Vocations: A Seminarian's Perspective
Deacon Phil Cunnah FAITH MAGAZINE July-August 2015
Recent figures show there is an upturn in priestly vocations in several western countries, especially the United States. How does a young man discern the call to priesthood? That was one of the questions Deacon Philip Cunnah attempted to answer in a talk given recently to the Canmore Catholic Society at St Andrews University.
When we speak of vocation, we usually refer to a “calling” because the verb at the root of the word vocation means “to call”. Today in the typical parish this “calling” is understood as the call to priesthood or religious life. I’m sure many priests will have had similar experiences to myself when people ask us: “When did you receive the call?” This thinking isn’t unwarranted. The Gospels, for example, tell us the disciples were called by Christ on the shore of Galilee. Jesus called out to them: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mk 1:17). And they answered his call to follow him in a particular way. This thinking can, however, limit our understanding of vocation, and if we look to an earlier text in the Bible we can put Christ’s call into a wider context that opens up our understanding of what it means to be called.
The Easter vigil is probably still quite fresh in your memories; it certainly is in mine because I had to sing the Exultet this year for the very first time. You’ll remember that once we’ve lit the Easter Candle, we go back to the Old Testament and read it in the light of the Resurrection. One of the key texts in this part is the creation story from Genesis 1. We don’t just go back, we go all the way back, right back to the beginning. In that story, God creates by speaking: it is his word that brings everything into being, including men and women. “God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness’” (Gen 1:26). So our very existence is the result of God’s call for us to be created, to have existence, to be alive. We don’t just find ourselves alive randomly: we find ourselves alive with a purpose. We’ve been created with God’s intention and desire that we should grow and flourish. Pope Benedict captured this nicely in the following passage:
Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at Mass of Inauguration,
24 April 2005)
You and I, then, are the result of God’s word: we are in a sense spoken into existence. So vocation goes to the heart of who we are because it’s there from the first moment of our existence and places us directly in relationship with God, who desires what is best for each of us, what will help us to flourish. So this is our first principle of vocation, that our life is pure gift from God and it’s in relationship with him that we flourish. Hence, we need to be praying regularly, making space for him.
Notice that in the story of Genesis, to help Adam and Eve flourish, God speaks a rule to them, saying: “You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:17). He nourishes them by this word because he knows the limitations and weaknesses of his creation. God knows what we need better than we do. Human beings are not self-sufficient, ready to take on the world all by themselves. We need God. Sin enters the world when Adam and Eve stop listening to God and instead listen to the voice of the serpent. When understanding vocation, it’s important to realise that there are a number of competing voices calling to us; discernment is trying to establish which ones come from God. Sometimes it’s our own selfish desires that are driving our way in life. Sometimes, its societal pressure that is pushing us in directions contrary to the Gospel. Discernment requires self-reflection and growth in self-knowledge to decipher between these different forces, so that we choose a path that really does lead to the sort of life God intends for us.
After the Fall, God does not abandon his creatures. His first words are his call to the man: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). These profound words express all God’s fatherly concern for his creation and his desire for us to flourish and grow. “Where are you?” is like a parent searching for the children who have wandered off during a shopping trip; it is the desperation to be close again. For those who have never stopped to think about vocation, God’s call “where are you?” is actually a great place to start. It can ask: “Where are you in relation to God? What keeps you from him?” or simply: “Where are you on your journey through life? Are you making big decisions? Are you just enjoying your first-year parties?”
Alternatively, think of a couple eating together while one of them is drifting off in a day dream. The other thinks: “Where are you? Will you share with me what’s going on in you right now?” If you spend some time in prayer, just allowing Him to start the conversation with you by listening to that question, “Where are you?”, you will be on that journey of vocation.
Yet there is a Word that God speaks which eclipses all the rest. John begins his Gospel with a famous passage: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people” (Jn 1:1-4). The Word that we are listening for in vocation is a person. We are made for relationship with Christ. He is the one who brings the “new law … [that we should] love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34); who has come that “we may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). Our vocation grows out of a deep personal relationship with him and, in this respect, reading and praying with the Gospels is an invaluable help to discernment because there we see what Jesus calls people to and gain some insight into authentic vocation.
First, Jesus goes straight for the heart. There are many times when his key question is “What do you want?” (Mk 20:21; Mk 10:51; Jn 1:38). This is not a disgruntled man who is fed up with people pestering him; it is Our Lord, who sees us more deeply than we do ourselves and who knows our greatest treasure is our heart. His desire is to capture our hearts. So vocation discernment is going to involve answering the question: “What do I want? What’s in my heart?”. And we can’t discern without entering into our secret place and being honest.
