Embracing Our Vocation
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. January 17, 2021
This coming Friday, I have been invited to give a keynote address at the annual (virtual this year!) gathering of the Canadian Catholic Students’ Association. As a former campus minister – and of course, university student – it is a community that is close to my heart. Their theme this year, inspired by their patron, the famous Catholic convert and eventual Cardinal (and now Saint), John Henry Newman, is “Heart Speaks to Heart.”
At a time of great struggle in his personal journey, St. John Henry wrote these powerful words about his sense of his personal vocation: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 connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good. I shall do his work. Therefore, I shall trust him.
Today’s readings speak powerfully to the vocational dimension of Christian life. As a Church, we are often asked to pray for vocations. The temptation, at this time, is to just pray for other people to respond! Like charity, a true prayer for vocation begins at home: inviting God first into my own heart, and praying that each member of the community be empowered to respond to God’s call with similar commitment and love.
Of course, we need priests, deacons, and consecrated women and men, people who serve the Church with a public and permanent commitment. We need the witness of those who commit themselves to covenant relationship in the sacrament of marriage, to those who undergo the spiritual and intellectual formation to serve in ecclesial lay ministry. But no matter who we are, each of us is called to embrace our own vocation: our task, as baptized Christians living in the world, to glorify God, to proclaim and live the Gospel, to place our lives at the service of all His people.
God’s word today provides us with some important insights into how best to listen to God’s voice: to discern his call, so that we might truly respond with a generous heart.
God’s call can come at any time. In our first reading today, we meet Samuel. Already, at an early age, he assists the priests in the Lord’s sanctuary. Eventually, with the gentle but firm guidance of Eli, he learns to pay attention to the voice of God speaking to him: he moves from “Here I am” to “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And Samuel listened. He becomes a great prophet, one who, having learned to listen to the voice of God within himself, becomes the mouthpiece of God to his people.
This is a process. It does not happen all at once – with dramatic visions and voices. To most of us, God speaks in the ordinary events of daily life: jobs, relationships, challenges, successes, failures, books, movies, friends, foes, world events – any of these can be used by God to communicate with us. And it is often helpful to have an Eli – a friend, a mentor, a teacher, a spiritual guide – who helps us to identify the call of God and encourages us to respond with a generous spirit. When have I recognized the sound of God’s call in my life? How did I know it was God? Who helped me to understand how God was speaking to me in these events?
Often in the Church, we have reduced the notion of a “vocation” to the idea of a “state of life”: i.e. married or single, priest, deacon, sister, or layperson. In the larger society, in our so-called “vocational” counseling, it gets reduced to the notion of “career” or “profession”: what kind of work do I intend to do? But the reality of a vocation cuts far deeper than even these two very important aspects of our lives. But perhaps the real challenge – and joy – of the spiritual life is not so much figuring out what God wants us “to do”, but rather discovering “who we are”: that is, learning the unique name by which God calls us, the deeper identity underlying all the different things we do, the different roles we play.
Both in the first reading and the Gospel today, this idea of being called by name is strongly expressed. The Lord calls Samuel by name – repeatedly. Jesus is introduced to us with a variety of different titles: “The Lamb of God”, “Rabbi”, “Teacher,” “Messiah”. Jesus meets Simon and gives him a new name, a new identity: “You are to be called Kephas – Peter – Rock. So Simon becomes Peter. Saul becomes Paul.
To encounter Christ is to have my identity transformed – not so much changed, as revealed: it was always there, but now we see it more clearly. Our life is so utterly new, that a new name becomes necessary. But this new name only makes sense if I have a relationship of deep trust and intimacy with the person who would give me that name.
The first words uttered by Jesus in the Gospel of John are a probing question: “What are you looking for?” In the response of these disciples, we hear a hunger not so much for a program or a teaching, but for a relationship: “Where do you live?” And Jesus says, “come and see.” And they came, and they saw, and they spent the day. Out of that time spent together, as friends getting to know each other, the disciples began their formation in the life of their Master.
How could this happen again today? We often wonder in the Church – where are the youth, the teens, the young adults? We say that we would like them to come back to Church, to get involved. Maybe we even hope that some would be willing to serve as priests or religious. (Somebody else’s son or daughter – but not mine!) But when they do come, do we begin by inviting them into our homes, into relationship? Can they feel at home in our families, our parishes, our seminaries and religious houses? Is there a space for them to ask the real questions that are burning in their hearts? Will we take the time, through patient listening and mentoring, to help them discover the unique way in which God is calling them? Can we create a space for young people to express their vision for the Church and the world, to dream new dreams, to envision new possibilities?
At the 2002 international congress on vocation ministry in North America, held right here in Montreal, which I had the privilege to co-animate, the 150 young adult delegates shared their vision with us. :
“We desire a covenant relationship with our Church. Everything we ask of the Church we will offer in return. We seek wisdom and knowledge, and will use those gifts in return to enrich our Church. We strive to be saints of today, and come to cultivate the saints of the next generation.
We seek to grow in understanding and knowledge of prayer, to discern our vocations in Christ. Please openly witness to your faith, by being available. Offer us authentic, joyful witnesses to your way of life, that we may experience the passion of your service. Invite us to share your excitement and deep love of Christ and the Church. Help us to build a fire ignited by Christ, to bring warmth and light to a world that is sometimes cold and dark.
We request continued nurturing of our personal vocations as baptized Christians, inclusive of all vocations: to married or single life, to religious life or priesthood. Create discernment teams, in parishes and college campuses, of faith-filled people who can support and nurture vocations. Introduce us to objective mentors who are truly open to God’s will for us, and can serve as wisdom figures. Share your struggles, as well as the joys. Offer us a safe place to seek answers and grow, and direct us toward a deeper spiritual life.”
This vision statement – as well as the passion, joy, and energy these young people embodied – helped many of us not to despair about the future. God has called each of us for a purpose. Each of us has been called on a mission: to love and serve the Lord and his people.
I close with an image taken from one of my favourite movies: Chariots of Fire. It is about two men, both competing in track and field at the 1924 Olympics, but for very a different set of motives. One of them, the Scotsman Eric Liddell, is in training to be a missionary in China. His sister Janie does not understand why he is wasting time on this silly business of running. His answer is wonderful: “Jennie, I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. Not to run would be to hold Him in contempt.”
This is what it means to “glorify God in our bodies.” This is what it means, ultimately, to hear the Lord call us by our name, to respond to our truest and deepest vocation. So may each of us be strengthened in our ability to hear, discern, and joyfully respond to the God who calls us to life, love, and service. And remember: just be yourself: the best and truest version of your unique, God-given self. Besides, everyone else is already taken!!