Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Do You Have a Vocation?

A while back I spoke at a dinner meeting of two Catholic lay organizations concerned about the troubled state of priestly and religious vocations. I'd been asked to talk on the topic of a book I wrote with the theologian and philosopher Germain Grisez entitled Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name (Our Sunday Visitor, 2003). It was a warm, sociable occasion, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Before dinner I was introduced to the young priest who is the vocations director for the diocese. A personable, friendly man, he's undoubtedly very good at his job. Best of all (to me at least), he said he had read my book and agreed with it. What more can an author ask?

But he had a problem — a mystery, really — that he couldn't solve. Whenever he went into a Catholic school classroom to talk to the kids, he made it a point to say that all of them had personal vocations. Then, before leaving, he'd ask how many had vocations and invite a show of hands.

None of the kids ever raised a hand.

Now, he asked, what was the reason for that? I had no quick and easy answer, and before we could ponder the mystery further, it was time to eat.

After dinner, I spoke. Then the vocation director was called on to say a few words. He gave what I took to be his standard vocations talk, and as he did a light bulb came on in my head. Now I knew why those kids didn't raise their hands.

Although the priest tells them that they each have a personal vocation, the kids he speaks to aren't buying it, because it's clear that when he gets serious about vocations, he means a calling to the priesthood or religious life — period. They suspect that something bad will happen if they put their hands up — they'll get put on a mailing list, be hauled off to some kind of program downtown or out at the seminary, and who knows what else? Worst of all, their parents might get a phone call or a letter. They could find themselves drawn into a process they aren't ready for.

Stop the vocation recruitment machine. I want to get off!

That's about where we are now in the Church on the subject of vocation. The idea of personal vocation is in the air, but it's vocation as a calling to the priesthood or religious life that still really counts. That is a mistake.

All the same, you can see why that young priest is anxious about priestly and religious vocations. As this is written, the figures available show 44,212 priests in the United States (29,483 diocesan and 14,729 religious). Forty years ago, there were 58,632 priests (35,925 diocesan and 22,707 religious). Back then, too, there were 48,992 seminarians; now it's a measly 4,330. Proportionally as well as absolutely, the decline in the number of religious women has been even steeper: 179,954 then, 71,486 now. The news is bad, and it's getting worse.

Discernment, Not Recruitment

Yet there is no shortage of vocations in the Catholic Church — in the United States or any place else. What we're seeing is a shortage of vocational discernment. Not enough people ask themselves what God wants them to do with their lives. Discernment — not recruitment — should be central to vocations efforts today. And personal vocation should be at the heart of it.

In religious talk, the word vocation refers to three different things:

First is the common Christian vocation, which comes with baptism and is shared by all members of the Church. It consists in the commitment of faith and what follows from it: loving and serving God above all else, loving and serving neighbor as oneself, and collaborating in continuing the redemptive work of Christ, which is the mission of the Church.

The second meaning is state in life. A "state" puts some flesh on the bones of the common Christian vocation. It's a broad, overarching commitment to a particular Christian lifestyle. As such, a state in life sets someone choosing it on a path that will shape his character through the countless choices and actions required to follow it to the end. The clerical life, the consecrated life, the state of marriage, and the single lay state in the world are states in life.

Third is personal vocation. It's the unique combination of commitments, relationships, obligations, opportunities, strengths, and weaknesses — understood as representing God's will — in and through which the common Christian vocation and a state in life are expressed by someone (priest, religious, layperson) trying to know and live the life God has in mind for him. It is the singular, unrepeatable role in his redemptive plan that God intends for each of us.

"Every life is a vocation," Pope John Paul II says. And so it is — a unique, personal vocation.

This idea isn't new. Hints of it, and sometimes more, can be found in St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis de Sales, Cardinal Newman, and other masters of the spiritual life. In recent times, Pope John Paul has spoken about personal vocation more than anyone else — so much, in fact, that it's one of the central themes of his teaching as pope.

In Catholic circles, it is sometimes taken for granted that a vocation is a calling to the priesthood or religious life. And only that. That thinking persists. Consider how the word vocation is commonly used.

A "vocation director" is someone in a diocese or religious community responsible for recruiting new candidates for the priesthood and religious life. A "vocation program" is a program for recruiting and screening them. The idea that everyone has a personal vocation because everyone has a unique job to do in continuing Christ's work hasn't yet been recognized in many quarters.

