Browsing Daily News

Father Nicholas Nelson: Understanding the different senses in which we speak of ‘vocations’

There are different senses in which we can speak of vocations. To start, we can say a vocation is something that you are called to. In fact, the word “vocation” comes from the Latin word “vocare,” meaning “to call.” So all vocations have that in common. It is some sort of calling. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

And when speaking about vocations, I like to speak in terms of the “size” of V’s, because you can use the word vocation in a variety of senses. So we have to be clear on what sense we mean when we are speaking. So we have the “Big V” vocation, then “Medium V” vocations, and then “Smaller V” vocations. That way we can speak about all the different senses in which a person can be called. 

The “biggest” V vocation, and therefore most important, is the vocation of holiness, or discipleship. This is the vocation that every Christian has. Jesus has called all of us to follow him. No Christian can claim not to have this vocation. 

The “Medium V” vocations are what we mean when we speak of vocations in the strict sense. And mostly when speaking of “vocations,” people are referring to vocations to the priesthood and religious life. But when speaking of vocations in this strict sense, we also must include married life. Married people, you may think that it was you who chose to marry your spouse, but we believe that it was ultimately God who called you two together into the Sacrament of Matrimony. 

As for vocations in the strict sense, we also must include the permanent diaconate, although the diaconate is unique in that most permanent deacons are already married, and marriage is their primary vocation. And there are other forms of chaste celibacy for the Kingdom, such as a religious brother or a religious sister or as a consecrated virgin. Vocations in the strict sense are the vocations we pray for when we pray our Diocesan Vocation Prayer. Why are these vocations in the strict sense? Because a vocation, strictly speaking, is something to which a person is called to that requires a permanent commitment. 

We can complicate things even more by saying that holy orders and married life are not only vocations but also sacraments, while consecrated religious, religious brothers, or consecrated virginity are vocations but not sacraments. Sacraments are the seven outward signs, instituted by Christ, that cause grace. The Sacrament of Holy Orders causes grace in the man for the well ordering of the church. Holy Matrimony causes grace in the couple for the persevering and thriving in their relationship and in the procreation and formation of children. 

We also have the unique reality of married priests to consider. This is the norm in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, but we also have some married priests in our Latin Rite. Men who acted as priests in the Anglican Church and then converted to Catholicism have often been given the permission to be ordained as Catholic priests. Like permanent deacons, they would have two vocations in the strict sense. 

People will ask: “What about the single life?” Well, for a single person, there is always the possibility of getting married or committing to chaste celibacy in the future, so there isn’t a permanent commitment involved. There is always the possibility of a further permanent commitment. So no, it isn’t a vocation in the strict sense, and there are some people who don’t end up with a vocation in the strict sense. In a perfect world, because we are called to give ourselves totally to another, everyone would have a vocation either to married life or chaste celibacy. But we know this isn’t a perfect world. And most especially, again, it’s important to remember that the most important vocation is the vocation to holiness as a disciple of Christ, which everyone has. So even if you don’t end up either as a priest or religious sister or married, for example, you still have the most important vocation, that of following Christ. 

Then, after that level or sense of vocations, we have “Smaller V” vocations. These would include careers and jobs and other ministries people may have. While not as important as the vocation to follow Christ, or as permanent as laying down your life for the church and God or your spouse, and while not vocations in the strict sense, these can be called vocations as well. A person may experience these things as a calling from God. For example, they may have a vocation as a teacher or a surgeon or as a soldier or even see cantoring at Mass as a vocation. 

We all must respond wholeheartedly to the big V vocation of holiness. Those who are already married or have given themselves to God and his church must recommit themselves to his church or his or her spouse every day. Those who are young, in addition to seeking holiness, must discern whether God is calling them to married life or to some form of chaste celibacy for the Kingdom of God. 

Remember, it is a vocation, a calling. It isn’t something we determine on our own, but rather, truly being open to God’s will for our life, we seek to know what life he is calling us to. 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].