to “get it all done,” how to meet the dual obligations of work and family; this is never easy, and I admit that it’s sometimes a real struggle for me, too. Often I find myself saying to my wife in view of so many different, seemingly competing demands, “something has to be sacrificed,” and typically—thinking too much of myself—I’m not wanting that to be my work. Thus, to my chagrin, I sometimes get home too late to help put the kids (we have three) to bed. That’s the basic problem, I think, and my problem, too: we tend to prioritize our secondary vocations, and more often than not it’s one of them, our work. As a result, everything gets out of order: what’s secondary becomes primary, and we inevitably end up neglecting or even failing at our other, now competing vocations. So how, then, can we get it all done? In a way, it seems increasingly clear to me, we can’t. But there’s reason to hope, because Christ tells us that when our priorities are right—and we ourselves become secondary—then we don’t need to fret about the other stuff or how to get it all done; for then, as he promises, “all these things will be added unto you” (Mt. 6:33).

From your perspective as a professor and as someone who has been a student for many years of your life, what advice do you have to offer to those of us who are currently striving to live out the vocation of being a student?

I don’t think being a student is a vocation—except, as I’ve said, in a secondary sense. But as a secondary vocation, it’s certainly not just a means to getting a job. We live, as Pope Francis has been saying of late, in a “throwaway” culture. It would be a real shame, and pretty crass, if someone thought of education in that way, too: as something one could throw away once one’s gotten a job. So if being a student isn’t one’s primary vocation, but is nevertheless something to take very seriously as a secondary vocation, how should we look at it? And how should we look at it when we know that much of what we learn we will later forget?

Here, rather than focusing on what we learn, on information, which we may forget, it may be more important to think about the process of learning and how we are formed through that process. In this regard, I think, being a student can teach us much of great value about how to be disciplined, how to follow something, how to be dedicated to something more than ourselves, how to follow through with things, how, for that matter, to have the kind of attention that is necessary for a life of prayer, as Simone Weil once observed. When one thinks about the Christian life and about one’s primary vocation, all of these things, which seem incidental to one’s education, suddenly become very important. They become a crucial preparation for the real learning, which for Christians is how to follow Christ, and how to learn from him how to live. And in this respect we might do well to remember that the word used in the gospels for “disciple” (mathetes) is also the Greek word for a student, a learner.

In general, though, perhaps part of the difficulty with the way we regard education has to do with the word itself. The English word “education” just doesn’t have as rich a connotation as words for education in other languages. For instance, the German word for education—Bildung—transparently means a kind of formation: to be educated is to be formed into something. In its truest sense, then, education is not about getting a job (this is the most degraded understanding of what it means and is all about); nor is it just about acquiring information, which one will later forget (then it really would be a questionable enterprise); nor is it about the acquiring of certain skills sets (as though the point of a great university was to be nothing more than a glorified trade school). Rather, looking at it as Bildung, the point of education is the cultivation of virtue and of character; all of which is taken to another, higher level when you start talking about the aims of Catholic education. Then we’re back to talking about con-formation to Christ as the Way to the realization of our humanity.

Does our being at Notre Dame provide us with any unique opportunities for growing in awareness of our vocation and in living it out?

As proud as I am of my own alma mater, I cannot help but wish that, in some ways, I had gone here. I’m jealous—at least when I think of what a Notre Dame education really means. What an honor and privilege to be a graduate of Notre Dame! Think how much that means! There’s no other university that carries so much significance. Figuratively, to have Notre Dame as your alma mater means that through the Mother of God and her maternal intercession, Christ is formed in you. And if you wear Notre Dame gear, such as a T-shirt or sweatshirt with ND on the front, and if you think about who Notre Dame is, then what does that mean? It at least carries the suggestion that Christ is on the inside. You couldn’t say that Notre Dame sportswear is a sacrament—a visible sign of an invisible grace—but it’s close to it in what it signifies. Let’s call it a kind of “sacramental.” And what of the golden dome and the golden helmets and uniforms? Don’t they reflect the glory of Notre Dame herself, which consists in that she carries and gives Christ to the world? What if the tens of thousands of people at football games actually thought for a single moment about what they are saying when they proudly shout, “We are ND”? (And what if, at the start of every game, everyone said just one Our Father, or one Hail Mary.) The world would be a very different—and much better—place. So, in response to your question, does Notre Dame provide any unique opportunities for growing in an awareness of one’s vocation, I almost want to say, “are you kidding?” Academically it may be—and symbolically it certainly is—the most remarkable place one could ever receive an education, if, at the end of the day, to be formed by Notre Dame means to have Christ on the inside in order to give Christ—the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)—to the world.

John VanBerkum is a senior studying philosophy and theology. He can be reached at