That naturally discourages people who don't immediately feel called to the clerical state (priesthood) or consecrated life (monks and nuns) from engaging in vocational discernment. "I don't feel called to be a priest or a religious," they reason, "so I'm off the hook." If they did practice discernment, of course, they would learn that God is calling them — and, in more than a few cases, the call is to the priesthood or religious life.

Ever-Clearer Discovery

The idea of personal vocation radically changes all that. Everyone needs to discern a personal vocation, for that is the way to discover the role God wishes each to play in his redemptive plan. This is consistent with both the Protestant belief that every Christian has such a role and the Catholic belief that the role for some Christians includes ordained priesthood or the consecrated life.

In his document on the laity, Christifideles Laici (On the Vocation of the Lay Faithful), which appeared in 1989, Pope John Paul says flatly that "an ever-clearer discovery of one's vocation" is "the fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful" (58). He also makes the point that discovering a personal vocation is "a gradual process . . . one that happens day by day."

To be sure, there are times in everyone's life when discernment — prayerful reflection, preferably with the guidance of a spiritual director — is especially necessary as a prelude to making a major, life-determining choice. Nevertheless, vocational discernment of a simpler sort is necessary on a day-to-day basis.

It involves ongoing reflection on the current circumstances of our lives to see where the opportunities for service in the Church and in the world lie. This reflects something Cardinal Newman said: "We are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us . . . from grace to grace, and from holiness to holiness, while life is given us."

More Than a Plan

Vocational discernment is not the same things as planning one's life. Planning is good and necessary, but it should be done within the framework of the vocation one has discerned, not in place of discernment.

Typically, people who plan but don't discern organize their lives in light of goals that promise personal satisfaction. This may even be the satisfaction that comes from generous, altruistic deeds. But even where that's so, the difference between discerning and planning stands. The central issue for people who plan is: "What will make me happy? How can I get the most satisfaction for myself?" For those who discern, the fundamental question is: "What does God want from me?"

Paradoxically, of course, the latter approach turns out to be more satisfying — and more exciting. Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., the Polish-American priest who spent many years in prisons and prison camps in the Soviet Union during and after World War II, caught the essence of it in these words:

"God has a special purpose, a special love, a special providence for all those he has created. God cares for each of us individually, watches over us, provides for us. The circumstances of each day of our lives, of every moment of every day, are provided for us by him . . . [This] means . . . that every moment of our life has a purpose, that every action of ours, no matter how dull or routine or trivial it may seem in itself, has a dignity and worth beyond human understanding. No man's life is insignificant in God's sight."

We find our personal vocations, and we accept or reject them, live them out or fail, in "the circumstances of each day of our lives, of every moment of every day." Not so coincidentally, finding God's will for oneself, accepting it, and living it out are what it means to be a saint.

Vocation & Discernment

After reading the article, “Do You Have a Vocation?” by Russel Shaw, answer each of the following questions. To adequately answer most questions will require that you write a paragraph of five to seven complete sentences.

  1. What question did the vocations director always ask at the conclusion of his talks with high school students? Why did he always receive the same response every time?
  1. The author writes: “The idea of personal vocation is in the air, but it's vocation as a calling to the priesthood or religious life that still really counts. That is a mistake.” Explain how the bishops of Vatican II tried to prevent this mistaken mentality from arising.
  1. What has the percentage of decline been for priestly vocations in the last forty years? Seminarians? Nuns & Sisters? What do you think the various factors are that could have contributed to these declining numbers? Which factor do you suspect is most responsible for this decline and why?
  1. Despite these declining percentages, the author maintains that the Church is not suffering from a shortage of vocations. What does he claim the real shortage is facing the Church?
  1. Briefly summarize what the three different meanings of vocation are in the religious sense.
  1. How does shifting focus from vocation as an abstract, one size-fits all concept to the idea of personal vocation mutually benefit both the Church and the individual? (Note, this is a critical thinking question. You will not “find” the answer in the text.)
  1. Pope John Paul II points out that vocational discernment is a gradual process rather than an abrupt one. Do you find that to be reassuring or disheartening? Why?
  1. What is the difference between planning or organizing one’s life on the one hand and discerning one’s vocation on the other?
  1. What is the paradox of saying that our lives will be happier if we discern what God wants for us than if we simply focus on what we want for ourselves?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Discernment Questions

1. Kreeft recommends that we look to the saints to help us int he discernment process. What two things do the saints tell us about discernment?

