The World Wide Web’s narrow view on vocation

by Sherry Anne Weddell

Where can you find internet resources dedicated to discerning your gifts and call? Why, just go to the Links section of our website (www.siena.org), and look under the category Mission to the World! I have collected a number of helpful resources and links for Catholics seeking to discern God’s call.

Beware, however: many vocational discernment programs do not yet adequately reflect the Church’s teaching on the secular mission of the laity. Much of the information and most of the resources currently available on the web reflect the following common assumptions:

1) A Christian vocation falls into one of a few clearly recognized categories – priest, sister, lay minister, member of secular institute, marriage, etc. The problem here is that there are millions of different Christian vocations (vocation being as broad as the Church’s mission to evangelize and transform the world), many of which do not fit into these categories.

2) Individuals can only live one vocation at a time, such as in the choice between marriage or religious life. In fact, however, many lay Christians are called to multiple vocations existing side by side – such as Dorothy Day who combined motherhood and radical ministry to the poor or Catherine Doherty who combined marriage and founding a lay apostolate.

Sadly, there is a critical lack of resources for Christians discerning a call to a secular vocation other than marriage or membership in a secular institute or lay movement. If your discernment falls outside the traditional categories, you are usually referred to “career” counseling which is often spoken of as though it was something other than a vocation. Until we begin to truly “own” the mission of the Church to the world, discerning a secular vocation will remain a lonely experience for the individual Christian who can expect no help from their local Christian community; his or her “career” will be understood as an entirely private matter that is irrelevant to the Church’s concerns.

Another pitfall awaits those who are wondering if they have been called to a vocation as a priest, religious, or lay minister. Many of the discernment questions suggested to inquirers confuse as signs of priestly or religious vocation experiences that are simply human or widely experienced by Christians of all kinds.

Two stellar examples that I have come across include Do you want a meaningful life? and Do you long for more? Well duuhh (as the expression goes), who doesn’t! These are questions that occur to nearly all human beings, not just Christians destined for priesthood! We ask them because we can’t help it, because we were made for more, for infinite perfect happiness (beatitude) by God. The married lay participants of Called & Gifted workshops ask these same questions all the time and they certainly aren’t discerning a call to religious life! The longing for a meaningful life, for “more” echoes in the heart of nearly anyone who is discerning any call at all; it can hardly serve as an indicator of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.

Another discernment question that vocation web sites sometimes suggest is: “Does your relationship with God sustain you, enliven you, invigorate you in such a way that you want to share the Good News with others?” Again, the confusion centers around an experience that is very common for Christians of all kinds: the desire to share their faith, in some way, with others. At least half, if not more, of the 160,000 adults who enter the Catholic Church in the US every year, would answer such a question with an emphatic “Yes!” So would most of those who attend daily Mass, those who have returned to the practice of the faith after a time away, those involved in any kind of parish renewal program or social justice ministry, those who have attended a Called & Gifted workshop, and anyone who has been given a charism of evangelism. Why? Because it is normal for Christians who have experienced the love and goodness of God to want to share it with others. There is no necessary connection between the desire to share one’s faith and a call to a church vocation! It is just as characteristic of one who is called to be a secular apostle in the world as of those who are called to ordination.

One final confusing discernment question that is sometimes suggested: Do you find your weekly ministry more life-giving and energizing than your career? This question can be useful in discerning the energizing presence of a charism, or to discern between any kind of vocation and a job that we hold just to get by, but it cannot be used by itself to discern the presence of a priestly or religious vocation. For instance, if I had been asked such a question before I started working at the Institute, I would have answered, “ Yes, absolutely!” I would also have said that I had a strong, positive call to be a lay apostle and had no interest in religious life at all. My frustration stemmed from the fact that I was stuck in a job that drew on none of my talents and charisms while I was positibely bursting to plunge full-time into the work to which I was called. I have talked to many people wrestling with similar career dilemmas but for most, a vocation to religious life or ordination is not at issue.

With these caveats in mind, discerners can learn a lot by browsing some of the vocation mega-sites that we have collected under the category of Discerning Your Gifts and Call. Good places to begin are the National Coalition for Church Vocations; Vocations Online; Who 2 Be; and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops site on Vocations and Priestly Formation. Another useful link is to an article called Discernment: Recognizing God’s Voice, which is an extensive and helpful outline of the discernment method taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Our list of links include shortcuts to the best of the Institute’s extensive gifts discernment resources as well.