Right now, dioceses all over the country are celebrating Catholic Schools Week. When I was in grade school, Catholic Schools Week culminated in a Mass celebrated at the Joyce Center here at Notre Dame, with then-Fort Wayne/South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy presiding and preaching. I always looked forward to these Masses. But the aspect of that Mass to which I am devoting this column was not one of which I took much notice, let alone enjoyed, at the time. It was something that Bishop D’Arcy always said in his homily. He told us to pray every day this prayer: “Lord, help me to know and to follow my vocation in life.”
My last Catholic Schools Week Mass was over half my lifetime ago. Since then I have come to appreciate vocation and its importance more and more. Though I at first thought that one’s vocation was defined exhaustively by one’s state in life—married, ordained, religious, or ‘single’ (which, to my present mind, was disastrously often communicated as a kind of ‘other’ category, an afterthought)—I gradually came to understand that one’s state in life is just one, albeit very important, element of one’s personal vocation. But one’s personal vocation encompasses all the good choices that Jesus asks us to make. One never ‘finishes’ discerning one’s personal vocation because that calling develops over the course of one’s life, including in response to choices that one makes and that others make.
That thought may clash with one way that Christians are likely to view vocation: a path laid out by God from the moment of our birth (or before!) that we have to figure out and follow. On this view, if the journey of life consists in walking a road that brings one to innumerable forks (between two or, as more commonly, more paths), the sequence of turns that one should take is ‘settled’ from birth; the map has been drawn and the ink dried.
This view contains elements of a sound view of personal vocation but can also be misleading. The strange truth of personal vocation is that our personal vocations are not fixed or settled from birth. This is because our vocations—what God is calling us to do at any given moment in our lives—are shaped powerfully, contoured and given definition, not only by our unchosen obligations but by those commitments that we and others make or fail to make through free choices. And since free choices can be bad choices—can be sins—our personal vocations can actually be determined (in an important but not exhaustive sense of that word) by our own or others’ sinfulness.
A spouse who commits adultery and who gets his partner pregnant now has a vocational duty to father his child, rather than try to abort her or to abandon her and her mother, even if he already has a family of his own to support. A man whose wife is struck and killed by a drunk driver needs to accept that his personal vocation now involves moving forward with God’s plan for his life. A good and holy man who thinks he has a call to a religious order, applies to one of its seminaries, and is asked to leave after his first year because he saw a priest and a seminarian having an affair and told them fraternally that they should tell their superiors and spiritual directors, needs to accept that while his vocation at one time involved him applying to seminary, it now involves him accepting that he is not called to be a seminarian in that community.
This may seem scandalous. But it is a truth of faith that God’s providence embraces absolutely everything. All the evil in the world, including our and others’ sinful free choices and whatever ‘natural’ evils afflict us, are permitted by God only because he can work them for the good, our good. As one Catholic theologian explained it to me, “Looking back, we can be sure that everything we have done and everything that has happened to us, including our own sins and others’ sins that affected us, unfolded exactly as it was to unfold in God’s plan.”
We might ask how it can be that God’s providence and our freedom are compatible, or object that on this view God’s plan is radically and problematically subordinated to the contingency of human affairs. The second concern really hinges on the first. And we cannot reasonably expect to understand God’s foreknowledge and creativity, either in themselves or as they relate to our free choices. God is transcendent and incomprehensible. This answer may be dissatisfying. But thus it is also with other baffling questions of faith, such as “How can my prayers really change the perfect, omniscient, and sovereign God’s mind about anything?” We need only know that Jesus tells us to pray and tells us that prayer can work, and then to pray.
How, then, to understand vocation in light of human freedom and sin? Simply put, we should “be willing to choose whatever God prefers that we choose and we should be willing to accept whatever happens to us,” to quote again the theologian; and always we should ask: “Lord, what do you want me to do now?” As one ages, one becomes more familiar with one’s own sins and those characteristic of the persons who figure prominently in one’s life. Their sins can determine our vocation, and we can miss or betray ours through our own. Yet we should never despair and should never think that our ‘vocation ship’ has sailed, and we have missed it for good. Our vocation is with us always, and it is never too late to live it out, whatever one’s or others’ past choices, good or bad, however much we have failed to date. “My son, go work today in my vineyard”: those who do so at any point, even in the light’s last hour, will receive the full day’s wages.
Michael Bradley is the Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the Irish Rover and will graduate from Notre Dame with an MTS degree in historical theology in May.