2. Do these two things (mentioned above) pull us in opposite directions? Explain.

3. Consider a decision you are making or will be making soon. What is the “Data that you know for sure” that you will bring to bear on the unknown as you discern God's will?

4. Why do the Saints understand the Bible better than theologians? Can you be both?

5. What is meant by having a soft heart and a hard head? Give an example to illustrate your understanding.

6. Kreeft recommends that we enjoy some of life's simple pleasures to keep us grounded in our decision making. What are some of life’s simple pleasures for you?

7. How do you feel knowing that even the saints did not always have certainty in knowing God’s will in every decision?

8. What is the role of Doctrine, Dogma, Commandments, and Moral Law in our discernment of God’s will?

9. When we think of a nun, a priest, a father, or a wife, we often think of very one dimensional people, but the author points out that there is a great diversity of personalities fulfilling all of these roles. Do you think failing to recognize this diversity makes it difficult to envision yourself in these roles?

10. If all of our guides (parents, teachers, conscience, "heart") are imperfect are any of them still worth following? Explain.

11. Discernment is often choosing between multiple good choices. Do you think that makes it easier or harder than choosing between a good choice and a bad choice? Explain.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


The following reading is adapted from an article on discernment by Peter Kreeft.

Does God have one right choice for me in each decision I make? When we pray for wisdom to discern God's will when it comes to choosing a mate, a career, a job change, a move, a home, a school, a friend, a vacation, how to spend money, or any other choice, big or little, whenever there are two or more different paths opening up before us and we have to choose, does God always will one of those paths for us? If so, how do we discern it?

Many Christians who struggle with this question today are unaware that Christians of the past can help them from their own experience. Christian wisdom embodied in the lives and teachings of the saints tells us two things that are relevant to this question.

First, they tell us that God not only knows and loves us in general but that he cares about every detail of our lives, and we are to seek to walk in his will in all things, big and little. Second, they tell us that he has given us free will and reason because he wants us to use it to make decisions. This tradition is exemplified in Saint Augustine's famous motto "Love God and [then] do what you will." In other words, if you truly love God and his will, then doing what you will, will, in fact, be doing what God wills.

Do these two pieces of advice pull us in opposite directions, or do they only seem to? Since there is obviously a great truth embodied in both of them, which do we emphasize the most to resolve our question of whether God has one right way for us?

I think the first and most obvious answer to this question is that it depends on which people are asking it. We have a tendency to emphasize one half of the truth at the expense of the other half, and we can do that in either of the two ways. Every heresy in the history of theology fits this pattern: for instance, emphasizing Christ's divinity at the expense of his humanity or his humanity at the expense of his divinity; or emphasizing divine sovereignty at the expense of free will or free will at the expense of divine sovereignty.

Five general principles of discernment of God's will that apply to all questions about it, and therefore to our question too, are the following:

A. Always begin with data, with what we know for sure. Judge the unknown by the known, the uncertain by the certain. Adam and Eve neglected that principle in Eden and ignored God's clear command and warning for the devil's promised pig in a poke.

B. Let your heart educate your mind. Let your love of God educate your reason in discerning his will. Jesus teaches this principle in John 7:17 to the Pharisees. (Would that certain Scripture scholars today would heed it!) They were asking how they could interpret his words, and he gave them the first principle of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation): "If your will were to do the will of my Father, you would understand my teaching." The saints understand the Bible better than the theologians, because they understand its primary author, God, by loving him with their whole heart and their whole mind.

C. Have a soft heart but a hard head. We should be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves," sharp as a fox in thought but loyal as a dog in will and deed. Soft-heartedness does not excuse soft-headedness, and hard-headedness does not excuse hard-heartedness. In our hearts we should be "bleeding-heart liberals" and in our heads "stuck-in-the-mud conservatives."

D. All God's signs should line up. There are at least seven such signs: (1) Scripture, (2) church teaching, (3) human reason (which God created), (4) the appropriate situation, or circumstances (which he controls by his providence), (5) conscience, our innate sense of right and wrong, (6) our individual personal bent or desire or instincts, and (7) prayer. Test your choice by holding it up before God's face. If one of these seven voices says no, don't do it. If none say no, do it.