Second, following Jesus means following Jesus. His path is our path and this path took him to the cross. Jesus told his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Sharing in the cross is an authentic sign of vocation. It doesn’t mean life is a constant struggle, it doesn’t mean life has to be a depressing slog. Sacrifice is an unavoidable part of life and that is a lesson secular culture tries to avoid. I often tell kids at school, for example: “Yes, you can do anything. You have so many opportunities. But you can’t do everything. At some stage you have to make choices which involve sacrifice.”
So if you’re going to be a priest, you will have to sacrifice the chance of a family. And more and more women are finding it’s very difficult to have a career and be a mother. I’m not saying the traditional family structure is the only one, of course not, but we have to be realistic; and through listening to many women and reading numerous articles in newspapers it is clear there is a growing realisation of this fact. Yet, there are two important points to be made about this. One is that sacrifice is often an answer to the question “what do you want?”, because it’s in knowing what we are prepared to sacrifice that we know what is most important to us, what we truly want. The second point is that following Jesus really does mean just that, and the cross is the means to the resurrection and new life. For us, the cross never has the final word, but it’s through the cross that God is most powerful.
Finally, Jesus invites us to trust him and not ourselves. This is the “stepping out of the boat” factor. When Peter recognises Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, he knows he has to go towards him, and Jesus’ call to Peter is “Yes, come” (Mt 14:28-33). Stepping towards Jesus in vocation can feel like stepping out of the comfort of the boat, stepping out of the comfort of a life where we are in charge and we can rely upon our own resources. There can be many fears about vocation based upon the uncertainty of what will come, but we have to allow Jesus to be free with us so that his providence can lead us. If this fear is holding you back, I would say that is not a genuine voice, but is the voice of the tempter trying to stop you from following him. Admittedly, Peter does fall in the sea, but don’t worry: Jesus saved him.
“God knows what we need better than we do. Human beings are not self-sufficient, ready to take on the world all by themselves”
These images of the heart, the cross and stepping out of the boat are what I would call authentic signs of vocation in Christ. They are not the only ones, but they are some of the most prominent and perhaps they ring true in your lives. In his first homily as Pope, Benedict XVI summarised this vocation in Christ by drawing upon the words of his predecessor John Paul II. He declared:
Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope [John Paul II] said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.
In this whole process of vocation, there is a role for spiritual direction and close friends who can help you examine different parts of your life in the search of a genuine call. Very often we don’t see things quite so clearly from our perspective but others help highlight aspects of our life that we’re not aware of.
Perhaps, so far in this talk, you’ve been waiting for me to be more specific about the different types of vocation, such as priesthood, religious life, marriage and the single life. I’ve avoided that in this first part because on the one hand we can’t begin to discern and hear our vocation until we take seriously the fact that we are made for relationship with God in Jesus Christ. He it is that will call us and strengthen us to follow. So until we know the answer to the question “Where are you?” and are making prayer a serious part of our life, talk of discernment is very difficult. Indeed, chatting to various priest vocation directors, a common theme is that few people are coming forward for priesthood largely because few have the faith foundation to build a vocation upon.
On the other hand, I’ve started in this way because my experience of people living out their vocations doesn’t always fit easily into these categories. I’ve met a lot of people who are living out their vocation based upon a call to a particular mission. They wouldn’t call themselves committed singles: they’re just single for now and if God sends someone their way they’ll hope to get married, but right now they’re focused on the mission they feel God has called them to, such as the pro-life movement or renewing sacramental catechesis. A call to mission is an important consideration in vocation discernment.
I leave you with the words of John Paul II from his apostolic letter Dilecti Amici, addressed to young people at the start of the United Nation’s International Youth Year in 1985:
In this context the “plan” (we have for our lives) takes on the meaning of a “life vocation,” as something which is entrusted by God to an individual as a task. Young people, entering into themselves and at the same time entering into conversation with Christ in prayer, desire as it were to read the eternal thought which God the Creator and Father has in their regard. They then become convinced that the task assigned to them by God is left completely to their own freedom, and at the same time is determined by various circumstances of an interior and exterior nature. Examining these circumstances, the young person, boy or girl, constructs his or her plan of life and at the same time recognises this plan as the vocation to which God is calling him or her. (Dilecti Amici, 9)
Deacon Philip Cunnah is a seminarian for the Diocese of Middlesbrough. He is studying for the priesthood at St Mary’s College, Oscott.