E. Look for the fruits of the spirit, especially the first three: love, joy, and peace. If we are angry and anxious and worried, loveless and joyless and peaceless, we have no right to say we are sure of being securely in God's will. Discernment itself should not be a stiff, brittle, anxious thing, but — since it too is part of God's will for our lives — loving and joyful and peace-filled, more like a game than a war, more like writing love letters than taking final exams.

Now to our question. Does God have just one right choice for me to make each time? If so, I must find it. If not, I should relax more and be a little looser. Here are some clues to the answer. (The remainder of the article is abridged by the instructor.)

1. We must not get bent out of shape trying to find God’s perfect will for us. Doing so will only make us anxious, fearful, humorless, and stuffy. We should instead stop and enjoy the simple pleasures in life – the little silly things that add a whimsical nature to life.

2. We must realize that most Christians, even many of the saints, did not have the clear discernment from God that we might want. They did not know what God willed in every little choice. We should not expect that we would have such particular knowledge.

3.Look at Scripture as a model for how God reveals His will to His people. Realize that many of these instances are miraculous revelations, but even then, the individuals are fraught with uncertainty, feelings of unworthiness, or even fear.

4. God did give us free will. Why did God bestow upon us this faculty which is both a blessing and a burden? Well, it adds an infinite value to our love and affection because it is not forced or instinctive, but rather the result of our choice. Secondly, it enables us to participate in the joy of discovery and discernment. Occasionally a teacher will pause after asking a question – not to relish in withholding the answer, but to give students an opportunity to arrive at the answer on their own. In formulating the answer they learn to exercise their reason and judgment.

Reason and free will are a team. They always go together because reason without will is captivity, and will without reason is reckless. God provides supernatural revelation to guide both aspects: Doctrine & Dogma guide our reason while commandments and moral law guide our will. These abilities, together with God’s guidance give us the equipment we need to discern God’s will and apply it to our own decisions and actions. We must take these gifts and invest them rather than bury them in the ground where they remain unused.

Furthermore, God’s guidance is not too structured. One can always seek and find more specific and detailed knowledge, but the basics of the faith are very brief and straightforward. This is because God respects the diversity of our personalities. He wants our lives to be his song of praise, and the chorus of humanity should sing in harmony, but not in unison.

There are a number of popular ways out there that promise insight into ourselves, and many people commit themselves to this kind of introspection. The key to real discernment seems it would be to figure out God’s will and your neighbor’s needs. Focus more on those and less on one’s self. Use God’s gift of freedom to “play around” a bit. G.K. Chesterton said that God’s commandments are indeed like a fence that surrounds a playground. The fence is not there to confine those on the playground, but to liberate them to play safely without fear of danger.

To some extent following our hearts means following our instincts and desires. Each of us has a different set of instincts and desires. Sin infects them, of course. But sin infects our reason and our bodies too; yet we are supposed to follow our bodily instincts (for example, hunger and self-preservation) and our mind's instincts (for example, curiosity and logic). Ultimately I think God wants us to follow our hearts.

I am not suggesting, of course, that our hearts are infallible, or that following them justifies sinful behavior. Nor am I suggesting that the heart is the only thing to follow.. But surely it is God who designed our hearts — the spiritual heart with desire and will as much as the physical heart with aorta and valves. Our parents are sinful and fallible guides too, but God gave them to us to follow. So our hearts can be worth following too even though they are sinful and fallible. If your heart loves God, it is worth following. If it doesn't, then you're not interested in the problem of discernment of his will anyway.

5. We should follow St. Augustine's advice to "love God and then do what you will.” When we do, we usually experience great relief and peace. That is because true peace is a mark of the Holy Spirit.

An important part of discernment is trusting God to guide us along the right path. In some instances it is enough to place one’s self in God’s hands, commit to working to build up of His kingdom, and then trusting Him to guide you as you follow your own interests and instincts. Like a true Father, God won’t do the work for you, but will offer guidance and encouragement, correction, and affirmation.

6. Know that there are multiple good choices out there. This is what makes discernment difficult because we are not choosing between a good choice and a bad one – that is usually obvious. Instead we have to choose between two or more good things. We should take comfort in the idea that there are many good paths, and if we stay in God’s will we are bound to find ourselves upon one of them.

God’s will and our freedom do not conflict or compete. Rather, God takes the risk of giving us free will and saying to us, "Your will be done." The challenge of a Christian Vocation is to turn back to him and say: "My will is that your will be done." That is obedience to the first and greatest commandment. Then, when we do that, he turns to us and says: "And now, your will be done." And then he writes the story of our lives with the pen strokes of our own free choices.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Unit 1 Review

Unit I Review – Senior Theology semester 2

I. Love of Self

A. different types of love

i. eros

ii. philia

iii. agape

B. Greatest commandment of Jesus Christ

i. Love God above all else

ii. Love one’s neighbor

iii. Love one’s self

C. Myth of Secular Humanism – that love is finite and is diminished by being shared. Truth is that when shared love only grows.

D. How Society says to love ourselves

i. Sex

ii. Wealth

iii. Drugs

iv. Fame

v. The Danger of these is that they are

1. Destructive to ourselves

2. less than God, and thus will not satisfy our desires

E. Why and How to Love ourselves

i. Why

1. b/c we are made in God’s image and worthy of love.

2. b/c if we don’t we end up putting others down to feel better

3. b/c if we don’t we will use others to feel better.

ii. How

1. Accept our flaws and shortcomings, but being willing to improve

2. developing our interests and abilities

3. Loving God and Neighbor

II. Vocation

A. Is a calling from God to a particular state in life, not just a career

B. The universal call to holiness

i. The source is Baptism, which calls us all to follow Christ

ii. We are called to live the evangelical counsels

1. poverty

2. chastity

3. obedience

iii. Lead a life of virtue

iv. Receive the sacraments, especial Eucharist and reconciliation

v. A life of fraternal service

C. Discernment – the process of prayerfully figuring out one’s vocation

III. Bishops

A. Four roles

i. Successor to the Apostles

ii. Pastor of a diocese

iii. Chief administrator

iv. Sign of Unity

B. Types of Bishops

i. Ordinary

ii. Auxiliary

iii. Coadjutor

iv. Titular

C. Selection of bishops

i. Apostolic nuncio

ii. Congregation for bishops

iii. Terna

D. Aux. Bishop Designate Coyne

i. Pastor in boston

ii. Seminary faculty

iii. Spokesman for the archdiocese of boston

iv. Television program host.

IV. All that we covered regarding sex & contraception

A. The two purposes of sex & marriage

i. Unitive – the psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual bond that forms during the sexual act

ii. Procreative – being open to the generation of new life.

B. Contraception

i. Barriers

ii. Chemical / hormonal

iii. Surgical

iv. Behavioral

C. Why Contraception is Wrong

D. Cohabitation and why it’s wrong

i. Scandal

ii. Temptation

E. Natural Family Planning

i. How it “works”

ii. How it differs from contraception

iii. The two biological cues of ovulation

Monday, February 7, 2011

Fr. Hollowell's Homily on Sex

Fr. Hollowell opened Catholic Schools Week last week with a profound homily about sex, a topic that is often misunderstood and misrepresented in our culture. Later in the semester we will discuss sex in its proper context, which is of course the sacrament of marriage. However, since Father opened the door for us, we will go ahead and explore a few aspects of sex from the Church's perspective.
A few basic points should be made clearly right from the start:

1. The Church is not obsessed with sex; The Church has an obligation to address all aspects of human life, and it so happens that humans are often preoccupied or obsessed with sex.

2. Sex before marriage (fornication) is morally wrong.

3. Living together before marriage (cohabitation) is morally wrong, and for two reasons:

a. it creates an extraordinary amount of temptation for fornication. (Why subject yourself to temptation if it is not necessary?)

b. it presents a false impression of the nature of the relationship (scandal) or discredits the Church as an effective moral guide.

4. Contraception is morally wrong.

5. Sex is Good in the context of a sacramental marriage because it supports the unitive and procreative ends of marriage.

We will continue to explore these concepts later on in the semester, but commit these main ideas to your understanding.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lumen Gentium Questions

1. What myth or or misconception were the bishops trying to dispel in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium?

2. What does the phrase "Evangelical Counsel" mean?

3. What are the Evangelical Counsels?

4. What does it mean to say that holiness is the key to living a more "fully human" life?

5. In an essay of five to seven paragraphs address the following: What are the various vocations or states of life listed in the chapter (there are at least six different groups we discussed)? Explain the importance of the diversity of vocations in light of St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12.